This series of portraits was produced in a moment of my life and my career when I felt the need for a radical change of direction in my photographic practice, and repair or at least reduce the sense of impermanence that the digital workflow had accustomed me to.
Technically, I decided to impose strong speed limits to myself: I used a wooden 4x5 field camera, loaded with 3 ASA direct positive paper.
The choice of working with paper instead of negative film sheets was dictated mainly by a desire to create a finished, tangible image straight in-camera, an image I could hand develop in the simplest and most organic possible way: on location, in a small tray, using coffee as my developing agent.
Conceptually, I decided to explore an idea that had intrigued me for a long time: portraiture of people with their eyes closed.
In portraiture and life alike our eyes play an important role in communicating our emotions and socially engaging with others. The eyes are the strongest focal point and emotional indicator when observing a face, to try to understand or define the person behind that face.
And yet, when we close our eyes, our portal to human connections and reality, a potential new universe might open up: the universe of the subconscious, or possibly the antechamber of an afterworld.
Closed eyes break a rule in portraiture, there is no reciprocal eye connection between the photographed subject and the viewer of the photo, there’ s no guessing the subject’s emotions.
The person we look at in the photograph could be asleep, or even dead.
In the course of my career, the only photos with the subject’s eyes closed I was asked to shoot, were in the Dominican Republic. They where photos of dead people, resting in a coffin, people who had not owned any other photograph of themselves in life. My images were to be used in producing the customary “recordatorio”, a small, cheaply printed “in memoriam” card with their photo, date of birth and death and a psalm from the bible.
The “recordatorio” is usually distributed as a small gift, amongst the people attending the funeral and the nine days of grieving.
So it wasn’t quite a casual choice when I decided to shoot this series of portraits with closed eyes in the Dominican Republic.
My location was a small hamlet, near the Haitian border, where my wife was born and I have been periodically photographing for the past ten years.
A great part of the experience of shooting this series of portraits was being able to spend ample time with all my subjects. Time clicks differently in New York City and in this part of the world. I was able to have long enjoyable chats with each one of them, young and old, explain what I was doing and often have a laugh together.
I would then ask them to close their eyes and make a wish, as a way to have them concentrate on something strongly intimate and personal while I was taking their portrait.
In over two weeks of shooting I had to battle considerable environmental problems: it hadn’t rained in over four months, so daily dust storms contaminated all my equipment; a complete lack of running water forced me to fetch it in buckets, from the river, in order to wash, eat and develop my photographs. Meanwhile, a relentless electrical blackout was efficiently isolating me from the “civilized world” (no cell-phone/Internet) but also helping me develop my films, when, at night, the entire town turned into an environmental darkroom.
As departure approached, and my portraits had grown to a substantial number, something tragic happened: my wife’s mother, who was very old but relatively healthy, suddenly passed away. Grieving, we were able to make arrangements for her funeral and the nine days of prayer, still customary in rural Dominican Republic.
When she was alive, she always used to say that I should be the one to take the photograph for her “recordatorio” . She had never been photographed before I met her, after I married her daughter, and she was always very happy and pleased whenever I pulled out a camera and took photos of her in the house.
I chose a photo I had taken a few years earlier, when she was a bit younger, and I had it made into a “recordatorio” .
In that photo she smiled, and her eyes were open.
Giovanni Savino, February 2014
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