Crime Scenes— Fine Art Photography by Virginia Conesa-O’Gara
HS: Do you remember when you first had the inspiration to take photographs of women killed by crime?
VC: The first draw had to be when I saw a book by Luc Sante called ‘Evidence’. Sante had collected rare crime scene photography from New York in the 1920s. The images transcended the violence into an almost visual poetry.
HS: What drew you to this concept?
VC: Initially, I was driven by the desire to create images of women that were ambiguously posed. I played with the line between objectified feminine and an actual victim as subject. I also used the theme to work on visual compositions.
HS: Why were you interested in murders versus theft or vandalism?
VC: In retrospect, because these images are from the 90s and from this vantage point so much has been revealed, I was interested in the victimized feminine archetype. I felt totally disempowered in my feminine— quite literally victimized. I created the images in an almost repetitive and possessive manner, obsessed with seeing my internal experience exteriorized. Every one of the women in those images was me, or at least an important part of my psyche.
HS: Did you feel like you were confronting mortality through these photos? Or processing the randomness of crime — that it could happen at any moment? Something entirely different?
VC: I don’t think the images were about a literal death confrontation or a death wish. Psychologically, the victim archetype had a strong hold in my life. The voiceless, lifeless, objectified feminine seemed to have been felt in my psyche as if it was murder, violent and final. These photos were about a psychological reality I was confronting at the time.
HS: Explain about the murders that got you to change from passive victims to victims standing up confronting the camera?
VC: So a very important move, both in my art as well as psychologically, was the second part of the series titled ‘Juarez’. This series of images were based on actual murders that happened in the border city of Juarez, Mexico. The socio-political climate at the time created an atmosphere were hundreds of violent crimes against women were occurring, unsolved and unpunished. I traveled to Juarez and saw the case files with actual photos, evidence, and interviewed local players involved in the phenomena. This led me to a very up front and personal confrontation with the violence of being a victim of crime. It shook me to my core. I could no longer re-create the scenes and leave the models as victims. I asked them to stand up and look directly at the camera, defy the viewer, stare back at their assailant.
HS: What about this crime inspired you to have the models be active instead of passive victims?
VC: I think what had happened is that the part of me that identified with the victim had transformed. I didn’t need to see an image of victim to mirror the psychic process in my soul. The transformation of the archetype forced the image to change. What I wanted to see then was the defiance and survival of the feminine, despite the annihilating violence she was subjected to.
HS: Did the process of making these images change who you are?
VC: Yes! I believe that we create the images we need to see. The externalized images are there to mirror parts of us that need relating to, that have been in the shadow parts of our psyche and through image ask us for recognition. I believe that art images are powerful because they come from autonomous parts of our unconscious that have an impulse and desire of their own. It is no coincidence that I created the crimes scenes for years, transformed the images internally and externally, and never touched the subject matter again. I have new material that grips me now, but the victim has been seen, honored. Im happy to have given her the attention she needed.
HS: What’s the value of interacting with darkness (from an art and therapy perspective)?
VC: The value of working with dark, or shadow aspects is that this is the way the unconscious makes its first attempt at communicating to consciousness. It's through the distasteful, repulsive, frightening, possessive, shadow (dark) feelings, thoughts or behaviors that we hear first from our psyche. Our job is to not judge these parts of ourselves. And artists are so lucky, because we can always work with the dark through image. The image makes it bearable and tolerable and the dialogue can begin. Underneath the darkness is light, and then more dark, and light again.
Virginia is a photographer and therapist based in Southern California. She got her BFA in Photography from Art Center and her MA in Counseling Psychology from Pacifica University. She has shown in New York, LA, Mexico and more. To see her work visit her website, theriverswife.tumblr.com, and Instagram, @virginiaconesa.