Exploring the Barrios of Palermo, Villa Crespo, Recoleta and Chacarita
In 2017 I had the chance of a lifetime to explore the neighborhoods or barrios of Buenos Aires for 3 months, while living in Palermo and Villa Crespo. The freedom to go out everyday and practice with my Fujifilm X-T10 helped grow my confidence in composing shots on the fly. Here I'll share my lengthy experience exploring the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and practicing street photography for the first time.
Is This Real Life?
It had been a long time in the making for Zoë, but we had only recently met, and fallen in love, when she learned she had received a Rotary International scholarship. I remember her nerves when she first brought it up, before it had been granted.
She didn't know how it would go for us, given that it would send her to South America for 3 months, twice. I assured her I would be joining her. I am lucky to work for ReVision Energy, an employee-owned, B Corp solar energy company in New England, and they are supportive of their employees leading full lives. They approved my leave of absence and the game was on.
We left icy Maine in late January, dropping into steamy summer in the city of Buenos Aires (Bs As, as the cool kids say). We had a week to explore before I started Spanish language studies with Academia Buenos Aires - mostly we figured out where to withdraw money, where to find groceries, and how to navigate the subway, but we also had plenty of time to run through huge neighboring parks and swim in our building's pool. The 3 months ahead of us felt endless.
Turn Me Loose
I was soon roaming block after block of Palermo (where Borges lived and wrote), experimenting with street photography. Language schooling went for three weeks, and was rigorous, but afterward I was completely untethered from having to show up anywhere. I realize how rare a thing that is.
I have been pushing myself to get better at photography for a few years now, developing my eye and technique, but time to really immerse into a practice is usually scarce. Here was a chance to shoot until I was exhausted, to dig into a new culture and explore one of the famous cities of the world. I had been dreaming about this prospect for months.
Everyone should exercise their own degree of caution, but I will first say that I never felt unsafe while walking Buenos Aires with my camera, often off the beaten path. The core barrios are a little rough in areas, but I never sensed the type of desperation that could lead to a mugging. Just check your surroundings and be conscious of other people, but not to a paranoid extent. Never, however, leave your camera unguarded at a cafe, for instance, because I have no doubt that non-violent crimes of opportunity could happen in nice places - especially Palermo Soho, where wealth is on parade.
Also in my favor: the mirrorless Fujifilm X-T10 I carried is small and reminiscent of film SLRs from decades ago, and so on that level I felt comforted that my gear did not shout, "DIGITAL! EXPENSIVE!" As well, at 6'2" I am not a small man, either, so I'm aware that I also experience a certain privilege of physical wherewithal. Nonetheless, I had 3-4 different people across the city tap my elbow to express concern for my camera. I thanked them and assured them I would be careful, but privately it never matched up with my intuitive sense of safety. Like I said, the core neighborhoods are not desperate places, especially during daylight hours, and even big city Argentines are often remarkably genteel people.
I did not explore La Boca. It has huge appeal, and you may be very interested in seeing it, so just know that it is widely advised to stick to the beaten path there. Probably wise to join a tour group, even.
A Little Background
Northern New England and its difficult moods have contributed a lot to my interest in photography. After a substantial stint in Vermont, there was Downeast Maine over the fall and winter of 2013, where, from the deck of a Dutch mussel boat in the Mt. Desert Narrows, I captured brilliant skies, and scenes of austerity and silence that felt otherworldly to me.
In 2014 I moved down the coast to Portland, a fortified harbor town that still has the hardscrabble community and salty, weathered aura of an early colonial city, I imagine. I kept seeking scenes possessing what I could only describe as "magical realism," having some hint of energy from elsewhere.
Don't Sweat the Technique
Hunkering down and photographing New England in this way without any major trips elsewhere for a couple of years made me feel like I had a particular style that would carry over wherever I went. It turns out that shooting in new places requires me to redefine my awareness and style, and that's alright because I'm finding that the observation involved is something I'm pretty good at.
In Argentina, I had nearly 100 days to explore, immerse, and absorb. Cumulatively this was as much time as I'd ever shot anything anywhere, and it wasn't long before a new style started coming through. But it wasn't until I went inside Cementerio de la Chacarita, or Chacarita Cemetery, during the second half of our trip, that I realized what was missing from my work: a project... but hold that thought!
I roamed the neighborhoods for a month or so before I found Chacarita Cemetery - I was always searching for old facades, tree-lined streets, funky cars and stylish Argentines to photograph. There's no shortage, and I feel confident saying Buenos Aires must be one of the coolest cities to practice in. There's such a juxtaposition of style and decay, Old world and New.
If I could have more time to photograph Buenos Aires' streets again, I would push myself to seek more photos of Porteñas, the women of Buenos Aires. I can remember sweet pairs of elderly mothers and grown daughters walking arm in arm, or young women enamored with enormous, studded platform sandals that boosted their height, and I wish I had a photo that captured it.
I suppose it was shyness, in part, that kept me from aiming my camera at the women of Buenos Aires, and in a way I was overly sensitive to the idea of how some women might be uncomfortable with a stranger snapping shots of them. There's nothing wrong with respect, but I need to get past my shyness, or the thought that people are largely against having their photo taken.
There was one occasion when Zoë was with me that we asked a pair of nuns for their portrait. They reluctantly obliged, and smiled, and then requested that the photo never be published! It is too good to not share it, someday, perhaps.
I'm practicing approaching people for portraits a lot more nowadays, and often they're happy to oblige, and are maybe even flattered. If they don't want to, they just say, "No," and life goes on! After the portrait, I feel like I should offer a copy to the individual, to make it worth their while, but I usually don't act on that feeling. How do the other photographers reading this approach that situation?
The Gates of Chacarita
All of that exploring led to my first significant project as an emerging professional photographer. We had seen an immense cemetery on the map, close to our upcoming neighborhood, Villa Crespo, and thought about doing long runs around it, since we were leaving Palermo and the traffic-free parks nearby.
I love graveyards (cemeteries, dolmens, sarcophagi, etc.) so one evening just before we moved apartments, I went far out to go have a look at the cemetery. After a lengthy walk past boutiques and kioskos, across train tracks and thoroughfares, I approached a quiet corner of a massive wall as the sun moved behind it. "CEMENTERIO DEL OESTE" is engraved above a large gate, and through it I saw golden streets of mausoleums.
Still In Awe
I was fairly stupefied by the size of the wall. I followed a silent, tree-lined span of it to eventually find a central front gate. The hours were 7 am - 5 pm. I couldn't wait to tell Zoë. I had a feeling this was where I needed to look, but I still didn't have any idea what really waited in there.
I'll tell that story, soon, but suffice it to say, this was my first project, and the first time it felt necessary to put words with my work.
I've yet to write an artist's statement but I'm beginning to see how helpful in can be in attracting an audience. Lately I'm noticing that having a better idea about what I like to shoot has made me better at describing what I'm looking for. I feel that as I get better at creating images, and honing my expression, the seemingly distant notions of having my work valued as art or being sought for hire will begin to happen naturally in recognition. So, make work, share ideas, and maybe someone will dig it.
What say ye?