Laia Abril: The Epilogue

Text taken from Photo District News (PDN)

Ramon Pez

While working as the senior art director at Colors magazine, Pez learned to “play with visual narrative,” he says, and formed a close collaboration with Abril, who served as the magazine’s photo editor. After photographer Cristina de Middel asked them to design her acclaimed 2012 book The Afronauts, Pez and Abril collaborated on Ponte City by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, and books featuring Abril’s photos. Since founding Ramon Pez Studio in Barcelona, Pez has also designed Libyan Sugar by Michael Christopher Brown, The Hunt by Álvaro Laiz, 46750 by João Pina and other photo books.

Pez says he likes to begin a book project by looking at the photographer’s first edit. “That way I can understand the direction he wants
the story to take.” He’ll then look for holes in the story, to see if the photographer needs more images, “or to collaborate with an illustrator or a writer.”

To Pez, the book is “a device for telling a story,” and every part of the book can be used to set a mood or introduce an element of the
story. “All readers know you have the end papers, the title page, the colophon,” he notes. “When you change those things, you are creating a surprise.” In Pina’s new book 46750, on violence in Rio de Janiero, for example, he decided to move the title page to the end. The title refers to the number of homicides committed in Rio between 2007 and 2016. “You’ll discover the idea of the narrative on the last page,” Pez explains.

One of his more challenging projects, he says, was Abril’s 2014 book The Epilogue. In it, Abril tells the story of Cammy Robinson, who had died at the age of 26 from complications of bulimia, in 2006. Abril had photographed and interviewed the family, and they had given her access to mementos, letters and other material to better understand Robinson’s life. Abril wanted the focus of the book to be on “the collateral victims” of eating disorders. The challenge, Pez says, was to organize material from different periods of time, and rebuild the life of an absent protagonist.

 “After many tries, Laia came up with this idea, and said: Let’s start with the end, and then fill in her story,” Pez says. Abril adds, “The narrative was very much influenced by mysteries and thrillers.” At the start of the story, the central character has been dead for seven years. Through the book, the reader would discover how the death occurred. In this way, the reader could also place themselves in the position of Robinson’s family, who continued to grapple with the signs of bulimia they missed. As Robinson’s mother told Abril in an interview, “People said: ‘You would not have done any different.’ But yes, I would have.”

The book opens with several pages of Abril’s images of the Robinson family and their home. These are followed by a page of text, then material that reconstructs the missing protagonist’s life, including images from family albums, letters and medical records.

Abril’s images of family members are interspersed with quiet images of their home, their yard and mementos, including a small bust of Robinson. “We wanted to introduce the reader to the feeling of mourning, of grief,” Pez says. The goal “was to put you, the reader, into the story. ‘If this thing happened to my family or people close to me, how would I react to that?’” Pez says he encourages authors to include pauses in a book. “Let the reader connect things—don’t be too literal or easy in showing things.”

In what he calls “the core of the story,” about Robinson’s life, Pez says, “We had three climaxes where three very bad things happened to the protagonist.” These included her heart attack at the age of 20. At these points, Abril says, “I needed the designer to make something that causes the reader to stop.” To break the flow of the narrative at crucial points in the story, they inserted papers folded in three. Hidden inside each folded sheet was something important to Robinson’s life, such as her first bulimia diagnosis.

The collaborators estimate they produced 30 to 40 drafts of the book. When he is close to finalizing a layout, Pez says he likes to do an exercise: “When you are confident the sequencing works, you remove one photo, and see if it changes the story,” he says. “You need to do this exercise to step out of the comfort zone and look at which kind of pictures are not necessary. I call this the distillation.”

When The Epilogue was published, reviewers noted that the design helped propel the story. Pez says the best comments came from the Robinson family. “They were worried about how the book would talk about them, but they said the book was really well made and respectful of the story.” He credits that in part to their process: “Taking time to really understand the story, and the most important parts of the story.”

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