|Gerardo Nigenda: Photographing the Invisible (1968-2010)|
|Written by Joanne Trujillo|
Gerardo Nigenda, a photographer, friend and teacher of many, died on May 9. He left us his images, a visual record of a sensorial experience beyond sight. For those who were fortunate enough to know him, he also left us his teachings and the memory of his good humor and his particular way of looking at life.
Gerardo Nigenda was born in Mexico City but spent almost half his life in Oaxaca. He lost his sight at the age of 25. He discovered photography by chance in 1996 when Freddy Aguilar, the director of the library at the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (IAGO) invited him to run the institute's library for the blind, the Biblioteca Jorge Luis Borges, where he also taught Braille. After a while, Francisco Toledo decided to house the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo (CFMAB) in the same premises as IAGO, meaning that, oddly enough, the blind and photographers shared the same space. The former were photographed by the latter.
As a result of this unusual interaction, Gerardo Nigenda discovered photography. In order to photograph those that had photographed him so often, as a joke, Nigenda approached Cecilia Salcedo, then director of CFMAB, to ask her how she would teach a blind person to take photographs. She gave him a pocket Leica and told him to start shooting. Thus, in 1999, he embarked on his adventure with photography. He was 32 years old.
At the beginning of the year 2000, documentary maker Mary Ellen Mark gave him a pocket Yashika, which he would use until he died, and of which he was extremely proud, because of its Carl Zeiss lens. He did not do anything technically, as regards the focus, diaphragm or shutter speed. What mattered to him was not the form (technique) but the essence (content). If technology facilitated that part, then why bother trying to use a reflex camera? The point was to communícate something, which does not require technique, although he admitted that knowing about technique helped. However, within what could be called photographic technique, he imagined a line from the center of his camera focus to the center of the object or subject to be photographed. That way, he more or less controlled the setting. With experience, he learnt to locate the sun and tried to make sure it was behind him or to one side. Time and the process of adapting to his blindness defined his personal style of photography.
As soon as he had the camera in his hands, Gerardo began to reflect on what he would have to do with the camera, beyond merely taking photos. It was important for him to feel something, to photograph something that attracted his attention and elicited something. It began as a game, photographing things he liked: his music system, the beer on the fridge, what he came across on the way home or the loudspeakers in a Zapatista march. Within the game of experimentation, he began to take sounds and smells into account.
Gerardo included Braille texts in his photographs. These texts gradually evolved from a literal description of the photograph, which took up a whole sheet, like the one in the CFMAB Patio, to a single phrase summarizing what had led him to take the photograph. These photographs are the title of the work and he fitted them into the image so that they would become a graphic part of the photograph and its meaning. Gerardo Nigenda’s photos are also tactile devices that mixed written and visual language, combining an impersonal description with his own memories.
For him, photography was not a literal description of an image but the sensation he had on the basis of the experience that led him to take photographs: "The photos I take are experiences, what I smell, touch and listen to. The memories of these experiences are my negatives. I have them in my mind. When I read it (Braille) I remember and locate where it was or what it is. It does not matter if I do not visually describe what is in the photo as long as I describe the feeling I had when I took it. So I selected the material to print. It did not matter if one image was better than other technique or better aesthetically; the point was to express what I felt.
The main motivation behind the way he took photographs was never visual, as happens with sighted photographers. What mattered in his photographs was the emotional aspect, not so much the technical or aesthetic aspect, which was the least of his concerns. I remember something he said to me the first time we met: “You have to get involved with the image. You have to touch, smell, and lick it if necessary, so that you can construct an image.” So photographing without seeing usually brought him into contact with the other, and forced him to create a link with what he was going to photograph. He could not keep his distance or be passive. In his case, photography was a completely sensual experience, in which the rest of the senses were involved.
In the "Non-Visual Workshop" Gerardo taught for nearly ten years, he not only reminded participants that living is a multisensorial experience but also that photographing can also (or rather must) be so. This workshop often turned out to be a nearly spiritual experience for the participants, in which they became aware of their own blindness and of the sensorial and creative limitations that had restricted them for so long.
Thank you, Gerardo, for teaching us to see (and feel) beyond what we perceive through our sight...