The aerial perspective has transformed my gaze
When, in 1858, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon took his camera for a ride in a hot air balloon he reputedly became the first person to make an aerial photograph. Better known to posterity by his pseudonym Nadar, his photographs from that trip have not survived. But the momentous event was immortalised in a lithograph by Honoré Daumier published five years later in ‘Le Boulevard’ magazine. Balanced precariously in the wicker gondola, hat snatched away by the wind, he sails above the streets of a Paris overrun with photographers of the merely terrestrial stripe. The legend reads: “Nadar élevant la Photographie à la hauteur de l’Art” (Nadar raising Photography to the height of Art).
For centuries, architects and cartographers had drawn plans and maps that visualised an aerial perspective. But the translation from plan to elevation, from abstraction to experience, remained an act of creative imagination. With the advent of aerial photography and later the availability of relatively inexpensive air transport, the infinitely subtler view from above has become a reminder of the unruly realities that the cartographer seeks to tame. Maps and plans reveal structure by scraping it clean like bones striped of their flesh. An aerial photograph shows the living breathing environment in all its pulsing organic complexity.
For the Peruvian photographer Evelyn Merino-Reyna, taking to the air was an epiphany. Born and raised in Lima on the Pacific coast, it brought her a new awareness of both the city and the ocean. She has since built her career and her reputation capturing a bird’s-eye view in both still and moving imagery. Seeing the world from this elevated perspective has revealed issues that can easily remain unnoticed amid the earthbound thrum of the city. The teeming life of the ocean. The careless urban entrails that dump their waste onto the shoreline. The shape-shifting face of the desert. From the air, the art of photography raises new and pressing questions. It speaks to the precarity, not of the aerial photographer, but of the expansive, intimately entangled ecology below.
What initially drew you to aerial photography?
A coincidence. When I arrived in Lima after living for a few years in Europe a friend took me paragliding to welcome me home. I had never flown like that before and, what’s more, I was afraid of heights. To calm me, my friend suggested I bring my camera and take some pictures… So began my twin passions: flying and photography.
What was that first flight like?
We flew along the Costa Verde passing over some very beautiful geography and various neighbourhoods and beaches. When I landed I was ecstatic. Using the wind and thermals to fly like that just seemed incredible – a communion with nature. And when I downloaded the images I saw how powerful the aerial perspective is as a visual language. This was so surprising and new, because at that time there were no drones in Lima and the view from above was still unfamiliar.
[Left] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Paracas shoreline, Ica 2014
[Right] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Lima, panoramic view 2010
There are many ways to take aerial photographs: light aircraft, helicopter, glider, paraglider, kite, drone… Which do you like best?
Over the past seventeen years I have tried all of those ways of flying. In the first two years I dedicated myself to paragliding over the Costa Verde and some other areas of Peru. Later I used a motorised paraglider, which allowed me to fly deeper into the city. More recently I have flown in small planes, a helicopter, and an ultralight.
My favourite remains the paraglider because it doesn’t vibrate, you fly silently becoming one with the wind, part of nature. It is silent, so I don’t disturb the people and animals below and can get more candid shots. The limitation is the way one is at the mercy of the wind and thermal air currents. So, now I take most of my photographs from an ultralight. It’s a very dynamic aircraft and I fly with a pilot I totally trust who understands my way of working. He has modified the plane so that I sit in the front with an uninhibited view. We have good communication and work together fluidly, which helps a lot.
How did your book ‘Lima Más Arriba’ begin?
From the air, I realised I was looking at the city and its coast afresh. New textures, colours, geographies, patterns… such diversity.
Lima is the only South American capital that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and, from the air, it is possible to see the layers of the city’s history superimposed one on another. In the capital alone, there are more than three hundred archaeological sites reflecting the timeless cultural relationship between our ancestors and the ocean. However, looking down from the sky, I can also see the fragility of the marine ecosystem and the apparent disconnect between city and ocean. In making this book, I wanted to show these various perspectives on Lima so that we might get to know it a little better to see its full potential.
[Left] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Wave, Costa Verde 2006 from the series ‘Lima más Arriba’
[Right] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Houses, Ate 2012 from the series ‘Lima más Arriba’
What do you think we can learn by getting to know the city from this new perspective?
The aerial perspective has transformed my gaze and I believe it can transform the views of others in a similar way. It is striking to see the majestic ocean crashing on the shores of the Costa Verde and the lush beauty of the valleys. But it can also help us become aware of the fragile points of our ecosystem in order to work to protect them. It can help us to observe social behaviours and the direction of urban growth as the population invades the hills around Lima. And it reveals the mutilation of the pre-Hispanic world by the modern. Yet, from the air, it is also possible to see ways in which districts might be united to improve circulation in the city.
You have also photographed the desert.
That has been very important to me. The desert resonates with my interior world, my spiritual world. Each texture tells me something. In some cases they are traces of water, in others the only waves are of sand sculpted by the wind. I have learned a lot from studying the synthesis of lines I find in the desert.
[Left] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Soccer Pitch, Lomo de Corvina, Lurin 2016 from the series ‘Lima más Arriba’
[Right] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Vineyard, Ica 2016
Have you changed your approach to aerial photography over the years?
For me, it has not so much been about changing my approach as working from one subject to the next, little by little, like peeling the layers of an onion. The lines of the ocean, the contours of the desert, the profile of the mountains… That said, my commercial work and personal work are often intertwined. Flying in Peru is expensive, and we have very little civil aviation. So, whenever I am undertaking a commercial assignment, I take advantage of what is in the immediate area and extend the flight, for a few minutes, to take photos for my personal use.
Have you seen something from the air that has so surprised you that it has profoundly changed your understanding?
I was flying high and fast over the coast of Lima taking pictures for a client. I was focused on that task, but I remember seeing a lot of colour and life below, so I took a photograph without really paying much attention to the place or what it was. This is often what I do in that kind of situation: I take a quick shot just as a record so I can come back later if it was something interesting.
I was so surprised when I saw the image on the computer screen because I realised that it was a cemetery. Here was an image about death, something normally seen as sad, sombre, final. Yet here it seemed so full of life and colour. It made me realise how powerful a point of view can be. It can change the whole tenor and meaning of what one sees. The picture made a big impact on me…
You have said that flying is like being in a permanent state of meditation.
In the first few minutes of a flight I am focused on technicalities: checking the camera, confirming the equipment with the pilot, ensuring the flight plan is clear… But after that I often don’t remember much of the flight itself. I enter a contemplative state that does not leave time to be analytical or rational. I have to respond immediately to what I see. If I stopped to think about it the plane would already be in another place. At the same time, the sound and vibration of the engine and the flow of the wind over the aircraft work for me like a mantra and my eyes simply enjoy what comes. There have been times when we have landed, and I believe that I have taken lots of photos but find I have simply been looking through the lens, frozen in the moment.
Of course, there are some assignments that have very specific goals, and all my focus is on the task in hand. But most of the flights are quite unrestricted.
‘Pacificum Peru’ was a remarkable project. How did it begin.
The sea has always been a very important element for me. I grew up very close to the ocean and have been surfing since I was a child. But, it was not until I started flying over the coast of Lima that I became aware of the abundant marine fauna and the sheer diversity and richness in the Peruvian sea. What also became instantly recognisable when looking from above was the fragility of our marine ecosystems. In Lima, all the city’s drains empty into the sea without any prior treatment. Looking down I could see giant discoloured stains invading the beaches along the coastline. For me, who have ridden the waves since I was ten years old, it was a shock to realise that I had been literally surfing in my own waste. The three main rivers of Lima were banked with rubbish, their mouths clogged with garbage, chemicals, and plastic. The view was devastating.
[Left] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Aerial view of birds on San Gallán Island 2017 from the series ‘Pacificum Perú’
[Right] © Yuri Hooker Fan shell 2014 from the series ‘Pacificum Perú’
I got together with a historian called Henry Mitrani. He also loves the sea, and together we began to create the project ‘Pacificum: Return to the Ocean’. We wanted to combine three perspectives – from the air, from the land, and below the surface of the sea – to celebrate the beauty of the ocean, and all the wonderful species that we found within it. I have always thought that it is easier to reach the heart through art. Our intention was to make a popular scientific documentary that combines images and music in an artistic way. Something that would be of interest to both adults and children. Through it, we wanted to encourage more people to appreciate the sea, to love it as we do. It is a wonderful living ecology that gives us so much without seeking anything in return.
How did you go about it?
Henry and I started by writing down everything about the Pacific coast that seemed important to us and why. Several topics emerged from this that suggested the involvement of various scientists and oceanographers with whom we had exploratory discussions. That interdisciplinary approach proved very useful in understanding a subject as complex and wide reaching as the Pacific Ocean.
In the end, four specialists worked with us, each with a different area of knowledge: Yuri Hooker, a marine biologist and underwater photographer; Rodolfo Salas, a palaeontologist; José Canziani, a specialist in the pre-Hispanic coastal world; and Belén Alcorta, who studies humpback whales in northern Peru. The audio-visual artist Mariana Tschudi directed the documentary. I was to undertake the executive production and field production, direct the aerial photography, and oversee the distribution. For two years everyone worked on the project without pay while we looked for funding.
It took seven years to complete the documentary. In Peru there are many images and films about Machu Picchu or about the jungle, but almost nothing about the ocean. We wanted many people in Peru and beyond to see this film. So we approached private companies to sponsor the presentation of the film in public schools and community theatres and, with the help of the government, we were even able to show it in the most remote areas of the country. Finally, Netflix bought the global rights, and the soundtrack was translated into twelve languages for worldwide distribution.
[Left] © Evelyn Merino-Reyna Discovering the Pacificum Whale 2013 from the series ‘Pacificum Perú’
[Tight] © Yuri Hooker Anemone 2015 from the series ‘Pacificum Perú’
You made some remarkable discoveries during production…
Yes, there were several wonderful surprises. The palaeontologist Rodolfo Salas discovered a new species of cetacean from ten million years ago, and the biologist Yuri Hooker discovered a new species of tube anemone. We were also able to offer tools to the whale-watching team so that they could use one of the first drones in Peru. This allowed them to make a more complete record of the whales than had previously been possible from sea level.
What have you learned about yourself – or your sense of yourself in the world – in the process of making aerial photographs?
I have learned the importance of patience when waiting to be in the right place at the right time: to wait for the wind to lift the paraglider, to wait for the light to be exactly right… We cannot control nature. We must surrender to it, watch for the right conditions, and let the photographs speak for themselves.
And, in the seventeen years that I have been taking aerial photographs, I have become more passionate about the educational and conservation benefits of what I do. It is so satisfying to know that, as well as artistic value, my projects have a purpose for the common good.
Evelyn Merino-Reyna was born in Lima, Peru, in 1980. She studied painting at the Corriente Alterna School of Art and Design, Miraflores (1997–1990); interior design at the Toulouse Lautrec Institute of Design, Lima (1999–2002); architecture at SUPSI School of Architecture and Design, Lugano, Switzerland (2003); and undertook her private pilot training at the Professional Air Pilots’ School, Magdalena del Mar (2008–2009). She has exhibited extensively in Peru and also presented her work in France and Israel. Her monograph ‘Lima Más Arriba’ was published by Los Portales in 2014.
She has made a number of documentary films and, in 2017, won first prize at the Lima Film Festival for ‘Pacificum: Return to the Ocean’. In 2018, Evelyn Merino-Reyna was awarded the Medalla al Orden al Mérito de la Mujer [Medal of the Order of Merit for Women], the highest award given by the Peruvian State to a civilian woman in the fields of art, culture and education. She lives and works in Lima.
photo: Ricardo Wiesse
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.