Javier Panera Cuevas, “In the Next Door Room”.
Preface to the Exhibition Catalogue Lise Sarfati Domus Artium Salamanca
The awakening of adolescence has been a recurring theme that has always fascinated a great many visual
artists; conflicts of identity, physical metamorphosis, psychological instability, emerging sexual and emotional
sensations within young people are all themes which, in particular, have appeared in photography ever
since it was first developed. From Lewis Carrol’s “perverse-innocent” girls to Larry Clark’s problematic
“Kids”, a long and tortuous path has been paved. Alongside these, the latest work of Lise Sarfati could
also deservedly be included. A series of fifty images of mostly androgynous-like adolescents, photographed
in 2003 during a three-month trip to the United States, taking in cities like Austin (Texas), Asheville (North
Carolina), Portland (Oregon), Berkley, San Francisco and Los Angeles (California) and some small towns in
It isn’t the first time Lise Sarfati has touched on the theme of adolescence; in fact in her earlier book Acta
Est (Phaidon Press, 2000) she has already shown, tangentially, some of the most sordid aspects of young
people’s lives in the former USSR. Paradoxically, although the present photographs have been taken in an
environment which is geographically and socio-politically very different, we continue to find some of the
more disturbing and unnerving elements that we did in her Russian series. These parallels would seem
revolve around the discovery of “strangeness” within everyday spaces and situations, apparently void of
any mystery and yet which we observe with a sense of unease and separation, as we would of the unknown.
In each of these portraits, Lise Sarfati “dramatises” the complexity of adolescent identity; within unfamiliar
territory – both emotionally and physically – where the simplest of feelings become exalted and everything
is lived with an intensity that adults will never again be able to feel. We are talking here of a kind of parallel
reality, an interstitial territory which doesn’t understand geographical spaces or political systems, which
no longer belongs either to a completely real reality or to a consciously conceived fiction, but rather finds
itself fed by its own rituals and codes of behaviour, where the dividing line between good and bad, happiness
and sadness, innocence and perversity or reality and fantasy is extensively blurred.
This means that these photographs reproduce real characters and situations, but without the slightest
intention of being a document. In fact, Lise Sarfati, carefully rations the information that she gives out
about each character, forcing us to decide each one’s destiny subjectively. Everything oozes verisimilitude
but none of these images is a simple reproduction of reality. While far from rigorously following a script,
they respond to a degree of planning, and I suspect that the acts and situations in which these adolescents
find themselves have been, at most, “suggested” in order to facilitate a more direct transmission of a certain
narrative essence. We say this because, although the majority of these photographs are “portraits” in
the generic sense, many of them anticipate “stories” which continue outside the limits of the picture, and
as such are perceived by the viewer as “pauses in the course of a narrative”. The level of complexity that
each photograph seems to have reached with its “models” guarantees the “effect of truth”.
Another common aspect between the photos of American adolescents and the series taken in Russia is
their aesthetic clarity of the images, their relationship both from a compositional point of view and their
treatment of light and colour, with more or less self-evident references to the history of painting. In short,
we have before us a collection of sophisticated images, narcissistic and aesthetically indulgent, “pictures”
which are capable of seducing those who look at them, leaving them emotionally defenceless.
Nevertheless, in most cases, beneath the aesthetic beauty of each image, we can detect “anomalies”, and
there is not a single attractive element in which an underlying threat is not more or less implied. In fact,
one of the things which makes us most uneasy is the fact that – even in the scenes of blatant exhibitionism
- most of the characters photographed seem distanced from our view and there seems to be an insuperable
separation between their world and our own.
The young people intuitively know that the severe visual intrusion adults have subjected them to is linked
to their physical metamorphosis and their sexuality, to that ambiguously emotional territory where they
have entered, which adults are unable to access, and which they themselves will have to leave before very
long. All this crystallises into an unnerving game between voyeurism and exhibitionism that configures an
imaginary space for seeking out the “other”, the “other which we all know can be found within ourselves.
It is a search carried out through “signs” that range from clothing to make-up and hairstyle, from the
vulnerable show of affection to the brazen, obscene gesture, from the timidly seductive pose to insolent
Earlier we referred to Larry Clark in order to mark out one of the extremes to which the subject of adolescence
has gone to in the field of photography. However, unlike the photographer from Tulsa, whose objective
has always been to expose the depressing youth culture of his home town, Lise Sarfati isn’t interested
in explicitly bringing to light the alienation or tedium of American youth. She isn’t moralising nor does she
give much space for us to make moral interpretations, and yet her photographs are tremendously perturbing
because they transport us to an unknown kingdom – though common to all continents – a territory
which exists in the next-door room hardly a centimetre away from the limits of our everyday life and probably
also existing within our early memories, or in the fears we feel when we think about what could happen
to our own children.
Javier Panera Cuevas