For some people it’s running, for others it’s talking to people, and for Sarah Pabst it’s the click of a shutter. By creating a confronting record of her life, her camera reminds her that she’s living, even when she senses she is sleepwalking or feeling something so keenly that she can’t give it a name.
“We were struggling with our everyday life. I felt trapped, like a caged animal in a megacity. In order to fight against an overwhelming feeling of paralysis, I picked up the camera and began documenting what was around me.” – Sarah Pabst, Morning Song
Children weren’t allowed outside during the first month of lockdown in Argentina. In the heart of Buenos Aires, Sarah Pabst had recently miscarried, and had a sleepless two-and-a-half-year-old who needed air as much as she did. As a working photojournalist, Sarah’s camera gave her special permission to go outdoors. One day, she bumped into a police officer with her camera and child, and argued her case that she was a single mum who needed to work.
“I lied!,” she admits frankly, “I’m not saying it’s something to be proud of, but it’s what I did.”
Sarah is very much still with her husband Blas, and their journey has been a huge part of her work. Together, they’ve fallen in love, they’ve wrestled with his addiction and they’ve weathered the agony and joy of trying for children. Sarah has documented it all. Just as her colour palette viscerally knits light with dark, her photography is uncompromisingly autobiographical. “It’s quite personal” is a phrase her lips loop back to several times during our interview.
“I painted in this palette before I photographed it,” Sarah says of her deep contrasts. As a fine art student in Germany, Sarah would paint the spaces in other people’s photographs, but omit the people from the images. “I was painting a lot of doors with light outside, and dark rooms inside. I didn’t realise I was dealing with death” she offers honestly. Her grandmother had died not long before.
“There were so many rules with photography; not to mix black and white with colour for example, and I felt really trapped within those parameters.”
When she first transitioned to her camera, Sarah struggled to depict things with the same stark honesty she had in her brushstrokes. “There were so many rules with photography!”, she starts listing them off with tedium, her pet peeve being the unwritten law that you can’t mix black and white with colour. “I felt really trapped within those parameters”, she says defiantly, not at all nostalgic over her photos that fitted this bill. A turning point came during a workshop with mentor Antoine d’Agata when she was developing the photo series Reclusive, which depicts the beginning of hers and Blas’ relationship. “Antoine told me that my pictures were so beautiful that they were horrible. He’d say “It pains me to see them, they’re just so nice!” Sarah laughs. “I was talking about conflict and addiction and love, so I needed to show the huge swings within that. Antoine said very clearly to me “Don’t censor yourself”. That note was a turning point for my photography. Now I just express how I feel, and I have an encyclopaedia of my life.”
You can see this unfiltered resolve and awakening of Sarah’s style in her series Reclusive. From softly winking starscapes to overexposed portraits which bleach out Blas’ face, the images swing between the woozy bliss of falling in love and the reality coagulating underneath. Sarah’s photos both silence and sound the sirens of early warning signs in love, but never suggest a retreat from it. This photographer simply forces faculty into the blind eyes we turn when we fall for someone. In her case, it was Blas’ relationship with cocaine.
“Looking back at Reclusive, I have a lot of affection for the series. I knew my boyfriend was battling with addiction but I came at it with innocence, having no history with drugs myself.”
It’s in There’s More To It, a project which documents Sarah and Blas’ relationship as it intensified, that the grit in her images starts to make noise. Blas is a musician, and the pair collaborated to make a video which marries his score with both of their voices, and Sarah’s photos. This is a love story, but has some tragedy in it, the blurb reads. Cocaine is the secret background music that marks the rhythm of the days. At first, it shows in the details: warm sheets, an anxious tic, a photo without lights. Even in this dark time, Sarah explains, the project was something they did “actively together”.
“The last thing I want is for people to see There’s More To It and think ‘poor girl’’ Sarah says. “Yeah we have a history, and the more people I talk to, the more I realise that’s normal.” Sarah’s photography is a celebration of real love, tangled with challenges, but it’s not a plea for a different narrative.
“I started to feel my part in a greater ecosystem, as a mother and as a woman, analysing this connection with our inner animal.”
There were lots of sliding doors which meant cocaine became a taboo conversation in Sarah and Blas’ relationship. “Early on, Blas really wanted to stop, but to want is not enough with cocaine. Just as he fell back into it, something else happened, and he couldn’t tell me”. That ‘something else’ was Sarah’s brother dying. She feels it is the most important and difficult thing she’s ever been through. Here, just as with every undulation in life, she picked up her camera.
“The camera helps me to realise what’s going on. It expresses my feelings and takes away anxiety when I can’t process in any other way. In the first month after my brother’s death, I photographed my mother at the funeral. I couldn’t understand what was going on and I needed to see it.”
Returning to these images, though, is another thing. Sarah knows there is a project in those pictures, but she still can’t look at them. “Photography is like writing a diary for me, but images feel wider than words, they have more space for interpretation. Words can feel claustrophobic, but images really transport me to a moment, which can be difficult to revisit. Photography helps me to overcome what’s happening right now. But going back to images moves that difficult time within me. They’re like therapy.”
The more Sarah talks about the artery of autobiography that runs through her work, the more her camera seems to be part of her. It’s an organ, which processes the data of life in a more reliable way than her memories could. The images she takes make sense of things, and map where the light in life meets the dark.
Unsurprisingly, a chapter in Sarah’s life where she really needed to find that light, was during the pandemic. Morning Song was captured during the first lockdown in Argentina. “I had to explain to my 2½-year-old daughter that she wasn’t allowed to play outside anymore, that kindergarten was closed, and we couldn’t visit other people” Sarah explains in the carefully written blurb to her project, which reads as tenderly as a bruise. “I felt as if I were drowning in chaos − our routine, our place, everything was out of order. From the terrace I looked at the treetops in front of our building and felt the desperate need to connect with nature.”
Whilst the world was sharing the weight of Covid-19 (albeit unevenly), it was something intensely personal which nudged Sarah and her lens outside. “After a month, I found out I was pregnant. A sudden silence occupied the chaos. During full quarantine, after several days of heavy emotions, my body decided to end the pregnancy before it even had really begun. What followed was a profound sadness and guilt.
“I picked up the camera and began documenting what was around me. My daughter, my partner, myself, and what I missed so much − nature, little moments outside, forbidden walks to a nearby lagoon where I encountered a magical world. Nature had regained space, the lake lay crystal clear in the middle of Buenos Aires, teeming with birds and fish. I started to feel my part in a greater ecosystem, as a mother and as a woman, analysing this connection with our inner animal.”
“I want to make miscarriage less of a taboo, so it’s less of a burden to carry for women. I want to talk about the fact that birth is dirty and bloody and raw and turns you back into an animal. I want to stop selling stories about romantic love which are not true.”
In the next four months, Sarah would lose two more pregnancies. But watching nature thrive with her daughter is how she learned to look for where the light is cast within the spheres of her own darkness. She found it in the morning light on her daughter’s ponytail, the syrup of sunset on the leaves of trees, and the silver flecks of fish scales. The project, typical of Sarah’s work, combines natural shots with staged portraits which she has conceptualised. A bloodied toilet tissue, or soft skin straddled by gloom, help to confuse the palettes of shadow and radiance. Sarah lets the two grades contextualise each other, by forcing them to sit ever so closely. One beautifully lit shot of a pomegranate warms its bright crimson flesh, whilst keeping many of its seeds in darkness. In another, bird faeces shine like silver bracelets on the ashen branch of a tree. Sarah’s photos don’t glorify her subjects, but show their fierce nuance. For her, this is how we find magic in the everyday; to occupy the space between paradoxes. Between light and dark, depression and joy, gain and grief, chaos and silence – can be something subtle, bearable and beautiful.
“I want Morning Song to give people hope. I want it to make people feel normal,” says Sarah of the symbols of fertility that pervade this series, which now exists in limited edition print as a book. “I want to make miscarriage less of a taboo, so it’s less of a burden to carry for women. I want to talk about the fact that birth is dirty and bloody and raw and turns you back into an animal. I want to stop selling stories about romantic love which are not true”.
Sarah doesn’t want to lower our expectations of love so that we feel more comfortable when they’re tarnished. She wants to adjust our gaze, so that when darkness blots one space, we can see where it lets light spill into another.
Morning Song was supported by the National Geographic Society Emergency Fund for Journalists and is part of a collaborative project with Ayün Fotógrafas. Today Sarah lives in Buenos Aires with her husband, and two children.