The Surreal World of Viviana Peretti

ABOUT VIVIANA

I am an Italian freelance photographer based in New York where in 2010 I graduated in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism from the International Center of Photography. In 2000, after graduating Magna Cum Laude with a BA in Anthropology from the University of Rome, I moved to Colombia where I specialized in photojournalism and spent nine years working as a freelance photographer.

I have received fellowships and awards from the International Center of Photography, CNN, the Fondation Bruni-Sarkozy in France, FotoVisura, Sony, the World Photography Organization in London, the Spanish Embassy in Colombia, and the Colombian Ministry of Culture. In 2010 I have been selected for the Eddie Adams Workshop. In 2013-2014 I have been an Artist-in-Residence at L’École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles. In 2014 I have been elected Photographer of the Year in the Sony World Photography Awards’ Arts & Culture category for my series Dancing Like a Woman. My work has been published in a number of international media outlets including The New York Times, Newsweek, BBC, CNN, L’Oeil de la Photographie, New York Magazine, and L’Espresso.

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Use a word to describe your photography:

Surreal

You grew up in Italy, lived in Colombia and now you are based in New York. What is the place/city that inspired you the most?

I left Italy when I was 28 and moved to Colombia, but I re-discovered photographically Rome and Bogota only during the last years, after spending four years in NY. I found Rome – a place that I never loved – really inspiring as a photographer, the same I can say about Bogota. Probably the place that I loved the most and enjoyed the most during the last years was Marseille, an incredible, radieuse city that I photographed during the Winter 2013-2014.

How did your style change from when you started taking photos until your last project?

I tried to develop a personal vision and to photograph what inspires me in the way that makes sense to me. It is never a conscious process, but just my way to see and frame the world without too much reflection or planning. I like to follow my instinct rather than a script. I don’t agree with the formula that establishes that in order to ‘tell’ a story we need some standard/typical shots. I think those kind of formulas are the ones that make many photographs to look the same, also if they try to show different stories shot in different places. I think my style changed a lot since my beginnings in 2000, because I worked a lot (especially in the last five years) and that helped me to develop a different, more personal vision. 

Congratulations, You just won the Sony World Photography Award – Arts and Culture, with the project “Dancing like a Woman”. Did you expect the success?

It was a great surprise, something I was not expecting at all. I knew that the story ‘Dancing Like a Woman’ was exceptional for its subject and also for the way it has been shot. But I also knew that there is a lot of stigma around stories that show transgender issues and many media that I reached months ago to pitch the story didn’t show a lot of interest. So, to be selected between the finalists and to win the category was a great surprise.

SONY PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS – PROGRAMME POSTER PHOTO BY VIVIANA PERETTI
SONY PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS – PROGRAMME POSTER PHOTO BY VIVIANA PERETTI

Tell us something about the series “Dancing like a Woman”

The series ‘Dancing Like a Woman’ was shot at the National Bambuco Gay Pageant celebrated in July 2013 in Bogota, Colombia. During the contest, young drag queens challenge each other wearing traditional Colombian clothes and dancing the bambuco, a regional, folkloric, ‘religious related’ dance of the Andes, characterized by the elegance of its movements and precious dresses.

The theme of bambuco is love. The process of falling in love and courting in the rural society is expressed through the dance. The movements of man are discreet, serene, cheerful and masculine; the woman is shy but dances with joy and finesse. Man and woman are stimulated by viewers who scream with excitement increasing every time the tension, agility and speed of the movements, making the loving game more attractive and interesting, both for those who dance it as to those who observe it.

Generally, in the bambuco man leads woman, but at the National Bambuco Gay Pageant women are drag queens. Most of them come from Huila, a region in Southern Colombia, where the folk dance is originally from and where there is a big tradition around the bambuco that children learn at school and from their relatives at home. As kids, these drag queens have learned the male movements of bambuco, but now as adults they perform the female role.

In the last years, I had photographed Colombian drag queens that gather and have their make up done by Linda Lucía Callejas at Casa de Reinas in Bogota. Linda Lucía is a famous Colombian drag queens that turned her house in Chapinero – the gay district of Bogota – into a beauty salon where young Colombian men come from different regions of the country in order to learn the secrets about being a drag queen (how to walk, dress, perform, etc.) and to have their make up done by Linda Lucía. One night in July 2013, I went to Casa de Reinas with the idea to keep photographing drag queens during their make up section and I discovered that the drag queens were coming from Huila with all their elaborated dresses to challenge each other at the National Bambuco Gay Pageant that took place the same night at Leo’s bar, a gay nightclub in Chapinero. I was lucky, I was not familiar with the Bambuco Gay Pageant and I was just transported and inspired by the exceptionality of the events.

Homophobia and hate crimes are still a problem for Colombia’s LGBT community, many of whom seek refuge in the country’s bigger cities, like Bogota, Cali, and Medellin, in order to live their lives more freely. And while gay marriage is technically permitted in Colombia, homosexual couples have faced opposition from conservative groups. Events like the National Bambuco Gay Pageant are intended to build respect and tolerance for Colombia’s LGBT community.

“Surreal Rome”

In Rome, my city, the ancient and the modern combine cruelly to create a new urban reality that is no longer eternal and ‘divine’. It is a surreal space far from the glorious and mythical image many have of the capital.
The whole series was shot in 2013 using an Holga and an Isolette camera.

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Viviana Peretti – Self Portrait

What’s next for you now?

I will spend the Summer in New York printing a new portfolio of silver gelatin prints. At the beginning of 2015 I will be again in France for an artist residency in Cassis, near Marseille where I will put together a book about the Mediterranean city.

You’ve studied at the International Center of Photography. Did you have a teacher that “inspired” you in particular or had an important role in your growth as a photographer?

I loved meeting and working as a teaching assistant with Jeff Jacobson, an incredible photographer and amazing teacher that encouraged me to shape my vision and think about single shots rather than thinking about projects. 

“Analogue photography still has a magic that I don’t find in digital photography.”

From the series "Gloomy Bogota" © Viviana Peretti
From the series “Gloomy Bogota” © Viviana Peretti

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What do you treasure the most of your experience in NYC?

It was a great experience that challenges me on a personal and professional level. Five years spent working with an incredible intensity and being exposed to the diversity, energy and inhumanity of the city. At the moment, I treasure the possibility to use ICP’s facilities in order to produce my work (to develop, scan, and print silver gelatin prints). 

You mainly shoot film. Do you always develop and print your photos? What role has it played in your career?

I love black and white photography and I enjoy spending hours developing my films or printing in the darkroom rather than being sit in front of my computer to print digitally. Analogue photography still has a magic that I don’t find in digital photography. Also when I use my Iphone I shoot a lot with Hipstamatic using filters that in some way emulate old fashion photography, tintype and other ‘weird’ analogue processes. In the past two years I shot most of my street photography using a Holga camera. I like analogue photography because in some way slows me down and gives me the time to think about what I am doing. However, I honestly don’t think the medium matters. What matters it is if we still have something to say and if we have a peculiar and original way to say it. I think too much debate is about the medium and too little about what and how to say things. Often we see a lot of images full of content and with a total lack of form and aesthetic. I believe that, being photography a visual medium, it will be amazing if we could stop to talk about what medium to use (analogue versus digital) and would start questioning ourselves about our visual language and aesthetic.

Your work has been published in many international publications. Have you worked with one that you particularly enjoyed? 

I loved to work with The New York Times, something I would never expected when I started in photography. I also really enjoyed working with Newsweek to a story about a Drag Queens Pageant in Bogota. The article was published two days before Christmas and it was really incredible to see how we were able to put it together in few days and with me living in France and dealing with different time zone with the newsroom in New York.

Infierno Paradisiaco” it’s a beautiful color series you’ve shot in Colombia. You’ve gone through some adventures to capture those images…

From 2007 to 2009 I photographed Colombian cemeteries as a visual testimony of what a civil war long more than sixty years has left in the conscience of people that cohabit with a level of violence that many in the world would consider unacceptable. The mystic aura surrounding cemeteries in Colombia melts away, making space for a cumbersome reality. It seems as if between the land of the living and the dead there is no separation, the separation perceived in the U.S. and Europe. In Colombia, where death is on the daily agenda and people seem resigned to their dispossessed destiny, each of the two lands is dominated by an absolute, maddening and surrealistic lack of rules.
It took me three years to cover almost all the regions of Colombia. It was an incredible journey; a professional and personal one where I discovered one more time the injustice and the dramatic beauty of an incredible unequal country. It was also a very stressful and sometimes dangerous journey where I finally realized how far many Colombian areas are from legality or justice. Entire regions of the country are dominated and controlled by the paramilitaries or the guerrillas, often with the criminal complicity of the national army. More than one time I came really close to be in trouble but fortunately it never happened something really dramatic.

Who’s a contemporary photographer that you look up to the most and follow?

I really like what Trent Parke did years ago in Australia before starting to photograph in color. I love his series The Seventh Wave, Minutes to Midnight, Dream/Life. I generally don’t follow any photographer specifically, also if I try to keep an eye on what media are publishing around the world.

What would you be today if you didn’t follow your dreams of becoming a photographer?

Probably I would be an anthropologist working at the University and doing investigations in different countries in South and Central America.

Use a word to describe yourself.

I am tenacious and brutally honest.

What’s the favorite photo you took?

There are many. I love street photography and I really like what I did on the streets of New York, Bogota, Rome and Marseille. I think I have my favorite photographs from each city.

“I believe being a photographer is just my way to be in the world … mostly is not just what I do but who I am.”

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NEW YORK ©VIVIANA PERETTI