There are already too many people taking pretty pictures
Photographer Kenny Lemes believes that there are already too many people taking ‘pretty’ pictures and that they do it very well. But we can narrate many other universes. “What remains outside that hegemonic gaze is made invisible, marginalized, banished from the frontiers of normalization. It seems to be outside the world. It is ‘in-world,'” he says.
His photography is an invitation to look critically and think transversely. He wants those who encounter his images to discover “a door that enables another space .” He believes that every small gesture in the quest to validate “our desiring bodies” adds up: having a fat body and wearing a bikini, not waxing, showing tits, giving dolls to male children. “Being happy is a great political action,” he says.
Kenny was born in Havana, and now he lives in Buenos Aires. He has won grants (to the National Fund for the Arts and National Fund for the Arts Training and at Haroldo Conti Cultural Center in 2015) and awards (Federico Klemm to Visual Arts 2017, Williams Foundation for Young Art 2015). He exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art of La Boca (MARCO), at the Centro Cultural San Martín (Gigantogalería), and at the Biennial of Young Art of Buenos Aires 2015, among other opportunities.
Do you think of photography as a way to build a multiverse?
Regis Débray has a book called Life and death of the image, in which he writes: “when the image is new, the world is new.” Since I read it, it has helped me think about my work as a photographer. Historically, people with power have used the image to construct their worldview. The one opinion-makers needed to build the hegemony of their discourses. They have used images (and their widespread, massive penetration) to “normalize” ideas.
In those images, women seem never to have hairy legs, always shaved their armpits, children have always been desired blessings, and if there was a God, of course, he had to have been white (just like angels, always white). “Art” (over understood as an activity commissioned by the privileged aristocracy, kings, and upper-class characters) has permanently lowered the line on what is considered beautiful, moral, and worthy of admiration. These ideas become a “truth,” the lens through which we look at the world. And, of course, they unify that world.
What remains outside that gaze is invisibilized, marginalized, and destroyed. It is unworldly. As something that is not the world, that is outside. My photography addresses that “outside the world.” There are already many people taking beautiful pictures of beautiful people, and they do it very well. I also admire “beauty.” But it is essential to enable other truths, other ways of understanding who we are as people. Far from the capitalist definitions of what it is to be a successful, fruitful, productive person. We do not all agree or live by the same ideas of “beauty,” “love,” or “success.”
I want the people who see my images to feel they have discovered a door that opens another space outside the stage of reality. I think of Truman breaking the cardboard wall with the boat’s tip. That “behind reality” invented, and imposed through culture, is what attracts me the most.
Do you find a relationship between inhabiting dissent and the effects on mental health?
I am interested in looking at the marks left on the body by the torments of the mind. As a photographer, I seek to connect with people with whom I can find different reading layers as a kind of depth. As if there were first the skin and then layers, layers, layers, many layers inwards, towards the depths. Polysemy seems fundamental to me when I think about the image.
It’s easy to relate the dissident to mental health because generally, (in-munda) “unworldly” people are often profoundly lonely. While we tend to form our own families among friends, there is a place of orphanhood or banishment that always hurts. And there is also the abandonment of the State. The personal is also clearly approached from the political.
We can probably say of a transvestite friend who lives in a shabby room that it is the fault of the family who threw her out of the house. But the State also expelled her from school for not knowing how to treat her. For not having inclusive educational policies that help transvestites to finish their studies. Or policies that guarantee her formal work, with a salary at the end of the month, allow her not to dedicate herself to sex work obligatorily.
The same happens with trans children, teens coming out of the closet, or people who do not know how to deal with the terrible weight of the world. What happens sometimes is too much, and they self-harm, cut themselves and transform their bodies as a way of not seeing in the mirror things they hate about their image. Not to mention the lack of access that dissidents have to mental health care in terms of economic capital: who can afford therapy nowadays? Sometimes the conflict is also a class issue.
Is photography a tool for transformation?
I believe that photography and any image can be a propositional territory for a change. Through our work, we photographers can construct discourses that make discussions and debates possible, expand the limits of what is possible, and challenge hegemonic power. We can say, “we are not all the same, we don’t all want the same thing, we don’t all desire in the same way,” and that’s all fine.
In his book The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam says that failing is something queer people do and have always done very well. Fail and lose. They lose quietly, and they imagine other goals for life, love, art, and self in losing. I live proudly in a team of failures. I work with passion from there.