Visual arts teacher, photographer, and ceramic technician Célica Véliz hails from La Plata, Argentina. For her photo series, El Cuerpo Roto, she used the diaristic approach to bravely record a terrifying health scare.
Let's get to know more about Célica: she was born in Ezeiza, a suburb of Buenos Aires. After high school, she moved to a little cabin in the sierras of Tandil and finished a degree in Visual Arts and Photography. When she moved back to the city of La Plata, she began teaching kids and resumed her pinhole photography and darkroom work, which she put on hold after college. "I experimented quite a lot by my own means during that time and suddenly I found myself writing a pinhole photography workshop project. Once finished, I presented it in a culture and arts center here in La Plata and they accepted it. By giving that workshop I began experimenting with photographic processes that I’ve only known from history classes. That was the starting point on my path to “Alternative Photography” teaching."
Currently, Célica works in different photography schools and cultural spaces across La Plata and Buenos Aires, devoting herself to conducting workshops in alternative photographic processes - techniques of taking and copying of the 19th century, pinhole photography and black and white laboratory. This profession gave her the opportunity to visit Argentina and Mexico, where she lived for half a year.
How did you get into photography?
When I was a little girl, there were many cameras in my house, they were my grandfather's. I didn't know how to use them but nevertheless those objects fascinated me. Later in my adolescence, I became a movie fan and dreamed of studying movie making and photography someday. I was in love with Tarkovsky's movies, to me, his scenes were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Who or what inspires you visually?
I get inspired by other photographers and visual artists whose works are usually very different from mine. Also, students and the way they develop their skills are a constant source of inspiration. When I first started studying photography, my main influences came from films and poetry rather than photographers, with Andrei Tarkovsky being my favorite. Other important referents for me are photographers Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Käsebier and thinking of more current artists I love Christine Elfman's work. I have many influences but this is what comes to mind now.
El Cuerpo Roto (Broken Body) is a very personal series about a health concern. Kindly tell us about this experience and how it influenced this photography series?
At the end of 2018, I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. In the previous years, I had lost a lot of weight, was very tired and, being so young, I couldn't understand why. I started chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments immediately which were to be followed by a major surgery. During those treatments, I kept working and teaching but almost no one knew what was going on. I didn't want to photograph myself not to have any register of that time. One day, I developed a 120 roll that I had shot days before the diagnosis and what I saw shocked me. Those images had the power to show how I was feeling, locked in my apartment, waiting for the reports on the tests and treatments. I keep looking at them and I can still find details: shadows, cuts in the body, movements, reflections…
Most impressive of all are two collodion wet plates, two self-portraits made one month before diagnosis which turned out with missing parts right on my belly, believe it or not.
Encouraged by these findings I continued taking pictures while receiving treatments and started sharing them on social media with the name "El Cuerpo Roto" (Broken Body). I got a call from the Museum of Fine Arts Emilio Petorutti in La Plata asking me about the series and proposing an exhibition in August 2019. So, I started working more consciously in the series. First I had my doubts about touching a theme so delicate as my own health, the fact of being going through such a terrible illness and the possibility of death so close… I worried about banalizing it. Putting my fears aside I kept on going and to my surprise, people found it very inspiring. Just before my surgery, 494 Ediciones, an independent publishing house called me to make a photo-zine about "El Cuerpo Roto" and by the time I left the hospital, the first edition was already printed and sold out within a few days.
Given the fact that this series was made in real-time alongside my treatments and subsequent surgery, most of the work was tied to certain randomness. A friend and colleague, Natacha Ebers was helping me a lot with the curatorial process for the exhibit in the museum and I told her that if anything happened to me, the exhibition had to be presented anyway. But finally, I entered the operating room at the end of June and came out with excellent results: the total remission of the disease. In August “El Cuerpo Roto" was inaugurated and it was a celebration. The future plan for this work is to edit it in book format with the complete series plus photos that were left out, photos made in other formats during walks I took to clear my mind, photos made in the hospital after surgery (in color) and a lot of written material.
What camera did you use for this series and why did you choose this camera?
Two years ago my sister gave me a Diana Multi-Pinhole Operator camera. I took just one roll with the camera and left it filed. For my pinhole photography, I used to work mainly with very precarious cardboard cameras built by me, loaded with photo-paper and x-ray plates, a matchbox camera for 35mm color film, and a large format camera to take photos on paper and on plates in wet collodion. A month before my diagnosis I found the Diana camera and I started taking pictures with her, some self-portraits. As the results impressed me so much, she became the companion of the whole process. The wide-angle view, the exaggeration of perspectives and vanishing point, the blurry result, the possibility of making modifications within the scene due to the long exposure times and the square format were exactly what worked for this series and what was wanted to be told.
It takes a lot of courage to share a vulnerable part of your life. How did this experience impact your life and work as an artist?
Many people told me that they found incredible the way I was exposing myself and my body with this series, that they couldn't have done it if they were me. I couldn´t have done otherwise. It was my way of surviving, of transforming all the sh*t into something better. It was a very hard experience but without this project, it would have been much worse. Anyway, after editing the book I feel I want to let it go and move on.
If you could pick an image to represent this powerful series, which one would it be?
In March 2019 I had finished my radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments. They were very hard treatments but I had gone through them in a very positive environment, along with my friends and students. When that stage ended I still had to face a major surgery, I wondered if the treatments had worked, if I was going to die soon, if I was even worse... I was very scared and sad about what was coming. I could only wait and deal with my own mind. Autumn had started, the sky was cloudy all the time, I took several portraits with the pinhole camera, alone in my room. I weighed 43 kilos.
What advice would you give young artists who need a little push or encouragement in pursuing their creative dreams?
I'm not good at giving advice but if I had to share something that I've learned it would be this: There isn't an ideal and tidy moment to work in what you really love. You can always find at least a couple of seconds to write a phrase, draw or take one picture with any camera you can get your hands on to.