The Immigrant Self | Photographs by Spanish Artist Oscar Parasiego
‘I am I and my circumstance, and, if I do not save it, I do not save myself.’ – this quote from Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote, says Oscar Parasiego, is the key to his work.
Parasiego, a Spanish photographer currently residing in Birmingham, UK, seems to be the right person to explore the dynamics between the inner and the outer self. His widely acclaimed Diaspora series, which captures the post-immigration blending-in process, is a testament to the fluid boundaries of self and circumstance.
‘When someone is living abroad for a long period of time the person starts modifying behaviors and habits to adapt to the new environment,’ Parasiego explains. ‘At the beginning you may think you are faking it, but at one point you realize that this is not completely true and you are really changing due to the environment. In what moment a person stops pretending and becomes a different person?’ This question, he insists, is what triggered Diaspora.
Simultaneously domestic and alienated, the haunting silhouettes represent the exact opposite of what Brecht would have describes as the Verfremdungseffekt, or distancing effect. Instead, the anonymous figures pull us into their world – which is internal and external at the same time – and, without words, allow us to lose ourselves in their story, just as they have lost themselves to – and in – circumstance.
Parasiego readily admits that Diaspora was inspired by his own experience: ‘I consider myself an immigrant,’ he says without hesitation. As he moved from place to place, Spain to Argentina to the UK, and from discipline to discipline – advertising to communications to photography – he was inspired to investigate the multifaceted nature of immigration and how people adjust to their new surroundings.
And immigration, which is inherently linked to displacement and transformation, unfolds in a two-way process in Parasiego’s work. Firstly, there is the internal world of the photograph, the world that is home to the immigrant-environment relationship. Independent from the viewer, it affects only the eerie silhouette in the photograph and the scene behind him, or her. The figure has already been displaced, and transformed.
Secondly, there is the viewer-immigrant relationship: the outside relationship, so to speak, in which the immigration process is not unfolding or ‘happening’ anymore, but in which it is being perceived and analyzed by an outside force, the viewer. Parasiego explains, ‘The idea of not showing the immigrant’s image enables the observer to fill the space and the feelings as a mirror. There are no faces in the picture to help you imagine the subject’s different moods.’ When asked about the atmosphere of quiet poignancy in the images, Parasiego responds, ‘Actually, there are some people in the series that are doing really well in their new lives, so the sense of loneliness and sadness is in the viewer’s eye.’
And this illusion is the crux of Disapora. Just as the immigrants’ environments cheat them out of their identities, the viewers are cheated into a sense of unease and displacement. The post-immigration processes of blending-in carry much joy and excitement, and allow us to explore – and reinvent – our identities. Parasiego refers to ‘the untruthfulness of photography and the inability of photography to capture the complexity of human self-reflection’ as the philosophy behind his practice. And, seamlessly, an immigrant voice speaking through his own photographs, he carries his viewers across the volatile boundaries of self, fiction and circumstance, guiding and displacing the viewer’s own perception.