Behind the powerful serenity, spirituality and sexuality of Carlota Guerrero
The photographer and filmmaker explains her distinct vision for portraying empowered, natural women, her “chaotic, obsessive” creative process, and how a call from Solange catapulted her into superstardom.
Within seconds of joining a Zoom call with Carlota Guerrero, I’m instantly more relaxed. The 31-year-old, world-renowned photographer exudes a confident yet humble calmness that puts me at ease, chatting in her low, dulcet, Spanish accent about video call technicalities and the mundanities of lockdown. For someone who quickly rose to superstardom, from a relative unknown to the artist behind one of the last decade’s most iconic album covers – Solange’s A Seat At The Table – it hasn’t gone to her head. If anything, as I find out during our conversation, it has set her free.
Born and currently living in Barcelona, Carlota was clear-minded in her aesthetics and ethos from the outset, receiving that fateful call from Solange when she was just 24. A strong feminist, she believes herself to be a channel for all the feminine energy that came before her and influenced her from a young age, from her mum to other artists and muses. Her film and photography work is singular, recognisable for its ethereal yet striking compositions of poised women, often nude and/or intertwined, depicted in muted tones and exuding power. With time, it has become increasingly sexual, which we speak about in-depth, Carlota admitting she realised fairly recently she had been accidentally depicting women as virgins, and by way of self-rebellion organised an on-stage orgy at Art Basel Miami.
We speak aptly on International Women’s Day, with Carlota saying that, despite lockdown, she wants to get outside briefly to “manifest myself” on this day celebrating the subject at the core of her work: the respect and empowerment of women. This as she prepares to release her first monograph Tengo un Dragon Dentro del Corazon (published by Prestel on 27 April), a record of her work to date with contributions from collaborators such as musician Rosalia and poet Rupi Kaur; and an immersion into her visual obsessions which, she says, when they come to her, “possess me completely”.
It’s Nice That: How have you found this whole experience the past year – how do you think it’s changed your perspective?
Carlota Guerrero: Quite a lot honestly. After almost six years of jumping into planes every week and travelling all the time, I didn’t have time to stop and actually realise what I was doing. I’m a very driven, active person. So having to stop and get perspective and stay still for a while, and work on personal projects and nurturing my home life... It’s been really significant to me. I don’t know if I would have stopped if it wasn’t because of the pandemic. So for me, it’s been a great experience, I’ve learned a lot.
INT: You’ve mentioned already you’ve had a whirlwind, crazy busy career... When did you first start thinking about being creative?
CG: I grew up in Barcelona, my family’s from southern Spain, but I was born here. They were all really hard working; I always felt like I was an artist, but I couldn’t say it out loud because they were really humble and work-oriented, so my mom wouldn’t expect me to study something art-related.
When I had to choose a career, the crisis was hitting really hard in Spain so it wasn’t even an option. I was ashamed of being creative somehow. It was something I was hiding quite a lot, but I would still take photos and paint and do collage, all just casually. I studied psychology, I started in advertising. And I realised none of that was for me. Then my friend Olga gave me a reflex film camera and another camera. The first roll of film I ever took was all overexposed, and every image looked like a painting. And I was so impressed that I had done that myself.
I was in Paris at the time, where art is super, super important – I feel in Spain it’s not taken as seriously. But in Paris, I learned that society could take it seriously, and really respect art and the artist. That was a turning point for me. Since then, I started shooting like crazy; I didn’t stop taking photos.
INT: What were you taking photos of?
CG: Being raised by women and my best friends being a super solid group of girlfriends, and being Mediterranean, all of those components were a recipe for non-stop creating images of women. It all came organically. I guess the obsession had a lot of strength. Then it became my work because people wanted to pay me to do that for brands.
“Working with Solange was like a social, artistic and professional master’s for me.”Carlota Guerrero
INT: So how did you make the leap from that to shooting Solange?
CG: I was working mainly in Barcelona, which is a small town and there are no huge clients. I didn’t have an agency or anything. But I was really active on my Instagram and that’s how Solange found me. I was like 24 at the time, and that started my professional career for real.
INT: That's incredible. Did you feel like it was a jump, or were you ready?
CG: It was my first big project. I’d been to New York once before but I didn’t know America at all. It was a huge responsibility with an artist like Solange. With her trying to communicate such a complex message, a message I didn’t know much about because, in Spain, the Black community… it’s getting bigger and the Black Lives Matter Movement is getting stronger, but I went to school without a Black person in my life, so I didn’t know much about the context. It was hardcore. I suddenly was in New Orleans with this group of super politically active people and they were telling me everything. It was like a master’s for me in every aspect: social, artistic, professional, everything.
“It’s all about creating a safe space for women to feel love and respect, to feel connected and beautiful.”Carlota Guerrero
INT: How direct was the brief from Solange? And how collaborative was that project?
CG: I remember she sent me a moodboard and 75 per cent of the images were my images. I was so shocked and was like, hey thank you so much for using my images, and she was like, of course, that’s why I’m hiring you! I didn’t have that conscious respect for my work yet, I was just experimenting. She loved the solidarity I expressed between women in my aesthetic, and I think she felt she hadn’t seen that for Black women yet. So she asked me to extend that energy to her own world. It was super collaborative. Solange is an incredibly creative person. And I think our sensibilities really aligned because we really understood each other. We would work together on every image, and it was pretty easy because we just felt the same about everything.
INT: What did you want to convey with those images? Did you need to adapt your approach or aesthetic at all?
CG: No, it was really so easy to translate, because for me it’s all just about creating a safe space for women to feel love and respect, to feel connected and beautiful. That’s a universal language. Once we were there with the women, it was so natural and organic. I had to learn from Solange about her message, and she would take her time to explain to me what the reality was in America, of course. But in terms of the feminine energy we were portraying, that was easy.
INT: So what happened after that? Did everything just go crazy with your work?
CG: I mean, it was quite crazy. Now, I want to go back and hug myself in that moment, because I was used to being super calm, here in my space with my friends, everything low-key. And [the Solange project] came to me without me trying to have a super career. I’m ambitious with my projects, but I wasn’t as ambitious in my career. I didn’t want to become an international photographer travelling everywhere. I didn’t think about that, ever. So for me getting that suddenly, it was a lot to process. But then little by little everything found its place. I got signed with WeFolk, and they started helping me choose projects correctly and take it step by step. It was beautiful. And I started getting lots of opportunities to make proper productions and money to create my ideas, it was amazing.
INT: It sounds like it gave you a step up to let your imagination run a bit wilder.
CG: Yes, suddenly I didn’t have to, like, take all of the equipment to the shoot myself! I used to produce a lot of my projects, so I didn’t know how the industry really worked. That was the first time I started to understand I could have a team, and for me to just think of the art. That was incredible.
INT: You have such a defined aesthetic, and there seems to be a strong reference to classical art, but playing with that aesthetic in a more celebratory, modern way – would you agree?
CG: I think there’s a way of talking about classicism without talking about art. Because for me, it’s deeper than that. This is a very LSD topic! For me, it’s all about connections, and the divine feminine, and how there’s a huge amount of energy and inspiration floating there. And when you feel connected, you can access all of that. So for me, re-interpreting things or taking inspiration from other depictions of women is like a legacy; celebrating how I learned everything from my mum and other women in my life: artists, history, and muses. All of that is the same for me. I try to concentrate and depict that in a simple and organised way.
There’s a really strong organic energy I feel inside me, and when I look at it, I realise it’s not mine. I’m just a channel that receives it, and it’s so strong that it comes out of me. And it’s made out of all of these other references that come from other women that I’ve seen before.
INT: Is that why you use a lot of nudity, so the focus is on the skin and it’s very raw and tonal?
CG: I use nudity because I’m speaking about the energy and the essence of the animal condition. So fashion can work with me sometimes if it just adapts to the body, but if it’s too strong, it’s about the fashion and not about the person and I lose interest because that’s not my world. The performative element of my work is because I love to create new organisms. With a lot of women, we create a new woman. That’s what I’m trying to express.
INT: How much of the choreography do you do yourself? Is it quite a loose process, or do you have a specific image you want to create when you start out?
CG: I direct all of it. And the funny part about that is I've always been that type of person. When I was a child, I would direct my friends’ dance routines, or when I was a teenager I’d be the one saying “right everybody’s going to do this” and creating a game. It’s something that comes naturally to me. I will be on set with a group of girls and something comes to me, and it becomes a playful situation and we just perform something. For me, it’s just like I’m documenting the performance. What I enjoy is creating an energy – real connections and real moments of enjoyment and love and community. And then, if I’m lucky, I get a good picture.
INT: Is that why you’ve moved more into video?
CG: The photography and film projects have developed in tandem, for sure. But what’s important is what’s happening, not what’s filmed. First priority is the situation itself. And in second place is the film or the photography. Sometimes we don’t even get one good photo. And that’s OK.
INT: Looking specifically at some recent video work, the Desigual performance piece at Art Basel Miami and the Spiritual Striptease, would you say you’re trying to reclaim women’s sexuality, in a way?
CG: When I started, my work was all about super ethereal, classical women, soft colours and harmony, and it came from fear – which is OK. I completely respect my decision at that moment. It was what I needed to do because I was reacting to the male gaze on women, and I wanted to portray women in a very safe space. Then the years went by… I’m a sexual person, an open person, I’m not a conservative person at all, but I looked back and I suddenly realised for a long time I’ve been portraying women as virgins, without thinking too much about it, it was just my intuition. So then I said: I need to do a huge orgy, because, why not? Because women are ethereal, but they’re also super sexual. And both things are equally respectable. For me, it was like putting both images in the same position with the same respect and with the same love. I’m not trying to be controversial or polemic, I’m just trying to portray the beauty and the dignity of women being hyper-sexual, without having to be apologetic.
INT: Yes because it’s showing nudity and sexuality in a completely different way...
CG: With dignity and respect.
INT: How do you balance that in your fashion work? Because while things are changing, there’s still an unrealistic vision of what women should be...
CG: I think I’m lucky enough that clients come to me looking for diversity. So I don’t often have to deal with a client telling me they want a super skinny, tall, blonde, pale-skinned model. When it happened, and it did happen, I just fought for it not to be like that. I feel like I have a responsibility to have that conversation and explain why that is important, especially in Spain, where we’re really back in time on [diversity]. I understand how important representation is and how I can change the industry from the inside. As far as editing goes, I shoot medium format, so unless the model asks for something to be edited, I try not to do it.
INT: What is it about medium format and physical film that you enjoy?
CG: I love the fact that the image exists in real life, you have it there. That comes with a lot of poetry and magic for me, because everything, even the flaws, become part of the image. It’s a much more pure and beautiful representation than a digital file. Digital files scare me. They could all disappear at any moment, having the negatives is so calming and soothing to me. Also, you need to think a lot more before shooting on film, because you have limited images, so you put a lot more effort and respect into what you’re doing, you don’t shoot until you’re sure.
INT: You describe your creative process as quite chaotic, why is that?
CG: I feel somehow like the ideas come to me, and they possess me completely. I’ll be reading a book or taking a walk or dancing or whatever, and suddenly, I get a super clear image in my mind, so I need to sit down and write it down or draw it or something. And then I get completely obsessed about that. I start writing people and organising stuff, and putting it all together and researching. Sometimes it starts with a single image and I develop the whole concept from there. For example, this is like a Bible scene, so I go read that part of the Bible, but then I’ll try to bring in more contemporary references, so how can I relate this Bible thing to the Kardashians. I get into this super crazy space with lots of ideas flying, and I try to be super open and not put any limits on it because I understand that we’re creating something that’s new, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable, and maybe nobody’s gonna understand it, but I need to give it space. So it starts forming itself.
I can get really really crazy in those early days. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about more layers that I can add to it. I become quite stressed… but I feel like in Spanish that means something different. It’s not negative, it means that I’m very awake. I lose focus on everything else, with real life; I’m in that spiral of creativity.
Then the day of the shoot comes and 99 per cent of the time it’s the best day ever. I’m super happy, almost levitating. I’m possessed by the idea. That day, I have a lot of drive and direction. And then when it’s finished, I’m so sad. It’s like giving birth to something. I always feel like I have postpartum depression. I’m trying to deal with that better too, now, and accept that it’s okay to be sad.
“I feel somehow like the ideas come to me, and they possess me completely. I lose focus on everything else, with real life; I’m in that spiral of creativity.”Carlota Guerrero
INT: Why is that, because it’s such a huge build-up to something you’ve seen in your mind?
CG: I miss the women involved in the project, because it’s so intense for weeks, and then everything finishes and I have to go back to the void.
INT: So it must’ve been quite emotional to put everything together for this book?
CG: I tried not to get too involved emotionally because it could be overload. I feel like, with these projects in the book, it’s not about me any more. These images have their own lives. I really want to give this to people. Once a project is finished, I don’t know if I like it or not, I cannot judge it anymore. I was a channel for that and it came out of me, and then I need to give it to people, for them to enjoy it or hate it or whatever they feel, but I’m not supposed to have an opinion about it. So with the book, it’s been a crazy process. But now that it’s finished, it’s not for me, it’s just for other people to enjoy or hate.
INT: What does it make you want to do next, looking back at what you’ve done before?
CG: It’s hard for me to answer that question, because I’m exactly in that process right now, where once the book is out it’s the end of a very long era. And I know something is closing and I need to start exploring new things. That void, that phase where I don’t know the next direction, is uncomfortable. So I don’t know where it’s going. At the moment because of the pandemic, I’m back in Barcelona, so I got an industrial space, and I’m working on it to become my studio. I want it to be a safe space where I can start a laboratory.
INT: Do you like the idea of being more grounded, after this whole situation?
CG: Yes I love being more grounded. I think it would be great if international clients can send me stuff and I can just work here from my studio! Or if I need to work in LA, I need to not just go for the job but stay a few months, because now I realise how crazy that was for myself. Hopefully, this will change the way the industry works and [make people] realise it doesn’t make any sense to do all this travelling. The way of producing now in the pandemic is way more sustainable, which I love.
INT: What are you working on next?
CG: I’m working again with Rupi Kaur, an amazing poet and person and friend. I’m also planning a project with Paloma Lanna, she’s been my best friend since we were little girls. The last project we did was a film of a rave that became a spiritual trance. Those girls danced for hours under the sun, most of them ended up crying and healing a lot, it was magical. All of these collective projects seem so surreal now, during the pandemic. The next one will be very different.
I think those of us who were lucky enough to be saved from the pandemic are able to live a bit more in the moment. It’s not that easy for a lot of people, but some of us were lucky enough to be introspective and understand again what’s important in life. It’s been a huge turning point for a lot of us. We’ll remember this always.
Carlota’s first photography book Tengo un Dragón Dentro del Corazón is out 27 April 2021, published by Prestel.
Carlota Guerrero: Self portrait in collaboration with Nicolás Feriche. Commissioned by It’s Nice That (Copyright © Carlota Guerrero and It’s Nice That, 2021)