“But still, the cleaners keep chucking stuff away (cussed working-class critics of modern art who are the last bastions of criticism)”
“Back in 2010 we were staying in Choroni, a beautiful town in the coast of Venezuela, it was around 8pm and we were getting ready to go out for dinner, I was laying on the bed, chilling, had my Hasselblad on my hands and there was some random commercial playing on the tv. I noticed the lighting and contrast between the lamp and the tv and decided to take one photo, just for the sake of it, you know, another wasted frame, who cares… As soon as I pressed the shutter I had a very weird feeling, a bit scary, I though I have seen something like a face or a ghost on the television, it was so fast that I was not sure I have seen it or it was just my mind playing games… Anyway I waited (even forgot about it) for the processing of the film, a few months later, I was surprised when I saw the negative. So what if someone asks me if I believe in ghosts? Or what about photography’s ability to capture the supernatural? Well, not easy to answer anymore…”
Pablo Allison – I sense a very honest and tender look to the portraits. Can you give me a brief insight about your motivation to conduct this project and also, which countries did you visit while producing the work?
Carlos Saladén-Vargas Thank you. The main motivation behind these images is the way ‘third world’ cultures are represented in mainstream western media, as ‘others’. These ‘others’ are people shown as primitive and miserable, with corrupt governments and starving societies, in short, in need of help. I understand that this is a very hard agenda to tackle but I thought of going back to basics, to start by pointing at the people from these cultures. I really don’t see this exercise as a particular view of South America. I think I wanted to use South America as example so other ‘third world’ cultures ( like African, Indian ) could see themselves in my work, talking to a bigger audience
I only visited two countries, Colombia and Venezuela, I travelled by road and I intentionally focused on people living in the countryside rather than cities. I am happy that you use words like honest and tender to describe the images. I wanted to use a very basic approach, a bit typological but also very relaxed, I only shot one frame per subject, I believe this one-shot approach translated into a very respectful dynamic between them and myself.
PA– Although the present situation in Latin American countries is of a lot of social unrest, violence, drug issues among many other problems, there are also many positive aspects that seem to be disregarded. For instance, I have noticed many photo-essays focusing on gang culture, poverty, corruption and the list goes on. Could you give me your take on this insatiable appetite for photojournalists or documentary photographers to disregard the positive elements that Latin America is also built of ?
CS-V-Yes but we have to see the bigger picture, it is about ‘photojournalism’ and ‘documentary ‘ being used to create products that can be sold and marketed through mainstream channels, you cannot sell a pink elephant by showing a photo of a blue one, can you?
PA– I understand that this series of portraits attempt to break with stereotypes in terms of culture and representation of subjects ( identity ), can you explain a bit more about why it is important for you to re- construct Latin American identity today ?
CS-V– I don’t like to use the word ‘identity’, I feel it’s a term loosely overused to the point that it has become a cliché, I rather say it is important to re-construct representation, and not only for Latin America but also for the ‘first world’, representation today is utterly divorced from everyday life and the people. It seems that mainstream representation speaks ( in first person ) only to a few.
PA– You incorporate elements that have been building the ‘democratic’ society in Latin American countries today. From a policeman, family members, workers and the military force among other aspects. How do you believe that the rest of the World, specifically ‘industrialized societies’ perceive Latin America?
CS-V– Good question, I’m not sure how they perceive Latin America, as it really depends who you ask, I have met many people that get thrilled about Latin America and come with joyful memories from when they lived over there, they were always on business assignments or consulting for multinational companies so those guys really had a great time I suppose… now if we think about ordinary people, then we have to consider that their perception can only be that which is constructed and strengthened through mainstream imagery and responds to certain interests.
PA– My first reaction when analyzing the images was of a slight confusion. I initially thought that the images were about Latin Americans living in the USA. Later I discovered that the project was about people living in Latin American countries. From an aesthetic angle, which was your strategy when choosing the elements you wanted to depict in the project and what you thought was irrelevant and out of context?
CS-V– Really? What a surprise, maybe it was because the first image you saw was of a police man wearing some kind of texan hat? I think it was just a very opportune ( or unfortunate?) coincidence. I decided to photograph certain people: people that I particularly find excluded from the realm of representation. Aesthetically I wanted to play with the idea of using the landscape and surroundings as a secondary but very important layer, they don’t shout-out-loud ‘hey look! we are in the third world! ‘ at least not in the way that you are used to see in mainstream imagery. If you look closely you realise that this secondary layer anchors the images in a very special way
PA– I see that you focused the project on portraits rather than on the topography of the space. Why do you think it was more important to photograph people rather than the landscapes?
CS-V– I wouldn’t say it is more important to photograph people over landscape. They are equally relevant to the point that they are connected.
PA– Have you received the responses you aimed to hear from audiences when presenting the work at exhibitions?
CS-V– Well, this is a very difficult question, I really don’t know the answer… What is that phrase I’ve heard before? If I managed to touch just one soul, then it was well worth it… or something like that.
PA– Will you be going further with the work, traveling to other Latin American countries?
CS-V– Yes definitely, I’de love to, but I think I might have to leave that for sometime in the future, at the moment I am concentrating in developing my work using what I have around me…
The banks, whose relentless greed and pursuit of profit caused this crisis, having been bailed out by the taxpayer are back on track again; bonuses two or three times your salary are returning and the swagger of the City is evident once more. Perhaps worst of all, as Will Hutton has argued, the opportunity to remind our banks that they serve the economy, rather than the other way around, has been lost. In short, Capital has won.
In George Orwell’s 1984 the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, struggles to endure a regime that controls almost every aspect of his life as Big Brother’s reach consumes politics, economics and society. Winston, where possible, retaliates quietly, enjoying the small pleasures of his troubled existence; a walk in the park, hearing bird song, or feeling the sun’s rays on his face. So oppressive is Big Brother’s regime that the last refuge of Winston’s freedom becomes his memory of these simple pleasures. And of course, while Britain in 2010 is very different to Orwell’s dystopian vision 1984, there are similarities; the might of power, whether economic or political, is felt by workers across the nation.
Carlos Saladén-Vargas’ portraits of workers enjoying the simple pleasure of a cigarette break obscure and mask the misery of power that bears down on them. They may look ‘cool’ and might appear to be performing for the camera but this is not the case as these portraits are collaborative; the photographer gives no direction but also refuses to take photographs when the subject performs the way they feel a smoker should. The smoker self- represents, the photographer merely edits and interprets. If photography is a sin then is it sins of omission or commission that Carlos commits here?
Like Winston Smith, these smokers take pleasure in the small and simple; smoking is a reason to live again, a few minutes of escape from the mundane. The psychological pressure of work is lifted, frustrations are released, the alienation dissipates, the body relaxes and, if only for a short while, the smoker is reminded they are human after all… until they have to wind themselves up again and take up their role in society once again.
Like Diane Arbus, who pre-empted the 1970s, a decade that was consistently out of sorts with itself politically, socially and economically, or Cindy Sherman, whose work came to personify the fluidity of identity that was characteristic of the postmodern a few years later, Carlos Saladén-Vargas’ work is also of its time. It references Arbus and Sherman politically, the action of smoking photographed here symbolises the pressure of capital on the workforce, but also aesthetically, the film stock is old and is in black and white, so there’s no doubt that you’re looking at anything but a photograph.
And it’s because of this that we shouldn’t see individual portraits, we should see these images collectively, Saladen-Vargas’ vision of the debilitating nature of work under the renewed dominance of Capital. As Orwell himself wrote “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”