Sofia Ayarzagoitia has been photographing her lovers and male friends since she was a teenager growing up in Monterrey, Mexico. “Before this, I used to write letters to my boyfriends and ask them to send me pictures of themselves,” she remembers, hinting at an early fascination with collecting visual records of the people she’s loved. “I took a lot of self-portraits growing up, but I was also photographing the people I dated in an excessive way too.” In recent years, Ayarzagoitia has taken fewer pictures of herself, yet her images of the men in her life still very much refer back to her – tracing her own personal, emotional and psychological journey as it unfolds across the years.
Ayarzagoitia’s relationships with all of her subjects are empathic and driven by the bonds she builds with them both in front of, and away from, the lens. When speaking about the sort of connection she needs to have with someone in order to want to take their picture, she says that she has to know she wants to photograph them the very first moment she sees them. An instant chemistry is imperative. “Something has to come together based on my attraction to them immediately – sensually, empathetically, aesthetically. I need to be drawn to them because of their attitude, and the way they carry themselves, or through a desire to know more about their culture. I like open people.” Whether meeting through friends or by chance encounter on the street, it’s the intangible parts of her subjects’ personalities that she believes she can capture through photographing them.
Life and art entwined, Ayarzagoitia immerses herself in time with her subjects, and the sessions she spends photographing them – which take place in their private spaces – are something akin to a collaborative, almost ritualistic, performance. “Getting people in front of the camera is something that happens very naturally for me. Often there’s a playfulness to the situation that the performance can intensify, and we’ll just disconnect our minds and get lost in it.” Both posing her subjects and allowing them free rein to perform for the camera, the men we see are playing at being themselves and at being different characters, and the line between memory and fiction, what’s real and what’s staged for the camera, dissolves. She also draws other elements into the situations – bursts of colour, interiors, soft furnishings and bizarre, almost comical props like melons and fish. Sometimes the objects she uses are symbolic, and serve the purpose of reactivating memories of either, or both, photographer and subject.
The time Ayarzagoitia takes to document a person can be anything from a short, intensive one-off to a more prolonged engagement developing over time, though her interest will always lie much more in the field of new encounters. “New people are a kind of addiction for me. I like to grow groups of pictures, and make new narratives and new constructions every day. I’ll also go back to my photographs and find new relationships with old ones.”
Asked if she would still be as inclined to chase after encounters in the way she does without her photographs as an end goal, she says she thinks she would, to a certain degree, but that the camera changes a lot too. “It’s a very powerful tool, weird and very beautiful at the same time. It certainly helps me to be more social. Photography makes life more fun, and it enriches it too. Essentially, it helps you to look inside and analyse your own lived experience.”
Here, Ayarzagoitia talks us through a selection of her images, and the encounters behind them.