With the publication of her extraordinary book Moisés, Mariela Sancari demonstrated the possibility of picturing a secret. The book is named after her father, who committed suicide when his daughters – Sancari and her twin – were 14 years old. They were not allowed to see his body and weren’t told why; they speculated that this might have been connected to the cause of his death, or to his Jewish identity. But they did not know.

The not knowing became the wellspring, eventually, for Moisés (La Fabrica, 2015). In the intervening years, the sisters half believed they might find their father sitting in a café, or walking down the street. In Sancari’s words, ‘Thanatology asserts that not seeing the dead body of our beloved ones prevents us from accepting their death. Contemplating the body of the deceased helps us overcome one of the most complex stages of grief: denial.’

Sancari placed a classified advert in a Buenos Aires newspaper, asking for men aged around 70, which was the age her father would be, had he lived, to study a photograph of Moisés and, if they saw a resemblance, to come forward. Sancari photographed the men who had responded to her request in her father’s clothes, which the family had kept close during a spontaneous evacuation to Mexico from Argentina in the aftermath of his death, and in the ensuing decades. The palpable desire for the return of a beloved
father finds its voice in photographing strangers. Sancari asks one man to comb her hair; we witness this intimacy because she chooses to be visible in a couple of otherwise solitary portraits. There is something inexplicably poignant in the act of turning the lens on, or paying attention to, a group of older men, with their lined faces and their knowing eyes. However, we will never know what exactly they saw in the newspaper image of Moisés that spoke to them so deeply – what it was that reminded them
of themselves.

Since 1997, Sancari has lived in Mexico City. She worked as a newspaper photographer for five years before focusing on more
personal work, including the series The two Headed Horse, in which she creates portraits of herself and her twin, apart, entwined, clasped in a tenderly sexual embrace. Is this a pure form of self-love, or consolation? She also photographs precious objects such as their father’s gold cigarette lighter. Two short sentences describe each item; rarely do the memories collide.

Moisés was named book of the year in 2015 by a host of well-known critics – Susan Bright, Tim Clark and Erik Kessels, to name a few. The latter likened the raw emotional power of the work to Seiichi Furuya’s Mémoires. Indeed the form of the book is structured to mirror the labyrinth of memory. Its pages are interlocking, and necessitate much touching in order to move towards the end, which is, of course, our beginning, as T. S. Eliot reminds us. Sancari understands this from her own experience. She had to return to the end to begin again, with this captivating attempt to reconstitute her father and to unlock, at least in part, the secret of his death.

Text included in the book Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now, published by Thames and Hudson, 2017.

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