Here’s an exclusive interview with Viviana Peretti for Photoion Photography School. Viviana is a documentary photographer living between New York (USA) and Bogota (Colombia). Her work has been published in many international media such as CNN, New York Times, BBC etc. She is the winner of the category ‘Arts and Culture’ in the ‘2014 Sony World Photography Awards’.
Viviana is coming from the tradition of film photography but has been increasingly using her mobile phone to create stunning images.
PPS: Hi Viviana, why photography?
V.: Probably because I am a very bad singer!! Kidding. I guess because I am a shy person, I don’t like to talk too much and I always saw photography as a way to talk a more intense and articulate international language.
Many years ago I was in Salamanca, Spain, for an Erasmus. I went to see an exhibition by Sebastiao Salgado about the drought in the African region of Sahel. I left the exhibition with a great sense of desperation but also with a new purpose in life: being a photographer, someone that can speak such powerful language. It took me two extra years after the exhibition to join the magical universe of photography and that happened in Colombia in 2000. I got a scholarship for a PhD in Anthropology and I had the good fortune to start a photography class with Magdalena Agüero, an amazing photographer and teacher that saw something in my images that was unclear to me, and pushed me to explore my hidden desire to be a photographer. She was talking about a great sense of light and composition, together with an incredible ability to capture daily life on the streets of Bogota. Since then, I have not stopped taking pictures. Obviously it is my job, but it is also what and who I am as a human being. Being a photographer it is just my way to be in the world.
PPS: What is a photographer?
V.: I guess a photographer is someone that has something to say and his microphone is his camera. In my case, I am just someone that goes around and tries to say something by trying to frame our daily life in a different way. In my case, it is a very personal journey done with the company of an apparently very silent device. I think a photographer may have many roles: he/she can be someone that denounces things, that shows/illustrates things, that represents things. I love photography that rather than show, illustrate or represent things, is able to evoke them.
PPS: What’s your best advice to somebody that wants to become a photographer today?
V.: To work, work, and work. In this profession there are no shortcuts. It is a daily commitment and the only way to develop a personal vision and be able to frame the world in a different way from what other photographers do, is by working every day and learning to see.
PPS: Can you talk about your project “Babel, the Urge to Pray”?
V.: Before I came to New York, I expected to find a secular and consumer-driven city. I was really surprised by the rich, diverse, intense religious life present in each neighborhood and the complex and sometimes complicated implications these different belief systems have for how people live their lives. The number of temples is overwhelming, but so is the media’s indifference to this aspect of the city, as is their consistent tendency to sell the world the most glamour-focused, profane vision of New York. My encounter with the congregants at the Redeemer Christian Church and the lack of representation of spiritual life in the media began to form into an idea which has developed into ‘Babel, the Urge to Pray’, a photographic exploration of religious celebrations in the urban area that took me more than three years to complete. New York City is not just a multi ethnic, dynamic, composite metropolis but also a ‘Babel’ full of enclaves, mainly faith based, where spirituality represents an element of unity for people that, whether they migrated here fairly recently or many generations ago, still belong to very separate social, linguistic and religious groups. For many people in New York, religion represents a source of community and intimacy with their fellows and at the same time an element of separation from the rest of the world that doesn’t share their beliefs.
PPS: What are you working on at the moment? (what are you doing in Colombia? Any projects?)
V: I travelled to Colombia to teach some workshops in different regions of the country while I am working on a couple of new series and I am producing the layout of a book about Colombian cemeteries. A project I did years ago by travelling all around Colombia and photographing the cemeteries as a metaphor of the country.
PPS: Why did you decide to use more and more your mobile phone for your professional work?
V: I love the look of color photographs shot with the Iphone and I like the square format a lot. So, when I am not using my Holga to shot BW square analogue photographs, I really enjoy using my phone. There is a growing market for Iphone pictures and I think is important and worth to explore it.
PPS: Would you read us a page of your diary?
V: I don’t keep a diary; but I will try.
Friday, May 23, 2014.
Dear diary, it is midnight and I just got home after almost 15 hours spent photographing displaced people in Plaza de Bolívar, the main square in Bogota, Colombia.
For the last week I have accompanied a group of over 400 displaced people that, from May 1st, have occupied the square with the hope to finally see their rights recognized and get an honest economic compensation from the State for the damage that the paramilitaries, the guerrillas and even the national army have done to them.
I am exhausted.
Today they left the square after getting almost nothing, a lot of promises that had the only aim to push them outside the square where on
Sunday many Colombians will go to the polls to elect the next President of the Republic.
I am not only physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally exhausted. I am tired to see how things don’t work in this country, how poor people keep being exploited and abused by the Government and the different mafias that dominate the country and its political/social system.
As I told you many times, Colombia is a country where, as an Italian writer used to say referring to Sicily, ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Colombia is like that, an immovable country where few little changes eventually happen in order to keep everything in the same way: forever still.
I think the Colombian media deserves a special note. They covered the protest in a very voyeuristic, unprofessional and instrumental way, showing one more time (if it were needed) that in this country the press is not free or, better said, doesn’t exist. At least, not the press as we know it.
It was really emotional to see how many people at the end of the protest and before leaving the square, came to hug me and thank me for my work. I guess it is the first time that it has happened and in some way these kinds of manifestations reassure me in the meaning of what I do as a photographer and who I am and what I believe as a human being.
Hasta mañana!! Vivi
PPS: What do you see in your future?
V: Honestly, I don’t know. I love the sea and my dream is to live in a small city by the sea. I don’t enjoy life in big cities, but I really like to walk around them without a specific purpose in mind and photograph how humans act, and sometimes interact, in different urban jungles. I want to keep photographing diverse urban labyrinths around the world and I hope the next cities that I explore will overlook the sea.
PPS: Does the sea have any symbolic meaning to you?
V: I am not sure about it. The sea has an incredible power over me, a relaxing power like no other. With its eternal and senseless come and go; its immensity; its being above and indifferent to human misery.
PPS: Thanks Viviana for sharing your story with us!
People and drag queens dance at Leo’s, a gay bar in Bogota, few minutes before the beginning of the National Bambuco Gay Pageant 2013. In this contest, several drag queens wear traditional Colombian clothes and dance the ‘bambuco’, a regional, folkloric, ‘religious related’ dance of the Andes, characterized by the elegance of its movements and precious dresses. Generally, couples dance the ‘bambuco’ and men lead women, but at the National Bambuco Gay Pageant women are drag queens. Bogota, July 19, 2013.
(© Viviana Peretti, Italy, 1st place, Arts & Culture, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards).