Bego Anton wanted to be a writer before she became a photographer. Perhaps that’s why her work is enveloped in a fine narrative that plays with fantasy and reality. Begito Antón (Bilbao, Spain, 1983) takes photos like someone who writes children stories. Interestingly, she also wanted to be a war correspondent. While little remains of those first vocations, her work still reflects a certain desire to “map out her territory” and take risks in terms of the themes she deals with, presenting the spectator with a dilemma about what is real and what is not. In 2014 she received the PHotoEspaña Discoveries Award; in 2016 the Second Prize Istanbul Photo Awards Singles and in 2017 the PHotoEspaña Revelation Award.
Q.(A.F)- You studied journalism. What led you to photography?
A.(B.A)- Yes. I actually wanted to write fiction, but during my degree I unlearned how to write, because from the very first instance everything was rigidly based on the “what”, “how”, “when” and why”. So all my potential for creativity was ruined. There was a time when I wanted to be a war correspondent. But in Barcelona I decided to do a photography course, and that was when I took the plunge. I started with a style and methodology which is very different to the one I have now, it was really photojournalistic.
Q- It’s interesting because your photos haven’t lost that tension with documentary photography, but you allow yourself a kind of artistic license that moves you away from that.
A- The important thing when you take photos is to not limit yourself and create based on the needs of each project. I came from a world full of limitations, it was clear that there was no place for me there.
Q- When did you first professionalise your practice?
A- While I was in Barcelona I combined various courses and gave extracurricular English classes to children. My family really supported me to help me take the risk and change my career. I started to focus on taking photos more seriously. It cost me a lot. I spent a long time pursuing photography, doing projects, figuring out how to subsidise them.
Q- What was the first project that really established you as a photographer?
A- I think it was Butterfly days. When I took them to get developed I thought, “I like this”. I felt like I really understood myself more.
Q- How would you define what you do?
A- My work revolves around a love triangle between nature, human beings and animals. Those three elements don’t always have to be present in my work, but there are always at least two. I like to tell stories that talk about this love, both in a positive light and in moments of crisis. I also like to work with communities that have strange tastes, and I mean strange in the best sense of the word. For me they are an example of strength. I’m interested in these groups of people who come together to practise their beliefs and traditions. My work addresses the fragile line that separates the real and the imaginary. Magic realism has always fascinated me. I like to depict stories that encompass all of these elements.
Q- There is something specific in your work that interests me a lot, which is the relationship you portray between humans and animals. Recently, animals have played a far greater role in our lives (everyone has a pet, people are increasingly becoming vegan or vegetarian, animalism is booming, etc…) What do you understand our relationship with animals to be like?
A- I think our relationship with animals is full of contradictions. We eat animals but at the same time we believe that they have the right to exist. What I do is explore this duplicity and these kinds of issues from a new perspective. For example, in Everybody loves to Chachachá what interested me was the desire and determination people have to humanise animals, which is a need the animals don’t share. I realised that we adopt animal attitudes in order to relate to these creatures, we basically animalise ourselves. I also realised that despite all the contradictions, human beings don’t always act with bad intention. But in any case, I’m interested in loving relationships, not relationships full of hate. Another key characteristic of my work is the cheerfulness and positivity the photos exude. I like to make people smile, but not from a place of paternal or maternal authority, but from a place of empathy towards something which might be considered “strange” by society.
Q- I think this search for empathy is seen across all your projects. There is no freakishness, no exotic construction of the “other”. How did you create Everybody loves to Chachacha? What was your process?
A- I always try to portray subjects that are not typically photographed. I was given an artistic residence in ICPS in New York and I saw a video of Carolyn Scott dancing to Greece with her dog and that was when I started to dig deeper into this animal world. On the internet I discovered that there was a collective of women who all danced with their dogs. I got in contact with different associations and the truth is it was extremely easy. The women were really used to doing performances because they even compete. They’re really comfortable with people approaching them during the performances and being filmed, etc.
Q- The relationship between choreography and image is really interesting. How did you deal with it in your work?
A- Before I went I thought, how can I show that a dog and a human are dancing in a still image? How do I suggest this visually? I searched for references in musicals from the 50s and 60s. In the end I decided to photograph in three different parts: taking photos of the dance steps, the still lifes (the objects that surround the women) and also capturing the love between the owners and their dogs. I made these three types of images. But I also needed to show the movement, so I made a video documentary and created gifs. Without them, the photos felt quite cold.
Q- Yes and that sense of empathy and joy is clearly seen in the series. The spectator doesn’t judge what he or she is looking at.
A- As a photographer I felt a lot of responsibility when shooting this series. If I wasn’t careful, I would run the risk of portraying the women in a way I really didn’t want to. After they had kindly opened their houses and shared their private spaces with me, the last thing I could do was depict their world in a pessimistic or unpleasant way. As photographers we have an enormous responsibility when it comes to taking photos, because taking photos in itself is already a selfish act. In my opinion these women are heroes. There are people who ask, “are they crazy?”, “are they lonely?”, “what’s wrong with them?”, “don’t they have any kids?”. Well, nothing’s wrong with them: they’re simply having fun.
Q- Yes, because of their gender, the project could provoke rather unfair judgement on the part of the spectator. They are doing something out of desire and for pure self-enjoyment, which is supposedly “unproductive” or “unuseful”. It could definitely spark some questions from the patriarchy.
A- Yes, also, it’s always men who ask those questions.
Q- Before we spoke about the cheerfulness of your work. However, in Lady Winter, I notice a certain touch of sadness.
A- I believe that was intentional. That’s how I saw winter in Iceland. I wanted to live a “typical winter”. The streets were deserted. The title of the series itself (Lady Winter) alludes to that nostalgia, I couldn’t add fun to what I was seeing. I think all of that is reflected in the series. But then I also found out that there were elves, and that’s when I started the series The earth is only a Little dust under our feet.
Q- That series brings me to another characteristic aspect of your work: how magic and reality coexist. And it doesn’t involve making fantastical scenes, but instead portraying how some of the unreal or imaginary elements exist within the very world that we know.
A- Yes. When I talked to people in Iceland and they spoke to me about the elves, I realised that it wasn’t only a “belief”. They really do see these beings! That’s what brought me to the real idea behind the series. If it’s true or not that these people can see elves, I don’t care. What I believe is that they are telling me the truth. If it’s just part of their imagination, I don’t care. Why is it weird to believe in elves but normal to believe in God?
Q- And how did you portray that in your photos?
A- Above all using colour. Many of these people who have the ability to see elves, or these beings that we call “mythological”, can see their aura. I decided to appropriate this ability myself and do experiments with my camera. That’s why there’s so much colour. To me it suggests there is an invisible force that we cannot see.
Q- Do you think your interest in nature has something to do with the fact you grew up in the Basque Country?
A- Yes, I believe so. All of my childhood was spent going to the mountain or fishing with my dad by the cliffs. For me, nature plays a fundamental part in my life and work. In fact, I don’t think I know how to take photos in the city. I need nature.
Q-. This interest in the natural world reappears in your most recent project, Haiek Danak Sorginak-All Of Them Witches.
A- Yeah, after travelling so much I needed to come home. I wanted to take photos of my own country. The subject of witches had haunted me for a long time. We have a really mythologised, inaccurate idea about them. I wanted to remember and honour these women who had been reviled. Witches form part of Basque mythology, and they’re even sold as little figurines, which is another way of objectifying them. And also a way of forgetting that they were in fact women who died at the stake. It seems atrocious to me. I’m interested in depicting what really happened. It’s difficult because the texts that remain are written by inquisitors, taken during the testimonies of tortured women, so there’s already an enormous difficulty there. We don’t know the reality of what those women lived through. But despite that, I decided to stick with it. Using those confessions what I do is recreate their image and specific stories. I also think it’s important to provide the real names and surnames of these women because what is strange about witchcraft is that we have this seriously ambiguous and depersonalised idea of who they were. But if you humanise witches, you can empathise more with them. Take Margarita Jáure ugito, tacito, for example, who was forgiven for being a witch, but she ended up killing herself because she couldn’t stand the harassment she received in her village.
I also focus on the more fanciful aspect of witchcraft – like the flying. And also the cruder parts: dying at the stake, or the torturing that was carried out by the women’s own neighbours.
Q- It’s funny how the Church replaced all these other forms of spirituality with a single, male god.
A- Yes. The Basque Country was a really pagan place and the people had a close relationship with nature, but the witch hunt was so strong that it erased that link. All of the recipes that were made by the healers, for example, have been lost. The healers were considered a threat by the doctors back then because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to practice medicine and that people would turn to the women before coming to them. The way to eliminate those healer’s practices, therefore, was to accuse the women of witchcraft and take full control over childbirth and medicine in general. It was a very clear persecution of women, of paganism, and of the relationship the Basque Country had with its surroundings and nature. So my intention with this project is to return to the forest: that’s why the images are so green, so rainy, and full of such abundant vegetation.
6 November 2020