Ordinary Girl | In conversation with Cristina Nuñez

I put my Summer’s back in a letter

And I hide it from the world

All the regrets you can’t forget

Are somehow pressed upon a picture

In the face of such an ordinary girl

-Counting Crows

There is no denying that we live in the age of selfies. Whether we share these photographs with the world on Instagram, Facebook, flick or twitter, we capture them, often, not just to hold on to a joyful moment but, if I may assume, to see a reflection of our inner self projected on to the lens bringing out whatever emotions the external surrounding or internal thoughts trigger at that particular moment.

If we were to go through our selfies, and try to look into our own expressions, perhaps we would be able to locate the tad bit of nervousness or sorrow behind smiles, the awkwardness in our shoulders, or the freedom our mouths carry when no one is looking.  The common series of selfies out there are bright and happy, vacation spots and done up lips, friends excited at a concert or lovers being lovers. But then there are a few of those selfies where you see different reflections, in them a previously unseen emotion of the subject surprises you, catches your eyes, and suddenly you think of that person differently, with an added dimension. Spanish photographer Cristina Nuñez have dissected the psychology of self-portraits and I imagine that she would call those slightly different, exposing rawer emotion, selfies, self-portraits.

Cristina believes self portrait can be the portrait of our higher self, she has taken the idea of self portraits to a place of self-therapy to express inner pain and understand oneself and their relationships with others. Cristina spent a major portion of her life in introspection. The emotions drawn out through her photographs may ring true to many. These are emotions more than some have gone through, the feeling of alienation, jealousy, the streak of rebelliousness, guilt, addiction, love, surrender, nostalgia.

In conversation with Cristina

I had the pleasure of discussing Cristina’s work with her few days back. Cristina is a woman of depth, so the conversation took us places. My curiosity lied in the relation of roots and rebels represented through her work and so that was my first question. 

Iffat Nawaz: You have been a rebel and you have searched for roots. Will you explain the relation of rebellion with roots?

Cristina Nuñez : This came all very naturally, very intuitively. In fact my rebellion, my heroin addiction was a way to attract my parents’ attention, it was related to my roots. But that was not all, my rebellion was  my desire to go to extremes, and to touch the bottom was a way to test my limits. And because I have always been interested in extremes, my pain was extreme.  You know by going into something so bad and dangerous as heroin I felt an immediate empowerment and I felt that needed to hurt myself. There is this song by Johnny Cash called “Hurt,” where he sings:

I hurt myself today

to see if I still feel

I focus on the pain

That’s the only thing that’s real

 Now that maybe a bit extreme but focusing on the pain makes you feel more alive. I felt invisible as a child so what I wanted was for my parents to look at me and care about me, that they really look and see me, so I wanted to provoke. But later on, many years later, after I had moved to Italy, quit drugs, and started teaching my self-portrait method, it was 2007 and that is when I started looking at family pictures. I had already started to understand that the self-portrait method was making me feel good but back then I thought my art project was only about my evolution which came through in 2004 when I was in deep depression and through photographing myself everyday I started feeling better. After that, I started to teach longer workshops then I discovered other peoples’ work with roots. And through intuitive self-searching I know now that what I wanted to find through self-portraits were links to my ancestors and to understand why I had done everything that I had done. By putting myself, my life, my extreme life, next to my ancestors I could find some relations. For example, my father’s family were higher officials in the Spanish Navy, so they were very close to Franco the dictator. They were jewish but converts, they had denied their own religion to convert to Christianity. So in a way, they were very rigid, right-winged, fascist, and what is fascism, it’s to use power against others to suppress rights which is just the opposite of what I am doing now, I am showing through my work vulnerability and the expression of emotions. And of course there were people in the family with creative energy so I got a bit of everybody you know. At that same time, in my Father’s family, there has been things where one of my cousin who was a rebel was forced to get lobotomy. They operated her brain because they thought something was wrong with her and made her into a vegetable and that could have happened to me, but I was lucky that my Father was not like his brother.

So I think my work is a response to all that, I think everything we do we are responding to what our ancestors have done. Maybe to complete their work in some cases, or maybe to give it a turn, like I have done a project on Holocaust survivors when my family denied their jewish heritage.

Another reason for working with roots is because I was uprooted and lived in Italy for a long time. Later in life I wanted to get in touch with my roots even more.

IN: Is there any end to documenting pain, does self-therapy ever end and do you think you glorify pain?

CN: I don’t think there is an end, I think we cannot suppress anything from ourselves, I think what we can do is by expressing it and sharing it we give it a purpose and find its use, and try to find what is the sense of the suffering.

I don't think I glorify the pain I claim my right to express it, and I want to talk about the pain because it makes me feel better. It makes sense, that I also suffer, I not only suffer, but I think by expressing and sharing it, you manage to relate to others in a very profound way. Of course it’s not just pain, it’s violent rage for example, everything that is not widely accepted, or things which are shameful. If you manage to express all that you will have a deep contact with people. Every week I receive emails with people thanking me for me sharing my shit. I often say this work is like transforming shit into diamonds because everything that you are ashamed of, your defects, for example, everything I do, I do it for myself, so I am a selfish person but by photographing that by sharing that I am able to relate to thousands of people feeling the same and that’s the diamond.

Of course, I have also felt the risk that if I am not suffering then what kind of art am I producing, art is based on my suffering and my vulnerability , when I feel strong and happy why can’t I produce, that’s one of the questions I ask myself. Most of the society will dwell on the acceptable norm, like the emotion of joy, which is used in advertising and hence it has become empty. Also when you are happy you are more on a surface, you are not so much in touch with yourself.

I think it’s precious that we keep a part of our inner-life in touch with the pain, I don’t think we can suppress it, but it is important that we suffer regularly.  Not all pain, but some should be welcome. You know I have put myself in situations where I knew I would suffer in the end, but I could not avoid doing it. Are we just supposed to lead peaceful and correct lives? No, I think we are learning and we need to go deep into things, I want to really make the evolution happen and in that if I have the drive to do something bad, I will do it and I know I will have to pay for, in fact, doing something bad and paying for it is a process of deep knowledge.

To me everything in the human being is perfect. We are always thinking about the social dimension, and society puts laws to state what’s good and what’s bad, because they need to protect people. But in a spiritual sense there is a no positive or negative, the way I understand it, both needs to exist. There are those who go against the norms and I think that is extremely important because from those the society learns their own potentials. When Hitler came out and did what he did, we could say “he is inhumane” or we could say, “How incredible! How evil and mean mankind has the capability of becoming.”

Our aim is to be aware of who we are, what we feel, why we do things, how we relate to one another, and our desires, and that is a path of knowledge.

IN: What are your thoughts on self-portraits in relation to the selfie culture?

CN: A creative process is important for self-portraits. My way of learning is through the creative process, through art, I believe the process will bring out what needs to come out from the sub-conscious. My aim is through the pain I am going to trigger a high quality creative process. Facilitating this creative process in me and in others when I teach, when I devote myself to the process which can travel to the unconscious and bring out what needed to come out. So this process is my whole aim. There is a difference between my process and the selfie but there are some similarities as well.

A selfie is a public image, it’s meant to be shared in the social networks, and it’s about how you want to be seen, which groups do you belong to, and what you want to share at that moment and so it is controlled. Whereas, the self-portrait is an inner image, I have a dialogue with my inner-self first and go through a creative process. I have to have the capacity to understand what the creative process is telling me and finding the unrecognized emotions and publishing those instead of the emotions I was already aware of. 

But the selfie, which is a fascinating global practice, makes sense sociologically. I started doing self-portraits in 1988 intuitively and kept on doing the dialogue to set myself free of things I was uneasy about. You have to think that we are living in an era of the individual in which loneliness is higher than ever. Each one of us have full responsibility of who we want to be. In the 50s, you followed your parents paths. But these days you are bombarded with role models and models of successes and all your peers are you going to decide what they were going to do with their lives and you have to decide something right for yourself and then you have to make it, otherwise you are a failure, though failure is the best way to learn. But because of the loneliness we need to exert ourselves and the selfies are a prime example of that. The selfies are saying “I exist, I don’t hide, I am strong.”

So selfies are also empowerment but I would say to the people, okay this the public image now step back and do a more honest dialogue with yourself and let go of what’s uncomfortable, and work on the not-so-controlled image, work also to discover yourself and your potential. Realize that even though you have decided to look a certain way there is a whole myriad of possibilities. Those pictures that you hate, don’t throw them away, because whatever we reject can be very interesting. So with selfies you can do experiments, step back and do something more honest, something that will let you go further and understand yourself.

IN: In your method you tell people to work with four emotions, Rage, Despair, Terror and Euporhia.  Euphoria stands in a very different space against rage, despair and terror. So why euphoria?

CN: Well, actually I started by asking people to express rage or despair. Then I added the terror. And then people were telling me why not the joy?I told them, joy is not the right thing because joy will not let you travel really deep, because it’s not extreme. And we must smile for the society so you know joy has become a bit empty. It will  never be a deep joy, it will always be something mediated by the communication so it will not help you with strong inner journey that I want from self-portraits. But if the joy becomes extreme then something interesting happens. And sometimes in the expression of euphoria you can see rage.  Euphoria has the multiplicity of perceptions. So because it is extreme you will touch extreme. Even though you will be thinking about fantastic things to get to the feeling of euphoria you will touch some spots which are not so happy, and that is when you will produce art. The point is not therapy the point is to produce art.


But Beautiful

Later on today as a part of Chobi Mela VII, for the first time Cristina Nuñez will be exhibiting a series of work titled But Beautiful (1988-2014) bringing together her self-portraits. In But Beautiful we will be able to see many of the images of Cristina as well as of her ancestors and portraits of her family.  We will be able to see how Cristina explored her relationships in search of her own identity.

There is something universal about these contemplations and self-search and therapy of Cristina’s. Many among us have had distinctive moments of questioning our own identities. Some have written about it, others have painted, and then some have taken photographs. And someone like Cristina has taken this process to a place where our ordinary faces remain not just ordinary, but beautiful, let it be with euphoria or rage.