Venezuelan photographer Silvana Trevale navigates discomfort, longing, and unfamiliar rhythms by turning first to the sea, and then to herself.
By Laura Cadena
Featured – March 5, 2021
Reality is a rhythm often confirmed by its disruption. And for Venezuelan photographer Silvana Trevale, venturing to the sea is a lifelong strategy for embracing the moments when her rhythms are rattled. Throughout her childhood, Trevale would spend weekends at her grandmother’s home in the coastal town of Mamporal, Venezuela. Here, a young Trevale learned how to consult the horizon. “Water is hopeful,” she tells me, “it’s an opening, a relief, and it’s beautiful.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Trevale has continually made her way to water. But now, living in London, she dwells on shores far from the earthy sands of Mamporal: “For obvious reasons, every shore I’ve seen this year has had fewer people, no matter where I was. Somehow, this made it all the more dreamlike. It made me feel like every scene I saw was a vestige of a now distant world.”
For the past decade, Trevale has crafted a photographic practice that treads the line between documentary and portraiture, reality and fantasy. This syncretization bridges Trevale’s predilection for beauty and mystery with the immense value she places on understanding an image’s context. Trevale knows what happens when ideas are not tended to with specificity. She is familiar with the casualties that transpire as an entire world is swallowed up by a homogenizing narrative. Her dedication to detail is impulsed not by the desire to preserve, but rather the desire to knowingly (and lovingly) remember.
Silvana Trevale, Flujo de mar, Corfu, Greece, August 2020
Silvana Trevale, Hands in water, Corfu, Greece, August 2020
Trevale’s most expansive body of work, Venezuelan Youth (2017–21), is a series that documents an early awakening of her country’s young people to the realities of political, social, and economic conflict. Reflecting on this body of work, her words concede the longing that sits at the poignant heart between her relationship to photography and remembering: “Whenever I’ve photographed something beautiful, my body feels lighter. I feel like in my camera, I carry the pieces of a childhood that was not explicitly mine, but could have been. When I come back to Venezuela, so many people who were a part of my upbringing have left. I keep returning to see my childhood through.”
Over the course of the past year, Trevale has photographed at the beaches of Ireland, Greece, Italy, and Venezuela. Brought together in the series Aproximaciones (2020–21), her beachside photographs show invigorated bodies engaging water through movement, play, and submersion. Like Trevale, we can think of the ocean as an opening—a break from the logic of land. In this light, these activities are pure release, uninhibited and liberatory. But there’s a simultaneous truth to be found in the way the ocean (and even the shore) guides and nurtures all the activities that happen there.
The ocean possesses a sense of the real embodied by rhythms and fluctuations that are far from human. As forces of gravity are suspended, it introduces an alien spatial-temporal order that penetrates every body that enters it. It holds us, and it leads us toward bonds of motion that ease the strangeness of being in water. Simply said, the ocean grants us access to ways of being that cannot be experienced on land.
Trevale practiced gymnastics for fourteen years, so it’s second nature for her to admire the ways people inventively and intentionally move their bodies in space. In her portraiture, her subjects most often appear self-possessed, upright, and imbued with sumptuous elegance. But in Aproximaciones, water inspires a new cadence in Trevale’s mode of perception—one that lingers on the moments of intuitive deliberation and stillness in which a motion is held and enjoyed.
In nonoceanic, human time, we often fail to notice the pauses that structure the rhythms of our everyday. In the ocean, this feeling is amplified—all that is solid and still can be experienced as the denial of flow. But in Aproximaciones, stillness is when we are at our most human: it’s the flashing image of what is most recognizably ourselves. And when we are not ourselves, the ocean at least gives us the courtesy of shrouding our bodies in water—refracting/abstracting the unfamiliar gestural language that emerges in dialogue with the ocean.
In October 2020, the need to quarantine derailed Trevale’s original intention for Aproximaciones to be a series exclusively about the ocean. Her continent-spanning practice was reduced to a single bedroom in Lecce, Italy. Here, Trevale hesitantly began to photograph her own body for the first time in her professional career.
On first glance, these images allude to traditionally “studied” approaches to the body. However, Trevale’s touch is gentler—containing that rare queerness and discomfort that accompanies most earnest encounters with embodiment. Her images make no attempt to perform “rigor” in the masculine sense of the term. In other words, she does not dominate or even “master” her body as a formal, photographic object. Instead, her works are intimate approximations that capture the sense of a process, rather than a final, exquisitely constructed image: “My body is myself, but it is also a process.”
As part of Aproximaciones, Trevale’s photographs of her body are paired with portraits of plants that grow beside her home in Caracas. “This is the first time I’ve ever been intrigued by plants,” she tells me. “I’ve developed this compulsive need to photograph them. I feel that by evidencing that they are here, I also evidence that I am here.”
Silvana Trevale, Transforming flower, Corfu, Greece, August 2020
Silvana Trevale, Self portrait, London, January 2021
The sentiment is noble, such a simple thing to cherish: because this flower is here, I must be here as well. But it’s not simple—not in a time of global pandemic, and not when your homeland is a place you canno st easily return to.
In a literary sense, we think of plants as symbols of change and growth—creatures from a realm where mutation is law. Like the ocean, plant life operates in a spatial-temporal landscape world apart from the linearity and fixed identity of personhood.But how does knowing this change our understanding of ourselves? How can we possibly become flowers or plants? At least in the ocean, we can swim.
This is perhaps where touch and sight can grasp at vital truths that exist beneath the surface. There’s a depth to the ways we come to understand ourselves under our own fingertips or through our own lenses. Often, it requires swimming in aloneness—an ocean with no water to float on, no intuitive sense of rhythm, and no clear shores to swim to. Yet touch and sight, when reflected onto the self, have the capacity to transform our bodies into allies—companions in a process of perpetual becoming: “Somehow, it felt brave to take these photographs, even though the result might seem timid,” Trevale says. “I think the pandemic has taught me to see myself as the closest point-of-access to a notion of home, and to realize that this is something worth exploring.”
All photographs created using FUJIFILM X-T4 Mirrorless Digital Camera with an XF16-55 2.8R LM WR.
Silvana Trevale, Mother’s hand, Venezuela, February 2021
Silvana Trevale, Caracas Leaf, Venezuela, February 2021
Silvana Trevale, Greek boys wrestling in the sea water, Corfu, Greece, August 2020
Silvana Trevale, Venezuelan boys happy at the beach, near Mamporal, Venezuela, February 2021
ShareTweetEmailAbout the ContributorLaura Cadena is a Colombian-born, New York-based writer and researcher with a background in anthropology. She is currently researching care architectures/ecologies for MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab and Studio Rev, and has previously contributed to Vogue Italia, Hyperallergic, and FANDOR.