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Spring Cleaning – Alina Saranti

I am from Athens, Greece and I am currently based in Ankara, Turkey with my husband and two  young daughters. After a ten-year career in journalism, I spent the past seven years as a stay-at home mother. I have just graduated with a Masters in photojournalism and documentary photography and my intention is that photography will be my main job.

Share with us your journey to photography.

I came to photography quite late, seriously picking up the camera about three years ago. I grew  up in Athens and left for the UK when I was nineteen to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, and after that international relations at the London School of Economics.

I then spent ten years  working as a journalist in London and Athens in various roles and different outlets – online, TV,  radio, print – mostly dealing with international news. I then met my future husband, had two children, started moving countries and realised that my old career would not really work. I felt completely lost.

My experience of motherhood was particularly challenging; I was shocked to discover that, especially in those first years but also still now that my kids are five and seven, it is all-encompassing and often all-consuming.

It has affected everything – my body, my mind, and all aspects of my life. I felt I was drowning. Photography was the raft onto which I climbed to save  myself (to paraphrase the American artist Dorothea Tanning who said “art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity”.)

I had always been interested in the visual arts, especially painting, and had occasionally written about the arts in my journalistic career but had never dared practice them myself. I turned to photography because, having spent most of my adult life dealing with the written word, I was  intrigued by this wordless language.

Later on, however, I discovered how connected it is to words  and I am still fascinated by the relationship – and unresolved tension – between text and image. I  also, mistakenly of course, thought that it would be relatively simple to start taking pictures – I  realised very quickly that if I wanted to do so effectively, it is not at all simple.

This led to my decision to embark on my MA at London College of  Communication, and it was a transformative experience for me. Though I deliberately chose it thinking that it could act as a bridge between my former career in journalism and a new one in  photography, during the course of the MA it became clear to me that it was becoming more of a break from my earlier path.

I was no longer interested in trying to represent other people’s stories, stories in faraway places, stories of which I began to question “could I ever truly understand?”, and I became interested in finding a way to tell the only story that I could ever really  know (and even that with a question mark); my story, the way I experience the world.

Finding one’s voice is always a work in progress, and for me it started during this period of study.

The topics I explore – loss, motherhood, domesticity, our inner worlds and how the outer  landscape is related to our inner one – are usually autobiographical and are a result of my wider  interests, but also my limitations. As a prime caregiver of two small children, I cannot travel far to make work, and my time is often very fragmented.

My first meaningful project ‘Strange  Country’ resulted from my frustration with being confined largely inside the home with my two  young children on a seemingly endless Christmas school break (back then I couldn’t imagine being locked down for months during a global pandemic!). Like so many of us have done during the lockdown, I started making photographs inside the home and in close vicinity to home – and discovered that I didn’t need to go very far to create images.

This first meaningful project has informed, to a large extent, how I have been working so far. I usually photograph inside the home, in walks not too far away from home, also sometimes during our family holidays, and find different ways of combining the photographs, manipulating them and creating narratives. 

Tell us about ‘Spring Cleaning’. 

Spring Cleaning’ is about the (first?) spring of the pandemic, when it all started. Spring cleaning literally refers to the age-old custom of thoroughly cleaning the house after winter and in  preparation for spring and the renewal it brings.

In the normal interplay of the seasons it marks the end of winter, of having to spend most of the time indoors due to cold weather, and the rebirth of nature that spring signifies together with warmer weather and the opportunity to spend more time outside. The spring when the pandemic broke out was, of course, very different. Nature was bloomed as it does every year but we were unable to experience it as we would usually do. We were locked inside, in shock, anxious, uncertain.

During the whole duration of the spring lockdown in Turkey, children and people aged sixty-five and over were not allowed to go outside the  house for any reason, and there were blanket curfews for several days of the week on most weeks. Walking for the rest of us was strongly discouraged for any purpose other than shopping for essentials. Living in a flat in the very centre of the city, I felt an intense need to go outside and experience spring but my few, short walks were filled with guilt.

During these walks I started making polaroid photographs of the urban nature in central Ankara. When I got home I was not happy with the pictures so I started manipulating them – burning them,  pouring antiseptic and cleaning products on them. I was thinking how rituals of physical cleansing have been used since ancient times to absolve from sin or ethical wrongdoing. In the spring of the COVID-19 pandemic, cleaning and disinfection rose to a different level; to a matter  of life and death, protecting us from the spread of a deadly virus.

We took up habits normally associated with the pathology of germaphobia. Bleach is considered one of the most effective disinfectants against most bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19, but like most chemicals of its kind, it can also have a poisonous, destructive effect. It also has a very distinctive, unpleasant smell that overtook the smell of spring. I ended up using bleach to manipulate my polaroids – it became a symbol of how we try to protect ourselves from the virus, as well as cleanse ourselves from our possible role in the onset and spread of the  pandemic.

My motivation was similar to my motivation in taking up photography in the first place: saving myself, finding myself, making sense of what is happening inside me and in the world around me. In those first months of lockdown the experience was very intense – being locked inside the house with my immediate family with non-stop childcare and domestic work, having to figure out how to be my children’s teacher while having to complete a degree at the same time in the general climate of uncertainty and anxiety. This was a project to keep me sane.

While working on the project, were there any moments or experiences or realisations that stood out to you?

The experience that stood out for me was the sheer enjoyment of the physicality of this project. I had worked digitally up until that point, with very few exceptions. My course was also online, so I was almost completely immersed in the digital, virtual, online world. The satisfaction of actually touching the polaroids – which act a bit like little sculptures, they are so tactile – and then also manipulating them was intense. I still work with digital, mostly for practical reasons at this point in my life, but after this project I want to experiment further with manipulating prints. It also helped me recognise that destruction and creation are intimately connected.

Recommend us something.

One of the things I least expected when I started out in photography was that it would make me read more. It might also have to do with the fact that my children are a bit older and I now have more time to read.

Through photography I have been discovering poetry. In the past I had  thought that poetry is not for me and I always preferred prose and non-fiction. I am now reconsidering. Besides, poetry is often linked to photography, while prose is considered closer to film. At the moment I’m discovering the poems of the latest Nobel laureate Louise Gluck – they have pierced my heart.

While preparing the written component of my MA major project which was about dreams, I also went back to some of the reading I had done while studying philosophy as part of my BA degree. Dreams have often preoccupied philosophers as they pose many problems regarding the nature  of reality – what is real and how can we know it? This reminded me how I have often found  solace in reading philosophy as it deals with the fundamental questions of being human. I am  currently finding a lot of joy reading Nigel Warburton’s ‘A Little History of Philosophy’ – a  wonderful, very accessible overview of Western philosophy. I am also listening to Warburton’s and David Edmonds’s podcast Philosophy Bites – short interviews on various philosophical  issues.

Finally, tell us about one photograph or piece of art that has strongly influenced you – whether a painting, drawing, illustration, text, book, music.  

One artwork that has influenced me is Cy Twombly’s ‘Quattro Stagioni’. I saw both versions of it at the Tate Modern retrospective in 2008 and it truly is one of those artworks that you need to physically see – seeing it on a screen or on print won’t it justice. I was deeply moved by the use of colour; it looked so expressive, visceral, but when you get closer you can see all these scribbles and you have to make some effort to read – words, phrases, even poetry.

He mixes image with text in such an interesting way and appeals so successfully to emotion and intellect – I think for a work of art to be most effective it has to appeal to both. It is of course a study on the cycles of nature, birth and death, the passing of time, and the transience of life, but it is also imbued with the light, myths and poetry of the Mediterranean (he painted it while he was in Italy), which strongly appeal to me as this forms such a large part of my own upbringing.

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