Let’s meet up with…Viviana Peretti!

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How did you hear about the Miss Gay International competition and end up photographing it? What was the most surprising thing about the competition?
 
From 2000 to 2009 I lived in Bogota, Colombia, and I am familiar with the LGBT events that take place in the capital. In 2000, Theatron, the biggest gay disco in Colombia, founded Miss Gay International. It is a competition in which men travel to Bogota from across the country to become the sexiest drag queens they can be. In July 2013, I contacted the owner of Theatron and asked if I could photograph the event during the four days of the competition. It was a very demanding and stressful pageant for the participants, spending two days in rehearsals and then two more competing in front of the public. At the same time, it was a very energizing event and it was really amazing to see how many people (also heterosexuals) visited Theatron during the pageant to support the competitors.
 
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You use some interesting cameras – the Holga, the Isolette, which produce beautiful images. Is there something about using film that you particularly like? Or is there something about those cameras in particular? As nowadays the effect can easily be reproduced using software (and even the iPhone, which I see you also use).
 
I love to use the iPhone on some occasions, especially when I want to shoot square colour photographs. I love black and white photography and I feel that digital software and workflow still don’t match the beauty, texture and tonality of B&W analogue photography. Besides, I love that the Holga and the Isolette are very economical and light cameras that I can bring everywhere without being scared to use them on the streets of big cities.
 
Your Series, Babel, The Urge To Pray is absolutely fascinating to look at and must have been wonderful to photograph. I wondered what the common threads were between the various groups or communities, and did the project lead you to change your ideas or beliefs you may have held about any of them?
 
You’re right, it was wonderful to document different religious communities in New York, but at the same time it was a very long and time/energy-consuming experience. Before I came to New York I expected to find a secular and consumer-driven city. I was really surprised by the rich, diverse, intense religious life present in each neighborhood and the complex and sometimes complicated implications these different belief systems have for how people live their lives. For many people in the city, religion represents a source of community and intimacy with their fellows and at the same time an element of separation from the rest of the world that doesn’t share their beliefs. In a metropolis that is all about melting, faith allows many people to preserve their identity by segregating them from the rest of society.
 
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Maybe the only community that touched me in a deep and spiritual way while I was photographing it was the Hare Krishna community in Brooklyn. I was really fascinated and in some way haunted by the amazing chanting that is always a big part of their celebrations.
 
Many of your pictures, particularly the Babel series, focuses on people who are either away from home or are in communities established outside their place of origin. As someone who hasn’t lived in their home country for a while, do you think you are naturally drawn to these kinds of subjects?
 
I enjoy being a nomad. I like to be an outsider and don’t belong to countries or cultures that I approach as a photographer. Not belonging helps me to have a sharper eye and allows me to notice things to which the natives are too accustomed to notice them.
Before becoming a photographer, I got a BA in Anthropology so I’ve been interested in different cultures for years. French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used to say that knowing other cultures helps us to understand and question our own culture. I think my project ‘Babel’ represents the effort to be able to understand a place and a culture better, in this case New York, while I keep questioning my own culture and background.
 
I generally like to focus on people who for different reasons – cultural/social/economic background, religious beliefs and sexual orientation – don’t belong to the majority. I also have a special interest in places that show us our vulnerability as human beings and the unequal struggle that we conduct daily against time and nature. During the last three years I spent in Colombia, I have explored and photographed cemeteries all around the country to reveal the despair but also the magic realism of an unpredictable country. Finally, I love street photography. Exploring a new place/city without any pre-established idea and reacting to what I see by taking photographs. It is what I am doing in Urban Labyrinths, my last photographic journey through different metropolises in Europe and America.
 
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People often comment on how photogenic New York is as a city, and I would have to agree. You have clearly amassed a great body of work from the city, what do you think the draw is?
 
Actually I’m not a fan of New York. I think it is a city that makes people invisible, invisible to the others. A city where 8 million people live together, but are alone. Where everybody is always too busy, where there is no time for human connections. At least, this is the New York that I faced five years ago when I arrived and that is reflected in my series ‘Desperate Intentions’. I am sure there are many New Yorks to be found within the same metropolis, but the one that I keep experiencing doesn’t have that special appeal that the city gets from all around the world. Before moving to New York, I spent almost ten years in a very welcoming and ‘warm’ country like Colombia where human connections shape life in a very different way. So, when I first arrived in New York in 2009, discovering the human desolation of the city was quite a shock.
 
You mentioned that you started out studying Anthropology. Does this natural interest in human life explain the lean towards documentary and street photography? Has your study given rise to any particular projects or areas of interest for your photography?
 
Many people who are familiar with my photographs say that it is quite obvious that I am an anthropologist. I think anthropology gave me a different way to relate and analyze things also if it is not a conscious process, especially when I am in a new place/city and I respond to it more in an emotional than in an intellectual way. There are probably things that I am able to see, identify and frame thanks to my background as an anthropologist. There are subjects that interest me — sexual orientation, religion, or how people relate to death — that are really connected to my past as an anthropologist and to my personal life. During my BA in Anthropology I studied History of Religions and I think that shaped my interest to explore the power that religious institutions have in the world. Anthropology also determined my interest to understand how people deal with death.
 
I always think the skill of documentary and street photographers is the ability to capture people as they are naturally, which means they have to in a way blend in and not let their presence affect the subject. I saw evidence of that in the series you submitted to Pride Photo Award. How do you manage to do that?
 
Carrying around very anonymous and small cameras like the Holga, Isolette or X-Pan rather than big, sophisticated cameras, learning to see how the light works and walking a lot while I try to anticipate what is going to happen.
 
What are you working on at the moment, what is next for you?
 
I will soon be back in Colombia to teach a series of workshops in Universities around the country while I try to finish a couple of series I started years ago and put together a book about Infierno Paradisíaco, my three year long photographic journey in Colombian cemeteries.
 
 
Interview: Robyn Grafton

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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