Descendre: In Conversation with Photographer Jess Farran About Falling in Love & Making a Zine
Photos Courtesy of Jess Farran
Photographers Jess Farran and Augusto Silva Alliegro met somewhere between the halls of photo classes at Savannah College of Art and Design and dive bars and clubs downtown. They both gravitated towards each other, seeing the beauty in one another’s work and have since maintained a supportive relationship, even while living in different cities. After falling even deeper in love while in Europe, Jess created her zine, Descendre. The newsprint book crosses physical and metaphorical boundaries in accepting and finding love. Read below as Jess and Augusto talk about falling in love, letting go, and creating art in the process.
Augusto: I think it's always important to start an interview with, “How are you?”, and “What are you up to?” So, how are you?
Jess: You’re so cute. I’m good, I’m just sitting in my really sweaty New York bedroom which is fine. I’ve literally just been hanging out at my boyfriend’s beach house in Jersey.
Augusto: That’s cute.
Jess: Yeah, it’s cute. And then I went home and went hiking and it’s been so nice.
Augusto: It’s always good to get away from New York City and relax for a little a bit.
Jess: Oh, yeah, totally.
Augusto: It’s so necessary.
Jess: How are you doing?
Augusto: I’m good, chilling in Savannah, waiting to move to New York.
Jess: I know, I’m so excited for you to move here.
Augusto: I know! So talk to me a little bit about the work… like what inspired it, and then we’ll go from there.
Jess: I basically went on tour with my boyfriend Gus. I met him in Europe and I was there for six days. It was my first time abroad and it was really cute. It was like exactly how you’d think it would be, just, like, us being in love in Europe. Obviously I photographed it a bunch and got a ton of photos, but really the whole thing was kind of about learning to fall in love again and to fall in love in new places, and find love in new places. And, it sounds really cheesy, but just like letting love transcend borders. A lot of the images are of him but you can’t really tell that it's him. I didn’t want you to look at it and see that everything’s in Europe. I just wanted you to look at it and just see what you’re seeing. Because obviously I have pictures of the Eiffel tower and stuff but it’s obstructed; things are in the way. It’s really just kind of about going somewhere to find something. And I went to Europe and I fell in love.
Augusto: Okay, that’s so great. That’s a lovely story.
Jess: It’s like a Nicholas Sparks story, it’s so great!
Augusto: Oh my god.
Jess: Is this The Notebook? Like?
Augusto: Do you think the fact that this tour was in Europe influenced the way you photographed or how you felt? Or do you think it would have felt the same if you were touring in the U.S.?
Jess: I think it definitely made everything different just because I’ve never really been abroad before... I’m from northern Michigan and I had only left Michigan two or three times until I was eighteen. I’m twenty four now, so all my traveling has been done in the last six years. I’ve only traveled in America, obviously, but it definitely let me see things in different way. But I don’t really like relying on cultural symbols as a means of making an image if that makes sense. So there’s all of these flowers, and abstracted storefront windows, and there’s nothing that lends itself to our certain culture or our certain type of society.
Augusto: Where did you visit?
Jess: I was in Paris, and then we went—
Augusto: City of love!
Jess: — I know, city of love (laughs). It was honestly not that romantic when I first saw him because I met him at a music festival. I’d already been in Paris for a couple of days and I met him at the music festival and he was sound checking. I was really sweaty and hungover and I hadn’t eaten and it was like 3:30PM and I was kind of car sick from the Uber and I got there and it was in this big forest and I didn’t know where I was going and like I only can speak a little bit of French and I was just trying to figure out where I was going. And they took my camera away from me! It was just this big shit show so when I saw him, I was so frantic and he was kind of frantic and we hadn’t seen each other in a really long time so we were just kind of like—“Oh!”
Augusto: So you knew him from before?
Jess: Yeah, we met in March on a Milk Makeup shoot. I photographed him and then he found my name on the call sheet and DM’d me and asked me if I wanted to go out.
Augusto: Oh my god. That’s so cute.
Jess: I know, it was really stupid. It was really cute though. We were both really professional about it. I didn’t even know he liked me until he messaged me. And I was like, “Oh, ok.” But he’s really cute and really sweet.
Augusto: So if you would compare Europe and New York City in general, what words would you use?
Jess: Oh my god, if I had to compare… I guess I would use… I don’t know. I feel like I don’t know either of them well enough to compare but everyone [in Europe] seemed to be in the right place. Everyone seemed like they were where they wanted to be.
Augusto: In New York I feel like people are there because they’re here to work... And in some places in Europe it’s like, no, people actually want to live here.
Jess: In Europe, everyone was just existing in such a beautiful way. We went to this park in Milan and it was my favorite part of the whole trip because there were these cute babies playing in a foot of grass. They don’t even mow the grass in this park. They just let things be and weren’t trying too hard. It was really beautiful.
Augusto: Tell me a little more about the work. I’ve known your work since like two or maybe like four years ago now, I think? And I feel like it has changed a lot in the sense that I feel like you’re more, the way you’re shooting is not unaware but at the same time it’s not as planned as it used to be. Why do you feel this has changed?
Jess: Um, I think it’s not like I’m not trying as hard, because I’m trying really hard, if not harder to make these photos. But part of me has let go of caring what other people think about it and trying to be successful for others. I have a really hard time making work and loving it, so I just have to learn to like it. I’m my biggest critic.
Augusto: So you’d say you’re shooting more by instinct, instead of [trying] to produce something beautiful?
Jess: Yeah, and I’m trying to step away from what’s trending and what other people like and I’m really just trying to shoot a photo that I know will be good. For example, going to SCAD, and having that lyrical documentary medium in large format. Everything’s really beautiful and has this beautiful light and like I’ve seen a million photos of the same back tire of an old Cadillac. You know what I mean? Things like that. I still see them and think they’re really beautiful and still shoot them, but I know that’s not the purest creation of what I can make as an artist.
Augusto: I would say when I saw the zine, I was not expecting it to be as abstract as it is and I was drawn to what you were saying just about trying to figure out where everything is and to me the way you produce the images is such an abstract way. But they also have such a romantic quality to them that I feel like might come from falling in love or being in Europe. Do you feel like it’s that way, or?
Jess: Yeah, probably (laughs). Everything was definitely super... it was just weird. It was weird being there and kind of living in this fantasy. Almost kind of like this weird thing where you’re like, “Haha, maybe I’ll fall in love with a musician and go on tour and be in love," and then I’m like, this is literally what is happening and I’m like "Oh this is weird, like is this actually reality?” But we’re not in the clouds. We’re not just existing in this weird reality; it’s very human.
Augusto: How did your parents feel when you were like, “Yeah, no, I’m going to Europe to follow this boy.”
Jess: Honestly, my brother—because I’m on my brother’s phone plan—I had to go to AT&T to get international data and I called [my brothers] because I didn’t know our passcode. So I was like, “Hey, so I’m going to Europe with this boy I just met. And his name is Gus and he has this green bowl cut and I’ve known him for two months. I’ve met with him ten times. Can you tell me the last four digits of your social security number?” And he was just like, “What the fuck?” It was really funny.
Augusto: I feel like that’s how the best plans happen. Impromptu. When did you realize you were falling in love?
Jess: Honestly, I feel like I knew immediately. I have a lot of anxiety about dating and relationships and I have been in enough relationships where I just get sad about falling in love. And I don’t want to [fall in love] because I don’t want to get hurt and I don’t want to hurt someone and it’s just, like, exhausting being in love. It was just really nice. Everything has been so easy with Gus and we honestly fell in love really quickly. The reason it’s called "Descendre" is because we got in a fight about something while he was away in Europe. It wasn’t even serious, but it was kind of our first fight and it’s hard to be away and fighting about something. And he suddenly texted me a screenshot of his notes. It was something like, "3:58am, leeds, uk 05/23/18 - accepts overwhelming romantic love for jess." And then it was like the same thing with the same date and it was like, "4:01am - i descend." So I named it "Descendre" because it means "to descend" in French, and i thought that translation was fitting since we met in Paris. So it’s just about accepting the fact that you’re falling in love, which was hard for me. Just accepting the fact that I’m falling in love and that I care about someone—it’s just very pure.
Augusto: I feel like love motivates you a lot. When I’ve seen you being the most creative, is when you’re happy. But would you say that heartbreak also does the same to you?
Jess: Yeah, definitely. I feel like heartbreak really motivates me. It motivates me in the way my mind is working but my body isn’t. Like, I’ll have a lot of ideas but I can’t execute them because I’m so sad.
Augusto: With the front cover and the back cover, to me it was really interesting when you flipped it and saw the images because they’re not super similar but they’re from flowers, and flowers that seem to be the same type, but the opening one is in black and white and the title is yellow and then you flip the book and the flowers are yellow. And the reader thinks, “Oh, she’s going through a hard time, and they’re in black in white which usually symbolizes melancholy, blah, blah, blah.” But when you finish you realize maybe, “She just might be in a happier place.” Could you talk a little more about that?
Jess: I guess I didn’t even realize I did that. But this is why I wanted you to interview me because you have your shit together and you know what you’re talking about. I was like, I need Augusto ‘cause he asks the good questions. But I guess it wasn’t so much about the color—though I definitely see how the color affects it—I guess it was more about the fact that they’re large images of flowers. I feel like I’m kind of both the flower and the fence. I’m the thing that holds me back from doing things I love and growing and accepting change and things like that. So I think, to your point, I never really realized it but I also accept what you said. Like, the gates are opening, the flowers are growing. Open the gate a little more, it’s in color. Nothing’s been cured, I’ve passed, like, heartbreaks and insecurities.
Augusto: I feel like one of my favorite images in the whole zine is the last one, of the jeans and the little square. I get this sense of, “This is where I am right now" but also it’s a closure sort of experience when I see that image. Could you elaborate on this one?
Jess: I was in Paris and we were walking through the Louvre and we saw this printed picture that was this pair of jeans. It kind of looked like a portal, or like a mirror image of clouds, or a photograph of clouds or a pair of jeans folded. There are so many interpretations of it, and people see it and always comment on that one because it’s kind of weird but it definitely encapsulates what the zine is about, which is not really knowing what something is but accepting what it is, but liking it.
Augusto: You’re always afraid of accepting stuff, but things just happen and you’re like, “Okay, now I’m on this boat and there’s no way to get off of it but I don’t want to get off of it, and I love what’s happening.” I feel like it’s also important to talk about the profits of the zine and that you're donating to R.A.I.C.E.S. (which, in Spanish, is “roots”). Why was it important to you to make a donation to this organization?
Jess: I just wanted to make a donation because I have a hard time… end of story, people need help. I’m really not in the best financial place to give money of my own, but I can figure out a way to make money. It wasn’t the biggest amount but it’s better than nothing. I was just really sad and upset as so many of our peers were when we found out all these immigrant children from Mexico and South America were being held captive, and still are being held captive, in cages, from their parents...There is no funding to represent unaccompanied children, so this charity raises money so that people can get representation when they go through the court of law in America, and when they have that they have a much higher chance of winning. Honestly, whatever side of the political climate you’re on, I really have a hard time if you’re arguing that a child being ripped away from their parents, doesn't have full rights to live a healthy and productive life. So I was just upset about that and wanted to contribute, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a correlation between the zine and that but there honestly is.The zine is, in the least amount of words, about transcending borders to find and accept love and what I wanted to do by donating was allow that to happen.
Augusto: Also with happiness. Because I’m an immigrant. I’ve been here for four years just for school, and things back home are so fucked up. Here, you find your peace and it’s not like we’re doing anything wrong because we’re working just as hard as you guys are. So it’s just hard to see people that have been trying to work their whole lives. Just cleaning a McDonald’s bathroom or trying to move forward with their families, and then just being spread apart, that’s just devastating to me.
Jess: You’re the perfect example of what all of this means. You’re in America doing what you love, which is photography, and you have found love. And you’re continuing to transcend borders in finding love and it’s just really important.
Jess: Also if you want to talk about your background, you can. Because I want them to know about you.
Augusto: I came to study in the States because first of all my country was falling apart—still is—even though my family’s still there.
Jess: And you’re from Venezuela.
Augusto: Yeah, I’m from Venezuela. Born and raised. And I just, honestly, have always been the person who’s always at the rallies and always just fighting for my country. If I have to stay out late, fighting the national guard, that was me. Me and my mom were always there. It got really hard though in 2014. That’s when I graduated high school. I almost got arrested at one of the protests and my mom was like, “Okay, you need to leave.” And I always wanted to study photography and my country doesn’t offer that program, so I just applied to a bunch of schools here and the one that I managed to be able to afford was [SCAD] because of scholarships, so I came to SCAD, and it became a dream come true. Even though the South is pretty closed-minded still, I feel like Savannah has a vibe in which all the students make it really open, and the atmosphere is really open, and I learned a lot from everyone I met, I fell in love, and I don’t know, it was just a great experience. I have no regrets of coming to the States at all.
Jess: That makes me so happy!
Augusto: Yeah. It’s just like migrating to the land of opportunity. We always have our struggles, but if you manage to work hard and have a dream and follow it, I don’t feel like there’s a reason you should be deported.
Jess: No, I agree. I totally agree.
Augusto: It’s hard for everyone to see we’re doing something that might be special, and we’re not all drug dealers, you know.
Jess: People are so blinded by racism. At the end of the day, just blinded by racism and stereotypes. It’s so hard. And I don’t think that white America realizes that people of color and immigrants literally work their asses off in the same exact way. White privilege allows you to go so much further.