Obscura Journal Contributor Danielle Ezzo recently interviewed Magnum photographer Carolyn Drake and her creative partner Andres Gonzalez in advance of their collection debut, Ficciones. They discuss their approach to the Obscura Magnum Commission, collective and individual histories, and collaboration as a mindset as well as a creative vehicle.
DE: Tell us about Ficciones and how did the project begin?
CD/AG: It began in 2018 when a group of Magnum photographers traveled to the Mexico/US border together to make work. I decided that if I was to go, I should invite my partner Andres as a collaborator. After being together for 15 years, it seemed like it was long overdue, but also the perfect situation for us to create something collaborative. We have assisted each other in the past, but now we decided to share the project equally and make the collaboration visible in the imagery.
DE: Your story as collaborators began when you met in grad school in 2003, so you’ve been making work together for nearly two decades. What have you learned from one another about being artists and companions?
CD/AG: Neither of us is particularly good at maintaining mental stability as artists or taking a break from our work, and we often find ourselves meandering toward the dark or pessimistic side of things. Making images/art is a kind of path out of that darkness.
Our working methods are a bit different from each other, and that has caused us to clash as we make images for this particular project. But at the core we have a common set of goals for the work and that helps us finally find agreement during the editing process.
DE: With that in mind, how has thinking about the blockchain and the Obscura x Magnum Commission influenced the way this project evolved?
CD/AG: To us, the blockchain is a bit like a Borges story - it's not tangible and we don't fully understand it. We actually tried hard to prevent the parameters of the commission from affecting how we worked on the project. We often self fund our independent projects, so we just appreciated having funding for this trip. But creating 55 diptychs in such a short span of time was stressful. We sometimes spend a couple days planning how or where to shoot a particular subject and we aren't always sure it's going to work out well. We like to leave time for failure, but that didn't feel like much of an option during this trip.
DE: The work is presented as pairings: each contributing an image, or a point of view. In some cases, there’s a simple shift in parallax like in #34, one boy holding a trophy and another looking at the boy holding the trophy. You are a pair of eyes that together complete the scene. Other times, the connection lies in the untold story between two images like in #51, the gas station at night paired with the portrait of a couple’s feet intertwined. Tell us about when it’s important to work as a pair, and when it’s better to look elsewhere?
CD/AG: For the most part, we both shoot the scenes - we really want to see what two different perspectives look like, and to find an alternative to one-sided viewing. But you are right, once we begin editing, we will sometimes combine different scenes. It's actually not always clear where a scene begins and ends.
DE: In your statement, you speak about your different yet similar cultural backgrounds with recent histories in California, but where the immigrant’s experience plays a role in your shared experience; can you speak to the ways in which you defy and also grapple with how those stories have influenced each of you?
CD/AG: We each see our parents in ourselves, as we all do, and there are cultural histories that influence those identities. Honestly, it can be difficult to talk or write about those differences specifically. It feels reductive. Carolyn’s family arrived in California from the east and Andres’ family arrived from the south and each family evolved in its own way according to culture and heritage and chance. After 20 years, we are participants and observers of both stories, and that is something we both feel lucky to experience, and at times push against.
DE: Tell us more about the idea of borderlands? Which I take to mean, both a real space, but also a metaphorical one.
CD/AG: The images are made in proximity to the Mexico-US border – the borderlands. Within that setting, we allowed ourselves to expound on what “borderlands” actually means. To us, the borderlands is a psychic construct as much as a physical one.
DE: With that in mind, what significance do the towns of Nogales and Brownsville-Matamoros hold?
CD/AG: The overall project extends along the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2018-19 we worked in Chihuahua and Texas. On this Obscura trip, we shifted into Sonora and Arizona. Next, we will go to Baja and California. Nogales and Brownsville-Matarmoros don’t have any extra significance - they simply mark the east and west points of where the images in this collection were made.
DE: When I first saw this project I thought of Jorge Luis Borges, the author and poet, who wrote a book by the same title. He uses the labyrinth as a recurring motif in his writing and I can’t help but think of it when looking at this project. It seems as if each diptych is its own story, but there’s an interconnectedness, like a labyrinth of possible stories. Does that resonate with your intention for the project?
CD/AG: Yes, we borrowed Borges’ title Ficciones and often turn to his writing for the way he folds time and narrative. We also look at authors like Gloria Anzaldua, and the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes. Anzaldua for example writes from a queer, feminist, Chicana perspective on ideas around borderland theory and double consciousness, which led us to think much more about psychic intersections rather than physical boundaries. Of course, pairing two images next to each other brings the border to mind. But what we want to do is deflate the expected result – the assumption that one side is inherently us, and the other side is inherently them, so that we find ourselves “on both shores at once”, as Anzaldua wrote. We hope that the two views alongside each can expand the sense of perspective beyond just the two. Things are always more complex than we can see.
DE: I’m curious about each of your individual approaches to making an image. Can you walk me through what makes a compelling image? What considerations are you thinking about?
CD/AG: One of us leans toward looking at things straight-on while the other is drawn to obliqueness. It’s been good for both of us to be pulled a bit in the other person’s direction. We are always thinking about the place we are in and the stories people tell us and how we can create imagery that feels rooted in our experience and interactions there. While we resist cliche, we also know we are bound by it. Visually, we try to consider a lot of things at once – objects, actions, gestures, shadows, angles that make you do a double take.
DE: Are there any rules or structure for the collaboration?
CD/AG: The only preset rules we started with for this trip were that we would spend time in Douglas/Agua Prieta and in Nogales/Nogales and that we would create diptychs inspired by the people and locations where we spent time.
We are also constantly trying to think of ways to deviate from the approach to photography that presents images as singular, complete visions. We started with street photography, photographing people and locations we found by happenstance, but as we learned more about each place and interacted with people, we began to imagine scenes we wanted to stage and create from the surroundings.
While working on the project we are constantly pitching each other ideas for shoots. The ideas usually get rejected by the other person, but then if we keep advocating for it, it sometimes gets approved. It’s a constant negotiation.
DE: I imagine editing is a large part of the process of working together. What does that look like trying to find the right images within a pair?
CD/AG: We sat together for 10 days straight to edit the work. First, we sorted and collected our own pictures. Then we combined them into a single folder and started playing with them on pages in inDesign, starting with five or ten possibilities and then narrowing each scene down to one or two pairing options.
DE: Lastly, who are your subjects?
CD/AG: Our subjects are people who live or work near the border or who are crossing it. The work is rooted in daily life. A woman who manages a history museum; across the street, a man who runs a tire repair shop; high school students pass by on their way home from school.
Next door to the tire shop, we visit a thrift shop where we buy a picture of the sun setting westward over the ocean and later make a picture of it at sunset. The artist whose Airbnb we rented in Arizona introduced us to his friend who works as a tour guide in Sonora who introduced us to a man in Arizona who collects Last Supper art. That's where we saw his collection of medieval armor which he wore for a picture the next day. One shoot leads to another. We photographed ourselves as well. As we worked, we thought of the Richard Linklater film Slacker, which stays with one character briefly and then moves forward with another character who enters the scene, and continues that way, in motion.
To view the full collection of Ficciones by Carolyn Drake and Andres Gonzalez, Obscura Magnum Commission, visit:
Magnum Photos - Carolyn Drake:
Andres Gonzalez website:
Follow Obscura DAO on Twitter:
Join the Obscura Discord: