Last year Argentinean photographer Alejandro Chaskielberg won the Sony World Photographer of the Year award, and was selected by Martin Parr for the Brighton Biennial. This year he’s collaborated with Oxfam – an even more impressive accolade.
Click images to enlarge.
Travelling to Turkana in North West Kenya, Chaskielberg took these pictures over a period of two years, now forming the basis of an exhibition at Southbank’s OXO Gallery created in support of GROW, a movement campaigning for ‘a world where everyone has enough to eat’. Turkana is one of the areas worst affected from drought and Oxfam has been helping its people to grow vegetable gardens as well as facilitating the fishing industry, livestock projects and wells to help irrigate the land. Then there’s this project, which you might call an editorial project, and you probably wouldn’t rank high in the needs of a charity. But as Chaskielberg rightly told us, “the idea is that the message reaches further as the images are seen by people who belong to a very different culture. Isn’t that the reason for this interview on i-D online?”
Far from many of the charity campaign images our minds have rightfully or wrongfully become accustomed to, Chaskielberg’s moonlight pictures are about strength. They don’t ignore the fact that these are communities surviving in the poorest parts of the third world amidst famine, but they do concentrate more on what The Turkana are doing as opposed to what is being done to them. Pity really isn’t the point. There is strength in their expressions, strength in numbers and pride of profession. Chaskielberg also gives us strength in colour, presenting the richness of the nature that surrounds Turkana, and the colour of a culture. Londoners might insist on insignificant shades of black and blue, but Kenyans more often favour oranges, yellows, reds and eye-popping prints and jewellery. By paying attention to this, the people in the pictures come to life. Well, see for yourself.
How did you develop your moonlight technique? It happened during different trips with friends when I started taking pictures at night with a small digital camera. I became captivated by the idea of controlling the light and creating images that were in between the day and the night; that’s the origin of my Nocturama series. I think the combination of artificial and natural light is the most exquisite.
The pictures in this series are mostly of communities, there’s a real solidarity to them, what kind of communities did you encounter during your travels? There is a very strong sense of community in Turkana. There are many needs to meet, and grouping in a community is a way to survive. When you travel around Turkana, you discover small villages in the middle of a great desert. Each village has its chief and rules to achieve what they need, it’s impressive.
Was there any one particular person you photographed who touched you more than the others? Yes. One day we arrived in a village next to Lodwar, the capital of the Turkana province. We talked to the community and agreed with them that we would come back to take pictures at night. A seven-year-old boy was fascinated with our van, and wanted to get on, but Oxfam’s rules don’t allow us to take anyone with us in the van. We went somewhere else 4 km away. One hour later the boy arrived. He had come behind us through the desert. He was barefoot and was carrying with him a small toy car made of wire. He started playing with it whilst I was taking photos and I was really moved.
The pictures are set amongst the elements – sleeping under the stars, boats in the sea – how do you see nature within the context of your pictures? It’s true that in my pictures I focus on elements and tangible things like boats, houses and professions, like pastoralists, fishermen, etc. I see nature as something unmanageable and immense, and it’s what completes the image. I think nature adds a touch of chance and chaos to my images.
I was once asked in an interview ‘Is war beautiful?’, and didn’t know how to answer. I remembered that question looking at your pictures. They are beautiful pictures, but they also document third world famine, how do you achieve the right tone? That was the main challenge of this project. It is difficult to ‘achieve the right tone’ when you are doing something new. I discussed this a lot with Oxfam. I would like to break the idea that a beautiful picture of an extreme situation like famine would detract from its message or documentary value. As an artist, you choose what part of the reality you capture and translate it into an image. The idea is that the message reaches further as the images are seen by people who belong to a very different culture. Isn’t that the reason for this interview on i-D online?
What are you working on next? I’m preparing two exhibitions for this year, one in Tokyo and the other one in Buenos Aires. I’m also planning a road trip for the end of the year through America, starting from Argentina. It’s a real challenge because I will be travelling with my soon to be born daughter, and I guess the approach of my work will be more intimate. The idea is to carry on experimenting with several ways of achieving colour in a picture.
Alejandro Chaskielberg for Oxfam runs at Southbank’s OXO Gallery from 18-22 April, and admission is free to the public.
Text: Sarah Raphael