Karla Hiraldo Voleau

Hola Mi Amol

Book review by Alice Zoo

In Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s new book Hola Mi Amol, the narrator – Karla herself, or a version of her – is often travelling on the back of a motorbike. She snaps pictures with her phone of the shadow cast by the bike, and the two people on it: herself, and the Dominican man she’s holding onto as they ride. The motorbike recurs again and again, despite the book being made up of her different experiences and acquaintance with seven different men. It is as good a metaphor as any for the freedom and spontaneity and dangerous thrill that runs through the project like shining thread – the trust required in allowing a stranger to transport you like this, on the back of a bike, away from home, without a helmet, your body pressed close against them.

On its surface, Hola Mi Amol, co-published by SPBH Editions and ECAL, is a relatively straightforward re-approaching of a personal history. Voleau grew up under the influences of her dual heritage: French on her mother’s side, Dominican on her father’s. When visiting Santo Domingo as a child, she was warned against straying outside her house, advised to treat Dominican men with suspicion: ‘I think sometimes my parents were just terrified I’d get pregnant with a “tigre” passing by.’ As an adult, Voleau returns to the island alone, without the admonishments of her family, and seeks out the people and places she was warned about. Her images illustrate encounters with these men, meeting them on the beach, or accompanying them back to their homes or motels, riding on their bikes, shooting portraits of them surrounded by greenery. Often the men are nude. She turns the lens on herself, too, most frequently in selfies with her subjects, but at times alone. The images are accompanied by a simple text, describing a very limited account of their encounters. We skate along it, accepting it as easily as the heat from the Caribbean sun.

When Voleau meets a witch, however, the narrative starts to feel more uncertain. A friend needs to visit to remove a curse; Voleau accompanies them, and finds herself asking for a love potion. Her childhood suspicion of the men hasn’t quite gone away. ‘I want to desire back,’ she says, ‘I want to believe them.’ The inclusion of this supernatural element unsteadies us, and other uncertainties from earlier on, hardly noticed at the time, start to rankle. The project has become a hall of mirrors that distorts the narrator, her subjects, and the viewer, too. In the book’s final pages, Voleau asks: ‘Do you still believe me? Have I been transformed into the character I was pretending to be?’ Voleau lies across a bed, eyes towards us, a challenge in them. So, then, what is the performance? What were we expected to believe, and what judgments have we formed? The images and text must be re-approached and, as we do so, they splinter.

Voleau’s visual approach appears to mimic the foundational principles of her project, one intended to be ‘more personal, more tender, more spontaneous’ than the connections her family allowed her to make in her youth. Much of the work is shot on a phone, and is rough and grainy as a result. The low resolution feels contemporary, like the way that images degrade the more they are reproduced and passed around online. This aesthetic is relaxed, undemanding, an ad hoc approach that only foments the project’s intense intimacy. Introducing a professional camera into a circumstance formalises it, or induces subjects to perform, no matter how much the photographer works to palliate this effect; but every contemporary subject is more at ease around a phone. There’s no need to be quite so guarded. The cover of the book shows a man’s back, covered in sand which sticks to the skin; inside, this motif is repeated, where sand clings to a torso, and later, to the palm of a hand, its coarse grain mimicking the grain of the images’ own rough resolution. However, as long as we are taken in by the effect of informality, we are blind to the highly formalised meta-techniques peppering the work. At one stage, we see an image of Julio’s back, and spliced below it is a photograph of the phone as it takes that same image. Yet if we can see the phone taking the picture, that means another one must have taken the second frame which we are now looking at. In this way, Voleau is calling attention to the presence of the camera, to the making of the image, even where she appears to have adopted the very apparatus that would allow itself to go unnoticed. In another image, we see her and Julio together from a distance, appearing to meet one another on the beach. If the phone is on a self-timer, then the meeting is staged. Not all is as it seems.

When Voleau goes looking for Julio in town, shortly after they meet, she is conscious of the assumptions of those watching her. ‘I could feel people assumed I was looking for sex.’ She makes photographs of the time they spend time together; he tells her his friends ‘advised him to fuck [her].’ Overleaf is a gloriously sensual portrait of him reclining, naked, his eyes closed, his penis semi-erect. Across the page, his trousers rest on a stone wall, discarded in dappling light. What does the viewer assume? What do we read in images taken at such close quarters, and especially when sex has been explicitly discussed? Later on, however, Voleau again uses the text to remind us that nudity does not have to be code for anything in particular. She asks Dimas, another subject, if he minds being naked, and he replies in Spanish that perhaps she should get naked with him. The photograph occurred while she was clothed, then, and his question suggests he is yet to see her naked. The transaction is photographic, not sexual, even if the content of the photograph hints at the latter. Everywhere the photographs and text misdirect us, only to reveal themselves in a different direction later on.

The book explores the potency of the female gaze, or the potency of turning the male gaze back against itself. She takes these Dominican men, in this place where ‘clichés of toxic masculinity’ abound, and makes beautiful, voluptuous images of them. Beyond these facts, her relationship to them is unclear. Throughout the book, whenever she directly quotes her subjects, it is in Spanish. As such, their presence within the work is set at that slight distance from the reader (presumed to be English-speaking, given that the bulk of the narrative is written in English). We can see Voleau’s subjects better than we can understand them, and we can see them close enough to count the individual drops of seawater that still cling to their chests on the beach. Towards the end of the book, when she seems to establish perhaps the book’s only genuine romantic or sexual relationship, with Denichel, she quotes him in English when he tells her, ‘I want to hold you.’ It is as though the truthfulness of their connection has brought him into the main language of the work: he is given words the reader is sure to understand. The genuine connection is given the clearest portrayal, until their short relationship ends, too.

Though Voleau has said that she wants to ‘put on display the brutal loneliness of our times,’ the book does not read as evidence of loneliness. It reads rather as evidence of the ease with which a transactional relationship can be established, and how frequently the surface of a thing can be misread as its totality. The narrative construction experiments with the expectations of the men it portrays, as well as the expectations of the viewer. It asks: what do we look for when we see a selfie taken by an attractive young woman in the ocean, her arms around a man? Yet the work doesn’t seek to answer the questions it raises about the performance of desire, or the suggestiveness of its images, nor does it judge the viewer for perhaps making judgments of their own; it merely holds a mirror up, the glass distorted, the reflection warping. The actual substance of her relationships, throughout Hola Mi Amol, is barely relevant. Voleau is a bold narrator flicking towards us jewel-like images, as though they were bait, and waiting to reel us in.

All images courtesy of the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy Editions. © Karla Heraldo Voleau / ECAL, University of Art and Design Lausanne

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.

Janire Nájera

Atomic Ed

Book review by Alice Zoo

An envelope marked ‘SECRET’ falls out of Atomic Ed when the book is opened. Inside is an informational leaflet entitled ‘You and the ATOMIC BOMB: what to do in case of an atomic attack’. We are cautioned that “An entire city could be crippled temporarily by one bomb,” and “If you are above ground anywhere within three quarters of a mile from the air burst, you will have less than a 50-50 chance of survival.” We are told to roll towards a wall if no shelter is available, and to cover our heads from the heat and flash and radiation of an air burst. Despite the above, the leaflet positions itself as rational, empowering, even soothing: “If you are one of those who has said to yourself, “There is no defence against the atomic bomb,” the facts, as you will see, are otherwise.” Its inclusion within the project primes us, a contemporary audience living without such immediate fears, for the context that informs the work: the threat of annihilation, the gargantuan power wielded by governments and scientists in pockets of the world like Los Alamos, New Mexico. Janire Nájera immerses us within this context, and introduces us to one of the bomb’s fiercest opponents – whose moniker lends the book its title – Edward Bernard Grothus.

Nájera’s book project, published with Editorial RM, is the result of six years spent travelling to New Mexico and sorting through Ed’s archive, curated and presented here in the form of a remarkable narrative which makes up the first half of Atomic Ed. We meet Ed as a young man, rejected from the military on medical grounds, travelling through South America. The first images in the book interweave formal portraits of Ed’s parents with an image of him as an infant, the origin story of an understated hero. In one early image, he gazes out across a Rio de Janeiro skyline, hair slicked back. Soon after that photograph was taken, at the age of 26, he accepted a position as Machinist at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, helping to develop and refine the atomic bomb itself. At this point, the narrative skips and fractures: we see Ed much later in life, beaming, bobbing amongst a rally of people bearing signs announcing one of his favourite slogans: “One bomb is too many.” It is here that we meet him as he came to be known. Atomic Ed was a campaigner, a lifelong agitator against the atomic bomb, its consequences, and the brutal decisions made by those in power.

Following Ed’s archive and a collection of his correspondence, during which time we come to know and befriend him, we are presented for the first time with a series of Nájera’s own images. The Black Hole – so named because “everything seemed to go in but very little ever left” – was the shop Ed ran and curated. It sold assorted surplus material from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and acted as the hub of his political campaigning. After Ed’s death in 2009, no longer tended to with his obsessive care, the shop closed down and a sale occurred, designed to ensure that “as much stock as possible was owned by members of the community rather than being sold as scrap”. The Black Hole was a record of Ed’s meticulous attention to the cause, a rescuing of the materials that surrounded and populated his work; it was the physical embodiment of his enduring fixation. Nájera’s photo series documents a selection of these strange objects and materials, mostly unintelligible to the layperson when seen uncaptioned: gadgets and gewgaws with protruding wires, some sinister with symbols warning hazard, some seemingly benign (a box of phone handsets, books, a stack of graphite bricks).

The Grothus archive as arranged by Nájera is engaging and visually appealing. The vivid colours of childhood snaps counterpose uncomfortably beautiful photographs of bombs bursting on desert plains: a burst of white gold in the centre of a blue-tinged dawn sandscape, the billowing orange bouquet of a mushroom cloud, each enlarged from slides taken from the Los Alamos lab documentation of bomb tests and trials. The rhythm established is one of ordinary life running alongside immense powers of destruction, a precarious coexistence that is rarely confronted in the everyday. Running through this uneasy admixture of imagery is Ed’s voice, via the telegrams and letters he sent, at times righteous and rageful — “Stop waging war. Stop your stupid war.” — and at others hopeful: “We cannot put the genie back into the bottle but with abolition of nuclear bombs we could all be certain of a future”. The voice that emerges is chipper yet obstinate, that of a sincere person fired up by a cause. It is striking, then, following the warmth and energy of the letters and family snapshots, that Nájera’s still lives are so austere: photographed in stark black and white, against plain monochromatic backdrops, and removed from context so that the objects she portrays seem baldly alien. Like the atomic advice leaflet that acts as a kind of prologue, it bookends Ed’s archive with the foreboding nature of its theme, that of atomic capability, which in fact — of course — has not dissipated: we live in a world where countries consider it necessary to retain nuclear power for the morbid quasi-reassurance of mutually assured destruction, should it come to that.

It is refreshing to meet with a work so free of ego in a photographic landscape that, at times, feels increasingly preoccupied with ideas of authorship. The recontextualisation of an archive allows a pile of letters to become a work of art, and even of friendship: we feel the anger and resistance and determination of a person dedicated to a vast cause that didn’t dissipate after the administration of a particular ‘president’ or with the end of a war, but that was ongoing throughout his life, though the acuteness of its threat shifted and transformed. Nájera’s particular achievement with the archive is to draw out this determination at the same time as Ed’s winking sense of humour and charisma. It is this extraordinary levity in his dealings with such a doom-laden subject that makes Ed’s archive so beguiling: his rightful rage is tempered by the velvet glove of his sarcasm and flashing grin. A 1973 telegram to Nixon, for example: “I think it is so very nice that you won’t be able to kill, bomb, burn and destroy beyond August 15th.”

At the time of writing, London’s roads have been blockaded for several days by the Extinction Rebellion. Commuters have been incensed by the inconvenience. Media discussion of the protests veers between the urgent and the hopeless. (Ed was aware of climate threat, too: he said that “a solution to the energy problem, so necessary for survival after the easy energy has been consumed should become a widely, freely, and ardently discussed issue here in Los Alamos.”) It is, of course, impossible to quantify the impact of a single campaigner or campaign on colossal issues like climate change or atomic capability, but Ed’s case is instructive: agitating for a better life while not seeing immediate results does not have to be disillusioning, but instead can be a lifelong attitude. Refusal to kowtow to the status quo can be both fierce and joyful. In the portraits of Ed that feature in the book he is, invariably, smiling, white-haired and with a twinkle in his eye; his desk strewn with books, his shelves packed with atomic detritus, and in front of him, a sign that reads “The legendary ED GROTHUS.”

All images courtesy of the artist and Editorial RM. © Janire Nájera

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.

Louis Quail

Big Brother

Book review by Alice Zoo

An aptronym is a name that is amusingly suited to the person who wears it. For example: Justin Quail loves birds. A keen birdwatcher, he spent his adolescence hitching and twitching up and down from south England to Scotland, only to turn back again as soon as he’d seen and marked the bird he was searching for. But then: he also practices yoga and meditation, writes poetry, has a long-term girlfriend called Jackie, and is the subject of his brother, Louis’ debut book: Big Brother. Justin is an adult living with paranoid schizophrenia. As the photographs show, this condition is far from the whole story; like a name, one detail about a person can only reveal so much.

Louis Quail has spent the past eight years documenting Justin, the way he lives, his rhythms and his interests. The result is a book that sets out this study, interleaved with Justin’s own poems and artwork, dialogue between the two brothers, and inserts that range from birdwatching documentation, to social workers’ case notes and police reports. In one of the book’s few close-up portraits, a weary-eyed Justin looks up towards us from the end of a sofa. The colours are muted, and the light soft enough to give the image the gauzy effect of a painting: Justin, uncannily, resembles Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the age of 63, that famous picture of human frailty. His expression is gruff, tired, almost intolerant; it is rare that photography is able to capture this kind of gaze, or that a photographer has the requisite intimacy with their subject – the requisite boldness – to record it on film. Quail’s tones throughout, in fact, recall Dutch Golden Age paintings, with warm, brick-like reds and yellows often throbbing in the frame. The approach is dignifying: Quail’s project demonstrates, again and again, that his brother and his brother’s partner are important subjects, worthy of sustained representation.

Justin’s girlfriend Jackie is depicted throughout the project, not as an accessory to the narrative, but as a full-blooded subject in her own right: her home, her elaborate, carnivalesque make-up, her drinking, smoking, and her shared experience with schizophrenia. Together, Justin and Jackie almost resemble one another: their dishevelled ease in one another’s company, and their reciprocal tolerance of the other’s caprices. Their twenty-year relationship has caused problems for both of them, to the point that, more recently, Justin has been incarcerated for various altercations after Jackie has called the police. Despite this, Quail asserts that Big Brother, at heart, is a love story – a portrait of two people’s bond, their “need to love and be loved.” The book follows them as they go on holiday to visit Jackie’s family in Ireland, and pictures of the couple are interspersed with gorgeous natural vistas, clean air, and archive pictures of Jackie as a young girl.

Photographers often turn to their families to make work, and projects documenting mental illness or personal strife are not uncommon. When making work of this nature, there can be a danger of falling too close to one of two poles: exploitative at the one end, or overly gentle or romanticising at the other. Quail is at risk of neither. The project is deeply tender and respectful, whilst at the same time presenting the chaos of his brother’s health without flinching or sensationalism. One image, for example, depicts Justin’s flat, the floor invisible beneath clothes, papers, other detritus. It takes a while, or a glance at the caption, to realise that Justin is there too, on the bed, his face obscured by a book he’s reading. He’s a part of the mess, which seems to grow out of him. An image that could be shocking instead becomes a picture of a person at leisure, surrounded by their environment. It is still disquieting, but the picture is anchored in a sense of reality and of personhood. A picture of Justin’s feet, each one wearing a different shoe, strikes the same careful balance: it is funny, sad, tender.

One reason for Quail’s documentary assuredness is his regret that he hadn’t photographed his mother, who also had schizophrenia, before she passed away in 2010. Photography throws up questions about power dynamics and vulnerability. Is it right to photograph somebody whose boundaries are blurred, who might, at times, be unsure of what they are consenting to? Ultimately, Quail explains that he is now “inclined to think that being ignored is worse than being intruded upon.” And what function does ignorance serve, in any case? Only a society that turns away from those who don’t meet its expectations, that gathers them all in a monolith of non-functionality. Besides, Big Brother is a collaborative work. The book is peppered with Justin’s commentary on the images; his consent, input, and active engagement are writ large, not least in the inclusion of his own artwork: watercolours and pencil drawings of himself, the birds he loves, a man who had him arrested. And Justin instigates boundaries where necessary. At one point, he won’t reveal the age he lost his virginity, “cos it’ll end up in the book.” In all these ways, Quail walks a confidently sensitive line throughout.

Another of the great successes of the work is its sense of humour. Quail’s inclusion of his own voice, in dialogue with Justin and Jackie, is indicative of the good-natured kind of teasing common to any sibling relationship. At one point, Justin describes being “good at the lottery,” having won £5 from £20 worth of scratch cards. Louis responds: “That’s not really that good though is it, Justin?” The photographs often have the same lightness of touch. In a picture at the doctor’s, Justin’s hands are over his face; we take in the quiet drama of the scene for a moment, before we notice that a small top hat is perched on the table next to him, unexplained.

The book moves neatly through Justin’s childhood and adolescence, to the revelation of his mental illness, then his hobbies, his relationship, a holiday, and the crisis point of his self-harm and string of arrests. At times, I wonder if the structure is too neat; if it leans too close to the temptation to narrativise a life which is still ongoing, to organise it into some kind of arc. One thing that Justin’s story demonstrates is how chaotic life can be, how hard it is to make it fall into a pattern – mental health conditions aside – and I wonder if the structure of the book might be strengthened if it reflected this, if it were less straightforward. Despite the tidiness of its storied presentation, though, it is not simplistic: it doesn’t suggest easy answers to the governmental and structural failures that worsen or problematise the lives of people like Justin and Jackie, instead provoking questions about the ways we discuss mental illness, support for the vulnerable, and the balance to be struck between ‘care and control,’ as Quail puts it in the epilogue.

We’re told the book is a love story. Quail depicts his brother’s love for his girlfriend, for his health, for the birds he watches, for nature. All of these things, heaped together over time by the camera, tell us so much more than Justin’s name or his diagnosis could; years spent together coalesce into a rich and aptly fragmentary story of a person in his fullness. However, one thing to which Quail does not draw explicit attention, and which is, perhaps, the most striking kind of love of all, is that fraternal love evidenced by the photographer’s documentation itself. Quail’s concern for his brother, and his dedication – not only to Justin’s support and survival but his enjoyment of life, his ability to live well and fully, and his wish to tell his story – underwrite the narrative. All the while, Quail is there, watching over him. In the last photograph in the book, Justin strides out across a field with his binoculars, hunting for a glimpse of the birds he loves so much, and reaches a hand out behind him for Jackie, who follows him. A short way back, Quail is there too, taking pictures of it all, committing the life of his brother to film, and saving it up for this labour of love: a book.

All images courtesy of the artist and Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Louis Quail

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.