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29 October 2020

Eleana Konstantellos Fights for Her Grandmother's Sense of Emancipation

29 October 2020 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

Inspired by her grandmother Esther’s personal experience of machismo, Eleana Konstantellos decided to use her family archive to investigate the representations of deprivation that her grandmother once faced, yet still don’t seem to be far away from the photographer’s own reality today.

© Eleana Konstantello from the series, Doble Olvido

In order to understand Esther, her maternal grandmother, Eleana started to research through family archival materials, where she started to recognise similar patterns to today in relation to women's lack of opportunities in society. As she delved into the topic of womanhood and family, soon she realised this wasn’t only a project about her grandmother, but one about herself and many women stories.

As she gathered more family insights, Eleana learned that once her grandfather, Alfonso, had asked her grandmother to choose between her accountant career or her love and dedication to him. Her grandmother chose the latter, however, after many years together she did return to study and work again.

In 1998, Eleana’s grandmother, accidentally slipped at a swimming pool causing her a serious injury on her neck. Unfortunately, this event led to several strokes that left her after many years with memory loss and temporary, spatial, and emotional displacement. In the blur of her grandmother’s memories, Eleana reconstructs this family puzzle and decides to frame it as a personal project that she hopes can extend to many other women’s stories.

© Eleana Konstantello from the series, Doble Olvido

Eleana, you have combined several archives in this series - how have these images impacted your understanding of your identity and has it had an impact on the development of the project? If so, how so, could you elaborate?

In the development of the project, combining several archival footages made the project seize more depth and with-it new questions aroused. The archival footage impacted my way of seeing and understanding photography. Adding these new materials made my thinking become more critical and conceptual. I could not rely solely on aesthetics to use them, I needed to justify their place within the work.

When I came across the archive, I began to mix those documentary images that I had previous made with the images of my family, letters, etc. A new discourse was woven between past and present, about memory and about my identity. I needed to know my past in order to understand my present. Mixing these nuances, I understood the importance of experimentation and intuition within my photographic work. I would say, the way I am working after this project sums up to 90% of intuition and 10% of thoughtful work. Of course, once I have made the intuitive part I always take a step back and analyse why I did what I did. I believe it needs to have a justification inside the body of work. I do first and then I think about what I did.

The issues I talk about in this work, the violent essence of patriarchy, the submission of women, and, the gender performance, are strong issues and right now, they are very present in the world thanks to all feminist movements. I did not want to come face to face to impose an absolute look or idea. I sought to adopt a more poetic, more conceptual narrative that would leave the door open to interpretation, so that the viewer could easily enter the subject, and, in some way, they could be able to identify themselves or at least question themselves about it.

© Eleana Konstantello from the series, Doble Olvido

Why did you decide to include self-portraits into the narrative?

Including myself within the narrative of the project came a bit instinctively with the self-portrait that I made putting on my grandmother's wedding dress. I found it one day among the things in the house, I put it on and showed it to her. She was very excited to see me in it and recognised the dress immediately.

When I took that self-portrait, I asked myself: what did my grandmother feel in this dress before getting married? As much as I seek a feeling of joy, the only thing I felt was sadness and rage.

I wanted to show the dress as a symbol of what a woman "has to do before society" to be considered one. I did not want to repeat that performance of the female gender. I did not want to live what my grandmother had lived. It was an intense moment because from then on, I began to question all my relationships, with my family, with my partner and with my friends…

To include myself with self-portraits is not only to include myself as a person but to include a whole movement that is taking place in the world with women saying; "we are tired of playing those roles, of suffering this violence, this inequality, we want the world to change!"

It is a performance and an experience of healing and awareness.

© Eleana Konstantello from the series, Doble Olvido

Would you say you started to photograph her to understand her grief or perhaps as a way to get to know her past and present better?

Both, I would say.

At first, I began to photograph my grandparents for school tasks. Shortly after I started studying my grandfather passed away. It was a very strong blow for the whole family. My grandmother and I found ourselves living in a big house alone. I saw that my grandfather's death affected her, and I wanted to understand how she lived that grief and how her memory loss worked.

Shortly after talking to her, I realised that my grandmother was very confused about the events and people in her life. I started talking with my relatives to learn a little more about my family’s story and specifically about my grandmother, her story, her accident, her childhood...

I turned to the family archive to find a little more about the truth. I sought to understand her past to better understand her memory loss and to be able to find and know my roots. Through her story I learned my story. After that I think it was a natural step to include myself into the narrative using the self-portrait.

© Eleana Konstantello from the series, Doble Olvido

Through this personal project and family experience what's your take of the mechanism of memory and photography?

For me, memory works like an ocean. Some memories we have are very present almost on the mere shore of the sea. Others grow like waves and return from time to time. Others sink into the depths and are never found again. Through our memory we live many lives.

Photography itself has a great intrigue with memory. Do images help us to remember or do they help us to distort our memories? The interesting thing about archive photography, the images that we find in family albums, lies in the embellishing part of a “reality”. We select what we want to "remember" and then through the stories of our own family we distort that image depending on how it was told.

Memory carries with it a sentimental and emotional charge. The person who reviews these memories tends to live them subjectively, involving their beliefs and their own life experience, which depends on each one of us. We build our roots and a large part of our memories through our families, the stories they tell us and the images we see in our family albums.

This is how a single image can be narrated in many ways by the same people who are in it.

Even more! The mind is so powerful that it can recreate images from stories that were told to us. We could swear to have lived those moments and yet not have been present. Every time you review a memory you tend to modify that memory, subtracting or adding true or fictitious information.

At the end of the day, I think, each person forms their own memory and shapes it to how it best serves them. This is what my grandmother does every day.

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Eleana Konstantellos André is a French born photographer currently based in Mexico City. Inspired by family archives she has begun to explore in her work notions of memory and search for identity. She has taken part at the portfolio review; Descubrimientos de PhotoEspaña (2020), finalist in the Burn Emerging Photographer Fund (2019) and was shortlisted for the Athens International Photography Festival in Greece (2019). Follow her on Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America.

Written by

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

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