Interview with Martín Bollati of SED Editorial
Argentinian publishing house SED Editorial was founded in 2019. SED’s publications take a unique approach to the photobook, combining literature and fiction with images that challenge both the form of the photograph and the way it is created. Eugenie spoke with founding editor Martín Bollati late in 2021.
ES: I want to start by asking you how you got started, your background.
MB: I’m from Argentina and I live in Argentina. In 2014, I got a grant to do a Masters in Spain at EFTI, which is the international photography school in Madrid. During that time, I worked with a publishing house called Chaco as a project reviewer, then I published a few books as an editor there. In parallel with that process I started working on a book of my own, called La Forma Bruta. I lived in Madrid for three years, then I came back home to Buenos Aires and I started to think about building something of my own. I began a collective project called F.E.A, which in Spanish translates as ‘ugly’ but they were actually initials for Frente Editorial Abierto, which translates to ‘open editorial front’. At the time we had a right-wing government, so it was an open call for independent publishers and zines to get together, with the main objective to fill up the editorial market with anti-right political publications. That project lasted two years, and we did a lot of publications. Finally the political situation got better and we decided to end F.E.A. After that I decided to go back to roots and build a publishing house from zero, and that’s when I started SED.
I have a long relationship with books: I read a lot, especially literature, and my personal work and my editorial interests tend to focus on photographic projects that use fiction not just as something playful, but as a powerful and political tool.
ES: Is SED an acronym?
MB: It’s a word with two possible meanings and it’s core to the concept of the publishing house. It means ‘thirst’, to be thirsty, but it can also mean ‘to be’ – ‘sen’. It’s a call for you to ‘se lo que quieras’, be whatever you want. I felt like it was a powerful word. I have a long relationship with books: I read a lot, especially literature, and my personal work and my editorial interests tend to focus on photographic projects that use fiction not just as something playful, but as a powerful and political tool. Fiction in photography over the last few years has been more about playful, scenographic stuff in front of the camera, but I think that fiction can be something much more involved in questioning possibilities. I like to think that photography is more related to mirages than to mirrors.
ES: Yes – you note on the site that your concern is ‘the photographic image not from its specular condition but from its curse of mirage’. This is quite different from the angle that a lot of more mainstream publishers take, which is very much about ‘visual storytelling’ – a loosely documentary style of imagery. Personally, I find visual storytelling to be quite a limited description of what a photograph is and what it can do. One thing that struck me about the books that SED is doing, is that many of them use abstraction to ask the reader to question what they’re seeing, and to question what the technology can do.
MB: That’s a good synthesis. Probably my two main influences and my spiritual guides in my relation with images are Jorge Luis Borges and Vilém Flusser, and the notion that literature can build and destroy everything, and that everything is condensed in the interchanging possibilities of words and images. Borges had this beautiful saying that it doesn’t matter if it’s truth or lie or literature or fiction or experience, because at the end of the day everything ends up in memory. This was a key idea for me, and a big influence in terms of the possibilities of narration. Flusser is important in the sense of using technology as a way of reacting to programmatic thinking, and offering new visual solutions to old problems.
ES: Flusser also talks about the way that technology conditions the way that we see; that even the physical structure of the camera – the optics of the machine – can be ideologically charged, so that the camera is a political tool before you even put a photographer behind it. But a lot of documentary work seems to overlook this – it treats the photograph, much of the time, as though it’s just a transparent window. So I’m interested to hear about the ways that you’re challenging this idea.
Documentary photography in its most conservative form will always be there, and I respect that it exists, but I’m not interested in that approach.
MB: Documentary photography in its most conservative form will always be there, and I respect that it exists, but I’m not interested in that approach. The image that I had in my mind as I started working on an identity for the publishing house was of someone lost in the desert, walking thirsty and lost in this dry ocean of sand. Everyone says that we’re living in an ocean of images, but I liked the idea of the opposite, a desert of images, where each grain of sand is an image. And the mirage that appears in a desert has a relation more connected to desire and need than something that is actually there, like in a mirror. The mirage appears because the person that sees it also needs and desires it. It takes need, desire and imagination – and light – for a mirage to appear. At least in my view it’s a more interesting approach to what photography can do, and what place it has in our lives – a ‘photographic imagination’ as a consequence of the photographic image.
ES: It’s also interesting to think about the way that need and desire also relates to abstraction. One thing I noticed about Untitled Ruins, for instance, is how hard it is to see the photographs. The images in this book really resist the documentary window function – you can’t look through them, you have to look at them. Many of your publications do this, they frustrate our desire to consume an image in the ways that we are accustomed to. Photographs that work with abstraction ask you to stop and to think about what you’re seeing and to find things in it.
MB: It’s good to know that you read it in that way, because I built it on that premise. The projects that tend to interest me these days, editorially and also for my own pleasure, tend to be projects that have stories, but that also question photography as a medium. Not fully conceptual, not fully fictional, not fully narrative, but projects that merge these functions.
ES: With Untitled Ruins, for instance, it’s only when you get to the end of the book that you see the hand, you recognise the screen of the phone, and then you learn that the whole book is about the digital sensor struggling to make an image. But it’s all relayed through what feels almost like an Old Testament narrative.
The projects that tend to interest me these days, editorially and also for my own pleasure, tend to be projects that have stories, but that also question photography as a medium. Not fully conceptual, not fully fictional, not fully narrative, but projects that merge these functions.
MB: The original myth that is narrated in the book is actually based on a Mapuche myth about the way that they perceive the origin of the world through the image of a crying star bringing life with its tears. I took this image and remixed it, so it has a religious origin in a way. In general, I work hard to build things that people have to read in order to relate to them. And by ‘read’ I’m not just talking about words, but to read in the sense of sitting with the book and going through the pages. Kind of going against this documentary gesture of just seeing and consuming. With these books, I tend to have very mixed critiques. If people tell me that nothing happens in Untitled Ruins, I know that they didn’t read it, they didn’t sit down and have a relation with the book. My background is in literature, where you have to spend a lot of time with books – you cannot take the easy way in literature. You have a sequential thing with text, and I like to build things that have this structure, but with images.
ES: Santiago Martinelli’s Descomposición is all about the eye, and structures of seeing. But again, so much of it is abstract and difficult to see, and I find that paradox really engaging. This leads me to ask about archival imagery as well, what sort of part that plays.
MB: With that book we worked with this archive that Santiago had found, which is actually an ophthalmological manual from the 1950s or 60s, a kind of Bible of ophthalmology. It was one of the first books that compiled most of the knowledge around ophthalmology, and it was produced in Germany under the Nazi regime. Most of the images have a very questionable origin, and we don’t know if the images in the edition we used have the same origin. Once you know that, though, you can’t ignore it. So the narrative of the book is supposed to be the extraction of an eye in the first person – it puts the reader in the position of a person extracting an eye. You start from a distance and then you come closer and you pass through the eye to the other side. The book is printed with risography, and we also discovered that with the first prints that we did while the drum was releasing surplus ink, we could generate forms that were similar to glaucoma or other vision problems.
ES: You mean these ghostly forms on the page?
MB: Those are not images – it’s just a plain black page, but the machine was producing these deformations that we liked to think of as similar to dysfunctions of vision.
ES: I also like the way that it loops back to this idea of the technology again, which all of your work seems to do. There’s always this undercurrent, this subtext or foregrounding of the technology that was used to produce the image, or to produce the physical page itself.
MB: I think it’s naïve not to see that, you know. Everything is mediated, all the technologies for producing and distributing images.
ES: You also organise the Felifa book festival – can you tell me about that, and about the new book award that you’re hosting? It’s about disassembling books, it’s very focused on design and production rather than just subject matter.
MB: This is the first festival that I’ve co-directed, together with Luján Agusti. We had over two hundred submissions, which is kind of a record for a festival here. With previous awards, it was just a money prize, but we didn’t have a budget this year. So we started to think of how we could do a kind of anatomy of books, the different angles of book-building, and book-making: dissecting books, putting them on tables and analysing them, and then putting them back together again. One of my favourite works from Argentina is a sculpture by Daniel Acosta of a Ford Falcon, which was a car model that was used by the secret police in Argentina, to kidnap people. He disassembled every little part of the car, you could go into the middle of it and look at everything, it was a bit like looking at the anatomy of the monster. That’s what we discussed with Luján and Lucia Peluffo, co-ordinator of the award, that we wanted to do with the prize: to disassemble, to focus on the individual aspects, and then reassemble to see how these aspects worked together – or didn’t work. During the festival, we had two laboratories that were like little residencies. One of them was for destroying books – the participants were artists that have published books, and the idea was to enter this workshop and destroy your book, perform a ritual of destruction at the start, and reassemble the remains of it for an exhibition.
ES: I wanted to ask you about Con toda la muerte al aire, by María Eugenia Cerutti. It’s an investigation of a notorious femicide: the murder of Alcira Methyger, committed by her partner Jorge Burgos in February 1955. The text, which is very beautifully written, is from a book that Burgos wrote from prison, explaining why he committed the crime. Can you talk about what your goals were for the book? Were you worried about validating his testimony? There’s also an extensive use of abstraction and archival imagery, as in your other books.
MB: María Eugenia Cerutti did a long investigation of this case, which is very relevant and important in criminal history in Argentina. It was the biggest criminal case of 1955, which was also the year that Juan Perón was removed from power. It’s considered to be the first femicide that was hyper-mediated – published in all of the mass media here in Argentina. Jorge Burgos wrote the book during his prison stay, and it was a bestseller in Buenos Aires in 1955. His basic argument in the book is ‘yes, I killed her, but it was her fault’. This is an argument that’s still used today, in these kind of cases. Of course we were struck by this continuity, and the lack of solutions. Burgos won over the public, people started to send letters to newspapers asking for his release, and he was released after nine years in prison. Most of the people that wrote those letters were women; a lot of their letters are in the book. We also had a lot of other material: documentary images, photography of the cases, a lot of archival images, a lot of text.
Going back to your first question: we had really long conversations with María about how it would be perceived for us to republish this text, written by a murderer. Of course we had that Borgean curiosity of wanting to know what happens when you take a text from 70 years ago, and you republish it now, and when you put things next to it that don’t belong there. Then we of course felt that this text was saying something important. Reading the book, I had the same experience as many people did: of feeling that it was a beautiful, romantic text, and of almost feeling empathy for the writer. It’s a brilliantly built argument for a guy that killed his wife, cut her into pieces, and put the pieces all around the city. For him to do something so grotesque and to be able to rationalise it and build empathy – here is the anatomy of the beast. Crimes like this still happen, so instead of silencing it, let’s give it critical space, it’s in all of our interests for this material to be out there, and to discuss it.
ES: What’s the relationship between that very sinister, compelling text that really puts you in a conflicted position as a reader, and the images?
MB: The images are a counterpart. When you open the book, in the box, you have these two texts that I wrote: ‘Every reader is guilty, every text is an assassin.’ So in a sense, the first book, which is filled with images, questions your pleasure in reading the second one, which contains Burgos’ text. It doesn’t allow you to have an innocent reading, because no reader is innocent, each reader activates what she is reading and is activated by it.
ES: I’d like to end by asking you a bit about photobook publishing in Latin America. There are a lot of large photobook publishers based in Europe – especially the Netherlands – and North America, but a lot of other countries seem to get sidelined. I’d like to hear about the context of photobook publishing in Latin America. Do you work exclusively with Latin American artists?
MB: Myself, no, it’s not in my agenda to just work with Latin American artists. Yes, I try to work in Latin American way – at least in a ‘Río de la Plata’ aesthetic. Río de la Plata is the river that joins Argentina and Uruguay. In this region, we have a literary tradition of experimenting with the book form: Borges, Cortazar, Felisberto Hernandez, Rigardo Pilgia and many others. I like to work in this semantic field, this Río de la Plata way of thinking. So, regarding the general scenario – there are a lot of independent and small efforts, a lot of zine publishing, self publishing. In the past few years, we’ve started to see more organised efforts emerging from Colombia, from Chile – Mexico has its own shape and form, so I’m going to leave that a bit to one side. We already have two or three publishing houses here in Latin America that have at least six or eight years experience. We obviously have the big publishing houses, but now we’re starting to see more layers of publishers emerging. The main issue here in Latin America is distribution – there’s a long distance between countries, so to send a book from Argentina to Peru, or to you [in London], it’s roughly the same price. That makes things a bit harder. When I worked in Europe, in a week I could ship to nine different countries with a cost of 5 to 10 euros shipping. Here, it’s impossible, so that limits our market, and a limited market limits production. It’s our main enemy, distribution, but we’re always looking for solutions.
Here, in Latin America, there are a lot of limitations on people buying books, because of money, so I don’t want to build an oligarchic publishing house that only sells books to people that can buy them. I want to sell books to people who can afford to buy them, and offer books to people who can’t.
ES: Is this one reason why you offer free pdfs? I notice that the Enigma series can be downloaded as free pdfs.
MB: Actually, the politics of the publishing house is that one year after a book is published, it goes to a free pdf. Where I have more control, because they were my authorship, or the artist has empathy with the need for collective, common material, sometimes books are available in pdf from the beginning. I believe that the one does not occupy the space of the other. Books and pdfs are different materials, so offering a free pdf does not affect the commercial success of the book. Here, in Latin America, there are a lot of limitations on people buying books, because of money, so I don’t want to build an oligarchic publishing house that only sells books to people that can buy them. I want to sell books to people who can afford to buy them, and offer books to people who can’t.