About M.E. de Hank Yvonne Venegas

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Text by Marina Azahua

Long before she takes out her camera, the photographer starts to choose what to look at. Later on, the world and those portrayed in it will limit what can be seen and what not. When a world is exposed voluntarily to a camera, in that same gesture, boundaries are established before its presence. Every aperture implies censorship. The challenge is to work within those boundaries. Navigate along its borders to get around the constructed scenario and practice the art of avoiding the pose. For the series M. E. of Hank, Yvonne Venegas worked with the boundaries of permissibility to extract what could be found beneath the surface.

At the beginning of this decade, Venegas wrote a letter to María Elvira Amaya of Hank, wife of the former mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon. She proposed to photograph her world. In the letter, she included a list of things she wanted to photograph during her visits to the private Hank family complex. Among other things:

· Employees – especially those who were regularly there: bodyguards, cooks, nannies, tutors, teachers, maids.
· Animals: horses, lions, hyenas, bears, dogs, etc. Even better in herds.
· The children playing during recess, school shots of the private school, which is part of the complex, as well as portraits of the family in daily scenarios.
· The children getting home from school, or on their way to extracurricular activities.
· Portraits of María Elvia during her various activities: flamenco classes, art history courses, activities with the children, etc.

The photographer presents the series along with this letter because through it, she keeps a “list of what is inside the space,” the housing complex of the Hank family, “even if it doesn’t appear in the photographs.” The expectations she has of her search are established in that list. The project lasted almost 8 years – from 2006 to 2010 – a period in which some of these imaginary shots were translated into photographs and others weren’t. Some of the shots Venegas never even imagined turned out to be the most representative images.

The distance between the imagined photograph and the reality that is presented in front of the camera, is the first tension from which the project begins. Even when María Elvira was willing to “open her house” to her – that term used by social magazines to describe their entrance to the private precincts of opulence – as wife and mother, it was obvious that she would be the main mediator between the existing reality and the photographed reality. The letter showed the power of admission or rejection that María Elvia possessed. But the second mediator, the second filter of vision, would of course be Yvonne Venegas. Working with established boundaries, she took the crucial decisions on what to portray, despite being found in situations explicitly set up for the camera.

One could not confirm that Venegas’ images show María Elvia of Hank’s family in privacy, much less in their daily routine. The photographer herself states that the words daily routine “are complicated when the camera is present.” When facing the lens, every instant seizes to be “normal” and becomes exceptional. Venegas wanted to shoot the children coming home from school, but what she got – and a lot of – was the family in social events: weddings, baptisms, bachelorettes. This does not mean she didn’t get to photograph the Hank family in their daily activities: watching TV, taking classes, going out with friends. But many of the images focus on social events and the circumstances that occur around them. At times, Venegas would get there hours before the event to capture the setup of the tents and the prior organization of the event, in an attempt to direct the lens beyond the social event that was naturally “made for the camera.”

More than curating the life moments, the attention of the photographer focuses on penetrating the surface of the selection process through which María Elvia determined how her and her family were portrayed by the camera. In the text that goes with the images, Venegas explains, “she is the one who defines what I have access to and the one who decides the boundaries between the public and the private. I know that the intimate will only consist of those moments that I can pinpoint behind those created for the camera.”

Venegas’ camera is just another guest in the party and manages to unfold what she describes as “fragile moments where something not set up, sneaks in” under the polished surface of the social event. These brief but convincing moments set the foundations for the series. Beyond “portraying” or not, “faithfully” or not, the life of an incredibly rich family – in an incredibly poor and unequal country – what Venegas achieves is to recreate the social dynamics of the scenes that are presented to her, she is able to undermine the social order that it appears to represent. The content of the material is not only found in the immediately visible, or in the social event itself, but in the small gestures that filtrate through the slots, where the nature of the social dynamics that the photographer witnesses is revealed.

This is a universe filled with helping hands, constantly extended to offer their help. It is a space where there will always be a hand, or multiple, that will receive a bag at a precise moment; where a huge sofa will be to accommodate the weight of a child, where a dozen waiters wander around with trays ready to offer; where an army of nannies are willing to fix the hair of the two girls perfectly; where there will always be a maid ready to pick up a candle that fell on the ground, as she has done with so many other objects in the last forty years.

Through these small gestures, the series specifies the necessary inner workings for the construction of luxury, the idea of easiness. If Oscar Lewis studied the concept of the culture of poverty decades ago, Venegas’ images create the culture of luxury by showing us, in between the lines, that army of helping hands. It is not about the biological sketch of an opulent aesthetic, because the images are not focused on the material wealth, but on the ritual and social dynamics of wealth. It portrays the necessary elements for the construction of culture of assistance, where the social institution of servitude is a fundamental element. How many people have to be employed for this micro cosmos to survive? Here, even the animals – including the bears – have helping hands that hand them water bottles to drink while they go for a walk. What we truly see in these images lies in the trivial, in the simplest of gestures. That is why some of the images seem even absurd in their simplicity. Those photographed aren’t posing, they’re interacting, and the reality of the social universe peaks out not only through their image, but also through the smallest gestures they practice.

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