Translation by Ellen Donnison
Misha Vallejo was born in 1985 in Riobamba, Ecuador. In 2014 he completed his Masters in Documentary Photography at the University of Arts in London. In 2010 he finished his work at the Faculty of Photojournalism at Saint Petersburg, Russia. Since then he has worked as an independent photographer and in 2012, became a member of the documentary photography collective, Runa Photos. His work has been published in various countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Holland, Germany, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile.
Of his most recent exhibitions, some of the most significant include: Consider This, exhibited at the London College of Communication; Miradas Íntimas (Intimate Glances, shown at the Gallery of Current Art in Quito, 2014; 24 Horas (24 Hours) at the Asociación Humboldt (Humboldt Association) in Quito, 2012, and Gente Inexistente (Non-existent People) at the contemporary art gallery, The Loft Project ETAGI in Saint Petersburg, in 2011. His work has also been exhibited at international art festivals in Russia, the United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey, Lithuania and Colombia.
Vallejo was awarded the Sonimagfoto grant from the Department of Postgraduate Photojournalism at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona in 2013. He has also received honourable mentions in several international competitions: The Other Hundred Entrepreneurs (2014), FotoVisura (2010 and 2013) and Exposure (2011), among others. In 2014 he was a candidate at the Joop Swart Masterclass organised by the World Press Photo Organisation. Vallejo now currently lives between Quito and London.
Ventana Latina: How did you become a photographer?
Misha Vallejo: Photography became part of my life, literally and figuratively, after taking a trip. When I finished college I decided to go Russia for a couple of reasons: to learn about my roots, as my mother is Russian, and also to study. However my main objective was to understand why I am who I am. I wanted to record my experiences in some way but writing them down or drawing them just didn’t convey them for me, despite having studied graphic design. I decided to get myself a camera and tried recording my experiences this way. Shortly after, I fell in love with the process of looking and photographing. I saved up so I could buy my first proper camera, and in 2008 I began studying at Saint Petersburg’s Faculty of Photojournalism. I haven’t looked back since, and recently finished my Masters in documentary photography a month ago at the London College of Communication.
VL: What is the Ecuadorian Photography scene like?
MV: The photography scene in Ecuador is currently very good and is progressing in leaps and bounds. There are various talented photographers who have received important international recognition, for example Pablo Corral Vega, César Morejón and Karla Gachet. Also several photographic collectives have been created such as Paradocs and Runa Photos, the latter to which I belong, together with Karla Gachet and Ivan Kashinsky. Furthermore there are currently many young photographers new on the scene who are producing really great work. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in the near future, Ecuadorian photography is more widely talked about, although there is always room to grow and learn.
VL: What is the most transcendental experience you have had with photography?
MV: I have had many interesting experiences with photography. Like Diane Arbus once said, ‘the camera is the passport to other people’s lives’. It’s this precisely, which is the most gratifying: to get to know other people and places that you wouldn’t have known any other way. Sometimes I think that photography is only an excuse for me to find different realities to my own, and a way to leave my comfort zone. A transcendental experience occurred while I was working on my last project, Al Otro Lado. During this project I documented the life of a rural population living on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border. On the second day a woman invited me to her house and told me about the assassination of her son a year ago, which occurred on the Colombian side of the border. I barely knew her but she obviously needed to talk to someone. As she told me this, she began to cry and I couldn’t understand how a person could tell something so tragic to another person that they barely know. I listened attentively and when I finally plucked up the courage to grab my camera I felt my hands tremble. I looked at her and she gave me a signal with her eyes telling me I had her permission to take a photo. I pressed the shutter twice but I didn’t want to take any more so I put my camera down and just continued to listen.
VL: Tell us about your latest work, Al Otro Lado.
MV: Al Otro Lado is a project centred on daily life in Puerto Nuevo, a town on the Ecuadorian side of the Ecuadorian-Colombian border in the Amazon Basin. Colombians who were driven out by violence from the south of their country founded this town. Here around 500 people live with limited access to health care, education and basic services. It is a population forgotten by the governments of both countries, whose biggest problem is poverty. This isn’t the only population with similar problems; the situation is similar all along the border.
As I mentioned previously, I am interested in people, in portraying them from a more intimate angle, closer and more subjective. I am not interested in sensationalist or mournful photography, I am interested in human lives and the strength that these people have which allows them to overcome their circumstances. I am interested in highlighting the beauty I encounter on each photographic journey, using it to engage the spectator. I am interested in surrealism, or better yet, the magic realism of this troubled zone. I am interested in telling a story, but not from a banal or simplistic perspective. It is because of this that, in addition to photographing and interviewing some of these settlers, I decided to compile, in the form of facsimiles, vernacular photographs of the people from the town and some of their personal objects and documents. All of this material was the basis for a mock-up of a book, which I presented as part of my final project for my Masters. The principal concept of this book was to tell a complete story through the use of photographs and other visual materials. Therefore I experimented by using a type of literary narrative technique in this photo-book. The project was also exhibited during the group exhibition, Consider This, which was held at the London College of Communication in January.
VL: What inspires you about Latin America?
MV: What inspires me are its people, above all the humble people from distant and forgotten villages. I am inspired by their approach to life, their way of smiling through adversity, no matter how banal that sounds. I am inspired by the way that, despite having little, they manage to make beautiful things with what they do have, in order to ease their suffering, for example, painting their wooden houses with brilliant colours, adorning their walls with beautiful objects, dressing in colourful clothing, amidst situations tinted by grey. I’m inspired by their ability to fight against a destiny that is often unjust.
I’m also inspired by the inconsistencies of the situations they face on a daily basis. I’m inspired by the impossible situations that occur constantly beneath the beating sun. I’m fascinated by this continent’s magic realism, and therefore it doesn’t surprise me that this movement has developed so rapidly in Latin America, despite having originally come from Europe.
VL: How did the project Yachacs come about?
MV: The Yachacs project evolved out of an eagerness to photograph something fairly un-photographable: magic and spirits. This project documents ‘la limpia’, a tradition among indigenous priests from the north of Ecuador, in a very subjective way. The project tries to highlight the syncretism between the Catholic religion and ancestral traditions, and how they have been modified within contemporary society. It is also a narrative experiment whose main product is shown through multimedia, which can be viewed by clicking here.
This is how I show the majority of these personal series and this one is no exception. I try not to explain anything too obvious to the viewer so that they can draw their own conclusions. I also try to integrate the viewer within the realities I show through photography.
VL: What was it like working as a photographer in Russia?
MV: Russia is a demanding country. Not only physically in terms of overcoming its cold climate and lack of light during winter, but also psychologically. To understand another mentality, especially one so different to that of Latin America, was very challenging. I travelled to Russia to discover my origins and there I found photography. I fell in love with it during my university studies in graphic design and I began to study a course in photojournalism, which lasted two years. Since then, which was 2010, I have dedicated myself to freelance photography, making commercial work to sustain myself whilst producing documentary projects that tell stories in a visual form. Additionally, many Russian photographers, such as Maximishin, Pinkhasov and Gronsky, have had a huge influence on my visual language, above all the handling of light and subjects. Russia was my school of photography, a very difficult and demanding school.
VL: Your project, 24 Horas, is pretty different from your other work. How did this nocturnal and much more deliberate focus come about?
MV: 24 Horas (Round the Clock) arose from the need to distance myself from a more classical type of documentary photography. When I began to work on this project I was also working on the series, Gente Inexistente (Non-existent People). This last work was about young, homeless people in Saint Petersburg, which was very psychologically demanding. It really affected me and during that time I questioned the work that we as photographers make in general. I realised how egoistical it could be to enter the world of these young men, the same age as me, take photos of them and then leave. It was a breaking point for me. This was when I decided to meditate and distance myself from people, as I wanted to fall in love with photography again. I decided to go out and photograph during the night-time. By doing this I did not bump into anyone and I had time to think on my own. Due to this particular window of time, all of the photographs were taken between 12pm and 6am. The theme I chose was to photograph local commercial stores that open 24 hours a day despite having barely any customers at night. I was particularly interested to take these photos due to something I heard my father say about how Russia had exchanged the best things about socialism with the worst things about capitalism. I decided to capture the worst things with one of the best: taking photos of these local places with a Soviet camera (Lomo Lubitel). My aim was to distance myself from the people, which had an unexpected effect: instead of being a taxonomy of local shops, it is a series of portraits of these establishments.
VL: What do you identify with most, photography or multimedia?
MV: I most identify with still photography, even though I have experimented with multimedia, which I really enjoyed. Furthermore, the projects I have produced in this way have been fairly successful. In the near future I think I will get more involved with using multimedia and video but I will never leave the practice of still photography.
VL: What represents a good photo for you?
MV: That’s the million-dollar question. A good photo, in addition to having a good use of light and composition, has to move me in some way. I give a lot of importance to an image’s aesthetic, but for me, the most important of all is the meaning that the image represents. For me, a good photo tells a story, is not literal and makes me question what I am seeing. It doesn’t hand me all of its information on a platter but invites me to interpret and question what I see. A good photo is dialogue in the place of speech, an adjective instead of a verb. A good photo is difficult to achieve but to do so is almost orgasmic.
To view more of Misha Vallejo’s work, click here.
To see more of his work from the photography collective, Runa Photos, click here.