In Conversation with Adriana Zehbrauskas

Adriana Zehbrauskas was a recipient of the inaugural Getty Images Instagram Grant in 2015, which has supported her long-term project “Family Matters.” The project documents the families affected by the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero, Mexico, in 2014. Adriana is a speaker at the Alexia Foundation’s Latin America: Stories That Drive Change Seminar at The University of Miami this weekend.

Nichole Sobecki: Does the democratizing nature of social media outlets like Instagram influence our understanding of the world? Does it simply add to the noise, or can it be a platform for underrepresented stories and communities?

Adriana Zehbrauskas: I want to believe it does have the power to influence our understanding of the world, and it is definitely a platform for stories on underrepresented communities. Yes, there are billions of images out there now, more than ever. The trick is knowing how to cut through the noise and choose your sources. But isn’t it the same as everything else? There’s also a lot of bad music, bad movies and bad literature out there — there will always be! And that is why I am so careful with my social media and the work I post there. It follows the exact same ethical principles I apply to my assignment work. We were never as close to our audience as we are now, and that is a huge responsibility.

Photographs from Adriana Zehbrauskas’ personal projects and assignment work from her Instagram account.

NS: How did your relationship with Instagram as a platform to share images evolve? What purpose does it serve for your photography both personally and professionally?
AZ: To be very honest, when I started using Instagram I didn’t really know what it was exactly, or what I wanted to do with it. It just seemed like a good place to upload the photos I had been shooting with my phone. I didn’t have any rules — I just posted whenever I felt I had something interesting. It was a very personal space and it was incredibly liberating.

It then kind of took a life of it’s own, evolving from that more private, diary-like feed to a place where I was uploading, almost in real time, images from assignments I was working on. My career was always a mix of assignment and personal work — they coexist and feed from each other. In this sense, Instagram is a perfect place to showcase a more personal view of the stories I’m covering; it allows me a creative freedom I can only find when I’m working on my personal projects.

NS: How do you balance the personal projects you’re so known for with assignments for clients?

AZ: There’s no such thing as a perfect balance. If you’re too busy with assignment work you don’t have time for your personal project, and if you have time for your personal project it is either because you’re turning down work, or you don’t have enough work. And both mean less income and more expenses.

So, it is really a matter of deciding when to stop with one and start with the other, and that is a very personal choice. It has to do with how you want to direct your career, how you want to live your life and what are your commitments. Do you need to pay the rent? Pay school for your kids? Does someone else depend on you financially? It’s not the same answer for everyone because people lead different lives and what works for one photographer most of the time does not work for another. I do, however, tend to work on projects that do not require insane travel logistics, or too much money, or too much time at once.

Clockwise from top left: 1. “Pictures of Alexander Mora Venacio at the entrance of his father’s house in El Perico—n, Guerrero. Alexander was the first of the 43 missing students to be officially identified. His remains were found at the Cocula dump trash and sent to Austria.” 2. “Saena Mora Venacio, 18, the youngest of Alexander’s 7 siblings during his mourning their family house in El Perico—n, Guerrero. Alexander Mora Venancio was the first of the 43 missing students to be officially identified. His body was recovered from the trash dump in Cocula and the remains sent to Austria.” 3. “The mourning of Alexander Mora Venancio, first one of the 43 missing students to be officially identified in his father’s house in El Peric—on, Guerrero.” Photographs from Adriana Zehbrauskas’ project, “Guerrero, Rage and Sorrow,” photographed for The New York Times.

NS: What inspired your project Family Matters?

AZ: This project started in 2015 while I was covering the story of the 43 students from a rural teachers’ school that disappeared in Guerrero, Mexico, on Sept 26, 2014. While working closely with those families I noticed that the vast majority of them had no printed photos of their loved ones. I thought about what a paradox it was that in this age, where there has never been more images produced, less and less images are being printed. All of them mentioned they had taken photos or videos on their phones, but they were gone when those phones were replaced, lost or stolen.

NS: I’ve heard you say before that what struck you in this situation was that they’d lost their loved ones twice. Could you explain what this means?

AZ: Mexico is a country where thousands of people go missing. More than 27,000 people remain missing or disappeared, according to Amnesty International, and in 2014 alone there were a record 6,000 disappearances. But also I felt like people were disappearing twice, first from life itself, and then from the memory of those who knew them. Not only had their futures been stolen from them, but a memory of their past was also doomed to disappear. The families rarely had photographs of their loved ones, and they had little to remember them by. A missing or broken phone signified the erasure of that record forever. And who are we without our memories?

Clockwise from top left: 1. “Rosalinda and her daughter Samantha were both dressed in purple. It was a huge surprise to me to find out that for most of them this was the first time they were ever photographed. They were very patient.” 2. “Don Gerardo first came with his wife to have his portrait made. While waiting for his print, he mentioned his horse and how beautiful he was, with his blonde hair…he asked if he could bring him for a portrait too. ‘Of course,’ I said. I photographed him and Guero and when he saw the picture he said: ‘What a beautiful horse! I will save this to show it to my grandson, so he will know what a wonderful friend I had.’” "3. “Ceriflora and daughter Flor posing for a portrait in Huehuetonoc, Guerrero. The Amuzgo people are an indigenous group that lives in the region along the Guerrero/Oaxaca state border. They maintain much of their language and dress and are known for their complicated handwoven textiles. It is a very poor area with an economy mostly dependent on subsistence agriculture and handcraft production. Most of the people I photographed had never had their picture taken before.” 4. “Daila and Elsa. It is normal, when photographing children that they look at the camera and smile, like it’s natural reaction to the camera pointed at them. Not them. They were serious and I did not ask them to smile.” Photographs from Adriana Zehbrauskas’ project, “Family Matters.”

NS: So much of our experience with images today is digital. How did families respond when you handed them printed copies of their portraits? Did the change in form from digital to print change the meaning of the image?

AZ: I think it did change the meaning, and the whole experience of posing for me. Since I was printing in front of them they could see it and knew they were going home with something. Only a few wanted to pose in the beginning, but after they saw the photos coming to life, that changed completely. For many, it was the first time they ever posed for a portrait or owned a physical photograph.

A video by Arin Pereira Farrington of Adriana Zehbrauskas working on her project, “Family Matters.”

NS: A theme running through much of your work is the relationship between memory and identity, and how photography can influence that. I’d love to know more about what this means to you.

AZ: Family portraits and how much of our identity they represent has always fascinated me. The story told by posed portraits of the family is one of change over time. Family groups look different at different times, which tells a story about where and how we live. Maybe through them we try to assert that in a world of constant change and inevitable loss, there are things that time has no right to destroy. Perhaps our need for these pictures is rooted in our spiritual beliefs or in our conviction that life isn’t simply a series of physical impulses that cease to have any meaning the minute they stop. 
NS: Reflecting on your own memories, I’ve read that your father was a journalist as well. How did that influence your career path, and perhaps also your exploration of family and faith within your own work?

AZ: Since I was a kid my father would send me for the Sunday newspaper. I loved how big and heavy it was and the smell of ink. I would spend the day in my room going through it and clipping stories I found interesting. Then I would write words in a notebook, my words collection. I went into journalism school to be a writer and it was only in the last year that I realized it was photography I wanted. I wanted to be a photojournalist — to my father’s despair, who thought I was going to starve!

Clockwise from top left: 1. “Dia de los Muertos: girls in a cemetery in Patzcuaro, Michoacan. Mexicans celebrate the day of the dead like no other culture — family and friends gather to remember and pray for their deceased, bringing them flowers, offering their favorite food and lighting candles to illuminate their way.” 2. “Life behind bars — a hair salon in Choloma. Violence is so rampant here you won’t see anyone out after 6 pm. Poverty has not changed significantly in Honduras over the past decade. In 2013 64.5% of Honduran households were in poverty conditions and 42.6% in extreme poverty. Although poverty is higher in rural areas, also in urban area reaches more than half of the households (60.4% urban and 68.5% rural). Poverty and inequality indicators show the structural condition of vulnerability that affects much of the Honduran population and limits their opportunities to access services and capacity development.” 3. “V.,17, a migrant from Honduras, looks in the mirror after taking a shower at a shelter in Veracruz. Like many others, she is trying to escape the hopelessness of her native country.” Photos by Adriana Zehbrauskas

NS: What photographers, or other artists, have most influenced your vision?

AZ: My inspiration comes from movies, music, books, paintings: they feed my soul. It’s an internal data bank that I reach for constantly. The creative process is very intuitive, but I’m always looking for graphic elements and the right light that will help me compose the picture. David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, Ingmar Bergman, Gustavo Santaolalla, Gabriel García Márquez and Vermeer are especially important to me. That said, some photographers have had a lot of influence as well, such as Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Diane Arbus, Miguel Rio Branco and Alex Webb.

NS: For young photographers trying to build a career today, what would be the one piece of advice you’d share?

AZ: Be curious, work a lot, and don’t give up. But most of all, be true to yourself. There will be many times along the way that you’ll have to remind yourself why in the world you do this. And if the answer is ego related — awards, fame, and glamour — I guarantee you will not last.

Adriana Zehbrauskas is a Brazilian photographer based in Mexico City and a contributor to Everyday Latin America and Hikari Creative. To see more of Adriana’s work, follow her on Instagram @AdrianaZehbrauskas. Nichole Sobecki is a multimedia journalist based in Kenya and is a contributor to Everyday Africa. Follow Nichole on Instagram @NicholeSobecki.