Book Review: “When we were strangers” by jake naughton and juan anibal sosa iglesias

By Jess T. Dugan   |  May 2, 2019

Published by Red Hook Editions in February 2019
8.25" x 5.75" / 134 pages / Hardcover
First Edition 700 trade copies / Signed and numbered artists' edition of 100 copies with different cover + limited-edition print

When we were strangers.jpg

As a concept, love is something we are all familiar with. The idea of it is everywhere, from movies to television shows to magazines to advertisements, and infuses much of the culture that surrounds us on a daily basis. Yet, it is complex, often mysterious, and fundamentally difficult to define. The reality is quite different than the fantasy: it is not comprised of walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and other cultural clichés. Rather, it is defined by the mundane, the banal, the repetitive. We find it in repeated presence, the passage of time, the familiar argument, the knowing glance, the comforting embrace, the small gesture.

In their new book, When We Were Strangers, Jake Naughton and Juan Anibal Sosa Iglesias wrestle with this question: what is love? And further, how do you picture it?

Of this project, they write,

Love is a cliché, an idea so easy to imagine but impossible to grasp. Like an overripe fruit, it collapses with a bit of pressure into cloying sweetness and the faint scent of something lost. But, it is also perhaps our most essential endeavor. Mystical and dangerous, it is the inspiration for a billion journeys and a thousand petty conflicts.

The book comprises photographs made over a five-year period of their relationship. Jake and Juan share with us a wide array of moments, some of them illustrative of a particular event or experience, and others favoring the poetic or metaphorical: morning light, a gesture of the hand, a downward glance. They write of this work as a love poem, a stringing together of feelings and interior experiences rather than an objective telling of their story. To me, the strength of this work lies in its subjectivity, its interiority, and its poetic nature. In contrast to much of Jake’s other work, which often looks outward with more of a documentary focus, this series invites us inward into the most personal aspects of his and Juan’s life together.  

Text plays an important role in the book and adds a layer of specificity that the photographs themselves inherently cannot contain. The book begins with four lines of text, each one printed on its own page of velum, embedding the book with a sense of layering, examining, and questioning that sets the tone for the images that will follow. They read:

Have you ever stared into the face of the one you love and wondered who was staring back at you?
Have you ever seen him staring at you and wondered who he was seeing?
The me of now? The one yesterday, radiant?
The one from last year that wishes every day he could take it back?

Throughout the book, there are also short narrative texts about their relationship written by both Jake and Juan. There are also longer texts written by Juan, in Spanish, and a letter from Jake to Juan, tucked into a fold at the very back of the book. These texts play an important role, providing enough specificity to encourage a deeper engagement while not moving into the realm of the didactic.

Of course, another strength of this work is its focus on queer love through the entrance point of a singular relationship rather than a larger socially or politically-motivated documentation of a broader community. The personal is always political, of course, but it is especially resonant that the intricacies of queer love and relationships can be pictured as subjectively and personally as they are in this book.

The last image in the book depicts a person alone in a bed. Both the sheets and the walls of the room are white, and a soft morning light is pouring in, illuminating the figure. Just prior, two pages of vellum contain concluding text, illustrating a concept at once basic and profound, an almost incomprehensible duality present in every relationship:

And yet I look back on the day before the first day we met
and am amazed that there was ever a time when we were strangers.

Visit Red Hook Editions to order.

All images courtesy Jake Naughton and Juan Anibal Sosa Iglesias