Ten Questions with Photographer Laia Abril
By Verónica Sanchis, Translated by Ellen Donnison
Laia Abril, born in Barcelona in1986, is a documental photographer. After finishing her degree in journalism, she moved to New York where she studied at the International Center of Photography (ICP). There she decided to focus on stories relating to femininity and eating disorders. In 2009 she began her artistic residency with FABRICA at the Benetton Research Centre in Italy. In both 2009 and 2010 she was a finalist for the Ian Parry Scholarship in England, exhibiting her work in a show at the Getty Gallery in London, first with her project based on the young lesbian community in Brooklyn, and later with Last Cabaret, which explores a sex club in Barcelona.
Since then Abril has been published internationally in various media and was selected to appear in festivals such as: NY PhotoFestival (2011), the 3rd Lumix PhotoFestival, PhotoMeeting Ojo de Pez (2012), CUNY University, New York (2014), among many others. Abril’s work has recently been shown in exhibitions such as From Here On (Barcelona), Lodz FotoFestiwal (2013) and FotoEspaña (2014). Her work also forms part of the permanent collection at the Winterthur Photo Museum in Switzerland.
Her photographs have been published in The Sunday Times Magazine, D Repubblica, Le Monde, FT Magazine, The New York Times, Burn Magazine, Ojo de Pez, BJP, GUP, Esquire and COLORS Magazine, where she worked as a photographer and as editor of photography.
During 2014 she produced her most recent book, The Epilogue, published by Dewi Lewis Publishing. She is currently working as photographer and consultant editor of photography at the magazine COLORS, which allows to combine her career with her personal projects.
Ventana Latina: 1. How did you become a photographer?
Laia Abril: I discovered photography through the crossing of paths between journalism and publicity. While studying I came across the work of Oliviero Toscani through Adiós a la Publicidad and his work with Tibor Kalman for COLORS Magazine. This became a determining factor in my studies. When I graduated I had a fairly clear idea that I was going to continue using images to document my interests and knew this would allow me to express myself more effectively than the written word. Therefore, it was when I moved to New York to continue my self-discovery I decided I wanted to tell stories through intimacy which became the origin of my series Femme Love. From there I was given a grant to study at the Centre of Investigation and Communication at FABRICA in Italy. This was where I would develop the beginnings of my long-term work under the influence of creative people such as designers, filmmakers, photographers, illustrators, musicians and interactive engineers. I also learned about the concept of the multi-platform. Furthermore, working as part of the editorial team at COLORS Magazine, as a photographer and graphic editor with a work process consisting of intense investigation, influenced my practice.
VL: 2. What do you aim to explore in your photographic work?
LA: I am generally attracted to the intimacies within western society, which often make people uncomfortable to the point where they supress them. I try to evoke the viewer’s empathy through the connection I create with my subjects, in order to break taboos and demystify poorly understood realities, reducing initial prejudices. For many years the photographic work that has interested me has allowed to discover diverse outputs and new platforms so I can convey my message effectively. Photography and the image will always be my base because I think in a visual way; I always have and I always will. I will continue to pursue my previous practices and I am interested in utilizing whatever tools I have at my disposal to be able to tell stories in the best way possible.
VL: 3. Which theme have you developed most in your work?
LA: In the last five years I have developed two projects on a long-term basis which in certain ways are conceptually linked. On one hand I have produced three titles on the most incomprehensible aspects of eating disorders; A Bad Day is a multimedia piece concerning the day-to-day life of a girl suffering from bulimia; Thinspiration is a self-published fanzine and an installation based on my investigation of the use of images by the Pro-Ana community; and the most recent, my book The Epilogue, is centred around the Robinson family and their bereavement following the loss of their daughter to bulimia. At the same time I have created different series about femininity and sexuality. From the root of Femme Love I have continued investigating the LGTB community in different countries until I came across Asexuality. From this discovery I created the website www.asexualsproject.com.
My book, Tediousphilla, was developed alongside Ramón Pez, an art director with whom I have collaborated on various books and projects. Tediousphilla is about couples who want to perform sex on the Internet, for money, using a webcam. I also want to continue documenting post-photographic virtual themes.
VL: 4. How did your project, Danza Voluminosa, come about?
LA: Danza Voluminosa was a project where I took advantage of an exceptional situation. During this project I was working as the lead editor for COLORS magazine, edition 78, Baile. I had to go to Cuba and photograph the dancer, Carlos Acosta for the front page. I was put in contact with the company Danza Voluminosa and I continued to further develop the story for the edition, which in this case had added personal value, as I was continuing to photograph a theme that encompasses femininity, self-esteem, ideals of beauty and dance.
VL: 5. How do you develop your projects from idea to practice?
LA: My work is 75% research based. During my research I also begin to brainstorm how I am going to focus on the photographic aspects and above all what the final format will be such as a book, a webdoc, or a multimedia format as they all differ greatly. I often focus on themes, which can be seen in my long-term projects; I think this helps me reach small goals and develop certain subjects. Each new project demands some kind of new change; I always leave my comfort zone and often feel like it won’t work. However I also am fairly conservative, aesthetically speaking, which is something I would like to work on in the future.
VL: 6. Tell us a little about the process of making your most recent book, The Epilogue.
LA: It was a huge piece of work from beginning to finish. The idea of documenting death as a result of eating disorders was something I had thought about for at least two to three years. Eventually it seemed right to investigate it and it was important for me not to shy away from the most uncomfortable aspects. It was very difficult for me to face the challenges of this theme, out of fear, and I struggled to find a way to focus on it. Organically after Thinspiration, and my modest incursion into post-photographic fields, I broke down the need to be ‘the author of the images’, which was the most logical way to show someone that they were no longer reliving and submerging themselves in their own memories. On meeting the family I realised the protagonist was not only the deceased but the collateral victims- families, friends, therapists; this changed the focus of the book. With much clearer ideas and a certain photographic maturity I felt capable of facing this. What had been a year and a half of design, editing, investigation and translation of the story, again alongside Ramón Pez, resulted in my most complex work to date. This time it evolved naturally, the image was joined with the written word. The book has been very successful, above all for the feedback I have received from so many people who have connected with the story, so I decided to revisit the family and saw how this had been a form of catharsis for them.
VL: 7. What is your view on documental photography today?
LA: I can see that documental photography is growing in leaps and bounds thanks to changes in the sector and the hunger to tell stories. Even with the crises we suffer on so many levels, the creative response to develop and communicate these themes is insatiable. It’s very difficult to predict what will occur in either the short or the long term, but it’s clear that the image has been translated into a new universal language and I’m happy I’m aware of this and therefore able to talk about it.
VL: 8. What was it like making the short film, Ciao, alongside Pablo Pastor?
LA: Pablo is one of those creative geniuses who I bumped into in FABRICA and who is responsible for my projects having a large audio-visual aspect. Over the years we have worked together on many occasions, generally he collaborated as the editor of my multimedia videos or short films such as A Bad Day, the Asexuals Project or the teaser for The Epilogue. However Ciao was a project generated by him in which he invited me to lose myself in the life of various immigrants who try and learn Italian in the city of Treviso. Pablo and I share an obsession for languages and communication, above all minority languages, a theme we have developed together various times. On this occasion, even though we were living in an artist’s residency, which tends to isolate you from reality in order to realise your creative potential, it also coincided with us collaborating on a project where we wanted to document our surroundings, a type of documentary that personally interests me a lot.
VL: 9. Are you planning to further explore the medium of multimedia and/or video?
LA: The next step for The Epilogue is to find the best way of using all the audio-visual material. We made a teaser for the book’s promotion and started opening up that boundary, but we were still investigating the best way to use it. I am very interested in understanding how to combine the audio-visual, the Internet and the interactive. We made forays into the use of multimedia with the Asexuals Project and with each new project including the audio-visual, such as the Tediousphilia Projection. One day I also would like to experiment with longer formats.
VL: 10. Have you considered working in South America?
LA: I really want to work in South America. In fact, maybe an excuse to travel to Argentina is to make a new project with Pablo Pastor, who is there right now. However for me it’s an unknown continent, which without a doubt is going to be very present in my next long-term project, which is currently in the research stage.
To see more of Laia Abril’s work, click here.