Jack (2006) by Yvonne Venegas is a straight-ahead portrait. A teenage boy has loosened his tie and leans back into a couch,turning to the camera with a slight grin. Jack seems tired, but the emotion and his subsequent physical embodiment of ‘being tired’ are impossible to be certain about from this photograph. Jack is a real person, but also an actor playing a character in the Mexican telenovela Rebelde. His character is part of a fictional band called RBD, which has been signed (in real life) to the EMI label and thrust suddenly from fiction into nonfiction, touring with all of its members presumably still in character. The venues are real, the fans are real, but what could we possibly know about Jack from his portrait? Who is tired, the character or the real person? In such a world, is an outtake even possible?
Venegas followed RBD for months, on the invitation of the show’s producer, Fundación Televisa, as the cast and their invented band completed shooting and transitioned to the reality of their international tour. The subsequent photos, which debuted as a book by the Latin American publisher RM and now appear at Shoshana Wayne, effortlessly capture the strangeness of these various layered realities as they collect and multiply. There are no attempts to play to the spectacle of this twisted reality. On the contrary, Venegas’s photos are decidedly understated, much in the manner of Larry Sultan’s view of the porn industry in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. These are people at work, though their work would strike almost anyone as bizarre.
Ample photos feature rough exterior landscapes barely in view and gritty backroom spaces hardly glamorous enough to be anything but real. One photo, Fans Posando (Fans Posing) (2006), is remarkable for its starkness: very young children pose in the costume school uniforms of the telenovela (though at a concert) and so reflect the band’s real influence. Which is to say that the children dress according to how the band is ‘dressed’ by the dictates of television. The reach of TV here is total, so much so that one wonders if a portrait can ever truly pierce this bubbled reality.
One important detail to remember, which a non-Televisa-watching audience would not know, is that a key storyline of the telenovela has these teenagers attending the Elite Way School, essentially a school that trains low-income kids for higher society. Class structure and the trappings of the evolving elite have long been of interest to Venegas, and this subtext is central. As these kids move from ‘low’ to ‘high’ at their fictive school, so too are they transitioning into actual pop stars. As this occurs, all manner of behind-the-scenes people responsible for producing the television show and concerts flicker in and out of view, raising the question of whether or not these sideline players are making this band and this version of reality out of their own dreams. The difference between the pop star and ordinary reality is as thin as Venegas’s camera lens.
This review originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.