The first pictures of Alessandra Sanguinetti that I saw, the ones she’s still best known for, were taken in the Pampas, or as we say in Argentina, el campo. That broad term includes both the flatlands and minuscule towns that make up the centre of the country and the fields to the north, which are richer and greener.

In that landscape, dominated by the men who work the farms, Sanguinetti met two girls, Guillermina and Belinda. They came to visit their grandmother, who lived on the farm next to Sanguinetti’s father’s country home. The photographer would ask them to play out their fears and fantasies with costumes and make-believe scenes. In one image, they float peacefully in a stream, like two Ophelias from the John Everett Millais painting.

After their first meeting in 1992, she would continue to photograph the girls for another 20 years. In her images, you see them coming of age against the backdrop of el campo — the sparse and poor place is, for them, a palace, a fairy tale. Sanguinetti captures both sides of it: that which is precarious and that which is magic.

While visiting Guillermina and Belinda, Sanguinetti was also photographing life on the farm around them. She became interested in the daily struggles of the workers and the adventures and deaths of the animals. The girls were still there, in the background, but Sanguinetti would shoo them out of the frame so that they wouldn’t disturb the animals.

Those photographs, first published 18 years ago but long out of print, are now on show again in On the Sixth Day, a book and accompanying exhibition at Los Angeles’s MACK 939 gallery. It remains one of her most personal projects. In an interview with the Argentine newspaper Página/12, she said: “As a girl, I spent weekends and summers in el campo. Those days were my true education. I learnt about death, about the relations of power between people and between people and animals. But I’ve always considered myself a visitor, even today, after all these years.”

It’s strange, but to most city people, even suburban people, the work that happens in el campo remains a mystery. The violence that takes place on that enormous plain where everything looks the same is a secret between the land and its people. But it’s all over these photographs. You can barely see any faces, only those of the animals, which are often deadly scared or just dead. The slaughter is gruesome. It’s not an industrial farm, but the workers are organised and there’s not much feeling involved. This is an everyday slaughter.

There’s no moral condemnation from Sanguinetti’s point of view. I see matter-of-fact brutality and the presence of death, in all its truth. And death can’t be forgotten in el campo. Is that a priest blessing a cow, lying dead on the ground? Bloody hands being washed while a dog looks on, like the purifying cleansing of hands during Catholic mass. Two pigs ready for the slaughterhouse, eyes closed but still unpeaceful. Birds scream, lambs try to escape. The people, meanwhile, appear hardened, older than their years, their legs swollen. They eat at tables strewn with bottles of wine, cooking pots and dead animals. Occasionally you can see a glimpse of beauty, as with the lady standing in that field, so happy in her pretty dress. But mostly the world that Sanguinetti depicts here is difficult to look at.

© Alessandra Sanguinetti
© Alessandra Sanguinetti

The Pampas are, as in many places in the Americas, lands that have seen many killings. Colonisation, beginning with the Spanish in the 16th century, tried to exterminate Argentina’s indigenous population in that region. What we have today is a big, eerily empty country: 45 million people, a population far smaller than the UK’s, but in a space more than four times the size. The sheer austerity of that landscape, so open and yet so closed, an agoraphobic’s nightmare, hides what lies beneath.

But history can sometimes be read in the names of places. In Provincia de Buenos Aires, there’s a town called Rauch. Rauch was a German colonel who participated in the battles that led up to the “Conquest of the Desert”, a military campaign led by the Argentine government to expand its borders and win land, which saw thousands of indigenous people killed. Rauch, who was known for his cruelty, died in combat, his throat slit, in 1829. Why does the town still bear his name? People there still ask that question and want it changed. Others continue to believe that the conquest was necessary.

That history shaped Argentina as we know it today. Those who participated in the battle received not only money in payment from then President Julio Argentino Roca but land as well. Lots of land — the latifundios (“large estates”) as we call them, or estancias (“ranches”). Unlike the US, which was mostly built up by smallholders, here there are families who were given land and either rented it out or paid people to farm it. These workers are the people you see in Sanguinetti’s pictures. Those landed families are behind the inequality that still exists in Argentina today. They are an aristocracy won with blood, as many are.

Many characters and myths have come out of el campo. There’s the gaucho, the lawless cowboy of the Pampas. In literature, there’s even a local genre, la gauchesca, begun by writers such as José Hernández in the 19th century. They wrote stories filled with beauty and cruelty, blood and burden; of early mornings and animals that are first companions, then sacrifices; of lonely sunsets in an infinite landscape which reeks of ghosts. There’s also much literature, mainly from wealthy writers, such as Sara Gallardo, where el campo is a place of rest and bucolic charms. But violence is always in the background. In her short novel Fever Dream, Buenos Aires-born writer Samanta Schweblin describes how it feels when a place that has been painted as a sanctuary is actually poisonous. This land has been both ever since it was christened la pampa by its colonisers.

© Alessandra Sanguinetti
© Alessandra Sanguinetti

I was always tempted to write about the Pampas, but I still haven’t. There is one photograph that reminds me of one of the short stories in my next book, A Local Artist. It’s about a couple that go to a small town to find some peace and calm but instead find something else. The photograph that brings it to mind shows a foetus of some animal, I can’t tell which. Two chickens look at it with a mixture of curiosity and sadness. Of course, you might say, these are human emotions that they couldn’t feel. But in the picture they do. We see that truncated life thrown to the ground, not with cruelty but with casualness, as if we’ve entered a land where suffering is a given. Another shows an animal hanging, skinned, in the black of the night, like an omen or a macabre offering (I can’t recognise it either. I could, but I won’t try).

On the Sixth Day is a book that forces you to look. Every country’s history is a history of violence, but in Argentina the air is still thick with it. El campo, emptied by bloodthirst and ruthlessness, serves as a constant reminder of what took place there. It’s not easy to find the moments that portray this history: Sanguinetti was brave and watched closely in order to understand how that violence was naturalised. And there’s no judgment from her. This is not a book about the treatment of animals or what we eat. She dedicates this book to the anonymous animals of el campo and to the memory of Juana, the grandmother who lived on the neighbouring farm. She has the eye of a reporter, a narrator and an artist who understands cruelty. I think many artists in Latin America do, because we live with it in many shapes and forms. That’s why here, the beauty of these photographs and the flashes of tenderness are what makes this a work of truth.

© Alessandra Sanguinetti

“On the Sixth Day” by Alessandra Sanguinetti is published by MACK. The exhibition “The Sixth Day” is on show at 939, Los Angeles. Mariana Enríquez’s novel “Our Share of Night” is published by Granta

Follow @FTMag to find out about our latest stories first

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.