Less than a decade ago the life-size pictures of the Canadian brothers Jason and Carlos Sanchez entered the art market and immediately gained critical and financial success. They have been featured in many international magazines and have been compared to the works of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, since they are staged images that pretend to have caught a moment in a stream of actions that actually never took place.
They have often been described as movie stills, and this might lead us to think that they are shots picked out of a long, novel-like reportage. But Jason and Carlos never work in series, they always work on a single image for months before fixing it on film. So their works are more appropriately comparable to self-contained, self-sufficient short stories. Not surprisingly, they are said to have a deep, irresistible narrative power that projects the viewer into a world that in fact only exists inside the studio of the two brothers – they never operate en plein air, not even when they shot Drifter or The Misuse of Youth.
If we go through a joint interview they released to Spot, the magazine of the Houston Center for Photography, we find Jason saying that “in our early work we were very interested in creating images that could have been considered as film stills. We liked the idea of creating a fragment of a longer narrative, allowing the viewers to fill in the gaps and create storylines in their minds.” He goes on to say that they are now more focused on capturing the psychological tension of their subjects, who usually are non-professional friends and relatives. But the point here is that he makes clear that their visual short stories are incomplete, and far from being self-explanatory they need the viewer to imagine what they are leading to or what they were caused by. Since they are not real news stories, there is not any external reference such as a journalistic report that can shed light on them. The only exception is the disquieting portrait of John Mark Karr, who gave a false confession to the murder in 1996 of the six-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey. As if we could not look at the face of the man, we only watch him from behind while his reflection in a mirror stares back at him, and wonder who the real John Mark Karr is.
All the production of the Montreal-based brothers deals with solitude, sin, destruction, pain, death, and blood. The latter is the most symbolic of all, especially when it takes part in pictures focused on Christian faith, like the christening of a child or a family reunion to celebrate Easter. After all, being born from Catholic Spanish immigrants, Jason and Carlos couldn’t avoid questioning religious belief in their works. Nonetheless, this surreal symbolism is less enigmatic than the atmosphere of ambiguity rendered in pictures like Masked or The Misuse of Youth. Is the man wearing a self-made balaclava going to carry out a terrorist attack? Where? When? Is he driven by political ideology or religious extremism? And what about the two soldiers in the desert? Are they hiding behind a dune or fighting against each other? Will they be rescued? Is the one lying on his back going to die?
We live in a world choked up with information and news, and it makes little difference whether these images are true or false. We are only happy when we are fed with a flow of updated details or a different, freshly baked stream of data. But the cinematographically constructed realism of the Sanchez brothers keeps still, still as a photograph can be; it will not leak anything more than what has already been printed on the surface of the images. What is unveiled by all these pictures is a dramatic scene that is not a definitive truth, nor even a simple, plain fact. When the curtain raises over them we cross the threshold of a dark room full of unanswered questions. Like little mischievous rascals who have led us here by hand, Jason and Carlos now run away. And leave us alone to find our way out, back to the world of certainty and answers.