Beauty from Poverty, photography by Alejandro Chaskielberg

Scan144Challenging the boundaries of documentary photography, Argentinean photographer Alejandro Chaskielberg’s exhibition La Creciente brings a new dimension to the 2015 Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

With a lengthy curriculum vitæ as a photojournalist and TV director, this graduate of Argentina’s National Film and Audiovisual Art Institute has an extensive exhibition record since 2006.  Previous shows in Buenos Aires, Brighton UK, Paraguay, New York, London, Tokyo, Boston, Barcelona, Washington DC, Beijing and California this first time exhibit in Australia is long overdue.

Chaskelberg has been criticized as having taken photographs that are too beautiful when documenting marginalized people. His series on the peoples of the Turkana region in Kenya commissioned by the British aid organization Oxfam, received this criticism.  Having been asked to produce documentation representing the effects that the East Africa drought was having and to raise awareness on behalf of Oxfam, Chaskielberg used his now familiar technique of shooting by moonlight, using whatever light was to hand.

When interviewed by the BBC about this series, Chaskielberg responded thus – “I would like to break with the idea that a beautiful picture of a hurtful situation detracts from its message or documentary value.  My intention is to highlight a hopeful vision of the present, showing people’s strength and to inspire the viewer that a change is possible”.

The crux of this argument is whether there can be beauty in poverty.  If you equate pride, whilst suffering from a crushing poverty, then Chaskielberg has given the viewer a powerful image from which to construct an opinion.

In the image that the Biennale has been using for promotional purposes with a boat containing young people is shown moving rapidly towards the camera, the participants showing a disinterest in the camera and looking beyond into the distance.  This image becomes a contemporary tableau more akin to the Victorian morality images of the style of Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s 1857 Two Ways of Life or Henry Peach Robinson’s 1858 Fading Away.  Created without the aid of Photoshop, these mawkish and heavily constructed photographs were easily read by the Victorian era viewers. In contrast Chaskielberg’s images today require a more intense reading by the viewing public.

La Creciente means High Tide and refers to the people living on and around the Paraná River Delta in Argentina. Traveling over 2500 km through subtropical Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina the river becomes a huge delta near Buenos Aires city.  The river tides control the lives of the inhabitants whose livelihoods are mostly tree felling, fishing or fruit growing. The only connection with the outside world is via the river. Hence water based activity is strongly evident in this exhibition.

As opposed to the more traditional documentary photographic approaches of previous Biennale exhibitors of the ilk of New Zealand’s Doc Ross and Melbourne based Michael Coyne, Chaskielberg’s reportage works with constructed tableau as much as recorded photographic fact.  He lived amongst his estuary-based subjects for three years and is quoted as saying “I think of my pictures as slides of unfinished stories, having a script in my head”.  The images are only created after days of observation and interaction with his subjects.

Using a large format camera (5×4” Sinar Norma) with long exposures running into minutes and lit by whatever light is available. Moonlight, flash, torch, lamps and fire are often all utilized in the one exposure.  Noted British photographic artist Martin Parr has noted Chaskielberg’s ability to “combine subject and methodology so convincingly that you hardly notice the thin line between subject and style. It is a brilliant resolution”.

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Mr Ramon; © Alejandra Chaskielberg, Argentina.

The intensity of the gaze of the timber gatherer bringing a raft load of bamboo to a market is a stand out image.  The dynamic tension created by the tilted horizon line and the directness of the flash on his face mimics the moon (sun?) rise in the background.  The vignette brings the viewer’s eyes clearly to the centre of interest where we find a subject who is world weary but handsomely proud and almost regal in demeanor. Chaskielberg has the documentary photographer’s skill of hunting down his targets but then befriending them in a way that enables him to almost take fly on the wall photographs.  The technique behind his photography is anything but that, but the final result seems to exclude the photographer from the equation.  A rare skill.

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Otter Hunter; © Alejandra Chaskielberg, Argentina.

The closest Chaskielberg comes to conventional documentary photography is with his portrait of the otter hunter sitting in his poplar log hut.  Every element of his lifestyle is laid out for the viewer to observe, not in a voyeuristic manner, but more in a simple telling of a story that is endorsed by the subject and makes no statement about good nor evil, poverty nor riches, haves versus have-nots.  The viewer must come to their own conclusions.

With an introduction by Martin Parr, La Creciente has been published by the noted photographic Nazraeli Press and was selected as one of the Best Books of 2011.

The portfolio is colour rich, seething with movement and energy, documenting a proud and hard working group of people; and all done with a sympathetic and gentle touch that only a skilled and expert photographer can bring through his craft.

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