Almudena Romero / Growing Concerns
January 2018 Interviewed by Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman
Born in Madrid in 1986, Almudena Romero is a London-based visual artist working with a wide range of photographic processes from early printing techniques such as cyanotype, salt printing or wet plate collodion, to new technologies including 3Dscanning and printing. Romero’s practice uses photographic processes to reflect on issues relating to identity, representation and ideology; such as the role of photography in the construction of national identity, or the link between photographic archives and colonialism. Her work has been exhibited and published internationally, and recently Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman spoke with Romero about the background to her most recent bodies of work.
Francesca M Hitzeman: Growing Concerns, is an on-going work that has been displayed in various locations throughout London and Europe. That project along with your previous series Self -Constructed , have focused on the perception of the photograph’s been used to categorise and organise the other. What is it about that topic that interests you?
Almudena Romero: It interests me how photography contributes to organise perception and how perception affects our understanding of things and our existence. I am particularly interested in how we understand and represent ourselves, and how photographic processes and technologies transform notions such public, private, individuality, memory, and, in general, the concept of the individual.
Both of these projects Self-Constructed and Growing Concerns use the wet plate collodion process. I find this process particularly interesting because of the impact it had in the 19th Century. Wet collodion was the most popular photographic process between 1850 and 1880. It was the cheapest and most light-sensitive technique, but its most distinctive characteristic was that it introduced the first glass negatives.
The first glass negatives allowed the reproduction of images in albumen, salt and carbon prints and this led to several things including: the proliferation of the Carte de Visite prints, and therefore, the development of an interest among the rising bourgeoisie in controlling public image through photographic portraiture, the development of rationalism, sciences and also pseudosciences such as physiognomy as well as the development of colonial imaginary, and the birth of photographic archives. For instance, the Victoria and Albert Museum began to develop a photographic archive in 1858.
FMH: Can you tell us a little about your background and what attracted you to/how you started working with early photographic processes?
AR: I think it’s my interest in processes and how photographic processes contribute and have contributed to organise perception. When I was studying my MA in photography, in 2012, I started to experiment with 3D printing and 3D scanning, which I understand as photographic processes.
During my research, I was fascinated by how data could be translated into a three dimensional outcome. After graduating, I continued to explore that translation between the bi-dimensional and the three-dimensional, and I ended up working with early photographic processes, which can be applied onto a variety of substrates such as wood and tend to create multiple artefacts on the photographic surface.
My practice focuses on identity; back in 2012 I was reflecting on the rationalisation and quantification of sports professionals’ bodies, and the body as a mirror image of an ideological discourse. I related this research to 3D printing as a mechanical way to reproduce athletes’ measurements and other publicly available data. Today, I am focusing on how photographic archives have contributed to the development of national identities and I am using a historically significant process to address links between colonialism, migration and photography.
FMH: At the very core of Growing Concerns there is a series of more than 50 photographs concerned with the theme of migration and identity: all those people and stories that contribute to create a sort of encyclopaedic archive of London immigrants. How did the events of the last couple of years inform your treatment of this project?
AR: I am not aiming to create an encyclopaedic archive or classification of anyone, there’s been enough of that. It’s rather a participatory archive and to some extent, the archive is about making archives. In this case the photographer or the artist doesn’t choose sitters, it’s a collaborative approach. I set up an open call and everyone who considers themselves an immigrant can take part, no passport check and no control from my part on that decision. The open call is for first or second generation immigrants, so people born in the UK but whose parents were immigrants can also take part if they want to. The series will reach 195 tintypes by February!
I have had really interesting conversations in relation to the open call. Some people thought it was casually racist because it excluded non-immigrants, and some people wanted to participate but weren’t sure if they could because they considered themselves expats and not immigrants. It truly surprised me the amount of people who believe that there is a difference between these two notions! As far as I am aware the Home Office deals with visas and immigration, any other distinction connotes anglocentrisim and colonialism, which is one of the subjects at the heart of the project, so in this sense, the collaborative approach of the open call was very appropriate and sparked interesting conversations.
Another distinctive characteristic of the participatory archive is that both parts had to benefit from the experience of making the archive. All participants received a digital copy of their tintype, they could see the process and gain knowledge of the process, and they knew they would receive these things before agreeing to participate.
Mutual benefit, collaboration and interdependence; these are all decolonial strategies. I am very interested in decolonial theory and practice and how it reviews methodologies of making art work. My work is not about using a community as an unpaid material. Having lived over the past 10 years in the UK, France, Canada and Italy, I have a strong sense of belonging to the immigrant community rather than to any nation. I want to use and share my knowledge to work with one of the most archival processes and leave a legacy of a contemporary understanding of colonialism, identity and photographic archives.
FMH: You have chosen Growing Concerns as the title for your series that reflect on the increasing restrictions of movement of persons addressing, through portraiture, links between photography, colonialism and migration. Given recent attention to that theme, was that considered somehow a provocation?
AR: The work is called Growing Concerns in reference to the growing barriers/restrictions (the Trump wall, Calais wall, Brexit…) of movement of people as well as to the growing inequality, anger, support for extreme parties, etc. These are all growing concerns. From my point of view, these growing concerns are at a stage of crystallisation with the election of Trump, the Brexit vote, the rise of alt-right.
I use photographic portraiture precisely to review its use in the construction of the notions of us and them thinking of Victorian photographers but also of today’s representation of migration on newspapers and other media. Another reason for using photographic portraiture, is that up until now national identity documents, such as passports, largely rely on photographic portraiture for subject identification. Again, this equation between identity and identification through photographic portraiture refers us back to the 19th Century understanding of the photographic medium as a purveyor of truth, and the belief that one’s identity gets manifested in one’s own appearance.
FMH: Growing Concerns revisits the wet collodion process through two different series: the participatory archive and the non-archival archive. In the second series of tintypes chemical residues from the process are left over the photographic surface, deteriorating the archival qualities of the process and interfering in the process of identifying the other. In my opinion this becomes a pulsing container that houses the images without holding any control over them, but at the same time giving them the uncommon freedom to create new ones. Is there anything you would like to add to expand on this?
AR: The living crystals on the top of the photographic surface are a metaphor of the growing concerns described above, but also a disruptive element that interferes in the identification of the portrayed subject and a destructive layer that works against the archival qualities of wet collodion. The crystal series is somehow a self-destructive series in which the crystallisation process erodes and oxides the original substrate/base.
The crystals also help to create an ambiguous narrative to reflect on identity as a layered, complex and ever evolving notion. If I think of my own identity there are so many levels that operate at once. I can think of myself as an emerging artist, as young female, as an immigrant, as an academic, and therefore, as a privileged person, as a European, as a heterosexual, as the youngest daughter in my family, and several other categories that interact and evolve over the time.
FMH: Growing Concerns reflects the broad trend, outlined over the last few years, in which archives are used to review the constitution of national identity, particularly appropriate in the postcolonial world. How has the role of the archive changed to address issues in contemporary art? And what do you think is the role of the archive in contemporary art?
AR: I think it’s interesting to look at the archive from a decolonial perspective thinking on who produces the archive, who holds it, and how it can be accessed, or in other words, who produces, disseminates and consumes cultural practices. In Growing Concerns, participants collaborate with me to produce the archive, hold part of it, and come to the shows when these are in London. The truth is that the majority of the participants are actually my friends or people I knew before working with them on this. The archive doesn’t belong to any cultural institution, and it has travelled to Italy and France already. Some of the participants have been very proactive in suggesting places for exhibition which I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
I guess the role of culture in general is to legitimise and absorb meanings and understandings. Growing Concerns, is an archive of a contemporary understanding of identity and of the act of making images from a decolonial perspective.
FMH: I would like to know more about your thinking process. How do your projects usually evolve? What kind of strategies do you put in place in order to translate your research visually and negotiate the gap between research and practice?
AR: I think both visual outcome and research evolve together and feed each other. I start to produce work to reflect on a subject that I have been reading or researching on. I am not very secretive so as I am producing the work I tend to show it to friends and colleagues which will give me more references or tell me about a conference on the subject. Since I am freelancing and living in London I do take advantage of the large amount of shows, conferences and talks on specific subjects. This again, feeds into my practice and influences the outcome of what I am producing. At some point, I’d find something else more interesting and start reading, thinking, producing work in relation to that.
FMH: Do you have any current projects that you are working on that you would like to discuss?
AR: There is a second part of the series that focuses on the deregulation of goods and capital and the environmental and social impact of this, forcing communities to migrate.
I have started to use plants which are originally from Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands, and nonetheless widely available at daily markets in London, to alter the photosynthesis process and print on the leaves of the plants images that relate to the migration history and context in their native countries.
For further viewing:
The artist’s website – www.almudenaromero.co.uk
Self-Constructed by Almudena Romero on Photomonitor, July 2015