On September 28th I’m meeting photographer and retoucher Araí Moleri at Café Tasso in Berlin. Coming from Montevideo, Uruguay, and having a degree in product design she’s been working in very diverse fields of photography including fashion, portraiture, beauty, architecture, product, post-production and even in stop motion films. I’m admiring the lightness in her work. She’s managing to capture interesting perspectives and postures showing off-beat aspects of people. Her retouching is extra-ordinary and it helps to really understand her subjects. I can feel that she’s a caring person who has a voice and I want to talk to her about her views.
You’re a photographer but you’re also working as a retoucher for other photographers. What do you like most about editing photos?
That’s a question that I’m asking me myself sometimes. I really enjoy retouching – when I do it I’m like in a tunnel. I like the part of being so concentrated and in another world. On the other hand, retouching means that you’re sometimes changing reality into a consumer world where everything’s perfect or over-perfected. It’s about selling stereotypes that are not real, they are edited. This makes it difficult for me sometimes. It happens that I feel bad about it. I also struggle with that when it comes to photography. I’m this kind of person who’s often overthinking everything. But then I’m trying to be positive about it because it’s my work and I’m making a living with it. Of course, not every kind of retouching is a bad thing. Mostly, it’s very interesting and there are endless ways to do it, however, there’s often a downside. But when I’m ignoring the selling aspect I really like to work with my graph tablet – for me, it’s a digital way of painting or finding ways how to transform colours, textures, shapes and the image itself. I also love to see the before and the after because it shows you all the details that you’ve changed at once. Sometimes I even edit the smallest details at 300% magnification and people tell me to do less because no one could ever see that anyways, but still, I’m too much of a perfectionist to leave it there.
I can totally understand that – I have that perfectionism too, although I’m trying to get rid of it… So I’m trying to learn new techniques by watching tutorials which might allow this to me. Do you up-skill your editing too once in a while and if so, how do you learn any new ways of retouching?
I’m also watching tutorials every time I get to a point where something’s difficult to edit or when I need a technique that I don’t use commonly. Also with every new version of the programme, there are new tools, so I’m looking to be up-to-date. Oftentimes, I even watch videos of people whose final image results I actually don’t like, but many of them are really good at their techniques and so the videos are still helpful. Tastes can be different, so while the examples look too plastic or unreal to me personally the techniques that are taught can be really good. And sometimes I also do the mistake of exaggerating it – when I’m in this tunnel and I lose sight of my reference it happens that I’m over-doing an image only to find that I need to lower the opacity of some over-retouched layers.
And do you then use different techniques for different clients?
Yes, maybe it’s not different techniques, but for sure it’s different tools that I use depending on the client because they want very different things to be done in their images. For some clients I have to make specific masks in order to precisely select and edit the objects in a picture one by one, e.g. they want me to increase the saturation here, or to remove reflections there. Others prefer softer and more natural looks, so when I’m using masks I rather paint them freehand. I enjoy this way of retouching a little bit more (:
And how do you find your retouching clients or do they find you?
Well, most of my clients I got to know through mutual friends, and colleagues, or through my boyfriend who’s also working in photography as an assistant. But it took me to realise that you could find jobs through your personal contacts in Germany like I was used to it in Uruguay. There, it’s a common thing because it’s a very small market and you always know someone who can recommend you. I rarely had to apply somewhere. And it appears to me that in Berlin you especially get the really good jobs through someone recommending you. There were only a few exceptions, for example, the first employee job here that I had in a 3D-render-studio. I found their job advertisement at www.creative-city-berlin.de: they needed a retoucher who could edit 3D renders which is why I didn’t get my hopes up too much. But surprisingly they answered me and had me over for an interview. I also once worked for a photographer who was searching for a retoucher in this facebook group called CULT, but this was just a one-time job. Another time, I was found by a client because I had uploaded my CV and my portfolio on different platforms. I was asked to be part of their team and after a few months, I got a photography job through them. However, that was the only time I worked with them so far. Maybe they were just testing me, I don’t know it really. It’s difficult to be patient sometimes, but as a freelancer, you really need to be.
Exactly! We always break our heads about why we don’t get booked again by some clients, but it’s oftentimes just because they don’t need any photography or retoucher at the moment.
Yes, and then there are months and months when there’s no work even though you’re looking for it and suddenly you get so much at once! For example last month I was really busy, and now I have nothing planned for the next. I think this is common when you’re a freelancer and sometimes you start being nervous but you can basically use this time to focus on your own things.
You already mentioned your home country Uruguay and the similarity to Berlin in terms of finding clients. But what are the main differences that you see between the countries especially in your job?
So many! (: But the main difference is that people here are very specialised and they just do fashion photography, or just product photography, or just retouch and so on. In Uruguay, only a few photographers do so. It’s much more common to be all over the place and do fashion, food, architecture and everything else too. You’re also doing your own retouching, or you’re even your own assistant! We’re used to not having a lot of budget for productions so we depend on the ability to do everything by ourselves. When I first came to Berlin and I was asked which kind of photography I do, I listed all the fields I’ve been working in as well as the retouch that I do for all these things, and people thought it’s weird. But for us, it’s just common, otherwise, you can’t survive in the small market. The good part about it: you don’t run out of jobs. One month you’re shooting fashion and the next months you have an architecture photography commission. But on the other hand, I had clients who didn’t value the retouching work. They didn’t understand that it takes more time than the shooting day itself. However, with my perfectionism, I couldn’t deliver my photos without retouching. So I just included the post-production by offering overall packages. Seeing how it works here, I now realise that I was doing retouching work without being properly paid for it. But on the bright side, this trained my retouching skills during the past 10 years so much! And at some point I also started to explain the actual workload to the clients more: while they could only see the shooting day because they were present there, I had to invest another week to edit the selected photos and this means that they had to pay for one day plus one week of work. It helped some of them to understand my point of view, but in general photography and retouch is seen as one service. Only once in my life, I’ve had a job in Uruguay which was just about retouching. And I can’t think of more than one specialised retoucher in Uruguay.
That sounds very different from the market in Germany. But now, as you’re here, did you specialise after all?
It’s hard for me to specialise because I like doing different kinds of photography. I wouldn’t ever get bored of one specific thing! And like with the commercial aspect of retouching, I also have this struggle when it comes to fashion or product photography. So it was good for my mind to be working in different areas. Especially about fashion, I’m torn between the fact that I really like seeing and doing fashion work but I don’t like the industry in so many ways! Back in Uruguay, it wasn’t as controversial to me to do fashion photography because most of the brands there were designed and made in Uruguay. Only during the last few years, big companies are starting to settle too. So as I was only working for local brands I was getting less money but better Karma (:
“Now I can see the possibility of being a retoucher here, which wasn’t possible earlier in my life.”
Anyway, to answer your question: clearly, no, I haven’t chosen one area yet. Now I can see the possibility of being a retoucher here, which wasn’t possible earlier in my life. And maybe with being a retoucher, I can do photography in my free time but only what I want to do, nothing commercial, only my thing. Everything that I retouch for money won’t be labeled with my name – I’m undercover – and then my photography is my art. I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of months because I could see that I’m having better work as a retoucher here but I didn’t take a decision yet. I’m still waiting to see how this continues, and anyways I’m going back to Uruguay for five months soon so I will have to work a bit there, after one and a half years of absence. Meanwhile, most of my clients have replaced me. Yet, one of them already confirmed to work with me on an architecture project again. I really love to work with them! I think a second job would be very nice too but I also want to have a lot of free time to spend it with my family and friends. My boyfriend, I mean my husband (it’s still strange for me to say that), is coming with me too, so I want to show him where I’m from. I’m looking forward to it so much!
Beautiful! And you will have another nice and warm summer, while we are here in grey Berlin winter, missing you!
Oh, no! I’m so lucky I’m leaving. My first winter in Berlin was super hard!
Yes, especially the first one is hard for everyone, even for us Germans, because it’s always super cold, windy, grey and depressing. Okay, I wanted to ask you about another genre – film. Back home you’ve also been a camera assistant for a Walter Tournier movie. Which experiences did you gain there and how did this affect your career?
Yes, back in 2010, I was the camera assistant in a movie called “Selkirk” and because it was a stop motion movie there was no camera person – the camera was always on a tripod or on tracks – and my job was actually camera assistance AND camera. This was one of the best and most beautiful jobs I ever had.
In 2009 I was doing my thesis as a product designer. I was so nerdy back then, we were learning about nanotechnology, Arduino and motors at university and I was really amazed by all these things. And because I’d been doing some stop motion videos with my friends, just for fun, I decided to make my thesis about building a small robot to allow camera movement to stop motion films. So I reached out to director Walter Tournier and presented my idea to him. He invited me to do my investigation in the stop motion studio where he was currently working. He soon realised that I was also doing photography and even though I was an autodidact he asked me to take some backstage photos at the studio once a week. It was super cool to watch all the puppets with their articulations for the animation and the small-scale worlds which they build for them. Later, I invited Walter to the presentation of my thesis so he could see my final product. My professors were astonished by my work and speech, and so was he, probably. Anyway, after one week Walter called to tell me that he couldn’t think of anyone better than me for a job as a camera assistant. He needed someone who could handle the cameras and also document the methodologies. Obviously, I took the opportunity and so I was the one to set all the cameras, animate them, and write down which settings we used for every scene. The whole experience was amazing and at the same time, this was my big school of photography as I was doing it for eight hours every day. Imagine, we had to take 24 photos for a second of the movie that would be one hour long in the end. That means that we were working on about 10 seconds of the movie per day! It was super obsessive work and I was super lucky to be part of it a whole year. By the way, you should watch the trailer and the backstage video (: The movie was translated to different languages and it became quite big in other countries. It was even part of some film festivals e.g. in France and in Hiroshima, Japan.
As I understood, you love crafting and creating art which you divide from your commercial work. You also already told me about your husband Stefan Höferlin who’s sharing this attitude with you. He’s working as a photo assistant but the photography that he does is only personal work. Can you tell me a little bit about him?
Yes, he’s working as an assistant because he doesn’t want to see his name on anything commercial – that’s his philosophy. Personally, he has this project called “mjuboys” with another photographer, Hannes Meier, and they’re creating a magazine with their photography. The name is based on the analogue point-and-shoot camera by Olympus called Mju which they use for their street photography. They’re just capturing real and natural moments, sometimes very quickly and sneaky, so it all looks a bit trashy but meanwhile I really like what they’re doing. At first, my perfectionist head needed to get used to their bold aesthetics. It’s interesting that they have many real followers – not on Instagram but in real life – people who are coming to all of their events and start to use the Mju camera with mjuboys stickers on it. It’s kind of a cult! For me, it used to be unthinkable not to be active on Instagram but they are reaching more people with every release they have. They still can’t live from it but they just love the project so they put a lot of time and energy in it without much of a financial profit. I’m inviting you to the release of their sixth issue which is going to be on October 26th at the backyard of Fotokotti! It’s going to be our last weekend in Berlin before we leave for Uruguay.
Thanks for the invite! I would love to come. I see that you’re on the same page with Stefan in terms of your morals and photography as an art. Is there anything about photography which you both don’t agree on?
Well, we have near thinking about the commercial world, but our styles are completely different. We really don’t have anything in common there. For example, my favourite images of his photography are not at all his own favourites. The other way around he would never select those images that I like most about my photography. Besides that, I’m making a living on some commercial photography while he refuses to do so. But as I already mentioned I’ve only worked for small brands that were handmade or fair trade while he’s assisting in photography for really big companies… So just because his name isn’t there that doesn’t mean that his karma isn’t worse! (:
Yes, you’re choosing your clients carefully…
To be honest, in Uruguay, I didn’t have so many options of choosing, it’s just how the market is. The scale of the companies is a completely different one from here. Now that the economy is changing in Uruguay too, I hope that there will still be sustainable and slow fashion… We all realise the disasters and the climate change that we are causing in the world and I think we just need to go back and consume less. We must be more conscious! So many things are getting sold too cheaply and it’s only because someone else is actually paying for it – either the earth or people who are living and earning really badly. Our lifestyles should be more simple, we need to take care of each other and be more in contact with nature. We can’t continue to be these crazy humans. Regarding this, I see another problem in our system because it’s so dividing! First world, third world, restrictions, passports that you have or don’t have – everything is holding us back from changing the world together. If we all want to live the whole globe needs to start changing, not only in some countries. Disasters are not going to be different depending on your passport. I’m thinking about these things a lot because I’m an immigrant now for the first time in my life. I have to go through all these tough things like the paperwork and not being allowed to stay or work at first. I think we just need to unite and start sharing more, also the materials we have. To me buying everything doesn’t make sense as much as borrowing or sharing what is needed. This is also why I’m struggling with the thought of working for commercials. Of course, I have to pay my rent and live from something because I’m inside the system and by my thinking alone I can’t get me out of there. No one can do that alone. So the big change is something that we have to do together.
I agree, especially if we want to express ourselves, we can’t partition off the system, otherwise we would all have to be autonomous farmers. That’s not for everyone. But it’s good to hear that there are people like you bothering about a change. Actually, I think that our generation and especially the younger one is already making a difference, thus there were these worldwide “Fridays for Future” demonstrations taking place recently. However, it’s known that in 30 years from now the climate change will already have reached catastrophic degrees and I think that politics adapt too slowly even here, let alone in developing countries.
Yes, but these countries are struggling with tough situations right now! We can’t expect them to think about the future when people there are dying of hunger, diseases, or the lack of clean water now! How can we ask them not to use plastic when they actually don’t have a house where to live? I’m also wondering if activists like Greta Thunberg will cause any real change. They are calling us to wake up and demonstrate for politics to change, which is good, but is there anyone offering a real solution? Politicians are just people like us. Maybe they have no idea what to do, just like us. Clearly, the system has to change in terms of the economy and capitalism, but how? I’m sure that they don’t know that either.
True, I guess imagining an ideal world and society is easier than transforming an existing one into Utopia. The rich ones would have to give up their possessions… and of course, they won’t. They are the ones who have the real power over economics and politics, as well as over us. To make a living, we need to work for the ones who have the money, unfortunately. So we render them more and more powerful. It’s a dilemma. Still, as I’m reading lots about psychology I’m sure that having these thoughts helps to come up with possible solutions because the subconsciousness is working on the things that we have on our minds, even when we think of something else. So I think that being active really matters. I believe that at some point good solutions will come up.
I hope so!
“I think we just need to unite and start sharing more.”
Okay, let’s talk a little bit about your two Instagram accounts which are divided into commercial and non-commercial works for obvious reasons. With which one do people interact more?
For sure with the non-commercial one (@aramolara). But the commercial one (@offcialaraimoleri) is much younger than the other one and I’m not paying too much attention to it. On my artistic account, I’ve been way more active since 2013 and I’ve been sharing my personal opinions, background stories and self-portraits there. Recently I’ve been pretty inactive on both accounts because it consumes too much time to think about and plan my feed. I know I should do more. So I’m not a good example when it comes to Instagram. I think that social media is putting a lot of pressure on our generation which is exhausting. I also need to put more effort into my website to update it and maybe to set up a second one for my retouching work. When I’m back in Uruguay I might have some quiet time to organise that and maybe I’ll be able to plan a little bit for my Instagram as well.
You also told me about your nudes photography recently. Some of your models even initiated to get naked in front of your lens. How do you make your models feel so comfortable that they dare to show themselves as vulnerable?
Yes, in many cases I didn’t plan the shoot to be about nude pictures, but they suggested to take off their clothes at some point. Of course, we were always alone in a room and we had met at least once before so they could trust me. The last case I had was a woman who I learned was over a great weight change due to some health issues involving surgery. This being a wake-up call to her she started to slim down and to take care of what she was eating. But while her body became thinner, her skin stayed too big and this still made her feel ashamed and sad about her body. The story made me think that there must be many people going through this experience and it would, therefore, be interesting to capture this very aspect of it. Besides, this was completely non-stereotypical – something that looked ugly at first sight but was very beautiful in consideration that she had taken care of her body and self. So I suggested this other point of view to her with all my respect and without any judgment. I wanted to take a look at it to find the beauty in it and she was into my idea. What she and other women said about being around me nude was that they could feel comfortable because I wasn’t judging them and they knew that I wouldn’t misuse their photos. And I would say about them that they were all strong women! Another girl I shot without clothes was having hairy armpits and legs but she was posing so confidently which I found amazing. We are women and we do have hair – that’s how we really are! And here’s an interesting fact about it: the other day I was reading an article about the history of women waxing their bodies and I found out that they started doing it because in the past some men preferred to marry very young girls who didn’t have any body hair yet. So in order to look like they were younger and purer resp. like virgins, women started the culture of waxing. That is why it’s actually a very patriarchic thing to do.
Oh, wow, I didn’t know this! That’s terrible…
Yes, it is and I didn’t know either… So when it comes to my photos I can say that I care a lot about every person in front of my camera and I treat them with respect. I always tell them that we’re only going to shoot what they feel comfortable with. To me, it’s the most important thing.
Sounds beautiful and I’m sure it’s a great gift to have this aura and the ability to create such a safe space where people can open up. I really loved to talk to you about all the topics that you brought up. Thank you, Araí, for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me.
Thank you too!