Ones to Watch 2021: Alex Blanco

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 450 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing profiles of the 20 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct with an 1854 Subscription

For the Ukraine-born, Brazil-based artist, photography provides a mechanism to confront past traumas

Alex Blanco’s Meat, Fish and Aubergine Caviar is akin to deconstructing an onion. It is a series that emphasises the many layers that must be peeled back to understand the greater truth of a given situation; a layered exploration of cultural identity and personal memory with family dynamics at its core. Blanco began the project following her father’s hospitalisation in 2016, when she returned to her childhood home in Odesa, Ukraine, to stay with her parents for several months. Their mental health issues and addictions had strained the family’s relationships since Blanco was a child, and now photography provided a mechanism to confront past traumas.

“I grew up in a family with two people who never knew what love was,” explains Blanco, who left home aged 16. She admits that photographing her parents for the project proved difficult. However, despite the emotional distance, the images are intimate. “Photography became a perfect medium to transmit the message of love,” she continues. The series employs childhood meals as metaphors (making specific reference to the traditional Ukrainian dish of aubergine caviar), alongside photographs of Blanco’s parents barely clothed: a directness that signals how photography introduced an element of ease, teasing out the fleshy interrelatedness of a parent-child relationship.

Blanco explains that the semi-nakedness is also symbolic of her mother, who, aged 15, was a keen photographer and even experimented with nude portraiture, imitating Hollywood screen sirens. She later burned the negatives, forgetting her youthful aspirations as life in the USSR intensified. In this series, however, Blanco’s mother reconnects with her inner Marilyn Monroe. In one image, she reclines in an odalisque fashion, her hands cupping one of her breasts. “I show my mother’s liberation, which is closely related to the liberation of the whole Ukrainian population from Soviet oppression,” says Blanco.

© Alex Blanco.
© Alex Blanco.

As an extension of past traumas, the photographer regularly explores memento mori in her work, employing different foods as allegories for the transience of human life. In Meat, Fish and Aubergine Caviar, for instance, she photographs a knife impaled in a piece of glistening watermelon [opposite]. It is a nostalgic image, but the knife juts out at the wrong angle, giving it a deeper subtext.

“It’s a message that life is a beautiful banquet, which we should enjoy abundantly, but we shouldn’t forget that this too shall pass,” she says. The rawness of Blanco’s work resonated with nominator Erik Vroons, writer, curator and editor of GUP magazine. “Novice photographers are regularly advised to make the work ‘personal’ because it can lead to something outstanding, a thing you can ‘own’. But few can combine their talent for photography – their creative mind, their eye for detail – with a genuine vulnerability to the extent that Alex Blanco performs,” observes Vroons.

The photographer, who has an MA in film and photographic studies from Leiden University, and studied an elective course in photography at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, is currently collaborating on an ongoing series, On Motherhood, Femininity and Female Friendships, with the photographer Linda Zhengová. Blanco’s recent experience of motherhood helped shape the project, which also delves into emotional states and relationships. Blanco is translating both series into photobooks with Meat, Fish and Aubergine Caviar published later this year. “I was timid to share the project with others because I have always been ashamed of my family,” she says. “But I convinced myself that if we cannot change something, we had better embrace it.”

Ellie Howard

Ellie Howard is a freelance arts and culture writer, based between Lisbon and London. A graduate of Manchester University and University College London, she writes about material and visual culture. Her chief interests are rooted in popular photography and the photographic boundaries between science and art. Alongside writing, she works as a picture researcher for Atelier Éditions, most recently on the forthcoming publications Beyond the Earth: An Anthology of Human Messages in Deep Space and Cosmic Time and Nudism in a Cold Climate. She has written for Magnum Photos, Photomonitor, BBC Travel, Wallpaper*, Elephant Magazine, Huck, Dazed, and Another.