26 May 2021
26 May 2021 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
Ana Vallejo is a Colombian photographer who describes herself as obsessed with love. Experimenting with the limits of photography, Ana challenges her passion for lust amid lockdown in New York City while away from her native country.
Neuromantic is a personal project that Ana Vallejo started experimenting with in 2018, but it became a clear vision during the lockdown in New York. Ana describes herself as a ‘love addict’. While in the constraints of her apartment, Ana dreamed to be cherished. Instead, she began to realise her love obsession. This experience initiated an inner look that led her to photograph the need for love and her own personal love traumas from the past that haunt her more than she had ever realised. With a background in Biology, she naturally responded to scientific research. Today, we see her take on scientific research and her creative interpretation.
Ana, it's a pleasure to be interviewing you about your new, personal, and introspective work Neuromantic. Please tell us more about the title of your project and why you decided to create this word.
To me the title is the combination of the word neurosis and romantic; Neuromantic.
Towards the end of my year at the International Centre of Photography school (ICP), I was still struggling to find a title for my project. During my last advising session with Darin Mickey, chair of the Creative Practice program, he suddenly said “I have the title! Neuromantic!” and I immediately knew he was right.
It's the name of a Japanese self-produced album from 1981 by Yukihiro Takahashi. I’m all about synthesisers and learned that Ryucichi Sakamoto plays the keyboards in it. Another fun fact is that Neuromantic is also the name of a free application for neuron image reconstruction used in research and education.
Clearly the pandemic has affected all of us in many different ways, but what we hear most is related to socio-economic impacts. We know little about how the pandemic has affected single people. Can you tell us about how your personal experience during the pandemic motivated you to begin this project?
Briefly before the pandemic hit NY, I remember I had a breakthrough in one of my presentations in my New Media weekly seminar with Elizabeth Kilroy and Fred Ritchin at ICP. I presented collages piecing in together: testimonies from people I had been asking intimate questions to, photos from my attempts to convey how love addiction felt and research. Fred Ritchin looked at the collages and said: ‘this project is not about love, it’s about trauma’. Then a very close friend from school that I was very much in love with at the time said to me in the subway: ‘Why don’t you photograph your trauma?’. This resonated with me, but the concept was also very abstract to me at the time.
It was until we went into lockdown a week later that I was truly confronted with this idea. Like many, I was experiencing extreme anxiety in isolation. I felt alone and without refuge. I craved badly for someone to hold me, but instead, I felt abandoned and very alienated from the people around me in the ‘Zoom’ world. I knew the only way out of all the agony I was feeling was to dive deep into my inner world and confront those traumatic experiences that so heavily influenced my dependence on romantic love to numb pain and a void that I had felt all my life.
In the initial stage of confinement, memories felt very vivid. I was able to ponder on childhood experiences and memories that had always been difficult for me to process. Thanks to the project I engaged in deep conversation with family members which led me to uncover and learn about traumatic experiences that had a great impact on me and that I had been carrying all my life unconsciously.
I was already experimenting with colour, but I started lighting in more complex ways and using symbols from the memories or stories from my family and my life that affected me the most. The photos speak about paranoia, addiction, abuse and death, but I also want them to feel attractive and hybrid, like the toxic romantic loves and fantasies I constantly fell back on to cope with my pain.
I started doing self-portraits but felt too awkward and constrained. I do want to include myself in a photo at some point, although, it became easier for me to work with others. During confinement, my cousin moved in with me and I photographed her a lot. We have a very similar family history and she became a mirror for me. I also photographed men who I had dated or been in a relationship with and very close friends going through very similar emotions and experiences. I photographed a lot my dear friend singer and songwriter; Nicolle Jadad.
Once you started working on the visual side of the project, how did you begin to work on the scientific research?
I set myself to do this project in 2018 when I planned to apply to the New Media program at ICP school. I had been working on my project, Entre Nubes, for three years and felt the urge to speak from my own experience. I wanted to have more creative freedom and agency for my next project.
Volatile relationships had always been at the centre of my life, so I concluded that I was a love addict. I wanted to understand my behaviour and as a biologist, I naturally turned to neuro-scientific texts. I found many articles on the physiological effects of infatuation and on how it can activate our reward system in the brain, basically acting like a drug.
I think everyone has experienced an intense romance, where they had constant intrusive thoughts about the desired lover, felt intoxicated and urged to repeat their encounters in quite uncontrollable ways. This happens in young love but also in fleeting love and in the ups and downs of dysfunctional relationships which can be prevalent throughout our lives causing a lot of harm to us and everyone around us. I thought that the science behind this was fascinating, but for a while, I also struggled to figure out how to represent it visually.
In school, people would see me presenting graphs and neuro-scientific explanations about love and the nature of addiction, but for a while, no one (including myself) could visualise where my project was going or understand what the heck I wanted to do with all that research. This is my first art and science project and one of the biggest challenges for me has been resolving how to integrate both disciplines. I think graphic design and other mediums like sound will be resources that help me resolve this.
How has the data research affected your image-making? Are you producing collaborative works with those who have engaged in your research?
I have met really interesting people through my research. I was introduced to Partha Mitra, a brilliant Indian theoretical physicist and neuroscientist based in NY, by my friend and painter Ana Maria Velasco. Me and Partha became pen pals around 2010 when I got my biology degree. I had many questions about the human conscious experience, emotions and mental illnesses. When I came to NY, I reconnected with him. His lab is mapping out the mouse and marmoset brain circuits as a whole in contrast to looking at neuron synapses individually. The lab’s goal is to obtain a conceptual breakthrough into how brains work. I hope we can collaborate beyond conversation at some point as he is very much into holistic and interdisciplinary approaches as well.
I also reached out to the American neuroscientist Lucy Brown as she had co-authored with Helen Fisher many of the neuro-scientific papers on romantic love. We met for the first time at the MET and on different occasions had in-person discussions on the subject. More rigorously, I have been exchanging emails and conversations with the independent curator, artist, writer, and researcher Janna Dyk. We have discussed how neuropsychology and visual studies intersect. This has been very insightful in my quest to integrate scientific data and art.
For the anonymously sourced data annexe of the project, I have been collaborating with the wonderful Andrew Hill, a data scientist who recently graduated from NYU. Together, we have been designing a second pilot of the love survey where I ask people very intimate questions like ‘Do you have a secret love you want to confess?’. We are looking at the attachment styles of the participants and want to see if we can find trends and correlations in the way that people with different attachment styles feel, experience and react in romantic relationships. The idea is to make the work interactive and allow the public to build on the project as well.
Finally, I really hope to meet and collaborate with Bianca Jones one day. Bianca works at the Zuckerman Institute of Columbia University and studies epigenetic and the effects that trauma have on gene expression, specifically how these changes can be passed on to later generations through the sperm and egg during fertilisation. Her research is incredible, I want to reach out to her with a concrete idea soon.
Photography has always been a subversive medium. I am very interested in experimenting with the limits of photography. I know my work will keep gravitating to finding my own methods of experimenting with colour and abstraction.
I find it fascinating that humans have evolved eyes that work like a camera and created a camera that works like our eyes. Our conscious experience is greatly constituted by the brain’s fabrication and processing of images. Memory-related images, dreams and imagination are perhaps made up of a little more foggy and abstract images, but all of our conscious experience is greatly constituted by a visual universe. This is why I am interested in experimenting with the limits of the photographic medium, because I wish to expand the way I fix images, to be more representative of the way I experience reality.
My current mentor Patryk Stasieczek speaks about photography as an extension of the human experience, as a vector or slice of it. I resonate a lot with this concept.
I understand you are looking to raise funds to continue your project and research - could you explain more what you are looking to achieve and how the funds would help you?
It's always challenging to self-finance and develop independent projects. Time is also a constraint as I have a full-time job and other side gigs going on in parallel. For now, the funds would go to migrating the love survey from google forms to a more advanced platform called SurveyMonkey, and printing and distributing posters promoting the survey. Funding would also go to printing images to make more collages and buying materials to further experiment with photograms. Neuromantic is a multiplatform project that can be presented in many ways: an installation, a book, a desktop experience. There are many experimental ways the project could keep growing/be diffused and they all require time and funding.
All photos © Ana Vallejo, from the series Neuromatics
Ana Vallejo is a Colombian photographer currently based in New York City. She has a background in documentary and commercial photography. She attended the International Center of Photography school in New York and today remains there while working on her personal projects. She was recently named in FOAM Talent 2021. 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.
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.