An Argentinian photographer took portraits of older men she thought might be her father

When Mariela Sancari was 14, her father killed himself.

As she tried, often forlornly, to deal with his absence, sometimes denying even it, Sancari began to invent in her mind his personality, his life, his whereabouts. He grew older in her mind.

As a professional photographer, Sancari decided to confront this chapter of her life. In her native Buenos Aires, she started placing adverts in local newspapers and putting up posters; she was looking for men in their 70s, the age her father would be now if he were alive. She wanted to meet, and photograph, men who might look a bit like the man she lost, to discover in them a tiny fraction of the relationship so finitely denied to her.

The men she found, and whom sat for her, wear her father’s patchwork jumper. In some of the images, she poses herself in the background, or lets a stranger carefully comb her hair.

It’s a heart-stoppingly simple evocation of how, through an unsaid understanding, through a sense of transference that can transcend words and gestures, we can find familiarity, intimacy and comfort in strangers.

“These images are my attempt to make a fantasy come true through photography – the fantasy my sister and I have that we are going to meet my father in the street, anytime,” she tells BJP.

“My approach to photography, and to art in general, comes from the necessity to understand my own story.”

Sancari’s work is being recognised in a major way. At PhotoEspaña, where Sancari is currently exhibiting the work, publisher La Fabrica has just announced it will turn Moisés – her father’s name, and the name of the resulting series – into a photobook.

It’s the latest in a vertiginous curve. Last year, Sancari won the Descubrimientos Award at the same festival, was recognised as a ‘discovery’ at the FotoFest Biennial’s Meeting Place portfolio review, and was a finalist in BJP’s own International Photography Award in 2013.

“Her work is distinctly hers,” says Susan Bright, who nominated her for BJP’s Ones to Watch in 2014. “It doesn’t shy away from the very personal, but is never cloying or indulgent. I am reminded of Angela Carter stories, where you are never quite sure what is going to happen. There is a hint of magic, a whiff of the sinister.”

Based in Mexico City, where she has lived since 1997, Sancari has been working professionally for eight years but began her career making a very different kind of image, working as a staff photographer on a newspaper.

She resigned in 2011 to take up a residency at the city’s Centro de la Imagen, an opportunity that encouraged her to pursue more personal themes, which now typify her practice and her work.

On turning the series into a book, she says: “[It] gives me the opportunity to re-read my own work and understand the many and very different ways it is possible to edit images.”

“I have always been attracted to work that has an opinion and deals with big issues,” says Bright. “That said, it doesn’t have to be strident; in fact, the more subtle and gentle it is, the more powerful the hold on the viewer, in my opinion. Mariela Sancari does all of these things.”

You can see Mariela Sancari’s Moisés at Centro de Arte Alcobendas in Madrid from 02 to 27 June, 11am–8pm. Entry free.

See more of Mariela Sancari’s photography here.