photographer gabi barrera talks snail mail, internet friends and life without men
Gabi Barrera's project Dear Grrrls is an intimate, evocative voyage around women artists. By SONIA FELDMAN
Gabi Barrera holds up a friendship bracelet made from white beads, some of them heart-shaped and inscribed with rainbow letters. The bracelet reads: “ASSASSIN.” It’s one of the hundreds of pieces of art that Barrera has received in the mail over the past half-year. She opened the envelope just that morning. “So I’m like, that’s cool; like I need to wear that,” she says. These kinds of surprises have become routine to Barrera’s ongoing snail mail project, Dear Grrrls. An exchange of letters and art between identifying women, Dear Grrrls has been featured on Girlgaze and is one of the most compelling things happening on Instagram right now. Every couple of months, Barrera puts out the call for contributions on social media, and a mix of friends and strangers send her envelopes full of their own art, favorite poems, diary pages, handmade zines, curated playlists, screenprints, letters, and the occasional piece of jewelry.
Barrera, 19 years old, is a photographer and fine arts student at the University of Cincinnati. She’s built up a community of young women photographers interested in the portrayal of girl culture and the political valences of image-making online. That’s one reason why she was so surprised to find herself receiving jewelry in the mail. The Dear Grrrls guidelines leave the door completely open when it comes to contributions, but initially, Barrera was still “expecting mostly photography, because I felt like a lot of the people who were following me were photographers, and I was totally cool with that if it ended up being a print swap. [I thought I’d see] the kinds of images that we see all the time on social media, but it’s not.”
I’ve participated in Dear Grrrls myself, and one of the best things from my exchange was a letter of advice, handwritten on lined paper by someone who must have been in their early teens, about how to be happy. “I’m always here, if you want to talk,” she wrote to me. Led by photographers like Petra Collins, an opulent visual lexicon of girlhood has sprung up online: young women finding their own voices by photographing their friends. Quintessential scenes of young lady life appear and reappear— girls on their phones, dancing in headphones, standing before mirrors, occasionally in the bathroom, sometimes with fruit or with flowers. These images are intimate and evocative. They are also designed to perform well online and, in 2019, reach a saturation point. The result of Dear Grrrls’ flexibility is a welcome diversity of expression outside the norms of social media art. “It’s whatever you want it to be,” Barrera tells me, and people seem to want to share themselves differently by post than by post. Barrera herself adapts to the genre: “The collages and things, writing that I don’t put on Instagram, I put in Dear Grrrls. I just feel more comfortable with it there.”
Mail is a decidedly intimate place to share art. The one-to-one nature of the medium creates an immediate bond between participants, and trust is at the center of the project. “Oh my gosh—I get a lot of secrets written down,” Barrera tells me. Participants range from 10 years old to middle-aged, and they can choose to include their names and social media handles or remain anonymous. Either way, everyone who wants to share with Dear Grrrls has to trust Barrera. She is the point through which all mail must pass. She collects, reads and then redistributes the art she receives. Everyone who sends something in gets an envelope of art mailed back to their address from Barrera. When I ask her what it means to share work with people who can’t get back to you, she says, “I like just putting [my work] out there to these girls that I somehow trust without knowing who they are. But I do because they’re trusting me with their secrets and with their name on it. And I trust them with my stuff that I want to share with them. That’s the point of my [art]. That’s who it’s for. It’s not really for anyone else.”
One way to look at Dear Grrrls is as an art project that heavily curates its own audience. For all the positive community they make possible, public Instagram profiles are, ultimately, public—and therefore vulnerable to the sometimes overwhelming hostility of being a person online. Barrera is fiercely protective of her participants and their experience as a part of Dear Grrrls. “It’s not up to me how the person wants their stuff viewed,” she tells me when I ask about the role of anonymity in the project. “It’s really important to me to let people do it how they want to do it. I don’t ever want to be dictator of anything.” Indeed, Barrera seems more at ease filling the role of facilitator. She puts the pieces into place for something beautiful to emerge rather than explicitly calling it into existence.
Even in her planned photoshoots, she says, “I try not to super dictate what’s going on. I don’t ever style things. I always just have whoever I’m taking photos of pick what they want to wear.” Again, Barrera comes back to what someone else wants, the experience of her subjects rather than herself. “I want to make sure I’m portraying people the way that they want to be portrayed. A big part of my practice is about rejecting male gaze, and I would never want to project my own gaze onto anyone else that I’m photographing.” It’s a complicated mandate for a photographer to withhold her own gaze from the photographs she takes, but I’m not sure Barrera wants to erase herself from her work so much as create images in which her subjects can recognize themselves. “I always want the person I’m taking photos of to trust that I will represent them in a good way, in an accurate way.”
A collection of Barrera’s work was recently published in The Photographic Journal. Called Girlhood, the series is Barrera’s entry into the coming-of-age genre. The photos were taken over the course of three years and set out to capture “my [Barrera’s] girlhood and my becoming womanhood” as it happened. For Barrera, girlhood comes back to relationships, and a number of the images depict friends. The first photo of the series looks up from the ground at three girls sitting on a roof, talking to each other, their bare feet dangling. But Barrera isn’t interested in operating at a remove. The camera itself quickly becomes a medium of relation. In a later image, yellow light illuminates a young woman with her knee pulled up to her chest. She’s looking directly into the camera, but seated behind her is another photographer, a second girl holding a point-and-shoot up to capture her image. “I’ve been interested in taking photos of women taking photos, like photographing each other, being close with one another.”
Taking pictures creates its own intimacy, and Barrera has used art, throughout her career, to form relationships. When she first got started taking pictures, she tells me she was “really depressed… I was really sad. I had not that many friends, just having a really hard time.” Photography began as a way to change her circumstances. “I found on Instagram that there were photographers at Columbus College of Art and Design that I thought were doing really cool work. They seemed to be friends. I was only 16, but I wanted to be friends with these cool college kids.” She reached out to photographer Hana Mendel. Mendel quickly agreed to meet, which Barrera calls “super nice of her, because I was just starting out, had no idea what was going on.” At the time, Barrera couldn’t drive, and her dad took her to their first shoot. From there, Mendel and Barrera became friends, and Mendel brought Barrera into a community of women artists in Columbus that includes photographers Kate Sweeney, Frances Weger, and Annie Noelker.
The structural rigidity of photographer as image-maker and model as object has been significantly eroded if not completely banished by the advent of cellphones. We’re all taking pictures of each other all the time, and, while speaking with Barrera, our conversation returned repeatedly to the reciprocity of art-making. Dear Grrrls is fundamentally an exchange, and Barrera herself is used to changing places with other artists. When she reached out to Mendel, she didn’t just ask for guidance. She asked, “Would you like to take photos some time? Could I take photos of you?” The two traded places for each other—photographer and then model and then photographer again. They got to know each other by making images together, and Barrera’s art practice has continued to operate reciprocally as she’s gotten older.
Now at school in Cincinnati, she lives with four other women artists. “Those are like my best friends,” she says. Life and art collide; in their kitchen, a temporary gallery space has sprung up. Whatever’s being made at the time winds up on the walls. “We all have work hanging in there.” A few of Barrera’s roommates are photographers as well, and the result is continuous documentation. “I just pull out my camera and start taking photos of them all the time… We all just have a trust with each other that we understand each other and would never portray each other in a way that wasn’t representative of us.”
Even living in such a productive and art-oriented environment, earlier this year, Barrera found she was again looking for a new community. That’s when she got the idea for Dear Grrrls. “Taking photos and making art is one thing. I want to do something that is getting people involved now, making these relationships between people now… I think I was just really frustrated. I wanted a space for us to communicate, for women to communicate and share our art and be completely uncensored in that way and have a relationship in that way.” It makes sense for an artist not to be satisfied with the people in her immediate vicinity. Barrera was looking to connect on a bigger and more anonymous scale. “I’ve always been open to sharing things online and sharing things with people that I don’t know. I honestly prefer that. Even if it’s face to face, I would rather spill my guts to someone that I don’t know.”
Letter writing has been called a feminine art, and there’s something utopian about Barrera’s girls-only mail club. Dear Grrrls creates a space away from men, and Barrera explicitly connects the project to her dissatisfaction with the misogyny still commonplace in photography. “I specifically was frustrated with the creative community… Here, there’s a lot of male photographers, a lot that I feel exploit female bodies, which is obviously everywhere, but I just was feeling it very prevalently at the time… I was just—and I still am—I’m very angry. I’m angry at men. I’m angry about a lot of things.” Like many women before her, Barrera has turned her anger into a way to talk to other women, a place where we can talk amongst ourselves. She’s turned it into mail— "just women, just our art, just what we want to say, just us expressing ourselves, however it is that you want to do it.” ✉︎