Love, Conflict, and the Human Condition

"I started to photograph our lives and surroundings out of an inner need to have something to hold on to if things turned out badly.” German photographer, Sarah Pabst tells the story behind her intimate, autobiographical project, Reclusive.

© Sarah Pabst, from the series, Reclusive

12,000 km away from her native homeland, Sarah Pabst turned inward and to nature as a gleam of hope in troubled times. The resulting images offer a deeply personal portrayal of her relationship with her soon to be husband that, she says, act as a diary as she searched for the answers to the vertigo of everyday life.

Talk to us about your career as a photographer.

I have always loved photography. At school we had a darkroom that almost everybody used and we used to skip classes and hide there developing film and copying photos. I also painted a lot, so I started to study Fine Arts. I own a Masters degree in painting and photography and to me both are very connected. In 2005, I travelled to Latin America for the first time and the camera became more and more of an important tool to be able to talk about what I was seeing, the social circumstances, and the people. The camera is another language that you have to communicate with people, and to overcome your own shyness. In 2013, I moved to Argentina and I somehow think that's where it all started. I noticed, or admitted, that I really wanted to become a photographer.

© Sarah Pabst, from the series, Reclusive

How has living in Argentina influenced your work?

Actually, I think Argentina made me a photographer. First there's the light - Latin America has a special light. But Argentina is also very inspirational. Life is more difficult here than in Germany for instance. Most people sacrifice a lot to be able to manage their everyday life. But at the same time, Argentina is an eternal surviver. That gives you strength. Most of my series have been made in Argentina, focusing on different topics: transgender in Mar del Plata, a coastal town famous for summer tourism; la Salada, an illegal market in the suburbs of Buenos Aires; and Just Mothers, a series focusing on two young single mothers. They all deal with identity. I also think this has something to do with me living 12,000 km away from my native country, Germany. Through photography you try to find your place in the world.

Somehow, I had to go far away from home to be able to talk about home and see the beauty again in something my eyes had got used too. I am currently working on an ongoing project about my family, World War II and my childhood memories. I also think that boredom is a killer to all photography. You never get bored in Argentina.

Your project, Reclusive, has a very different angle than all your other projects. Could you explain to us a little bit where this came from?

The biggest difference about Reclusive is that at first I didn't even know that I was photographing a project. Before, I have always looked for the topic first, then done my research and started photographing - always with a subjective and emotional approach but never about something so profoundly personal. Reclusive started the other way around. It is a personal intimate diary about my relationship with my boyfriend (and soon to be husband) who was going through difficult times in the beginning and overcoming personal problems.

At the same time, I was far away from my home country. I think somehow we were both lost. I started to photograph our lives and surroundings out of an inner need to have something to hold on to if things turned out badly. It was all very intuitive. Photography was my way to prove to myself that everything was real. But it took me about a month to realise that I was working on a project. That's when Reclusive was born.

© Sarah Pabst, from the series, Reclusive

We know you are making a book out of the project. Can you tell us about the experience of producing a book as an extension of your personal work?

I absolutely love it. Making a book is something completely new. I had the chance to work with some really creative minds on the bookmaking since I first had the idea, namely, Verónica Fieiras, Gonzalo Romero, Mariana Maggio and Julieta Escardó. The final book is quite different from the project. A photo is always two-dimensional but it is amazing how they come to life in a book and how different the experience is. I am very enthusiastic about it and can't wait to be able to present the final dummy.

When do you think we could see the book published?

It's in its final steps. I am currently looking for a good print shop to print some first copies of the dummy, which unfortunately is not so easy in Argentina as there are not the same quantity of papers as in some other countries. The book cover is handmade and to me it's important that you don't only see the book but that you can also touch it, maybe even smell it. I love books. I have plenty and often look through the same books many times. Books have to speak to you every time you open them.

© Sarah Pabst, from the series, Reclusive

You are a photojournalist. What was it like to make a project about you and your partner as the main characters in the story line. How did you find working with self-portraiture?

First, it was very surprising to me that I was actually working on a project about my own life. It's very different to be your own subject than looking at someone else's life. At the beginning, it took me some time to overcome my shyness and be able to show the work in progress to people. It doesn't only include pictures of my boyfriend and I, but also information that you sometimes wonder if you should keep to yourself.

But it was not until a workshop with Antoine d'Agata that I noticed that I had taken a lot of pictures that I myself was almost absent in. This was when I started to shoot self-portraits, to be able to really connect with myself, with my pain: to be able to express my feelings and be honest. Later, I was always wondering when the project will come to an end. But one day, selecting photos for the book project I suddenly felt that I was done: that Reclusive was closed and over - like a chapter that closed for good. I felt that we both healed through the series: that we found our strength in it. That was the most fascinating discovery: that photography had a therapeutic effect on me. It became another language that allows me to express things words can't do, right from the inside. I think this is a change that will be notable in all of my future projects.

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Sarah Pabst is a German-born documentary photographer and painter living in Buenos Aires

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a photographer and curator based in Hong Kong focusing on Latin American topics.

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