Dedicated to the Invisibles who opened my eyes to what is now visibleEdgar Alvarez
We do not see like a camera. A camera registers everything reflecting light into its lens, but human perception is selective. It is an economy of resources that has evolved over millions of years so that now, scientists tell us, only about twenty per cent of what we perceive visually from moment to moment is actually passing through our eyes. The rest is constructed from memory and expectation. This is why, when something unanticipated happens, it can take a few moments to rationalise what we see and process the new and unforeseen visual information. However, at the other end of the scale, the process of visual perception also disregards those things that we consider unimportant. So, it is with the homeless people living rough in our Western cities. Considered irrelevant by the majority of society, they live openly on our streets, yet remain invisible to us.
It was this strange phenomenon of modern metropolitan living that struck the Colombian photographer and animator, Edgar Alvarez, when he moved to Los Angeles. Walking around a city where everyone drives a car, he saw what many failed to notice because they were so wrapped up in their own lives: that homeless men and women were everywhere on the streets of the City of Angels. He is not, of course, the first photographer to notice the homeless or to decide to make work about their plight. But there can be a problem with simply photographing people who stand so far out from the rest of society, that they become figures not of empathy, but of spectacle. All too often photographs of the abject, while they may encourage a moment of pity in the viewer, fail to encourage that moment to extend into action. They do not change things.
However, Edgar Alvarez is not just a photographer, he makes claymation films. Claymation is, quite simply, the animation of clay figures. It involves a process called stop motion in which the frames of a film or video are made like still photographs. Between each photograph, the clay model is moved slightly and then another shot is taken. When the shots are run together like a film, the clay figure appears to move. Over the years, working in television and advertising, he had developed his skills in model making to a high degree. It was these skills he brought to the project and to the challenge of creating images of homelessness that touched the viewer while avoiding the pitfall of representing individual human beings as abject spectacle.
The result was ‘The Invisibles’, an exhibition of photographs and a short, animated film. This work, and especially the film, have been widely shown and received many accolades. I, personally, first saw the work of Edgar Alvarez during a portfolio review in Bogotá, in 2017. For me it stood out above all the other photographic work I was seeing. I found its unassuming but beautifully crafted clay figures touched me in a way direct photographs of destitution tend not to… because I too am so wrapped up in my own world. Like the myths of old and the tales of childhood, which use a fiction to tell a deeper truth, these clay figures stole into my heart and mind, and there they have lived ever since…
Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?
Edgar: When I was seventeen, I worked as an errand boy in a company producing television commercials. It was here I discovered the wonders of claymation when, by chance, I was able to help with animating a little model spider. I was mesmerized – toys moved with a life of their own. My childhood dream had become a reality!
I was inspired to make my first claymation film. I was very young but, with the help of my friends and my own stubborn determination, it actually happened. Later, it was shown on television and caused a commotion because I was so young and just an errand boy.
Given claymation is not common in Colombia, I became a kind of pioneer in the craft. This allowed me to make some books about clay modelling, which were pretty successful. I exhibited my work and taught my craft in schools, travelling a lot. In time, I started working for television and advertising.
You are best known for ‘The Invisibles’. How did that project come about?
I had moved to Los Angeles and, as I didn’t have a car, I would walk about the city. Almost everyone in Los Angeles uses a car, so walking around with my backpack gave the impression I was homeless. It also gave me an unfamiliar perspective on the city: a place where a supermarket trolley is both a symbol of consumerism and a kind of trailer home for the homeless; where solitude becomes your only companion. It was a way of expressing my own solitude, something I shared with the homeless people, a feeling that could be very sad and painful.
What was the first image you made?
My first test shot was at a bridge over a freeway in downtown Los Angeles. When I saw the results, it opened up new possibilities for working with clay figures outside of the studio.
What were those possibilities?
One of the problems when you are working in the studio is that it is secluded. You are always concentrated in the world of the clay figure, but you are not connecting with people. To leave the studio and go out onto the street brings you into direct contact with the people and the place. I think that is important for a photographer or an animator, to be in contact with people.
Can you talk me through the process of constructing and shooting a scene for ‘The Invisibles’?
It takes between four and six hours to create four seconds of claymation video. Often, I had to repeat a sequence because of abrupt changes in the light or because someone moved the camera or because I felt the situation becoming dangerous.
I found it interesting to work with a fish-eye lens, because the result was that the clay characters looked bigger and you got more a sense of the city in the background. I worked a lot with low-angle shots. It was always like that, understanding how you see everything from below…
Inevitably, I was lying down on the ground a lot while filming, with passers-by looking at me. I have some training in performance and this helped to take away the embarrassment of working on the street. I guess, in that situation, I could pass as just another crazy man or a lookout for drug dealers. You could say that my role was not a very conventional one!
Did you always plan this project to be both an exhibition and a film?
In the beginning, I just planned to make images for an exhibition. Then I started taking some shots and experimenting with an animation made out on the streets. I immersed myself completely in the quest. I hadn’t planned it this way, so the script, as well as the technical solutions, evolved as I worked. This project has been made from scratch with my fingers and hands because there is no budget, no producer … the music was made by my girlfriend, Amanda, who was also my assistant during much of the project. The fact is, this was something new that hadn’t been done before in the world of claymation. My animator friends told me I was crazy … and I accept that I do share that trait with my clay puppets…
[Left] © Edgar Alvarez – The street artist at Edgar’s work desk. A clay figure based on a real homeless street artist from Bogotá. 2015
[Right] © Edgar Alvarez – A homeless street artist, La Plaza de Bolivar in Bogotá. 2016
Are the characters in your film and photographs based on specific individuals?
Most of the characters are based on real homeless people that I met on the streets. It involved a lot of detailed observation: body language, gestures, the texture of their skin, the dirt in their hair, the conditions in which they lived, and the society that they are part of and yet excluded from.
When I saw two homeless people hugging to keep themselves warm on a cold afternoon, I was immediately drawn to the simple humanity of the scene. I first sketched it, then modelled in clay and finally I placed the figures in the same plaza that I had seen them and took the picture.
How did you research each character and location?
I got to know their favourite locations, and would go there, take pictures and make drawings. I would talk with them, drink a coffee and then I would ask if I could take some pictures of them. Few refused. Talking with them was a good thing, even though my English back then was not very good. They had plenty of time and the patience to listen. I must admit that sometimes I felt a little ashamed to think that I was ‘studying’ a person but, as I became friends with many of them, the relationship changed, it became something that felt more intimate and natural.
One of my best friends in Los Angeles was a homeless man called Jorge. He was schizophrenic, which is common for people who live on the streets. We would meet most days and have a coffee. We would talk for a while until he seemed to get overwhelmed and began to raise his voice; then he would say he must leave. He lived in imaginary worlds and sad realities. He was probably the biggest inspiration for this project. He recently passed away ‘at home’, on the streets.
How did you find the homeless people were coping with life on the streets?
It varies, of course. There is the desperation of the person who has recently become homeless. It is one of those sad scenes I contemplated frequently in Los Angeles, feeling their anguish and shame, their fear and the uncertainty of not knowing where they were going to sleep that night, not having anything to eat.
Then there is ‘the soloist’. This clay figure is based on someone who actually became the main character in a movie with that same name. I had the opportunity of hearing him play the violin on a street corner close to my house. It was almost incredible to meet the world’s most famous homeless person and, at the same time, know that he was still there… living on the streets.
How did people respond to what you were doing and how did you feel doing it in such a public situation?
It was an experience! Many people thought that I was homeless, even though I had a camera and a computer. Some would come up to me and give me money or food, or offer me a job. Many people blessed me and one man wanted to read to me from the Bible. But also, homeless people would stay and talk with me while I animated.
Did you have problem with the authorities?
No. In general, I had a positive experience with the police, they were curious about what I was doing and some would try to show their support by offering advice.
How did you feel spending all this time on the streets? You had a lot of time to think.
I had some tough days and some sad ones. But one of the objectives of art – one of the obligations the artist has – is to communicate an idea in the most convincing manner. In this case, it is a social problem. This was challenging for me because, in many ways, I had almost to live it. I dreamed of homelessness, I woke up surrounded by all my clay figures, surrounded by the homeless at home…
I got so involved with the whole thing that I started to believe that I was going to end up on the streets myself. My girlfriend would say that I was starting to look like a homeless guy and that I only ever talked about that subject. It led to a crisis in our relationship. Even so, I think that this helped ensure a more authentic communication in the project.
How has the exhibition of photographs been received by the public?
It has reached out to many different audiences, from malls to museums or the places where homeless people live. People think about clay and there is an automatic link with their childhood. Clay models bring out something intimate… and then the viewer stumbles onto this emotionally charged issue, which moves them deeply. One of the most frequent comments I get is: “You can really feel the loneliness of the characters”.
How do the subjects of your images respond the photographs and film?
I’ve shown it to people who live on the streets and they tell me they see themselves reflected in the routines depicted and, in the animated video, the accelerated speed of the city.
With many of the homeless people I talk with I give them a figure. The claymation puppets were made with clay that remains soft. But I remade each puppet portrait in a polymer clay that hardens, and smaller, so it was easier to carry. Something I also liked was that they would draw me. So, I get to see how they see me. This type of exchange was very interesting.
What relationship do you see between the photographs and the film?
The photographs have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Medellín, Bogotá, Cartagena and Tel Aviv. The film has won awards at many festivals in Europe, Latin America and the USA. I remember one festival screening in Los Angeles, where people were crying because they felt so moved. The project as a whole has received coverage in the media related to street art, photography, stop-motion and animation in general. Some students have used it as the inspiration for their theses and I’ve given many talks on the subject. In Latin America, the work is seen as a protest against the capitalist system and contemporary North American society. The film has been to festivals of animation, video art, documentary and short films with a social content. That is interesting, the fact that it has been able to fit very different contexts and discourses.
But the photographs, the film and the debates they stimulate are simply elements in the same project. It can be approached from many perspectives: animation, photography, even anthropology and sociology. The social aspect brings art closer, or the art brings the social aspect closer.
What are you working on now?
Currently I’m working on a short film about the memory of violence in Colombia. It is a stop-motion animation that shows the history of conflict and the cycles this seems to repeat. How people kill other people while we’re being manipulated like puppets by the same powerful families whose only interest is keeping us polarized. It is a very political short film that I hope serves to question the thirst for violence that keeps us Colombians from achieving real peace.
I’m looking forward to making a second animated project, ‘Uncertainties’, focusing on the lives of four homeless people that I’ve met: my schizophrenic friend from Los Angeles, Jorge; a young Spaniard called Jordi; Maggie, who is an outspoken critic of the North American system; and Toño, a musician who ended up on the streets because of drugs.
What have you discovered about yourself through making this work?
I discovered the importance of working with social issues. I had done a lot of television commercials – some were technically really good and looked awesome – but it all began to feel irrelevant. It was simply a business, selling something… Working with social issues, asking people to question their assumptions, creating political awareness, is something I really enjoy. It requires a lot of ethical responsibility and self-questioning. The purpose of this project above all is to make people conscious – not only in the United States but all over the world – that homelessness is a problem that happens again and again due to the global economic crisis that we are going through. I think we can cooperate through our work and in our attitude towards people who live on the streets, because there is always a story behind each situation. It is important to put yourself in the other’s shoes. I did and it transformed my life.
Edgar Alvarez was born in Colombia in 1972. With a Master of Visual Arts from the Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas, he now works as an animator, director, artist and illustrator. His primary creative medium is clay. He has presented art exhibitions and events in many parts of the world including Argentina, Chile, China, Ecuador, Israel, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Spain, and USA. He has created campaigns for clients such as the United Nations, the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, UNESCO, Oxfam and UNICEF, and animations for Discovery Channel, Disney Channel, Google, and children’s television shows such as Sesame Street. He has written a dozen books about clay modelling techniques for publishers including McGraw Hill, Playco and Random House. He lives and works between Bogotá and Los Angeles.
Photo © Juan Pablo Cuadros
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the October 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.