Natalia Benrey Zorro is a self-taught photographer from Bogotá, Colombia. She's currently finishing her studies in Literature and studying History as well. Her photographic series Trasplantada I (Transplanted I) is a photojournal consisting of self-portraits that record a transformation process in her life. Running from April 19th through July 25th of 2013, it started as an exercise in observation of her daily life and slowly became a brief biography, a tale of her life that speaks of time, cyclicity, changes, death, family and romantic relationships.
In this interview with MG editor Catalina Piedrahita, she talks about revealing herself at her most intimate and vulnerable, and about pain, turmoil and catharsis.
(This interview was originally conducted in Spanish, translated into English by Alvaro Morales)
CP: «Trasplantada I» is a very intimate and personal photographic project. These images reveal your vulnerability, your worries and your pain, and it shows them to the audience with barely any context. What reactions have you gotten from your audience? What do they think or feel seeing reality from your point of view?
NB: I think there’s shock, precisely because I show such intimate things. I believe there’s two kinds of reaction. One of the people who know me and have been with me throughout this process, and another of those who visit my website frequently or those who stumble upon it. In both cases I think people can relate to these situations of pain, desperation, frustration or impotence. There’s also surprise, bewilderment or personal awkwardness from peering into a stranger’s life. I got several messages from people sending me their support, thanking me for sharing that side of me. Some saw a brave woman behind those pictures. Maybe the fact that it was a countdown called people’s attention or stirred their curiosity, but I think that it wasn’t until the end of the series -- once it could be seen in its totality -- that there was a more immediate connection with the entire process. Doing this series was very personal work, and publishing it gave it a different dimension, even though publication was not the main goal. For me it was important as a way of creating a window, a space fully my own that could be seen from the outside. Perhaps as a kind of personal reaffirmation.
CP: In the statement for «Trasplantada I» you explain the contents of the series and the process of making it. Can you tell us about the intention behind this project? What do you expect the audience to learn from the images they see? What do you expect to learn from this experience?
NB: I have to talk about the title of the series in order to understand how I went from the initial intention of the series -- documenting my thesis -- to what it ultimately became: a personal search. I called the series “Trasplantada” inspired by the title of the novel I did my thesis on: “Hombres trasplantados” (Transplanted Men) by Jaime Buitrago. This author started getting into my personal life in a wonderful and mysterious way, so the title of my series came from my experience with the novel. Additionally, my intuition was warning me of an incoming change: a transplant, a way of closing the cycle of my years in university.
«Trasplantada I» emerged as a need for catharsis in a moment of desperation. It wasn’t planned, but it didn’t manifest itself out of nowhere either. When I started the photojournal I thought about it as a way to record the process of working on my thesis, a personal “alter-thesis” to help me make sense of all the emotions I felt during that time. Since it was about the process of working on my thesis, the series of images would last for however long it took me to finish the thesis. At the end there would be three final, non-consecutive days: the day my thesis had to be approved, the day I had to defend it, and the day of graduation. I intended to document that journey (trusting that I would come out “victorious”) so that I could look at the finished series as a release of the emotions I felt throughout the process. At that time my emotions were mostly centered around fear, insecurity of writing and lack of trust in myself as a professional in literary studies. I think the series started as a way to give myself courage and to regain confidence in my writing, because I was overwhelmed by a sense of failure and disappointment in my career. I felt I didn’t have the solid foundations needed to face an investigation like the one I was attempting.
In the middle of all this, my life started taking unexpected turns and so did the series as a result. My grandfather’s health was deteriorating, my thesis was getting stuck, the relationship I was in was becoming a burden, my father suffered a heart attack. Everything around me was chaotic and the whole situation wreaked havoc within me. The impotence of facing the death of a loved one for the first time and the panic of feeling my father’s death nearby; the end of my relationship and the rejection of my thesis.
My self-esteem was devastated and all these things became angry questions aimed at life itself. But this turmoil enabled me to start building a bridge towards myself. There was something new within me, something I wasn’t aware of before, a force that led me to a deep introspection. It led me to answering those questions. The emotional charge increased, and with it the intensity of the series. It started detaching from the initial intention of the thesis and instead focusing on that force, which was (and still is) above all a search.
This search as vital experience has taught me many things. I probably wouldn’t know how to list everything I’ve learned. Mostly, I think I regained my voice and my consciousness. I realized my life was revolving around others, leaving myself unattended. There’s no larger, sadder contradiction than that. I reencountered the woman of many faces within me: the lover, the warrior, the mother, the maiden, the priestess. These are all archetypes of the female psyche that reveal through myth the four life experiences unique to women: the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. These archetypes are an important psycho-spiritual tool to shape an individuality that’s unique but also linked to the fabric of unconscious and collective values. The female nature is a constant cycle and it’s related to death and transmutation. It’s necessary to identify and recognize what occurs within in order to let go of what has to die and to allow a new life. I believe that’s my intention with «Trasplantada». It’s a lifetime experiment where photography, history and writing come together. Facts, places and time narrated with images, along with reflexive annotations in the form of journal entries.
I hope that whoever looks at «Trasplantada» knows that transplantation is a state I consider to be universal and unavoidable, and that it’s possible to gain knowledge of oneself through a mundane expression. Behind this lens there’s a human being that’s knowing herself all the time, and I believe everyone should seek their own way to do that.
CP: «Trasplantada I» ends with a strong image that evokes the idea of transformation. What’s the symbolism behind the colors black and white and the extreme haircut?
NB: That photograph was a dream. Literally, I dreamt it. About a month and a half after starting the series, I dreamt of a diptych in which I was the subject, first with eyes closed, skin painted black and hair let down; then with eyes open, skin painted white and head completely shaved. A voice in the dream told me: “No matter how things unfold, this is the final image in the series.” I listen closely to my dreams, so when I woke up I knew that would be the final image, even without knowing how the story “ended”. Back then I assumed that I would shave my head on graduation day (the supposed “zero day”). But “zero day” came one day after receiving notice of the rejection of my thesis and saying goodbye to my boyfriend for good. A month had gone by since my grandfather’s passing and my father was still at home recovering from the heart attack. It was clear that a cycle had been closed. I felt exhausted, intoxicated and utterly lost. I went to an isolated place in order to take that photograph and approach it as a ritual. It was by a waterfall hidden away between trees and undergrowth. I knew that I would be shedding not only my hair, but also a part of me. As I painted my skin black I cleared my purpose and focused on what had to die. I cut my hair and buried it in the ground next to a piece of paper where I wrote the parts of me I wanted to bury. I washed off the black paint and felt my head reborn. Then I painted my skin white, focusing on what I wanted to bring to life, and took the second picture. The look in my eyes is very telling, I think: lost and new. Like the yin yang, that image symbolizes two opposing and complementary forces.
CP: I know you’re working on the continuation of «Trasplantada I». Could you tell us about your experience with this continuation? What differences and similarities have you found?
NB: Taking a weekly photo is very different from taking a daily one. I think daily pictures can become repetitive and perhaps even forced, but on the other hand you can get very detailed. Personally, the exercise of taking a daily photograph sharpened my eye, expanded my creativity and allowed to take complete control over the camera as an extension of my body. I sharpened my sense of observation, which allowed me to see different things in familiar and seemingly mundane places. I lost all kinds of inhibitions about taking a photograph any time or anywhere. I rediscovered many things about light. I took notice of the amount of reflexions, shadows, mirrors, prisms and colors that surround us, which enabled me to play and experiment.
Now that I’m taking a weekly photo there’s more introspection. I won’t be tempted to just take a picture to “meet the requirement” of a daily image. I shoot less and think more. I’m more precise when taking self-portraits, since everything is less overwhelming at the moment. In «Trasplantada I» there was a daily overflow of irrepressible emotion, whereas in «Trasplantada II» I have a whole week to think about which of the images I’ve taken better represents the mood of that particular week.
CP: I love and share your concept of “the photographer”, that idea of the contemplation of images we produce. For me the process is just as important as the finished product, if not more important. What have you learned? What experiences have transcended during your creative process?
NB: The experience has been contradictory, complex, painful, but above all intuitive and definitive. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that I need to express myself and I’ll never stop doing it. I’ve managed to recognize things about me that I had never seen before or that I had forgotten, both beautiful and terrifying. It’s inevitable to smash head first into your past mistakes, and that has helped me heal and forgive. I’ve learned to love myself with everything I am, without reproach but with a willingness to improve and transform. I’ve also learned to see death as a different kind of life, to let go (slowly) of people and focus in the moment.
I learned that pain can be an ally that helps us understand many things. “Pain clearly shows what’s missing and what’s superfluous; and sadness only comes to clean up the remains. It’s a purge...’there’s medicine inside’. Sadness is an example of what it means to be transplanted. It’s changing the support of your existence. To be reborn in a new land that’s always been within you. It means to wander the unfinished region of your own self, to explore without fear, laziness or excuses. Happiness transplants you as well, but unlike sadness, it doesn’t reveal that right away. Sadness can even be opportune (if we make a distinction between pain and suffering) when we face it as a small death: death transplants implicitly.” (Journal note, day 4)