May 26, 2023
FREEDOM TASTES OF REALITY
Photography by Juan Barte
Interview by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
Juan Barte is a fine art photographer, editor, and cultural manager, living and working in Spain. His career led him to live in places like Los Angeles, Tokyo, Vientiane, Ibiza, or Madrid. In the past, Juan developed his career in graphic design. However, photography was always one of his main interests, so in 2014 he started to fully devote himself to this “obsession”.
Starting from an elaborate conceptual base, Juan's photographs try to trigger reflections, debates...showing a broader, complex and diverse vision of the world. His projects can last for years, with an extensive research of the subject matter and a close contact with the object portrayed.
Juan takes a unique approach to his practice of photography. He translates his conceptual ideas through his photographic process. Juan involves the subjects of his photography, allowing them to contribute in the artistic process and making the work. He engages the viewer, allowing them to become a participant, inviting them to ask questions to themselves. For Juan it is through this curiosity and freedom to creatively think, that allows for the work to speak the loudest and clearest. His goal is to reorder experience rather than simply document it and bend appearances to match his subjective narrative priorities. The resulting images are caught in a tension between the staged story and the testimonial record, imbued with fantasy as much as reality, unreliable and open-ended, thus reflecting the instability of our times.
With social media today and the continuous flow of information, Juan does not choose to document what he sees, but creates a photograph that constricts the flow of information, allowing for the viewer to further investigate and question what they see. It is this consciousness that Juan strives for, allowing for each individual to make their own interpretations.
We are all aware of the addiction to the mobile phone. No one looks up anymore, even while walking, relying on their peripheral vision to navigate. We lose the physical connectivity to the true environment. Most individuals could not tell you one single detail from their physical experience moving from point A to point B, but were fully informed and aware of what's happening globally at any given time during that same transition. These are the questions that Juan raises through his photographic investigations, resulting in a body of work addressing the disconnection with reality and the physical world around us.
Without giving away too much, we introduce Juan Barte, and hope you enjoy his interview and insightful use of photography to create meaningful work.
“I enjoy it when the viewer has to stop to decipher an image, so that dialogue and complicity are established. The resulting images invite contemplation so that we can abandon ourselves to the flow of associations of ideas that we raise.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH JUAN BARTE
THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Juan, thank you for sharing your intriguing work. Please start off by telling us about yourself. What would you say first drew you to photography?
JUAN BARTE: I was born and raised in La Rioja, a wine region in northern Spain. I guess I was a bit of a late bloomer. Perhaps due to my family environment, where no one was involved in anything related to the arts, I belong to the category of artists who discover their passion later in life. Like Leonard Cohen, who began his music career in his late thirties, Michael Haneke, who directed The Seventh Continent at the age of 47, or Raymond Chandler, who didn't start his literary career until he was 45.
So I don't have the typical story that goes, “When I was a child, my aunty gave me a camera, and I became fascinated with taking photos, and I never stopped since.” In my case, it was something that happened later in life, and therefore, it was a more conscious process.
At first, I was fascinated by how some photographs exerted a powerful influence on me. They compelled me to look and evoked a sense of desire or longing, or many other emotions, shaping my relationship with the world around me. So initially, I think it was something very primal, and I saw taking photos as a way to explore my desires and emotions.
TPL: You use photography to tell your stories, it becomes intrinsic to your voice and message. Could you tell us why you choose photography as a tool to translate your ideas?
JB: I’ve always been fascinated by the power of visual imagery and its ability to evoke emotion and convey a message. Photography is a medium that allows for ambiguity and interpretation. Unlike words, which can be very precise and specific, photographs often leave room for multiple meanings and interpretations. This ambiguity, to me, is one of the strengths of photography, as it allows the viewer to engage with the image in a more active and imaginative way.
If you think about it, photographs are more suggestive than telling. They often hint at or suggest a story or idea, rather than spelling it out explicitly. This can make photographs more evocative and emotional than words, allowing the viewer to bring their own experiences and interpretations to the image.
Photography is poetry, rather than prose. Both poetry and photography rely on suggestion and ambiguity to create a deeper emotional impact on the viewer or reader. Like poetry, photographs often use metaphor, symbolism, and other literary techniques to convey their message in a more nuanced and indirect way.
In short, it’s the power of suggestion and ambiguity in the medium that gets me. Rather than being a limitation, these qualities make photography a uniquely expressive and poetic form of storytelling.
TPL: How would you describe your photography, and what would you say you are always trying to achieve artistically?
JB: When I take a photograph, I close the shot on the subject by getting very close, isolating the details. This approach results in those details acquiring an autonomous presence. They are no longer just identifying the subject, but rather they become "beings" in their own right. This process involves separating the image from its subject, so we no longer recognize a specific person, but instead see a fragment that serves me, as the author, to convey what I want to narrate and tell.
The protagonists of my photographs do not monopolize the image with their gaze, avoiding direct recognition which in fact is an invitation to the audience to find their own interpretation of the work. I try to create a space for the viewer that may instigate a creative process that opens the door to a multitude of interpretations, mental associations, understandings, and thus the work is enriched by those new conceptions.
My intention is that my images will have several and varied readings, which transcend a casual glance. I enjoy it when the viewer has to stop to decipher an image, so that dialogue and complicity are established. I try to make my images inviting to the contemplation so that we can abandon ourselves to the flow of associations of ideas that we raise.
My photography is the opposite of the continuous flow of images that we are subjected to nowadays, setting it apart from both the conventionalism of photojournalism and the conventionalism of social media.
I involve the subjects of my photography in the creation of the final images. My goal is to reorder experience rather than simply document it and to bend appearances to match my subjective narrative priorities. While places and people do appear in my work, the documenting aspect is a side effect.
There is no detached observation, rather a kind of collaboration, so the process is not about negotiating a portrait, but rather negotiating a story, because my goal is to tell a story. It's a collaboration between the photographer and the subject, as we work together to build a script.
When I travel to their personal or work space to take these photographs in person, it emphasizes the physical and human aspect of our relationship. Sometimes, the personal relationship that develops during this process is more important than the final images.
As both, an observer and a fabricator of a world of make-believe, it is not always clear what I found there in front of my camera and what I manipulate and stage. For me, the narration is the basis of emotional engagement. My goal is for people to respond to my images. I do not feel obligated to describe phenomena in my photography. The result is images between staged and spontaneous, which you cannot trust, erasing the artificial division between photographic genres and thus reflecting the instability of our time.
My projects may last for years, with direct and constant contact with the depicted object with whom I interact closely. The knowledge I acquire through this process allows me to subtract in order to find the simplicity of a situation by reducing it to the essential.
In addition, I use black and white because the absence of the information provided by color allows me to establish a stronger message. Each color brings its own personality, which can cause a digression from the work. But black and white limits things, and the more limited things are, the more noticeable they become.
TPL: What inspired the concept for FREEDOM TASTES OF REALITY? Can you take us through your creative thinking process, your ideologic conception to critical thinking and the evolution of your project?
JB: It often starts with something - a piece of text, a book, something I hear or see - and then a vague feeling, an itch, gets into my mind. At some point, I realize that I want to get it out, but more often than not, it remains a vague feeling for a long time.
However, in the case of Freedom Tastes of Reality, I was already intuitively taking photos when it became clear and I could define it. Once the feeling is acknowledged and defined, I have to decide if it is worth pursuing all the way, worth following up on, worth investing my energy in, and worth trying to tell the story.
A lot goes through my head at this stage - will I be able to cope? Will it be long-term or short-term? Will I, as an artist, be able to live up to what the project requires?
Then it's time for me to read and research on the subject, which is something I particularly enjoy. This helps me come up with a well-rounded, well-thought-out concept, which I usually do at the same time as I start to photograph.
It may feel a bit too much of a rational process, but actually, I don't believe in the idea of "carrying a camera everywhere you go." Rather, I prefer to photograph with high intensity, with a very focused mindset on the project at hand. When I'm on a shoot, I take it with passion and fervor, and shooting becomes a very intense experience for me.
TPL: Talk us through the narrative of FREEDOM TASTES OF REALITY - what journey are you taking us on?
JB: This work is a celebration of the body and its senses at a time when relationships with the world and people are increasingly mediated by technology and, therefore, more dematerialized. This claim is not made in the abstract but in dialogue with a group of up and coming new artists.
Currently, a disembodiment is created across all human relationships. Life doesn't just happen around our bodies anymore. We've stopped living in the physical space where we find ourselves. Life is happening elsewhere, out on a screen, somewhere removed from our bodies. To offer an example, for most lines of work, it is no longer necessary to be physically present in an office full time to be a productive member of the team. We now telework. It is because of this work-from-home possibility that we've disconnected productivity from the need for presence. In this very same way, we've created friendship without a need for presence, sexuality without a need for presence, training, teaching, existing without a need for presence.
Freedom Tastes of Reality reintroduces the physical. In this fluid new life, we as humans live, the body has become the only certainty — the only thing that can give us a defined and verifiable outline of our identity.
The bodies in these photographs occupy physical space, situated against their displacement as a course of experiences because we no longer experience the world through our own bodies, but rather through the screens of smartphones, computers, and virtual reality headsets.
The bodies in Freedom Tastes of Reality are liberated and interact directly with objects—in other words, with reality. The images in this work reach deeply into the concept of experiencing reality through our physical bodies. We've abandoned the epicurean sensibility that connected pleasure, sensuality, and wisdom.
All the subjects in these photographs are up and coming new artists because the innovative and original artist became the blueprint for the entrepreneurial self that is now ubiquitous.
The set of requirements that formerly applied exclusively to artists have advanced to the status of a general ideal. Today, we are all expected to hunt for our own passion, to practice self-realization, to be as flexible and creative as possible, to work on our own initiative, and to have a high degree of mobility. So, the artist, who has traditionally been creative, independent, self-sufficient, and decisive, has become the model of the new worker. The new worker, not unlike the artist, has a liberalized work schedule, is individualized and responsible for themself.
Therefore, if I wanted to reflect a central theme in current society, such as the affirmation of our body in the face of its progressive disappearance as a vector for experiences, it would have to be through another central collective today. It would have to be through artists.
Although actual artists are depicted, these are not regular portraits in which the subjects are recognizable, we would enter a dynamic of who's who—who is in the project and who isn't. Naturally, the images would be a representation of that person, and they would no longer function as metaphors for what Freedom Tastes of Reality wants to express and transmit. These photographs try to go beyond the individual.
TPL: Where do you find your inspiration to create?
JB: The easy answer would be to say that I find my inspiration in the world around me, but creative processes are always more complex than that. It’s everything from movies to music, to books, to other photographers’ work, to random online photographs.
I’m interested in all the art forms, I like to look at the world and all the forms of expression that humans have created, so I’m not only inspired by photography, but also by philosophy, history, music has always been very important to me, film…
Other important sources of inspiration are the political and social climate, the complexity of our existence, the human body in relation to nature, my own personal relationships, experiences, and the history and culture of the places that I visit.
I think it’s important to be open to all of these things, and to try to find beauty and meaning in the midst of it all, to stay open and receptive to new experiences and ideas, and of being willing to take risks and experiment in order to keep work fresh and dynamic.
Last, but not least, intuition and spontaneity in the creative process also play an important role for me, being open to unexpected moments that occur while shooting, or while editing or sequencing the work.
I'm interested in exploring different ways of seeing and representing the world, and I draw on all these various sources to develop my ideas and approaches to image-making.
It's the power of suggestion and ambiguity in the medium that gets me. Rather than being a limitation, these qualities make photography a uniquely expressive and poetic form of storytelling.
TPL: Is the camera and equipment you use important to your work? If so, please share with our readers some of the secrets behind your work.
JB: I only use one camera and two prime lenses. It takes a long time to discover a lens, and it can take even longer to learn how to see the world through a specific focal length. However, sticking with one camera and lens has taught me to pre-visualize and pre-frame a scene before taking a photo.
Using prime lenses means you have to work within the limitations of the lens, which encourages creativity. When faced with a scene or situation, you must adjust your position in relation to your subject to achieve a good composition. If the scene doesn't fit perfectly, you need to be creative and figure out how to make it work. This often involves using your feet because your lens can’t zoom, you have to move your body and hence the camera to get further or closer to your subject. Using a prime lens requires more effort to create an interesting frame, but it usually results in more interesting photos. Your perspective depends on how much you're willing to move.
As photographers we often obsess over the sharpness, bokeh, and other characteristics of certain lenses. We also spend a lot of time talking about the "ideal camera" and the "perfect" lens for different situations. However, this can distract us from actually going out and taking photos.
In the beginning, I was frustrated because I couldn't afford expensive cameras and lenses. This discouraged me from taking photos because I felt that my gear was inadequate for creating good images. Over time, though, I've learned that the gear you use is not critical to creating good photos.
I don't view constraints and limitations as the same thing. It's not about what you see, but how you see it.
I guess the secret is to find a camera that suits your needs and style, above all, your camera should feel comfortable in your hands and next to your eye.
TPL: What do you want your photographs to inspire in other people? What is their “takeaway”?
JB: With my photography I try to draw attention to aspects of our culture that either fascinate or concern me. My goal is always to show a broader, more complex and diverse view of the world. I shoot at close range, giving the pictures a straightforwardness and natural intimacy that denies the audience the mere observer's safe distance, in the hope that this may lead the audience to reflect on certain issues. If, in addition to a personal reflection, my work provokes a debate, for me, it is a bonus.
This way I try to transform the act of looking into an active process, a shared joy between the author and the audience.
In the end, I don’t pretend to be certain about anything when telling a story, rather my aim is to poise questions in the hope to trigger reflections, because it is always the questions that involves the viewer, it’s never the answers.
TPL: Are there any special projects that you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
JB: I’m currently working on a project but I don’t have a final title for it yet, I’m the worst with titles. This work draws our attention to the second half of the 60s and first half of the 70s in Spain, through some of the critical artists of that period of hope for the future, in order to, by contrast with our present, open a reflection on the current difficulty of imagining better futures. The future, once imagined as a promising time, is now seen as a dystopian scenario. Popular series such as Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Fence, The 100, Colony… the list is endless, make us fear and see the future as a threat.
I’m working with artists again, which I love, but this time they are all in their seventies, even eighties. It’s a life lesson to see how active and engaged they still are with their practice to this day. It may sound like a cliché, but meeting all these people, conversing with them, learning about their oeuvre, and their take on the times it’s been the best part of doing this project.
I’ve been working on it for six years now, and I really would like to finish it this year. However, sometimes projects have their own life because the scope of this project keeps growing as I go along.
TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?
JB: I don't think I have any concrete reference, at least not if I speak as a photographer.
Of course, there are photographers, photo books, exhibitions, artists, and themes that interest me, but I do not establish with them a relationship of continuous presence of inspiration or guidance in my work, which is what I understand as having a reference. When I work on a project it is something organic, of course I take reference from various sources, my projects may have points of origin or destination, which may coincide with previous works, but when it comes to a process as intimate as developing a personal project I like to think that what is intended is to encourage the personal.
TPL: Are there any quotes that become your ‘Mantra’, that inspire you daily to create, and critically think?
JB: My mantra…I’ve mentioned it before. It’s something I have always had in mind, but not too long ago I heard it beautifully articulated in Todd Field's film, Tár. The main character says at one point in the plot "it’s always the question that involves the listener, it’s never the answer.”
As artists it is something very difficult to achieve because there is always the temptation to speak with our own conclusions and answers, univocally and unidirectionally.
But if it is always the questions, and not the answers that involve the audience, the work needs to be open-ended, something I always try to do. As I mentioned before, I try to instigate a creative process in the audience and open the door to a multitude of interpretations, associations, and understandings of my work. So it is enriched by those new conceptions.
TPL: “When I am not photographing and creating new work, I (like to)…
JB: Read a book, or to travel.”
Juan Barte does not believe in walking around with his camera around his neck, documenting the world like many of us photographers do. His photography is deliberate and well conceived before setting the process in motion. Take Juan up on his invitation to participate in the storytelling, feeling the freedom to be curious and ask yourself questions.
The Pictorial List thanks Juan for his dedication to his photographic poetry, and for taking his time to openly share his intellectual process behind these engaging photographs.
Juan's work has been published in specialized media and exhibited in galleries and institutions. He also co-coordinates the Photobook Club Madrid, actively promoting photographic culture through various events, as well as editing and designing photo books for other authors.