Argentinian-born photographer and poet Daniel Sacchero speaks with César Albarrán-Torres about memory, his experiences in Australia’s Dampier Peninsula, and in his first poetry collection, Distancia Cero (A Voz Limpia, 2021).
What is your first childhood memory?
A soccer arc my grandfather built for me. I was about four or five years old. There are historical photos of my house, but now it seems that my memories are a little earlier than the photographs, but I remember that image.
There is another image engraved in my memory. I was about 10 or 12 years old. That’s what I talk about in the poem ’24 de Marzo 1976’.
This memory is about the coup d’état in Argentina in 1976. My grandfather lived in the house next door. Our houses were connected and, basically, I went from one house to the other. I arrived one day and saw my grandfather burning books, records, and a red poncho that belonged to my mum.
The red poncho in Argentina, before being associated with communists, signified those who defended the border against the royalists—the border of Salta. Then, they were participants in the Argentinian civil war against the central government. That red poncho of the Salta montoneros holds a very strong meaning. (Editors’ note: The Argentine Civil War took place between 1814 and 1880, and is different from the Argentine War of Independence of 1810-1820)
My grandfather was burning everything because he had been a trade unionist, and my mother was a single mother, and she was in the teachers’ union. She read literature that was a bit difficult. I talk about this in my book because it’s a powerful memory.
There are other poems about your childhood in Argentina. Can you tell us about them?
I also write about the school gate. When I went back to Argentina as an adult, after being in Australia for many years, I went back to my school and wrote ‘Escuela de Burzaco’.
I remembered a huge school door, but it’s actually not that big. Space morphs in one’s memory, it’s brutal.
‘Volví a verla después de muchos años.
y esa impotente puerta que yo recordaba
ya no lo era.
y ese altísimo cielorraso que yo recordaba
ya no lo era.
se veían más cercanos.
como si el tiempo
hubiera achicado todo.’From ‘Escuela de Burzaco’
I have another memory of summer in the village where I lived. The streets were made of cement, and they put pitch on it, but the black, sticky material melted. My town is south of the capital of Argentina, in the province of Buenos Aires. Those memories are very powerful. I always have the dilemma of writing about memory and my family, or not. I always write more about other people, situations, places.
You migrated to Australia at 19. Why did you migrate?
I didn’t want to be conscripted. I returned to Argentina at the age of 27, when the Menem government changed the legislation and military service was no longer compulsory.
In your poetry you capture geography almost photographically, with an economy of language. Words are few but precise. How much has your photographic practice influenced your poetry?
Photography is very important to me. I studied photography in Argentina. It was my first vocation as an artist.
My relationship with my current partner, Silvi, a well-known photographer in Australia, is also linked to photography. During our first few years together, photography was what we did. We had our own lab in the house. We did black and white photographs, exhibits and a lot of stuff. I’ve always had a visual inclination.
I wrote ever since I was in high school, and I never left it. I would write about personal things, poems about my children, and the experience of being a parent.
When I separated from my first partner, I started writing a little more. I needed to express certain things.
Your first poetry collection, Distancia Cero, gives me the feeling that you have a nostalgia for what it could have been like to have stayed in Argentina…
I wouldn’t say I’m an exile. If it had not been the excuse of the mili, I would have left Argentina because, at the age of 19, I wanted to discover other places. I wanted to start walking, to be on the road, to go out and see the world.
My father was here in Australia. My father and mother were separated, and I grew up with my mother and siblings. My father came to Australia in the 1970s. He got married and I have half-siblings here.
I’ve never felt like an exile. What really matters is where your heart is. I feel good in Argentina and here (in Australia). I am very Argentine in many ways: I am a very open person; I love culture. I like open spaces and sharing simple things with people. I’m not a big city person, for example, I feel more comfortable outside of Buenos Aires. I’m happy with a few things and don’t have to have luxuries.
That’s what Argentina is to me: be in the outdoors. From an intellectual point of view, I feel Latin American; I love Mexican art, Latin American music. They resonate more because of the language. I like music in English, but I feel more comfortable listening to music in Spanish.
Let’s talk about the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia. You talk about this place in Distancia Cero. What was it like to encounter the vast Australian landscape when you were 19 years old?
It’s a bit like Argentina: the more you travel, the more you discover. When I arrived in Australia, I had a vision of colonisation—the white man, cricket. But, if you go out, you learn Australia is much more varied than that. There are hundreds of different places and cultures. Speaking of Aboriginal culture, you are talking about local cultures of incredible wealth. Discovering the different and unique Indigenous vision in Australia is simply amazing.
‘There are still certain stereotypes, and I don’t see myself represented by them. What doesn’t change is that the community tends to come together.’
I feel that in Latin America so many centuries of colonisation have diluted the space between the indigenous and the colonisers, but in Australia the separation is very marked. Do you agree?
I was very fortunate because my mother was a teacher and questioned many things at the political level. She taught in the villages, in marginalised areas.
As a young man, I was very interested in the Mapuche tribe, and travelled to southern Argentina to have contact with Mapuche people. That experienced helped me understand more.
In Australia, over time I came across the Aboriginal culture and its richness. In Western discourse the definition of Australia is very small compared to what it really is. But, you have to be out there to find out.
For me, the Dampier Peninsula is very important. I started university as a mature age student at RMIT. I have a degree in Social Sciences with a major in Environmental Sciences, and I was very interested in Aboriginal cases from a legal point of view.
One unit of study involved going to the Dampier Peninsula and taking part in a ceremonial walk. This is done every year with the families of the (traditional) custodians. The hike lasts for ten days and is 60 kilometres long. Every year the same stories are told to the children and (culturally) important places are visited.
Most of the participants are Aboriginal people and some are guests, like me. There, I had a close experience with the Aboriginal world and opened myself to different perspectives. I think each Aboriginal group is a microcosm.
What struck me the most was how they talked about what is important to a person when being in country.
Did you find any similarities between indigenous groups in Latin America and Australia’s First Nations?
When you go to northern Argentina or Bolivia, or when you visit the Atacama in Chile, you’ll find there are many things in common. The union of people with animals and plants, that community of living beings. The idea that Earth must be protected. Australian Aboriginal groups are older than indigenous groups in Latin America.
In one of my poems, ‘Las manos de Ubirr,’ I speak of hands. In Argentina there are the Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Patagonia and in Australia there’s similar cave art. Cultures trying to answer the old question of what is being human.
Do you think the perception of what it means to be Latin American in Australia has changed?
There are still certain stereotypes, and I don’t see myself represented by them. What doesn’t change is that the community tends to come together. You feel better with people who speak your same language. That is independent of the origin, it can be Latin American, Turkish, Armenian, or African, it’s not a Latin American thing.
Maybe 20 or 30 years ago there was more Latin stuff going on in Johnson Street and Fitzroy. I remember in 1982 or ‘83 on Johnson Street there were Latino and Spanish business and bars. You went there and met Mexicans, Salvadorans, Argentines. Everyone. Now, that has diluted a bit.
What are you currently reading?
A book called Origin Story: Big History of Everything by an author who fascinates me, David Christian. I am reading it for the fourth time! He is from the US, but lives in Australia and is a professor at Macquarie University. In this book, he talks about the concept of deep history. It starts with the Big Bang and ends in contemporary times. It’s a fascinating read.
I’m reading a lot of Australian history. Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History, an Australian history classic. Whisper Songs by Tony Birch. Apart from that, an anthology: Best of Australian Poems 2021. And well, obviously, (Spanish singer-songwriter and poet) Joaquín Sabina, I love how he writes.