Friday Art Crush is an interview series highlighting the work of Photography students in their thesis year at OCAD U. We grab a coffee and chat about what they have been exploring, and they share great advice for working on a year-long project. The series was created and led by Morgan Sears-Williams; this year, it has been taken over by Ana Luisa Bernárdez.
This week, Ana chatted with Sabrina Carrizo Sztainbok, a Photo major in her fourth year.
Tell me a little about what you’ve been exploring during your studies at OCAD.
I’m really interested in absurdity, more specifically in creating believable absurdity. I’m really influenced by magical realism, and I try to translate that into photography, in a way. It’s been through something that I have come to call “banal absurdity”. Everything I do has an aspect of fiction, but also tries to pass as reality. It’s usually something absurd and a little funny, there’s always an aspect of humor in my work.
How has this translated into your thesis project?
For my thesis, I’ve been taking self-portraits that are meant to look like family snapshots, but all the subjects are me. The photographs follow two fictional sisters, who I guess are twins. I haven’t exactly sorted out the precise story of their lives; I want it to be ambiguous, and I don’t necessarily want to know everything. The work is definitely influenced by my relationship with my sister, and my mom’s relationship with hers.
What are some of your strategies for achieving an aesthetic that looks from a specific time period?
I thrift a lot. I’m very interested in second hand clothing, and I have even done projects about the past lives of clothes. I own clothing that look as if they are from a certain time, even if they’re not. I also use photoshop to edit things like wallpaper, but I don’t necessarily want them to be perfect; the photographs are completely artificial, and I don’t mind if people realize that at some point. They are fragile constructions, which is something that I like.
From i was there, a self-portrait series in thrifted clothing. 2018.
How was the final presentation of your thesis project last semester, and how do you see it evolving?
By the end of the semester, I was starting to explore installing the photos as if they existed in a domestic space. I had a bunch of these images in a photo box that people could pick up, and also a couple of prints on the wall. I think what I’m leaning towards for the end of the semester is creating an installation that looks like a room: some wallpaper, photos on the wall, and also others that people can pick up and look at. I like the idea that the more people handle the photos, the more authentic they’ll look. The goal is also to find second hand furniture, things that already have a past life.
What are your visual references or inspirations for your shoots?
I definitely collect photos from antique stores, and it’s good to keep track of different formats that were most commonly used at different times and what they look like. But I’m going to be focusing more on the 60’s – 80’s time period, because that’s what I mostly see in my family albums, which have definitely been an inspiration. I get ideas from those photographs: birthday or halloween shoots, what people were wearing in 1984, or if someone is standing in a particular way. I take that, and create something similar.
You have done a lot of self-portraiture, have you also worked with models, friends or family?
In an interview, Cindy Sherman talked about feeling bad when asking other people to stay still for a long period of time during a shoot, or struggling to get the right performance out of them. If you’re your own model, you know exactly what you’re looking for, and how to achieve or deliver that. I’m also always available at the time that I need to be available, which is convenient. I definitely felt held back by the idea of doing self-portraiture in the past, I used to think: “How am I going to make this idea work? How am I going to take a photo of myself? It’ll be so difficult”, but once I started doing it, it became the easiest option. In high school, I was very into Henri Cartier-Bresson and the idea of the decisive moment, but then I started wondering if I was ever going to happen upon a “decisive moment.” Being so impatient, I ended up thinking “Why don’t I just make it up?”.
It sounds like your project is more rooted in a curiosity for the vernacular and familial aspect of photographs, rather than in attempting to create a survey of the “History of Photography” through self-portraits.
Initially it was more like that. Maybe not necessarily the history of photography, but as if there were these two sisters that were transcending time, or being reincarnated. I wanted the work have this weird, fantasy aspect to it. Then I realized it wasn’t working, and I became more interested in the relationship between my mom and her sister, and me and my sister. I focus more in that time period, because it is something that I understand better.
How was the process of choosing your thesis topic?
This is kind of an amalgamation of all the ideas I’ve had throughout OCAD, when it comes to photography, and I vaguely had the idea before I started thesis. The most important thing is realizing what you’re interested in. For me, it was realizing that I was interested in storytelling, in making up stories. Every time I’m stumped for an idea, I ask myself “What do I like? If I like stories, how can I incorporate that?”. In other projects, I have also come back to family relationships, siblings, vintage things, props, clothes; it all came together to make sense. If people are thinking about how they’re going to get ideas for thesis, it is really important to step back and think about what you’re interested in.
That makes a lot of sense, I think “an amalgamation” is a great way to describe it. Do you also write stories?
I used to, but now I’m always writing in my phone notes. It will be sentences that I plan to use in songs, or sometimes I just think “I need it to write this, these words sound good together”, and I do. To me, they are like mini stories as well.
I know that you’re also a musician, do you think your approach to your artwork is also reflected in Slobrina as a persona?
I’m always putting on characters, and it always goes back to storytelling, magical realism and absurdity. With Slobrina I’m inhabiting a different character than I am in my photographs. In that character there’s a lot of self-pitying, which is a specific part of myself that I channel mainly through music. I like confusing people with who I am, and I think there is power in that; although none of my photography is overtly political, I do think there will always be a political aspect in it. I used to sit around and wait for something to happen, for myself to get represented. Then, I started using photography, music, and different characters to be whoever I want to be.
During your experience with thesis, what have been some obstacles, and what has helped in overcoming them?
I always feel like I’m rushing to the finish line, stressed about trying to get everything done. It always works out in the end, but my biggest obstacle is time management. Figuring out a system of how and when I’m going to take the photos has been working for me, but, at the same time, I work more instinctively. I don’t have a lot of time to sit and think about it, especially because I want to have volume.
What is something that you would’ve liked to know before you started your thesis year?
You get to do a lot of experimenting, which is not something that I realized before. I stressed about how concrete things needed to be, but the first semester it is all about research. You are still moulding what your idea is going to be, and you can try all sorts of things. I think that people shouldn’t be afraid to experiment, or trying different ideas before settling. April is always emphasizing that people’s ideas should be looser, so that there can be different pathways to explore and take. Growing from something very concrete is harder.
Who are some professors at OCAD that made a positive impact in your education?
Nicolas Pye, Derek Sullivan who is a Sculpture prof, and Lee Henderson. Usually, my favorite profs are those who give really interesting examples of other artists, because I feel inspired in their classes.
Interview by Ana Luisa Bernárdez