“After all, the act of pointing at something is almost always precipitated by the need to acknowledge that it is interesting and worth sharing.”
Peter Kayafas (born 1971) is an US documentary and street photographer presently living in New York City.
He studied photography at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts.
Peter Kayafas is represented by “Sasha Wolf Gallery, New York”. The exhibition “The Way West, Photographs by Peter Kayafas” will be shown there on April 23rd running through June 8, 2014.
Mark Feeney once wrote the following about Peter Kayafas in “The Boston Globe” (January 2012):
“Kayafas’ images have a timeless quality.
They’re simple and spare, yet quietly overpowering with their evocation of a history on a scale beyond that of individual human lives.”
In this interview Peter Kayafas talks about his in-depth study of urban culture in Mexico City.
He explains why the public sphere is one of the few places to express intimacy outside of marriage and why Latin countries are especially fertile ground for street photographers.
Interview with Peter Kayafas
Peter Kayafas, in one of your recent projects you are dealing with Mexico City. Why did you choose that subject and what intrigued you about the place?
I first visited Mexico City in the summer of 2012 and fell in love with it.
I’d spent a fair amount of time in Cuba in 2000 and 2001 (as well as other parts of Mexico and Central America), and expected there would be some similarities that would attract me.
They are completely different! Except for the public energy on the streets, and the uninhibited expressiveness of the people.
There are 22 million people in Mexico City and more than half of them are under 25-years old. The youth sub-culture is electric and ubiquitous. There is also the palpable presence of more than 500 years of indigenous, Catholic and revolutionary tradition.
That’s a pretty good starting place for a photographer like me.
What is the series “Mexico City” about?
“In a staunchly Catholic society, one of the few places to be free to express intimacy outside of marriage is in public.”
During my first two visits to Mexico City, I was struck by how many lovers there are in the public places.
It seems to me, in many ways, a more amorous city than any other I’ve spent time in. I realized that in a staunchly Catholic society, one of the few places to be free to express intimacy outside of marriage is in public, so likely filled with judgment are most people’s homes.
So, if the project “Mexico City” is about something, I guess it’s about how people, young people especially, express themselves to one another in public.
At some point you decided to extend the original series. You then added “Love and Death in Mexico City”. What’s the idea behind that?
The Mexico City series is a work in progress. When I returned to Mexico City at the end of October 2013 to photograph the celebrations of La Santa Muerte, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (Day of the Dead), the issue of the presence of death in that culture became central to my established interest in the youth sub-culture and its public display of affection.
The idea of love and death is particularly appealing to me, especially as the intersection of the two seems to define a substantial part of Mexican culture as it appears in public.
This is only the beginning, I expect to be working on this project for years to come.
How do you prepare a project like that? Do you do a lot of research beforehand and what about other issues like the funding etc.?
I find that no matter how much research one does on a particular place/culture, there are always fundamental surprises.
“It’s difficult to read Octavio Paz and not come away with a fascination for Mexico.”
In most cases, these are the things I’m interested in photographing, because they represent things for which I have a personal affinity that I could not have possibly, fully anticipated. Especially when travelling, one has to know enough about a place to know that it will be of interest.
That’s pretty easy for me, as I am interested in most places where people, history, culture, tradition and current trends collide in public, which I think defines quite a bit of the world.
In terms of where to find information about a place, I prefer not to use the conventional sources (other than for basic geographical information or important dates), but rather look to the literature of the place.
For instance, it’s difficult to read Octavio Paz and not come away with a fascination for Mexico.
How did you connect with the people you photographed for your series? Do you shoot and go and prefer to remain unseen or do you communicate more with your subjects?
I have friends in Mexico City who have been invaluable in connecting me to other artists and scholars.
They have also been both generous and helpful with making arrangements for me to gain access to parts of the culture that would otherwise be off-limits or very difficult to see for a foreigner.
Of course, these relationships lead to others, momentum builds, and with each return I get deeper into the places that would be difficult to see on a first trip.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
“The act of pointing at something is almost always precipitated by the need to acknowledge that it is interesting and worth sharing.”
I often don’t know what the beginning of a project was until I am quite a ways into it. I look at and photograph lots of different things, not all of them find their way into a “project.” That said, projects do make themselves apparent as they emerge from the many thousand of pictures I make. When this occurs, I narrow a group of photographs and think about how to dig deeper into the subject.
It seems to me that if what one has in mind about a project does not change during the process, something is very wrong. I use the camera to explore, to learn, and to create something that is my personal reaction to a place and its people.
In order for that to work, one must have a preconception—even if it’s no more complicated than the realization that this place or that would be a good place to go make pictures—but, more importantly, the ability to be surprised.
It’s a constant process of discovery.
After all, the act of pointing at something is almost always precipitated by the need to acknowledge that it is interesting and worth sharing.
What was your most memorable moment realizing that project?
There have been many, many surprising and beautiful moments for me in Mexico City. That, and, obviously some resultant satisfaction with the photographs I’ve been making there, is why I keep going back.
For the sake of giving you something, I’ll share two experiences. They happened on consecutive days, and though both of them revolved around the ritualized celebration of aspects of death in Mexican culture, they could not have been more different.
“Latin culture has a long history of staring death in the face and laughing at or with it.”
In the neighborhood of Tepito there is a shrine to La Santa Muerte to which, at the end of every month, many hundreds of people make a pilgrimage to pay their respects. Like other sub-groups of Catholicism, Our Lady of Guadalupe, for instance, Santa Muerte has it’s own iconography (a female grim reaper, of sorts) and it’s own calendar of events.
The most important day of the year for the followers of La Santa Muerte is the 31st of October, and the most important shrine in Mexico City is in Tepito, where I have spent part of each of the two previous trips arranging contacts. Tepito is a very dangerous place and it is not advised that one go there without substantial connections.
With these in place, time in Tepito provides exposure to the thriving under-culture of Mexico City. It’s scary, of course, and as a gringo with a camera, one feels particularly vulnerable, but it’s thrilling and important.
La Santa Muerte is notorious as the religion of criminals (see it’s recent depiction in the popular American television program “Breaking Bad”), but it is increasingly attractive to the mainstream. More and more people, frustrated by the difficulties in Mexican society, including economic disparity, corruption and violence, have found solace in directly facing the mechanism of death. Latin culture has a long history of staring death in the face and laughing at or with it (see the work of the great Mexican print-maker, José Guadalupe Posada).
La Santa Muerte provides a kind of raw, abandoned worship of misfortune at the same time that it creates camaraderie among the down and out. Sounds like a dangerous combination, I know, but it’s also like so many other extreme religious rituals to the extent that it’s followers become intoxicated with the magic and trappings of being a part of something powerful.
I was there with a journalist/filmmaker friend of mine, Michael Maher, and we had the good fortune of being under the care of two of the most powerful women of that neighborhood: Lourdes, la reina del Tepito (the Queen of Tepito), and Doña Queta, the priestess who created and maintains the shrine of La Santa Muerte.
These two remarkable women welcomed us, protected us, trusted us (and, clearly realized that they had our undivided attention as artists/journalists), and provided extremely rare access to the pilgrimage of several thousand followers of La Santa Muerte. The resulting images are unsettling.
The subject matter is raw. The people are desperate and abandoned to death, violence, drugs. But, they are also viciously human. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else that I have traveled, which is a humbling thing to behold.
The next day, we travelled to a place called Mixquic, on the southern reaches of sprawling Mexico City, to spend the day in the town that is among the most famous for its celebration of the Day of the Dead. In fact, the carnival lasts for more than a week leading up to the most important day, which is the 1st of November.
In contrast to the ritual of La Santa Muerte, the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos is about convening with one’s deceased family and friends. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents and friends journey to the cemetery in which their relative(s) is buried. They clean the grave, create a shrine (offrenda) that includes the favorite food of the deceased, as well as candles, incense and other personal effects, and they spend the day – and I mean the full day. It is a time of reflection, melancholy, joy.
It’s extraordinary to see, beautiful in ways that the ritual of La Santa Muerte seems cruel. By the fall of darkness, the cemetery has hundreds of relatives paying respect at the graves of their loved-ones, surrounded (and outnumbered) by thousands of people who come to pay their respects to those paying their respects. Extraordinary!
What does a single photograph or a body of work need in your opinion in order to stand out and get noticed? Especially keeping in mind the abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society where everything already has been photographed?
“That which is made with time, time respects.”
I have no idea why some things seem to get noticed while others, equally or more qualified for notice, in my opinion, are relegated to oblivion. I do know that we live in a culture obsessed with speed – including the speed with which a work of art “gives itself up”.
My strong opinion, to quote Henri Cartier-Bresson quoting Rodin, is that: “That which is made with time, time respects.”
Do you think it’s possible as a photographer to still be unique these days? Or do you rather consider it to be more important to create an own style adding your personal twist to something that has already been done before?
It seems to me that trying to be “unique” all but ensures one’s conventionality.
Everyone is different, but similar. Approach photography in a completely selfish way (I don’t mean selfish in the pejorative sense, but rather as a kind of acute self-awareness), paying religious attention to one’s own interests, possess a strong moral foundation, and work as hard as you can, and everything else of any value will follow, including your own recognizable style and relevance.
What comes first: the idea for a series or single images that at some point fit and fall into place to form a particular body of work?
Usually the latter, sometimes the former, as I have described above.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at you photos?
Curiosity, surprise and compassion. Humor is nice, too.
One general question: What do you consider the most important developments in contemporary photography? And what have been the greatest changes recently?
I think the two are the same: the accessibility of the medium as well as the facility with which people can share pictures with an audience is unprecedented and represent the most important “development” and the “greatest change” in photography. “Everyone is a photographer” – but, not really.
Photography is a generous medium – anyone can make a good picture, but few can do it over and over again. Few people will be recognized, based on the sum of those things at which they have pointed, as artists.
Perhaps we should adopt two categories: “image makers” and “photographers”.
The latter being defined by their knowledge of the history of the medium and their preoccupation with depicting humanity as it looks for posterity; the former filling the clearly useful role of thrilling the masses with quick-fix, clever, “timely”, and consumable images.
Philosopher Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
“To recognize in fellow humanity both the familiar and the new is a very powerful and satisfying tool.”
Photography has changed and continues to change the way I look at the world. It is a self-perpetuating process of educating the eye. The more that one sees, the more one recognizes. To recognize in fellow humanity both the familiar and the new is a very powerful and satisfying tool, indeed. It not only changes the way I look at the world and learn about myself, it is the way I look at the world and learn about myself.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
Each photograph that I make that remains an important insight into the people or places that I have come to know, at least with my camera, is such a “landmark”. I continue to accumulate them.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
You asked a lot of questions, Kai, good questions!
I’m at a loss to ask myself any more!
I will close with one anecdote, though, in the theme of photography standing on its own as a medium, and photographs doing something that nothing else does quite as well.
In the 1950’s, the great American poet Robert Frost was giving a reading of some of his new poems at a university in Boston. After reading his last poem for the evening, a student stood up and said:
“Mr. Frost, in the last poem you read, you said [here he/she repeated a line of his verse], what did you mean by that?”
To which, Frost responded, with some surprise, “You mean, you want me to say it worse?!”