I had a friend called Elvis who made really beautiful knitted clothes. I’d known her since the end of the 1970s, when Spain had just been freed from Francoism and all the drugs began. She had a band and she was really wild – a true character.
Elvis and I ran into each other again in 1999 or 2000 and I said I would shoot her clothes, which were modelled by friends as there wasn’t much money about. Then I decided to put some of them on and take a picture of myself. I was the only man wearing them. I made up my eyes but I didn’t do my hair – and I had a lot more back then. The power in this picture comes from my hands: they’re clenched and that brings a certain violence.
My face is showing no emotion – since that would make it seem staged. I don’t like dramatising faces: I don’t like to weigh down the mask of the face with smiles or whatever. I can see past the clothes and see myself straight away. It’s one of my best self-portraits and I’ve done hundreds. I’ve taken pictures of myself naked or even masturbating. When it comes to my own camera, I have no shame whatsoever.
I started off by taking self-portraits in 1976: it was how I learned to take photographs. At first there was something playful and flirtatious about it, but by the 1990s it had become something more profound – it was an exercise in searching for one’s self. And if I was going to accept myself, a degree of honesty and understanding was required.
Like everyone, I’m a product of my era. I left home when I was 20, in 1976. I was influenced by all the ideas of my time. We nourished ourselves on American counterculture, on British groups, on sexual liberation.
The years 1976 to 1979 were the years of compulsion, agitation, provocation and performance. As with all young people, it was about breaking the conventions. We were keen to move past Francoism and see all of Spain change.
I see other things when I look at the photo now. I see myself back in that moment when things weren’t going well for me. They told me my liver was in trouble; that I had hepatitis C. They told me that I had to give up all the drugs. I took drugs from 1976 to 2002: heroin, a lot of cocaine, I smoked a lot of joints and I drank. A proper addict. Now I just smoke joints.
I started interferon treatment, which was unbelievably tough and had a lot of side-effects. It wasn’t a very pleasant time but the tensest times can be the most creative.
This photo has become iconic and gone around the world: China, Germany, Buenos Aires, Paris… People seem to like the strength of it. In fact, I think people like it more than I do.
- Alberto García-Alix is curating six shows at this year’s PhotoEspaña festival
Alberto García-Alix’s CV
Born: 22 March 1956, Léon, Spain.
Trained: Studied law but self-taught as a photographer.
Influences: “Visits to the Prado with my mother, where I learned composition; the writers Céline, Stendhal, Balzac and Conrad.”
High point: “I feel calm and free when I’m on my motorbike – that’s when I’m happiest. All the rest is just work.”
Low point: “Maybe it was the interferon treatment. But I had to do it to save my life.”
Top tip: “I’m not the right kind of person to give advice, but I know it’s my childlike soul that’s saved me.”
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