MIAMI, United States. – The photos by Kenny Lemes (Havana, 1985) sow doubt: it is not known if beauty was always there, in the place set by the photographer, or if it was his gaze that created a layer of beauty. In any case, after the photo hay beauty.
Lemes, who was born in Havana and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina at the age of 11, is particularly interested in photographing the skin and markings on the body. When I suggest that he photographs the skin to capture the soul, he tells me no, he’s sorry, I’m wrong.
“There is a myth in the world of photography that is to believe that when they take a picture of you they can see your soul,” he explains through Instagram, the same space where he usually hangs his photos. “Or, at least, that’s what most photographers say they want: ‘I want to capture the essence of you,’ ‘I want to see the real you.’”
He does not. He believes that “no one can portray the essence of anything, nor the truth of anything because EVERYTHING is a pose, a performance”.
“When one allows himself to be photographed, he always knows what he is giving: what profile, what look and with what intention. Add to a given narrative. I look like I’m sweet, I look like I’m sad. I put on a face that I’m sensitive,” she says.
“It seems to me that the truth of people is in the skin, and that is why, for example, it is so difficult to undress. There is nothing more private than the skin. Nothing more private and nothing deeper. The skin is the deepest. The image is performative, it is movable. One changes according to the occasion. We cannot change our skin”, he sums up his poetic vision of photography and the world in an instant.
And he continues: “That’s why I’m interested in tattoos. I am interested in the ways in which people choose to hurt themselves, scratch themselves, write their skin. Those choices LITERALLY tell us who that person is. Nothing of the soul I am not interested in the soul or the supposed truth that the photograph reflects, ”he ends emphatically.
When did you start to be interested in images as a container that does not contain, but rather constitutes?, I ask, trying to delve into a conversation that is fluid at times, at times cut off by thousands of kilometers and a telephone on each side.
He believes that “artistic expression is always catharsis”, that it is always “a means of decompression”, which he arrived at, he says, because he had a stutter.
“I am sure that I was interested in writing to balance my oral communication problem”, he reels off. “When one lacks something, on the other hand, he cultivates a lot something that makes that lack not weigh so much. I have the feeling – I don’t know, it’s counterfactual – that I wouldn’t have insisted on writing well if I could have spoken normally like anyone else. And I think photography was an obvious continuation of that desire to write. Photographing is a way of saying ”, he asserts.
“How do you find the skins and bodies that you are interested in photographing?” I ask him.
“Usually around here, on Instagram. I see someone and I realize. It has to echo me for something that has to do with me. I work from my own subjectivity, on my own prejudices, my personal wounds.
“I like to feel reflected in the people I portray. In all of them there are echoes of me… But still, beyond those subjectivities, more objectively, I like people who seem to be in the middle of a storm. And that seems to have history. I like the image that opens questions, and generates mysteries, doubts, whispers: “Look, his leg is hurt; look at that tattoo; look what he is doing. Is she female or is she male? is he trans? Is that blood? Where did he come from? I like the image that stops you. That doesn’t let you look up and go on long”.
In 2019, Kenny traveled from Buenos Aires to Havana, where he spent four of the six months he planned to spend. In Cuba he started a project and left it. “Cubans are very difficult with the photos and those who look like yumas”, he justifies himself. “Very closed, they believe that one always has ulterior motives, when you talk about an intimate look they associate it with a sexual search.”
He would have liked ―he continues recounting― to get into “certain areas of great marginality, especially with regard to the gay and trans. Twice I stopped two visibly trans girls on the street ―he says―, I explained to them that he was a photographer and that he wanted to photograph them and they said no ”.
In a previous interview, Kenny defined himself as “a deeply pessimistic person.” I want to know if he is a pessimistic person who photographs, or is what he frames and captures what feeds his pessimism.
“I don’t think my pessimism depends on photography, I’m pessimistic about the world,” he says emphatically. “Photography is my way of fooling myself a bit. I like to think that if I manage to see beauty in the worst, in pain and in chaos… if I can point it out in my photos, it is because that beauty is out there, in the real world”.
“It’s a bit naive,” he anticipates. “But that illusion is the only thing that artists have. Nietzsche said: ‘We have art in order not to die from the truth’”.
―There is a space, where all your photographs probably coexist, which you have defined as “out of the world”. What are you looking for there? I ask.
―I would say that when I portray other people, I do it looking with the love with which I would like to be able to look at myself.
Kenny places special devotion on subjects with dissident gender identities and sexualities. Many of his photos talk about non-binary people: men, women, trans… almost all with marked skin. What are you looking for here, what interests you? I investigate and he avoids me: “What interests me are butterflies when they fly at night.”
I keep pestering him with questions that are “complex,” he says, that don’t have a single answer or a simple answer, and that, after stating them, seem almost simplistic and unnecessary to me: What is the part of yourself that you seek to photograph in others? I promise I’m done.
“They say that all the photographs are selfies. My work perfectly reflects who I am and everything I would like to be but cannot.
Kenny Lemes (Havana, 1985) won the second prize ―in the Photography section― of the National Salon of Visual Arts of Argentina, in 2021. Before, in 2016, he had achieved an honorable mention (in Photography) in the Award for Visual Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, Argentina. In 2019 he was the winner of an FNA Training Scholarship to study at the Roberto Jacoby Center for Artistic Research. In 2020, he presented his first individual exhibition at the La Boca Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO) and, a year later, he inaugurated “Singular Fosforescence”, his second personal exhibition, at the España Cultural Center, Córdoba, Argentina.