In critique of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, artist Elsa Leydier corrupted and inverted the stereotypical image of Brazil to expose the realities of a compromised democracy
Made in the final two hours of the 2018 Brazilain election, Elsa Leyder uses glitches in the system to expose the failings of Brazilian politics. In her project Brazil: System Error (#elenão,) Leyder uses images found via search engines displaying the joyful side of Brazil, and incorporates statements made by the presidential winner Jair Bolsonaro into the picture code. The resulting work blends contrasting images of Brazil, incorporating the stereotypical surface with deeper realities of compromised democracy and human rights.
British Journal of Photography: Can you tell me about your project Brazil: System Error? What were its aims?
Elsa Leydier: Brazil: System Error (#elenão) is a work that I made during the two turns of the latest presidential elections in Brazil that ended with the consecration of Jair Bolsonaro as the new president.
My aim when I created those pictures was to warn about the candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who was displaying openly anti-democratic ideas, and how dangerous it would be for Brazil, in my opinion, to have him as the main leader of the country.
Making those pictures was a way for me to show, in a metaphorical way, what Brazil would “look like” with such a person in power: Brazilian beautiful landscapes, and the joy and recklessness of carnival would end up being jeopardised by a political system that threatens the foundations of democracy.
BJP: Your work served as a warning sign during Bolsonaro’s presidential election, in many ways, forewarning the recent fires in the Amazon. Now that this has happened, will you continue the series?
EL: I don’t know if I will make more images – even if I sometimes want to, in order to reveal another shocking quote from Jair Bolsonaro, but I definitely feel the urge to keep on sharing them, as they are (sadly) every day more relevant in the current Brazilian (and global) political context.
I guess the 40 images of the series are enough to understand the general system instructed by this presidency ; a system that is misogynist, racist, and oppressive against nature and against any form of difference in class, race, sexual orientation, etc. They can now be shared as a resistance against all the anti-democratic acts and dysfunctions that are happening now in Brazil.
BJP: Can you tell me a bit about your process and the methods you use?
EL: In my work in general, I like to use photographs, usually not for what they show, but for their status or their function. I like to show them in a way that you can look at them differently, trying to escape hegemonic points of view. This can be made through collage, plastic interventions, etc. The process is very important in my work, this is often what leads me to the creation of the images.
For Brazil system error (#elenão) in particular, I made digital interventions on photographs. I used a technique called “glitching’, that is usually related to video games, when a bug happens and alters the image.
I voluntarily ‘glitched” images of Brazil I found in search engines on the Internet, by inserting in their digital codes violent, racist, misogynist and homophobic quotes pronounced by Jair Bolsonaro at some points of his political career.
BJP: How did you use photo editing techniques as a metaphor for what is happening in Brazil?
EL: The images I used for this work as starting points are photographs of Brazil you can find on Google. They are, somehow, the surface of the country, the first thing you can see about it. They are also iconic images : most of them show beautiful and famous landscapes, scenes of joy from carnival or football victories. This superficial perception of Brazil is a happy and colorful one. I wanted to show that this was only a part of a much bigger reality, and, above all, that this idealized vision of Brazil could be affected by the violence of a political context.
The bugs that appear plastically on the iconic images are metaphors for the bugs and failures that can, in my opinion, start affecting the beauties and strengths of a country, when the universal human rights are not being respected.
BJP: How did you incorporate Bolsonaro’s quotes into the images?
EL: I opened the images not with an image viewer or image editor as we usually do, but with a text editor. When you do so, the image appears under the form of a huge and incomprehensible code, made of thousands and thousands of characters and signs. I copied Bolsonaro’s quotes into this code, then I saved the image… Bugs and visual interferences end up to affect the original image.
BJP: Why do you think photography is such a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change? How can we utilize it?
El: Photography is powerful as it creates representations. For example, the Amazon fires awoke many people all around the world, when many of them have never even been to the Amazon. They were touched because of the mental representations they had in their mind, after knowing the place through photographs. People could act and join forces, only because of the power of images.
I feel a responsibility as an artist to use this strong weapon that we (as photographers/visual artists) have into our hands. I am convinced that sharing visions built on the values of preservation of our planet and equality between all its human beings can be powerful and even, hopefully, lead people to act.
BJP: What do you hope viewers will take away from the photographs?
EL: I have to say that I kind of hope they will get “shocked” by seeing the photographs of this work. I guess they will look at the photographs – that probably look like many of the photographs of Brazil you are used to seeing when you see them first – but then will start to notice something different in them; the bug that alters them. I wish this may lead people to wish to understand where those bugs come from, and then to read about the work and get to know the sentences that were inserted in the images.
It is important for me not to apprehend what happens in Brazil as “normal” or acceptable. Such violent acts and saying can not be seen as normal, even more when they come from the president of a democratic country.
So I hope that those images will lead some of the viewers to get to be aware of the dangerousness of the current Brazilian situation.
BJP: What’s next for you?
EL: I have the luck to be the recipient of the Prize of Maison Ruinart / Paris Photo this year, so I’m going to start an artistic residency during the harvest of champagne with Maison Ruinart very soon. The result of the residency will be exhibited in Grand Palais during Paris Photo Fair next November, where I will also show some works with my gallery – galerie Intervalle.
I am also starting a new photo project about ecofeminism – a movement that sees the fight for feminism and the fight for ecology as strongly interwoven, and even as the same fight. Indeed, oppression of some human beings on others because of their gender, class or race, and oppression of nature share the same causes (patriarchy and capitalism), and have solutions in common. You can’t reach equality between every human being when nature is exploited, and vice versa.
It is going to be a long term project, with several branches, and it will for sure create many echoes with my previous works. I guess I always was an ecofeminist but couldn’t put a word on it!