In Conversation: JM Ramirez-Suassi

JM Ramírez-Suassi (1970) was born in Mallorca (Spain) and now lives and works in Madrid. His photographs, which at first sight appear to fit seamlessly into the great nowhere, involve many visits to the same landscapes to observe the change year after year. His work occupies an ambiguous position somewhere between portraiture and social landscape. He published the photobook One Eyed Ulysses in 2018. He is self-taught.

One Eyed Ulysses proposes a meandering voyage where solitude, melancholy, and encounters with death and nature in marginal settings run through. The aim of this book of photos is not to document a specific epoch, but rather to sum up human experience so that we may contemplate its images on an equal plane and from the same viewpoint from which we observe them.

MK: How did your project One Eyed Ulysses begin? Did you conceive of it as a book from the beginning?

JMRS: Yes, it was originally conceived as a book. I consider the photobook in general as a sort of essay where the photographer can work from his own experience of life and construct a universe of complex and polyhedral images. What I find interesting is “narrating” this complexity, this complexity of an alien and fragmented world, not only by showing aesthetic situations, but also vital ones, not only artistic but human ones. Perhaps one simplifies everything in the attempt to organize the world which surrounds us, external and internal. And a photobook is a powerful construction…I abandoned writing years ago and now only write for myself, but literature is still my main source of inspiration. I mention this because the making of OEU wasn’t so different from writing a novel or a short story: I had the beginning and the end, what occurred in between was a path that outlined my own personality. That’s why I think it is easy, for instance, to relate the first image to the last, the second image to the penultimate one. For example, in the first picture we see crows flying in an open sky, whereas the last one which is the end of the voyage, the sky is reflected in the glass of tall buildings, as if it could not have been otherwise, as if the sky, the source of light, were a distortion, or hyper distortion of reality. Isn’t this what photography does best?

MK: How important is the book-form to One Eyed Ulysses? Each image is quite striking on itʼs own, but the sequence does a great job at asking questions and creating juxtapositions/ connections. It also helps paint a very atmospheric, almost mythic world. Do you feel the sequence is a critical facet to your project? What is your process of sequencing?

JMRS: Of course, as I just mentioned, juxtapositions and connections exist…I am now working on a new book. A series of photos made in Brazil. I consider a photographer to be a moving window, that’s why the first picture in the book will be that of a window. It is the window of dreams, those to come and those that will never be. It is a misty image, worrying and dreamlike, taken at the dawn of a new day. Deciding on the first and last photograph is very important for me. But I must mention that in the process described previously, chance plays an indispensable part. Chance is an important configurative element. Nothing has as much influence on the resulting image as chance. But this influence doesn’t invalidate the importance of the preparative work. Even though chance is there, work has to be done so that the result looks like what you imagined. Of course, every image has to tell its own story according to the individual observer. That is why I don’t usually like explanative texts. In the end, each image looks to establish itself in relation to what surrounds it, they find their particular atmosphere and do not need words. The sequencing comes later when chance has had its say and all the pictures have been processed. That is also a complex task.

MK: Publishing a photography book can be very difficult and costly. Especially a photobook as beautiful and polished as yours. This is clearly a work of great passion and Its an object which feels good to physically hold in your hands. It seems as though you didnʼt compromise on quality at all. Could you describe your experience of publishing the book with NOW.

JMRS: It is very expensive. In my case, I have to find financial backing. To find people who find my work interesting, in exchange for some photos of the book. Self-publishing allows me to control the whole process of editing, whose quality is of paramount importance to me. I control the layout, printing, size of edition, in other words, everything which might convert the book into an object of desire, or not. Who knows? In any case, I am as passionate about the taking of the photographs as I am in the editing. I cannot conceive of any other way.

MK: Every photograph in the book is vertical. I love the way vertical photographs look on a page. Why are you attracted to this format?

JMRS: It is the classic portrait format. I like it because I try to give expression not only to my subjects but also to the landscape and everything I find interesting. There is no difference at all for me, between a landscape and a portrait. I try to give all the photos the same emotional relevance.

MK: What is your relationship with analog film?

JMRS: Do you not have the feeling that the digital lacks solidity, that it’s all smoke? I do. When I hold a negative or a large format plate, I feel the same as when I go to my father’s vegetable garden and pick some tomatoes straight from the plant. I can smell, touch and feel. With digital, I do no have these sensations. But for me, an important factor is the surprise element inherent in film. I’ve had both pleasant and unpleasant surprises and the wait is always thrilling.

MK: There is not a lot of written or contextual material in your book. How important is the element of mystery in photography?

JMRS: Right. NOW Photobooks is an acronym of No Words, I think that that says it all. Good photos always challenge us to look and think in different ways. There are images that to me seem very mysterious and hypnotic, others, on the other hand, don’t seem to say anything. But maybe in photography, it is more important to suggest than to say. I would go so far as to say that it is more important to hide than to reveal. In that sense, I think that in OEU the mystery is as much a thematic element as it is a formal one, and that’s what creates its unity.

MK: Madrid comes through in your work as a place both complicated and beautiful. Has the act of documenting your city changed the way you perceive it? Do you consider One Eyed Ulysses “Documentary photography”?

JMRS: Yes, I perceived and look at it another way. But I think it would be the same in any other city in the world. It’s probably a professional defect more than anything… To photograph one only needs two things: intuition and an obsessive vision. When you combine these two elements, sooner or later the images should appear. But as soon as you frame something or someone with your camera, and cancel or ignore everything that surrounds the subject, you are not documenting, you are merely saying that that particular instant is more important than eternity. Every instant, every moment, every experience, however banal, is the only thing we possess in this our only life. The instant is a no-time, a blink in which we do not feel minutes or hours go by. The photographs should achieve this: that the instant emerges. And in this sense, I am very uncomfortable with the label “documentary photography”.

MK: How did you arrive at the title?

JMRS: Again literature. It is a quote from Derek Walcott’s “Omeros”. The title refers to the imperfection of the hero, it could be my alter ego, as well as the eye of the camera…I am also an islander, as was Walcott, as was Ulysses. It’s just a game. But the title has to be important. It has to reside in the memory.

MK: Much of the detritus feels sculptural; bottles almost seeming to grow like weeds on the telephone poles and trees. You are finding art in the unseen. Thereʼs something almost Duchampian about it, like a Readymade sculpture. Are these bottles a common sight in Madrid? Or are you creating these “sculptures”?

JMRS: I never intervene in my photos, and no it’s not usual to find bottles stuck on poles in Madrid and I really cannot explain why somebody would do that. For the other photo you refer to, the one with the bottles in the tree, I do have an explanation; it is a fruit tree and someone put the bottles full of water to stop flies attacking the fruit; the flies on seeing their reflection are frightened away. When you are given an explanation of a photo it seems to lose its magic. Don’t you think? Another reason for not explaining too much!… I like roaming around illegal rubbish dumps, I know all the ones in Madrid. These reflect more than others the kind of society in which we live. It is precisely in these places where you get an idea of the degeneration and brutality of our species; where images create their author and observer, generating complex forms of subjectivity and conscience.

MK: What is your approach to portraiture? The photographs feel quite intimate at times. Do you have a relationship with your subjects?

JMRS: I am a very solitary person. Maybe that’s why I look for solitary persons for the portraits. I roam the streets, there are many homeless people, some know me, others don’t. I always try to earn their trust. If they trust you, they are often the ones who ask to have their pictures taken. There are those who for me have deceptively normal faces, an almost unbearable sweetness; others, on the other hand, who attract me like magnets. Maybe that’s why I look for the ones where the destructive passage of time is apparent, as that of a fragmented and eroded landscape.

MK: Are there any photobooks you have been returning to for inspiration recently?

JMRS: I cannot allow myself to buy all the photo-books that I’d want to as working in analogic is expensive. But I often, if I can, try to buy the ones that interest me. Recently I liked “Knives” by Jason Koxvold.

To view more of JM Ramirez-Suassi’s work please visit his website.