When what we do behind closed doors is complicated by the exhibitionist performance of constant social media presence, can an artist truly capture intimacy anymore? Berlin-based, Colombian-American photographer Jon Cuadros explores ideas of intimacy through the lens of his wayward camera, that carries him from Tokyo to Moscow.
How did you first get into photography and who would you consider your major influences?
I got really obsessed with photography five summers ago and I went through lots of phases. First, it was street photography, and I was mainly inspired by Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand. In their pictures there are many things happening at once. It’s just objectively impressive that they can control that chaos. Then I got into documentary photography and soon after I found a lineage of European photography that really grabbed a hold of me: the Swedes Anders Petersen and his mentor, Christer Strömholm, who made names for themselves through their very poetic, intimate black-and-white photography.
Petersen's Cafe Lehmitz covered a dive bar by the port in Hamburg so he’s capturing raw portraits of sailors, prostitutes, and other transients in their local haunt – the people in these photos would be what some may call or consider ‘outcasts’. Yet look at how beautiful they are in the pictures, they seemed the happiest people on Earth. You want them to be your friends. At the same time, I'm not that idealistic. If you were to pass by this bar and pop your head in you would probably think, who are all these low-lives? But he put you into that space of questioning, making the strange very familiar and warm. We are all not that different.
I wanted to go out of the line of my life and discover what was around that. I studied Creative Writing and Literature at university so that's why I look at photos and see stories, narrative threads. In particular, I had an affinity for poetry – again, workaday stuff, like O’Hara. I like the verve and the closeness in poetry and apply it to photography. My work is based on everyday life. I'm not going on assignments for other people, it's all personal. I only take pictures because I want to, it's not what pays my rent.
How did the Moscow Kiss series, your most recent project, come about? 
This series was born out of a larger project that began in March 2017, when I finally considered why I shoot and where to point the camera. It got more personal. I set out to document intimacy and the ritualistic power of love. The first book I published, Lichtquellen, came out of a project that started without much thought and it was only after I looked back at thousands of negatives that I discovered a redline in retrospect. We had the release show, the solo show in Mitte, Berlin, and I felt like that was a great way to close things out, abandon that and start something else.
After all the stress of the book/show, I had to get away, so I went to visit a friend in Tokyo for three weeks, which wasn't really a vacation – whenever I have such time on my hands I end up taking photos all day. I was really reenergized by the city and wanted to come back with lots of material, but when I was back in Berlin and went through the negatives, I thought, I didn't have shit to show for three weeks of unfettered photo-taking. It lacked direction. So I was compelled to channel this energy.
I ended up taking this opportunity to attend a workshop with Anders Petersen. Like I said, I've never studied photography or taken an online course – or anything like that –, so going into a formal education environment I was very cynical. If you're interested in doing something, just do it and learn along the way – except if that something is to fly a plane, maybe. The workshop defied my expectations. Anders was such a child-like, joyous old Swedish man, who shouted at us to stop being photographers and start being curious people. It really lit a fire under me.
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When you went to Moscow, how did you go about meeting these people who star in your photos?
It's interesting because I shot that in a week, whereas the book I shot over two winters. I knew the constraints in Moscow, and that comes back to poetry: you need to work within an economy and a tight frame to produce something beautiful. I had a week and, you know, with the United States passport and visa app, they really make you report where you’re staying, where you’re going to eat, where you’re going to shit. I pushed myself way further in that one week than I did in Tokyo in three.
There was one really young artist who lived in a squat and followed his own call. I also read an article on an online community about people who were spread out across Moscow and who have exotic birds as pets, like trained ravens. I love birds. There's just something surreal about having this mystical creature on your shoulder so I had to reach these people. I got in touch with the forum admin and told her I was interested. She made a post asking if anyone wanted them and their bird photographed, and some came back super enthusiastic. I got a call from one of the bird keepers one hangover morning and I just got an Uber straight there.
Same thing with the young artist: he reached out to me and was staying quite off the grid, squatting on top of a high rise occupied mostly by Central Asian migrants. It took me a while to find him but I knew I had to find a way. The trip was all about going out to find these people and saying yes to everything. My photography is always driven by personal factors. I just want to take photos of things that interest me. Birds are sick and ravens are particularly enchanting. The young painter was living a lifestyle that fascinated me, so I dived in.
Do you think that by plugging yourself into these communities you gained a unique impression on the Russian art world?
In Moscow, you see the extremes. I saw the guy living in the squat painting of his own volition. He had been painting and tattooing since he was sixteen and to me, that was super raw, honest and open, and that's what I'm interested in. I'm very cynical about the art world and how it intersects with commercialism, like galleries buying your name and selling your work. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I was hanging out with people from Strelka, which is an art and design institute funded by an oligarch. They were set out to make their mark in the art world. So I really saw both sides and it was really strange, I haven't seen that in Berlin. Here I've just met people like me.
In the end, I realized they're all interested in the same things. They have different means and points of access but in the photos they're all democratized, on an equal playing field. Intimacy was the unifying factor for them. You can never be too poor to be romantic, you just have a different interpretation of how that romance works. Everyone has access to romance so the theme collapsed all those differences into one and got rid of class and social status without elevating or bringing anyone down. These are just concepts that bind people. I have my own opinions on class and capitalism, but at least in the photos that's neither here nor there.
It's interesting that you talk about not wanting to elevate anyone because when someone is getting their portrait taken, they are consciously or subconsciously performing. Do you feel there’s a level of performance in your photos? Do you consider staging?
When I was shooting street photography, I wanted to be a fly on the wall. It was almost a Buddhist thing of trying to have zero effect on my surroundings. But then, when I started taking photos of people, I wanted to be personally involved in what I was doing. I realized that you do have to engage people because you’re a catalyser trying to bring out something from the gut. You want to learn about the people, and in order to do so, you have to meet them halfway and be a person. The camera is a means to meet people in this intimate way because, otherwise, I am too shy.
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How do you avoid feelings of voyeurism or exploitation in these intimate portraits of people who might feel like you're taking advantage of them?
I’m genuinely interested in meeting these people and the camera’s an excuse to do so. If I didn’t have it in my hand I don’t think I would have the courage to enter these intense personal spaces with so many new people. In terms of ethics, every photographer has his or her own; maybe some don’t have enough. Since you asked, I do not think about this when I take pictures. If you’re worried about how the person will feel or if he or she will be hurt, then you’re never going to fully capture anything. So you’re actually doing them a disservice. Half-heartedness sticks out in the uninteresting photos you’ve taken. In order to truly honour your subjects, you have to take it seriously, go full force and throw yourself into the work because it’s a two-way relationship, in the end.
Then, when you go back and edit, you think some photos don’t work or feel disingenuous for whatever reason. You must have ethics during the edition process. You sober up to a certain degree and have to find what you want to say and how you want to say it. What ties my photos together is this sense of intimacy. If you're locked in a romantic entanglement, there’s a special way you act behind closed doors. If it's only the two of you and you're so wrapped up in the moment, you lose awareness. That moment is lost but there’s also no record of it, and that’s why I think it’s very special to capture it.
How do you feel social media like Instagram affects working in photography? 
I once posted a lot on Instagram because I wanted to share what I do and it’s a popular platform. My website is just kind of an island. How do you get people to go there? But then I realized that when I published the book, everyone had already seen the photos, there were no surprises. I had put a lot of effort into preparing this art object but the photos had already been liked and shared on Instagram. So I used to be in this regiment of posting every day at particular times, selecting the right hashtags, etc. but it essentially undermined the value of the work. You can’t forget that Instagram is a corporatized platform for cheap, shallow visuals. Before, I was posting photos of street life or cityscapes, but when I turned the camera on people I care about – friends, family, lovers –, I wanted to assign a value to them and not post them willy-nilly on social media. It seemed really pointless to me. For Moscow Kiss, I really wanted to be more conscious of how I shared them, to not squander them and to keep my secrets.
Do you think our generation is dangerously addicted to being photographed, captured and seen, compared to older generations who are generally uneasy in front of the camera?
Our generation and the one before us are definitely used to being photographed, it’s part of our life and times, whether it’s the surveillance era or the ubiquity of social media. But at the same time, no one likes to be caught off guard, whether you’re a ninety-year-old Turkish lady or a sixteen-year-old Instagram celeb with a curated selfies album. So when I take someone’s photo I ask them how do they want to be portrayed, what do they want out of this, and I take that as a starting point. Then the onus is on them to imagine the outcome, and I work hard for them. I never take pictures of models. I don’t do studios, I don’t do makeup artists. I take pictures of strangers, friends, just people. I want something organic and, hopefully, if I do it right, something magical that comes out of it.
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