What defines a place? For photographer Luis Alberto Rodriguez, it’s the people who live on the land and their everyday work, which connects them with the earth. It’s a sport that has been played for generations, and whose traditions have been passed down from ancestral times. It’s the labour, the dances, the memories, the traditions.
Observing a life that wasn’t affected by the chaotic pulses of modern society, the New York-born, Berlin-based photographer captures the place where heritage is more than just a word, revealing the importance of knowing where we all came from. We speak with him about People of the Mud, his new photo book published by Loose Joints, which includes a text by photo historian Orla Fitzpatrick and a poem by Tim Walker.
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To create People of the Mud, you spent three months in County Wexford, Ireland living side by side with the people of those lands. I imagine that life there is significantly different from the one in Berlin and New York City. Was this experience anything new to you or had you already had a chance to live rural life? Was there anything you weren’t prepared for?
I grew up traveling between NYC and the Dominican Republic, where my family is from. The difference in pace between both landscapes prepared me for anything. However, I am very much a big city person and grew up across the street from the subway. How I survived that craziness beats me.
Whilst in Ireland, I resided on a farm in a very rural part of County Wexford. Like most native New Yorkers I know, I don’t know how to drive a car and always relied on public transportation. Due to where the farm was located in Ireland, I had to be driven everywhere to get from point A to point B. I wasn’t used to being so dependent on others or a car for my daily meanderings.
You’ve been surrounded by a multicultural environment from the very beginning – from your Dominican family/heritage to your life in New York, to your transferring to Berlin. Throughout the years, you’ve had time to familiarise with every aspect of each culture, so why didn’t you focus your work on one you were already familiar with? What made you choose Ireland and, in particular, County Wexford?
In 2017, I was one of the winners at the Hyères Festival for Fashion and Photography. This gave me the opportunity to show new work at the festival the following year. I was then nominated for a residency funded by Futures, a new platform from the EU amplifying emerging artists. I was selected and was awarded a photo residency in Ireland, which was one of their three partner countries.
Under the umbrella of Futures, the residency was a collaboration between PhotoIreland in Dublin and CowHouse Studios in County Wexford; ‘cultural heritage’ was the subject I was given to explore. It was an incredible opportunity to dive into a culture I had had very little contact with until then.
Your book is focused on people, their identity and culture in relation to the Irish land. This connection is shown throughout the movement, whether it’s a sport, a dance, or labour. Was it your dancing career that made you especially sensitive for the human body and the beauty of its movement, or have you always seen something extraordinary in it?
Before getting into photography, I worked professionally as a dancer for fifteen years and trained for ten years before that. As a gay child, I became very observant early on on how others move through the world. I’d use their bodies as a compass for myself to measure what it meant to be ‘normal’ since others seemed to be aware that there was something ‘off’ with me. Understanding physicality became an incredible tool for my survival. I can’t separate my vast experience as a dancer with how I view the world today. It completely shaped how I navigate my body in space and in relation to others.
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People hold a significant place in your book. Men and women of different age, beauty, and with varying life stories are portrayed through your black-and-white lens. Was there anyone who impressed you the most, and whose story you would like to share?
I was really struck by Michael, who must be in his 70s and runs the farm I stayed in. He has an incredible knowledge of the area and of every single aspect relating to the land and the tools used over all these years to create sustainable living conditions. His family has been on the same land for three hundred years. I’d stare at him in admiration.
You had the chance to know people with a different lifestyle: less loud, less fast, and yet more meaningful, more real. In the era of consumption and new technologies, these people still keep their connection to the motherland and what is truly valuable. Did living this reality change your perception of life or the way you think?
There is a lot of noise around us competing for our attention; it seems the world is collapsing at an unprecedented speed. I can’t say something has profoundly changed in the way I live or the way I love since returning from Ireland. My need for community, connection, and collaboration is as present as it was before this whole experience. One thing that was highlighted throughout my time in Wexford was the importance of understanding our history, our roots and our traditions. This knowledge is a map for the evolution of our cultures.
In a brief about the book, it reads that you were “struck by the intense physicality of the sport of hurling. Considered to be the fastest sport on grass, while watching slow-motion footage of hurling Rodriguez saw that within seconds the players would go through pushing, shoving, grabbing, hugging, knocking each other down and then lifting one another up.” However, the photos you took of the sport’s players weren’t taken during the game itself. Instead, you worked with them to “reform these gestures: creating sculptures out of bodies, directing and literally layering players upon one another.” Why did you decide to work like this? Were you searching for a diverse interpretation of the sport and the body itself?
The initial inspiration for the work created in Wexford was a photo I had made in 2017 in the Dominican Republic. From the viewers’ perspective, the photo shows two brothers in a tight embrace and it’s unclear whether they are hugging or wrestling. No space between them; one unit. I was interested in expanding this specific photo and exploring the notion of family.
In an effort to give center stage to the long relationships of the players, I extracted what I saw in the field onto their backyards and collaboratively re-choreographed moments from their experience that I had observed but had perhaps flown by them. By using the intrinsic physicality of the sport to talk about connectivity and trust, hurling became a way for me to explore intimacy between a community of people.
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People of the Mud consists of numerous shots of agricultural equipment, while people are featured in an abstract process of labour. But why a significant part of the book was dedicated to agriculture and not, for example, religion since it also identifies our past and present, and determines our daily routine and habits?
The topic I was to work with was ‘Irish cultural heritage’. With my own history as a dancer, I was interested in creating work that related to the body, labor and continuity. From a practical standpoint, the residency was located on a farm. Mud, never being static and always taking shape is a geographical signifier in the work, and to me became a symbol of continuity throughout the history of the people who inhabited the area. Although there was a very present shadow of religion everywhere, I didn’t feel I was the best person to tell that specific story. Agriculture was a means of survival for them.
A significant part of your photography is focused on fashion. Your works have been published in major fashion magazines featuring world-known brands. Nowadays, as fashion photography is changing towards more complex ideas and focusing on storytelling, it’s less common to see a person as is. At the same time, your new book is built on showcasing people in their natural form and condition: a hurling player remains a player, a worker remains a worker. Even though an artist may masterfully merge any concepts in their artwork, do you personally prefer to create or show a person?
Growing up in the theater, I was always interested in transformation. The challenge of embodying a physicality that was foreign to my own body was exciting for me. I think identity is multifaceted and no one body is a singular idea. To me, photography is both a creation and a collaboration between myself and the subject. I love photographing people.
As a dancer with a perennial experience, do you think that a body language may tell more than words?
Actions speak louder than words.
You’ve also been working on a project in collaboration with the International Olympic Committee. Can you tell our readers something more about it? Will it be a project dedicated to the next Olympic Games?
Due to the current pandemic, this project has been postponed until further notice.
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