Alessandro Bo, nominated by photographer Ana Casas Broda, finds a mythical concept of fantasy in his native Mexico
Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 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 made by our global network of experts. Every weekend throughout May, BJP-online is sharing profiles of the 19 photographers, originally published in the magazine.
“I’m not trying to make a portrait of San Miguel de Allende,” says Mexican photographer Alessandro Bo of his project, Smail. “It’s more like a fiction.”
The work – whose name is a loose abbreviation of the town it depicts, and is pronounced so as to recall its English homophone ‘smile’ – explores San Miguel de Allende and the consequences of the boom in tourism that occurred in the 1950s when the town was ‘discovered’ by a number of settlers from the US, Canada and Europe, mesmerised by its paradisical combination of beauty and art at low prices.
This exploration is less sociological document, however, than mythical launch into a strange and beautiful world where crows sit on your shoulder in the kitchen and cacti burn with orange fire.
The work is all the more remarkable in its amalgamation of contemporary images, shot by Bo during his two years spent living in the town, and found images collected by the photographer. “I invited people to show me their family albums, and I started curating them and using them for my own project,” he explains.
The disparate collection is seamlessly handled: it’s impossible to discern archival imagery from Bo’s own photographs, and the ghostly, mawkish light that is the signature of the project is consistent throughout both found and contemporary imagery. In Smail, past and present sit alongside or on top of one another, each person, animal or symbol as charismatically uncanny as the next.
Bo’s newest project, Exótica [page 79], elaborates on the theme of paradise that underpins Smail. Inspired by the accounts of travellers arriving in Mexico in the 1900s, Bo examines his country – which he travelled through on a motorbike, from tourist spots such as Cancún to the rainforest in Chiapas – as the seat of fantasy, a place on which to pin hopes only to have them dashed.
“People always look for their own paradise but don’t seem to find it,” he notes. “Paradise doesn’t exist.” Instead Bo presents us with a grittier alternative, a jungle of associations and sweat and snakes. The work is rhythmic and yet disjointed: he establishes a pattern, one image leading smoothly on to the next, only to sharply disrupt the established theme and leave the viewer disorientated.
“Alessandro has developed a personal gaze, where irony, poetry and mystery are intertwined,” says photographer Ana Casas Broda, who nominated Bo. “In his work we find a vision of Mexico as a place of multiple layers of history and cultural syncretism, a terrain of mysterious and fascinating encounters.”
Drawing inspiration from Wim Wenders, Ulrich Seidl, the paintings of Gerhard Richter, and the family albums that had a profound effect on him from childhood, Bo’s work collects and refracts impressions, shooting incidental imagery alongside photographs he directs or stages and then, in the edit, infuses together. “I don’t care if it is ‘true’ or not,” he says of the concoction. “It helps to tell my story.”