Cristobal Ascencio alters his family history through technological interventions

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents 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 are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com

At the age of 30, Ascencio learned that his father’s death – 14 years ago – was by suicide. The shocking news prompted him to revisit and reinterpret his family archive

Growing up in Guadalajara in western Mexico, Cristobal Ascencio’s first memory of photography was not about cameras but about photographs. “I spent a lot of time as a kid looking at our family albums and having long conversations with my mum and dad, asking questions about everything,” he remembers. “At some point, I started making my own little collections, stealing photos from those albums and keeping them to myself.” He received his first camera after his father passed away when he was 16. Since then, photography has become his companion – a way to process intangible thoughts and emotions by giving them shape.

Three years ago, aged 30, Ascencio learned that his father’s death was by suicide. His grieving process began all over again. Around the same time, he encountered Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 film Uncle Boonmee. The movie’s narrative revolves around ghosts who return to the family and look through a photo album to learn about the moments missed. 

“It was so simple and so powerful,” says Ascencio. “What would happen if I was able to get that moment with my dad or with whomever I wanted to? What would I show them?” The film became a driving force behind his new project: Las flores mueren dos veces. Ascencio began to revisit old family albums, and as his memories of his father changed, he felt that the photographs needed to change as well. 

From the series Las flores mueren dos veces © Cristobal Ascencio.

Through technological interventions such as databending, photogrammetry and virtual reality, Ascencio alters the meaning of an image. The familiar becomes new again, tangled in a web of fresh associations. In a letter composed before he died, Ascencio’s father wrote: “Forgive me and communicate with me.” The photographer wanted to fulfil his father’s wish, and began creating work that was in direct conversation with him. “Whenever I want to feel close to my dad, I go to the countryside or the forest,” says Ascencio, explaining that his father was a gardener. 

The images – hazy and distorted – reveal who his father was. For example, Ascencio includes a picture of his father’s membership card to an organisation that fought for agricultural rights in Mexico’s countryside. “I think that his spirit… and the values that he passed along to me and my family are in this picture,” he reflects.

From the series Las flores mueren dos veces © Cristobal Ascencio.

Ascencio was nominated for Ones to Watch by Bolivian artist and Ones to Watch 2020 nominee, River Claure. “Traditionally, the practice of using software in art leaves the viewer with an artificial taste,” Claure says. “This does not happen for me with Cristobal’s images. By rearranging the pixels of his family archive and then generating a digital garden, he brings us closer to a touching story and invites us to think about the continuity or discontinuity of memory in different times.” 

Even without his father’s physical presence, Ascencio’s memory has been rearranged, and his approach to image-making materialises the inherent fluidity of memory. Through digital intervention, he shows us the potential that these emerging technologies have in creating new poetics in an old medium. 

Alif Ibrahim

Alif Ibrahim is a writer, artist and producer based in Jakarta working with text and moving image. He has previously been published in Real Life Magazine, It’s Nice That, SPIKE Art Magazine and Running Dog. He received an MA in Digital Media from Goldsmiths College.