No me mires. A Spanish phrase which translates into English as “Do not look at me.”
At first inspection this small unassuming book, ¡No Me Mires!, from Venezuelan photographer Ana María Ferris, appears as another collection of artfully edited, predominantly black and white images. Published by independent, Intervalo, the softcover design is subtle and pared back, a matte black cover with the title wrapping around in large black letters printed in a contrasting finish. Elegant monochrome swoops and pirouettes that appear as impressionistic and ethereal whispers are interspersed with more visceral unambiguous colour blows that hit like a punch to the gut.
The work has an undoubted elegance, speed and motion, certainly enough to peak my interest, but initially, if I am being honest, not enough to induce me to linger. That is until I viewed two images which stopped me in my tracks, both of which stand proudly, loudly and terrifyingly apart from the rest of the sequence. The first a red diptych, a face swathed in cloth, tilted back and screaming.
The second, bloodied hand prints on what appears to be a door, the prints flat and defined against the smooth reflective surface upon which they are trapped.
With these two pictures, the context and flow of the work falls into place, and the disturbing reality of the narrative becomes all too clear. In 2014, on a Sunday evening in June, Ana María Ferris and her family were at their home in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas when five armed men, high on drugs, broke into their house. The family was bound, and Ferris’s husband beaten. Terrified and helpless, they were told to keep their eyes down and remain silent while the gang systematically cleared the house of everything Ferris’s family owned.
The months that followed saw Ferris understandably traumatised by a violence all too common and prevalent in her country. For some time after, she suffered from blurred and disturbed vision and found herself unable to continue her photographic work. However, as the mists cleared, her desire to resume working returned. The stylistic ¡No Me Mires! was the result.
To look though this book with full knowledge of its context becomes an almost cinematic experience. Nightmarish, slow motion moments that produce cold sweats and dry mouth. Imagine a loud industrial soundscape or the feel of the dream sequences in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. In Ferris’s work, a choreography of violence and terror plays out.
When I was a lot younger, Venezuela was a mythical exotic paradise, famous for such stunning natural wonders as the Angel Falls and, of course, the seemingly endless supply of beautiful women that kept winning Miss World. However, recent political turmoil, an economic collapse on a scale almost unimaginable, and a spiraling crime and murder rate, has classed it as one of the most dangerous countries on the face of the planet. So while devastatingly beautiful natural wonders and staggeringly gorgeous women are still constants, this is now a very different country from the South American paradise that I grew up hearing about.
A comment on Venezuelan crime or a warning to the rest of us? Whichever, my congratulations and respect to Ferris for having the courage to revisit, recreate, and preserve such a harrowing memory. Whether an act of catharsis or reenactment of a life-changing moment, haunted by senseless greed and violence, ¡No Me Mires! is a work of beguiling duality and a powerful personal statement that will touch all that see it—a photobook that stays with you and definitely rewards the reader with repeated viewings.