While the process of sifting through old family photos is often tied to feelings of warmth and nostalgia, it also has the potential to resurface more confusing emotions engendered by loss and distance. These complex reactions are strangely arresting, especially when looking at captured moments of loved ones who have since passed on, or when those images represent moments in time that have faded from visceral memory. When this emotional response is coupled with the intricacies of cultural tension, interactions with photographs can be even more difficult to unpack and process.
This personal reaction to imagery is exactly what photographer Antonio Pulgarin addresses in his project Fragments of the Masculine. In Pulgarin’s work, discomfort and complexity are shaped by the conditioned masculinity of his Colombian culture. Looking closely at old images of his uncle and father, Pulgarin paid close attention to his emotional response to the figures in each of the photographs. He then transformed his reactions into physical alterations, tearing or disrupting the prints in a way that resonated with his feelings about the people, attire, and postures in each image. After manipulating and changing the photographs, Pulgarin then incorporated them into collages made with colors from the Colombian flag and patterns from his childhood home, piecing each fragment together instinctually.
I first learned about Pulgarin’s emotive series when it was awarded the second place prize in the 2018 LensCulture Art Photography Awards. For this interview, I reached out to the artist to speak about the process behind his dynamic images, his simultaneous pride and disappointment in Colombian culture, and how he’s trying to progress the conversation surrounding what it means to be a Latino male in America.
LensCulture: This work is very different from your past work, which has a more traditional documentary aesthetic. Can you tell me a bit about how you first started playing with photography, and how that method evolved into this more conceptual series?
Antonio Pulgarin: I actually started playing with photography very early. In middle school, we had two choices for an art-focused class: your traditional drawing and painting, or photography. My mom always drew a lot in our house, on napkins and anything else that was available. She would draw these great little characters, and always encouraged me to do drawing and painting if I wanted to do art in school.
But in the end, I had to be rebellious and admit to myself that I didn’t want to be drawing or painting, so I ended up taking the photography class – I switched into it without her knowing. But all the mixing of chemicals would stain my shirts, so she ended up finding out and was quite surprised. But she eventually warmed up to it because she saw how much I loved it – I completely fell in love with the darkroom, and I fell in love with the experience of shooting film and creating something with that process. I continued with it in high school, which had a specialized program in photography. And then I went on to do more at the School of Visual Arts in college.
LC: And in your series Fragments of the Masculine, the final photographs are your own, but the main imagery is drawn from personal, old photographs. Who is depicted in these images and where did you find them?
AP: These are images that have been in my family for quite some time, and I travelled to Colombia to acquire the majority of them. One of the individuals depicted is my biological father, who sent me Polaroids during his time in prison. Then, the other individual is my biological uncle, and those images focus on his time in the Colombian military. I wanted to focus on these two Colombian men as role models, and the blueprint that I had for visualizing what it meant to be a Colombian male – or, more accurately, what I was expected to be as a Colombian male.
LC: The military and prison systems are both heavy institutions full of visual symbolism, like we see with your uncle’s uniform. You said these visualizations are like a blueprint, so what exactly do some of those gestures and symbols allude to?
AP: When I was looking at these two systems, to me they represented the two directions that machismo ideology can take you. It can be successful and go in a direction that leads to honor and respect, like the military. Or, if you get way too involved in that machismo, it can lead you on a different path towards the prison system. For me, looking at those two directions, it kind of felt like the two spectrums or options that I had as a Latino man.
LC: Did the work start out this way? Or did you come to see these two paths after engaging with the material for some time?
AP: When I first started making the work, I was definitely just trying to resolve the relationships that I had with these men. And it wasn’t until I started looking at the images all together that I thought, “Oh my god, there’s a sort of bigger thread flowing through this.” So, these machismo dimensions definitely revealed themselves after the fact. When I began making the work, it was definitely more of a personal, emotional response, and then I realized that these personal issues could address a broader, relatable theme.
LC: And how exactly are you making this work? You mentioned that the process of shooting on film was very important in your early formative years with the medium.
AP: I would take one of the archival images and sit with it and analyze what exactly I was feeling from it. I’d mentally or physically take down notes about how I was reacting, and what my instant reaction to the image was. Then I would start playing around with them. I reproduced the images and started playing around with materials that I either already had in my home, or ones that I went out and purchased. It was a lot of trial and error, because my earlier work is very documentary and portrait-based. It was about unlearning everything that I had learned about photography, and not being afraid to approach it in a new and different way. And that was hard.
I know a lot of purists look at this work and think, “Oh, well that’s not photography,” but none of this work is post-digital. None of it is digitized – not that I’m knocking anyone who uses Photoshop as a tool! But I made these photographic collages by hand, and then I lit and photographed them in a way that I felt best represented the image. So basically, within the viewfinder, I would crop what I felt the final image needed to look like. Some of these images are just bits of bigger collages, where I honed in on a certain area or part that I thought best represented the image.
LC: And why was it important for you to explore your relationship with these two men in particular, as opposed to other family members?
AP: My mom was very close with my uncle. He passed away in 1987, and I was born in 1989. In order to maintain his legacy, she passed on his name to me, so I was named after him. Throughout my entire life, I was always being compared to him. Even small mannerisms would result in someone saying, “Oh my god, you’re the same person,” so I constantly had this connection to a man that I never really knew, and I only came to know him through this archive of photographs. As an adult, going back to that archive was a way of re-contextualizing my relationship with my uncle – this man who I always had some sort of connection with, but had never physically known.
And on the other hand, my father was never really in the picture either. I only met him once when I was a kid, and I don’t really remember much of it. I know from what I’ve been told that we visited him, so there is one image in this series of the crumpled up photograph of him and I – that’s from me visiting him in prison. It’s called “A Memory Lost” because I don’t actually remember much of it.
LC: Earlier you explained how sitting with these images made you start thinking about the impact of machismo in Colombian culture, almost as an offshoot or extension of your close and personal relationship with these men. Can you describe how these themes manifested from this more personal, concentrated level?
AP: Aside from addressing my relationships with these men, I also address my own relationship to Colombian identity and Latino male identity – what does it mean? What constitutes being a Latino male, especially in America today? I’m trying to address those ideas and that social structure of masculinity by playing with it, because I do feel that, in part, it’s a social construct that our community has grown up with for too long. And if it’s embedded in our culture, how do I deconstruct that? I was initially addressing my relationship to these two men not only as a Latino, but also as a gay Latino male, knowing my sexuality contradicts what it means to be masculine or machismo.
LC: How did the process of this work help you unpack that? I sense that the practice of constructing these collages, engaging with and altering the photographs, was quite cathartic.
AP: Yes, it helped resolve a lot of things within myself, especially regarding this idea that I had for so long of what it meant – or what I thought it meant – to be a Latino male in America. I had to live up to this idea and blueprint that was set in our culture, and I couldn’t be afraid of unpacking that and deconstructing it a bit, saying that we don’t have to fit within that narrow way of thinking or in that box.
In terms of America, I was looking at where that machismo energy and culture has actually gotten Latino men in this country, and I feel like it hasn’t gotten us very far. Because of that blueprint that’s embedded within us, I feel like that toxic machismo energy leads us to act out and make mistakes, and then of course in the media we are portrayed so negatively. So, I definitely had this idea in my head as I was starting to make the work and look at these two representations of machismoism – the prison system and the military – and their pluses and minuses.
While I was actually in the process of making it, there were little things that happened naturally, like me ripping the eyes from the archival images of my father. It was all about the idea that I couldn’t see him, or I didn’t want to see him, or I didn’t want to see eye to eye with him – and I kept doing it. It even came out through me ripping the Polaroid slightly in another image of him, carefully over the eyes, to make sure that the viewer doesn’t even have that connection with him – they don’t see him either. Because in all these images, he exudes this masculine energy, but I feel like it was a persona he wanted me to connect with, rather than the actual individual – the father figure.
But then with my uncle, I never really ripped his eyes or anything like that, because I felt more of a connection with him. So I always approach the physicality of playing with his archive differently than I do with my father’s, and this all happened organically. I noticed this contradiction coming up a lot in the work, with regard to how I treated the two archives differently based on my interpersonal relationships with these men.
LC: You also counter the monochrome, faded images with vibrant colors and patterns. Where did you draw these from specifically, and what are they signalling?
AP: The colors are drawn from the Colombian flag itself: red, yellow and blue. I wanted that sense of Colombian heritage and pride to come out in the images, because I think a major misconception with my work is that I’m being overly critical of Colombian culture or my own heritage as a Colombian male, when really all I’m trying to do is progress the conversation.
There is a pride I have as a Colombian man, but I also think it’s important to address some of the faults in our culture and not be afraid to have that conversation. And then I also incorporate printed patterns in the collages, which are drawn from a lot of things I grew up with, like the mats that we had at our dinner table. I remember my mom would get these very decorative, flower-printed mats all the time, so I would see patterns like that all around my home. But I also incorporated the flowers because for me, they symbolically represent a counterbalance to this masculine energy. I wouldn’t say I’m feminizing the traits of these men, but I’m softening them a bit, providing a counterpoint to that masculinity that they tend to exude in these images.
LC: I also wanted to talk a bit more about the title of the work: Fragments of the Masculine. It’s interesting because it alludes to the fragments that are used to piece together each image, but it also possesses a meaning on a more metaphorical level.
AP: It’s interesting because I was initially going to use my father and uncle’s names, but then once I started looking at the images all together, I realized that there was a bigger thread beyond the personal. I was deconstructing it piece by piece, so for me, “fragments of the masculine” is what’s left over. Once I’ve deconstructed these ideas, it’s the pieces that remain, and how we discuss the ideas of what it means to be a Latino male – and often times what it means to be a male, period. Once I released this work, I realized that it isn’t just Latino males who experience this – it’s people of color in general who grow up with this machismo blueprint energy.
LC: You mentioned that this work is more personal than your previous documentary methods, and so I’m sure it’s been interesting to see the different ways that people react to it. What do you see viewers taking away from this work that has surprised you?
AP: I’ve definitely been surprised by the connection that a lot of men and people of color in general have with it. Hearing people say how important it is, especially in this day and age, and having these conversations has been so amazing. I think for a long time, especially in our culture, we were so afraid to unpack these ideas. There was always this assumption: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But you know, it was kind of broke! The idea of being a Latino male who’s not afraid to unpack these ideas has been met with a lot of love, but I’ve also heard guys making comments like, “Oh, he’s just a fag who’s in his feelings.” I’ve read Spanish people and Colombian peers writing this stuff, and it’s just crazy, because they’re perpetuating exactly what I’m trying to deconstruct and address in the work. But for all the bad, the amount of positive connection with it has been insane. It makes all the reservations I had about doing a new type of work that I had no previous experience with, and shifting my creative energy to something new to address difficult subject matter from a personal standpoint, absolutely worth all the risk.
—Antonio Pulgarin interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj
See all of the award-winning work by the 38 international photographers selected for the first annual LensCulture Art Photography Awards.