It is like being a landscape painter whose basic colours are imprinted in the ‘canvas’ – in the scene itself – and I must ‘recover’ these colours from the darkness and transform them.
To make a photograph is to ‘draw with light’. During the day, light rushes abundantly through the lens painting every corner and surface in an instant. But at night, light is rare and precious; its colours shift and dance elusively before the camera and must be coaxed through the lens to gradually materialise as an image. It is not easy. But the night holds secrets that are lost in the glare of sunshine; colours of such iridescence that they only venture abroad under the cover of darkness. As the painter Vincent Van Gogh observed: “the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.”
Alejandro Chaskielberg makes his photographs at night. He is a nocturnal explorer who seeks more than just the likeness of things; he seeks to know how they feel – to connect emotionally, to communicate the richness and strangeness of everyday lives and the profound histories of ordinary people.
Based in Buenos Aires, his photographic projects have taken him out into the world from the Paraná Delta of Argentina north to Suriname, east to Kenya and on to Japan. His images depict the lives of people with few resources who struggle to survive, but who so far prevail. It is an enchanted documentary of an often harsh reality; of people caught up in forces larger than themselves – natural, economic, political – who nonetheless survive, and in their survival speak of the power of the human spirit, the generosity of communities and the profound ability to find joy even in the utmost hardship.
Alasdair: You seem to be drawn to night-time. What is it about making photographs at night that interests you?
Alejandro: What attracts me to make photographs at night is the possibility of controlling the light while working in a natural landscape. It is like being a landscape painter whose basic colours are imprinted in the ‘canvas’ – in the scene itself – and I must ‘recover’ these colours from the darkness and transform them. I very much enjoy the moment of shooting, with all the challenges of making images at night. For me it is the best part of the whole photographic process.
One of your earliest series is called ‘Nocturama’. Who are the people and where were they photographed?
I shot ‘Nocturama’ during various trips and vacations in Argentina and Uruguay. Some of the people in the photographs are friends; others are just people that I happened to meet by chance while traveling. The pictures are all set-ups; it’s all completely fictional. I consider this work as a ‘draft project’, a prototype for what was later to be developed in the ‘La Creciente’ project.
In the series ‘La Creciente’ (which has the English-language title ‘The High Tide’) you photographed the people and places of the Paraná River Delta of Argentina. What drew you to this area and its people?
I have been visiting the Paraná Delta ever since I was a kid. I love the water, the river … I am a sailor.
There is a part of the delta region where people from the city own weekend houses. In 2007, I began visiting a friend who was living on one of the islands. The island was far from the port where the majority of the people of the Paraná Delta live. Here, I started to make landscape photographs. I soon got to know the little community of islanders and, in due course, it became natural that I should include them in my images.
What do you want to capture in these nocturnal photographs?
I would like to evoke a different perception of time and of these places by experimenting with light. Light is the principal tool for a photographer. I also discovered that many of these people have interesting stories to tell and I try to capture something of these stories in the final image.
Can you give an example?
The man carrying a tree trunk on his shoulder is an immigrant from the republic of Paraguay, to the north of Argentina. He is from a very poor background and came to the Paraná River Delta to work during the tree-felling season. This was the first photograph anyone had every taken of him. I used it on the cover of the book.
Working in remote areas such as this must be a challenge in terms of the large-format equipment you are using.
Yes, the camera I use is heavy and can be hard to transport, especially when the ground is wet and uneven … and I always travel with a small darkroom so I can load and unload film everywhere. The most difficult thing about using a large format camera at night is getting the focus adjustment just right. Another challenge, because I often work in swampy places, is the humidity. I set up the camera during the daytime and when it becomes dark, the air temperature drops and the lens mists up. During the long time exposures I have to be careful about this, otherwise the images appear completely blurred.
The images in ‘Nocturama’ have a quiet, reflective quality, but in the series ‘Suriname Bittersweet’ there is a sense of times past, times lost.
The images in ‘Nocturama’ were made with a compact digital camera therefore the colours look sharper. And the situations of the characters were completely fictional, their poses are all acted. The ‘Surinam’ series is different because it depicts real situations and was working with a large-format camera and film, which contribute to the sense of times past.
Can you tell me about the situation of the people and places in this later series?
The project explores the decline of the sugar industry in Surinam. [Situated on the north-eastern Atlantic coast of South America, Suriname is the continent’s smallest sovereign state.] Following the industry’s collapse in the 1980s, the factories were abandoned and the machinery stolen or dismantled and sold as scrap. Meanwhile, the plantations have been completely swallowed up by the jungle.
Aside from the nocturnal atmosphere, many of the images have another strange quality – like they are dioramas or scale models. Why is this?
I work with a large format camera that allows tilting and shifting of the plain of the lens relative to the film, so that they are no longer parallel. This changes the areas of focus in a way that mimics macro-photography (where the subject is much smaller) and disrupts the perception of the scale and space in the final image.
How do you light these photographs?
The exposure time for each image is between five and ten minutes. Sometimes I use moonlight to illuminate the background and then add to this with light from a torch or strobe flash. All the lighting equipment is small and hand-held. I move through the scene very quickly, dressed completely in dark colours so that my presence does not register on the film. I work with a set of ten different torches, each with a particular angle of beam and colour balance. I can alter the final colour of the scene by changing the colour of the light from the torch. For example, the leaves on a tree might be light yellowish green, but if I light it using a cyan-coloured filter on my torch, the result appears deep blue-green.
In 2011 you went to Turkana in Northern Kenya. What took you there?
I went to Turkana to document the work of Oxfam, who are working to overcome to devastating effects of the drought in the region. The charity is helping to rebuild the pastoral communities through a camel restocking program and through their gardening project, helping to bring back hope when all appeared lost.
I wanted to see beyond the immediate crisis and to portray a sense of these people’s determination and their dignity; their beauty. Nobody shoots charity photographs at night, so my images look quite different from what one might expect in these circumstances. I wanted to touch on a sense of hopefulness, despite the severity of the situation.
How did the people of Turkana respond to being photographed at night?
I really didn’t know how they would react to being photographed at night. Most of them saw it as a kind of game and found it very funny to see me running around like a fool with my torches. What impressed me the most was their capacity for joy.
You have also made a series of photographs in Otsuchi, the Japanese fishing town devastated by a major tsunami in March 2011. How did you come to make this work?
I presented two different exhibitions in Tokyo in 2012. I had wanted to make a series about the relationship between a Japanese community and the sea, partly to explore Japanese fishing culture and partly because of my ongoing interest in the relationship between people and water. On the first trip, my curator Ihiro Hayami (who had relations living in Otsuchi) told me about the tragic consequences of the tsunami. It was, by then, a year and a half since the disaster and I decided to explore what had happened and see if I could make a photographic series there.
What did you find?
The tsunami, which came in a series of waves up to eighteen meters high, had destroyed sixty per cent of the town. When I got there, I found a great open plain where once the town had stood. Small red flags were planted where each body had been found and there were mountains of debris – everything from fishing nets and household items to cars and street lamps – piled up.
Through Ihiro Hayami, I was able to meet a family in the area and begin to make contact with the community … and slowly I began to make the photographs. We took the pictures in the empty places where their houses had once been.
This must have been a very emotional process.
Yes, these were very emotive places for them. They told me about their life before the tsunami and about their house: where the entrance was, their bedroom, the precious objects they had kept there. They told me about the neighbours and friends who had died and how much their lives had changed since the disaster had hit. But most of all there were the introspective silences, when they stood and remembered without speaking.
Why did you title this series ‘Future Memories’?
Not long after I first arrive in Otsuchi I found a photo album beside the road. It was damp and smelled like a dead animal. As I peeled the pages apart I found that the photographs had all become changed by the effects of the water. They too had suffered in the disaster.
The title ‘Future Memories’ is a contradiction. Memories belong to the past, but I also believe that memory is a living thing that changes with events: somebody dies, your fall in love, you bump into someone unexpectedly and memories reawaken in a new context. Photographs are not like memories, they are fixed … usually. But the photographs recovered after the tsunami had been changed – physically – by the force of the water. I re-photographed these recovered images and I made pictures of the survivors in the ruins of their former homes. I took the tonalities I found in the damaged photographs as my ‘colour palette’, which I then used when creating my own images. I wanted to build a bridge between the past and the present – between the photographs and the survivors – using colour.
You have travelled widely. What have you discovered along the way about yourself?
Each new trip is a valuable lesson. On the one hand, I find that I have great empathy with people and that I can build relationships of trust very quickly. Maybe that’s a gift. On the other hand, I am very open to life’s experiences and each trip brings a new element which I absorb into my work as it develops. Sometimes, I think that my work is on a hidden course that is being slowly uncovered with each trip. This path brings together colour, as a narrative and sensory element that is universally understood, with photography as a practice of continuous experimentation. In my view, this is how the language of photography can be evolved.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1977, Alejandro Chaskielberg has rapidly established a world-wide reputation for his innovative and sensitive imagery, exhibiting extensively in the Americas, Europe and Asia. He has won numerous awards including Best Latin-American Portrait at the 2010 US Pictures of the Year International Awards; a prestigious BURN emerging artist grant from the Magnum Foundation and the Leopold Godowsky Jr. Award, which recognises excellence in the field of contemporary colour photography. The New York-based magazine PDN [Photo District News] listed him in the their top thirty photographers worldwide in 2009 and in 2011 Alejandro Chaskielberg was named photographer of the year at the Sony World Photography Awards, receiving their highest accolade, the coveted L’Iris D’Or.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the December 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.