The déjà vu photographs can make you feel about people you’ve never seen or places you’ve never been is near inexplicable. Helena Goñi is an artist and photographer from Bilbao, the Basque Country in Spain, who captures that powerful kinship in her personal and timeless stories. After having lived in Canada as a kid, studied in London then moved to New York on the Fulbright Scholarship to study, her background permeates her artistic expression. We had the chance to talk about how Britney introduced her to photography, memories swirl in a cold ocean and her upcoming residency in Japan.
To start off, could you introduce yourself to those who may not know you?
Of course! My name is Helena Goñi Alonso and I’m from Bilbao, a city in the Basque Country. I’m an artist and freelance photographer currently based in New York City.
And tell us, when did you begin to get interested in photography?
I think I owe my interest in photography to two women: my mum and Britney Spears. When I was nine years old, my parents, my sister and I moved to British Columbia, in the west coast of Canada, for a year and half. My mother always carried her camera around, taking photographs of our experience there. I remember being aware of the dynamics of taking a picture and thinking it was fun. I also remember the feeling that something big was coming up in regards to photography. It was 1999 and the shift to digital photography was the hot topic. That same year, Britney Spears was the face of the Polaroid I-Zone instant camera and I was a huge Britney fan. At some point I persuaded my parents into buying me the camera. It made passport-sized photographs that were stickers at the same time. I would photograph my friends, my family and myself.
Looking through your work, we could say that portraiture is almost the main focus in your practice, maybe due to your deep interest in meeting new people wherever you go. What relation do you have with these kinds of images? Do you find a more intimate look in them?
Since I was a kid, I loved meeting other people so I guess as I grew older the camera became the excuse to continue doing that. Sometimes I wonder if I would be eager or open to meet so many people nowadays if I didn’t have the camera around. Either way, yes, I am very drawn to the energy that is built when you are taking someone’s portrait.
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Maider at her studio, Bilbao, 2021
You usually take analogue pictures, and it seems that in this age of digitalisation, film is becoming more and more popular again. But taking photos without being able to see an immediate result can seem way more complicated, what makes you prefer it over working on digital? Why do you believe the youth are falling for this trend?
I would say one reason is precisely what you have already mentioned; the fact that I am not confronted immediately with the image of what I am looking. Another one that comes to mind is playing around the limitation of images that you can make. I find that very liberating.
It’s true that it seems like more and more people are becoming interested in analogue photography. Perhaps it has to do with a search for a slower pace or an image that is not as crisp and polished as your phone pictures. Not that film cannot have those qualities, but usually when you are younger you develop and scan film in the cheapest places or do it yourself without much knowledge so it enhances that kind of raw look, where there are some dust and scratches and the colour is a bit off.
In a podcast, you said that your pillar is the camera, but you always take into consideration other techniques that your project may need. As you are a multidisciplinary artist, how do you know in what form you want to portray your idea? Tell us about your creative process.
First of all, I appreciate the research for this interview, it’s not something that you find often. Answering your question, I would say that my creative process usually starts from experiences of my daily life: something that I see in the subway or the street, someone that I meet. My go-to tool is usually the camera or at least the photographic process, as I have worked as well with pinholes, photograms, etc. Sometimes these experiences that trigger a new work unravel in a way that I find difficult or not interesting to develop through still image and it is then when I start to think about other media or methodologies that are important to my practice as well, such as reenactment, performance, text and the moving image.
In most of your projects, you let some time pass from the moment you take the pictures until you finally work with them for your selection and edit them. Is it so you can escape from the feelings involved in those experiences? Do you try to keep all those emotions away and be more rational?
No, I don’t think it has to do with this emotional-rational dichotomy, although I used to believe that. Now I believe it has more to do with the fact that I don’t usually have a studio space. And also, as I have been moving quite often producing new work, I had the habit of sitting with the work and editing when there is a specific context for those images to be materialised, such as a publication or an exhibition. However, this is a part of my process that I am changing a bit to be more hands-on with the materiality of the work even if it’s just at home with smaller prints.
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Virginia reclinada, NYC, 2021
I’m especially interested in asking you about A cold, cold ocean (Un océano muy frío), the project with which you applied to BilbaoArte and also became the winner of Viphoto Fest'19. You said that the idea came from the concept of ‘memory failure’ and how the mental images you had from Canada were mostly invented or at least distorted from reality. Once there, did your memories lose their magic?
That’s interesting. Now I want to know why you are more drawn to that work. So, around 2015 I was finishing an MFA in London and writing my thesis, part of its subject being the failures of memory: what do we understand by them, types, etc. I read many books on memory, thought a lot about how we relate to it and while doing that I realised that almost all of my childhood memories were from the year and half that I spent in Canada when I was 9 to 10 years old. I was already quite old but it almost felt like my brain had deleted some of my previous memories to make room for that year full of new experiences. When I went back to Canada in 2017, I did this trip wary that I didn’t want to do a journey to 1999, but to reconnect with Canada as an adult. I started in the East coast which I barely knew and traveled towards the more familiar. And although I couldn’t resist passing by my old school and house, it was not the most significant part of the trip at all. In fact, it was kind of strange, but I would say that no, memories didn’t lose their magic, I just created new ones.
You decided to go backpacking and travel by train from the East coast to the West coast. You couch-surfed to find accommodation, as well as to meet people from Canada and learn about the country from their point of view. I think you can really see this profound experience in your photography. But how do you manage to create a project that is so personal yet we can all relate to?
That’s very generous of you. I am sure not all can relate to it but I guess there is a space where the personal and the universal touch each other and that is where, ideally, these kind of connections happen through the work.
In 2019, you were granted the Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed you to take a course at the International Center of Photography in New York. There, you collected a series of photographs you took under the name of Great Expectations, all from underground culture. They remind me of the fantasy of teenage life that is often sold to us in series or films, such as in Skins or Euphoria. Is it intentional? Do you have cinematographic references of this type?
In 2018 I went to New York with the Basque Artist Programme from the Guggenheim Museum. I stayed there for a month and a half longer than the programme (which lasted one month) so I could photograph and experience the city. This is when I photographed the images that constitute Great Expectations. After that moment, I decided that I wanted to move longer to NY and going to ICP with a Fulbright seemed like the perfect way to do it. The first year I didn’t get the scholarship, then the pandemic happened and when they opened the call again, I applied and got the scholarship, so I moved here in September 2021 and I am doing the course until June 2022. In terms of the body of work you mention, there was a cinematographic gaze that I had wanted to explore for a while and being in New York just felt like it was the right moment to do so because the city has that subtext to it. Maybe my favourite movies or TV shows depicting youth aesthetics would be the movies El PicoEl Pico 2 by Eloy de la Iglesia for two reasons: one, they were made in Bilbao and they are very connected to the socio-political scene that was going on there at the time and two, they are very real, the actors were pretty much acting like themselves. I guess in a way something similar happens with Kids by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine but I didn’t love that film when I saw it many years ago.
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Self-tied leg and radiator, NYC, 2021
In 2021 you organizsd Caleidoscopio, an online mentoring and professionalisation course in contemporary photography for young people from Bizkaia, the Basque Country, Spain. Could you tell us more of what it consisted of? And what type of activities did you offer?
I started the program in 2020 and in a way, I think it was a consequence of the pandemic and thinking about the importance of community and being connected, and in 2021 I organised the second edition with Getxophoto festival. The program is mainly online but it includes some in-person meetings and workshops. The course is structured by 3 kinds of encounters: artist talk, workshop and masterclass. The artist talk is an artist sharing their process, projects and methodologies when working. The workshops are longer so they allow the artists to propose some exercises and dynamics to do with the class and the masterclasses are focused on learning more about technical and practical things, such as building a portfolio, editing, legal and tax information, taught by specialists.
A big part of being an artist or photographer is the community that you build, having people that will inspire you and that you can share work with and help each other. When I started studying Fine Art in the University of the Basque Country, I sensed that there was not as much community for artists working mainly with the photographic medium in Bilbao as you could find in, say, Madrid or Barcelona. Caleidoscopio is a place for the exchange of ideas and building a community through this common passion for the photographic medium. It’s a very special project for me and I hope I can continue doing it and learning from it.
You’ve had many stays abroad, having spent months in Canada, Paris, New York or studying in London. It’s clear that these environments greatly influences your work. But knowing that barely any resources are given in Spain when it comes to art and culture I must ask you, did you leave in search of inspiration or because it’s almost necessary?
Indeed, the situation for culture in Spain and the economy, in general, is very fragile and precarious but I have to admit that in the Basque Country there are more production grants that you can apply for, and more support for artists in general in comparison to other places in Spain. That said, there is still a lot of work to be done and changes that need to happen urgently, especially regarding freelancing policies. It’s a tricky question, but acknowledging my situation I would say mainly for life experiences but there is a part of it that comes out of necessity, of course. If it were only out of necessity I would have probably just moved outside of Spain and settled somewhere, say in London for example. It is better for work, I believe. People know where you are, and you can take better care of the relationships (both personal and professional), but I do like to move around a bit.
And is there any city where you have a special interest in spending time and developing an artistic creation?
Many! One place is Japan, and, if all goes well, I will be doing a residency there this summer.
Japan is definitely one of the most repeated places when asking artists where they’d like to go. Enjoy! And to finish off, what are your plans for the future? Is there any project you are looking forward to bringing to life?
I am working on a couple of different bodies of work at the moment but for now, I am really happy to be taking part in a collective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao this summer with the 10 artists that have been part of the Basque Artist Grant. I will be presenting work from Great Expectations (2018) and another one from this year so I am excited to see them together. Also, I am launching my new website pretty soon so that’s something that I’m looking forward to as well. And like I said, fingers crossed for Japan!
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Portrait of Olivia, NYC, 2021
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View from a trail near the Umpqua Forest, Oregon, 2022
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SOX underground, Paris, 2021
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Lynn holding books, NYC, 2022
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Olatz en un descanso, Bilbao, 2021
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Jordan at home, NYC, 2021
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Too sad to tell you (Candela), Bilbao, 2021
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Eclipse, Victoria BC, 2017
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Sox closing the manhole, Paris, 2021
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Caleb undressing, NYC, 201