WILL BYERS | Photography | Portland, Maine

Blog

Will Byers is a photographer and writer based in Portland, Maine. Here is a growing record of as many far-flung things as he can manage to put accurately and articulately. Music videos. Sweet links.

Posts tagged Chacarita Cemetery
Gaining Recognition

Building the CV

I'm happy to share that I was selected to be one of 55 photographers featured in Bloom Publishing's upcoming book, OPEN.

The photo they chose is from my Cementerio de la Chacarita series, and is possibly one of the best images, if not luckiest, I have ever created.

I've told the larger story about Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires, but it is such an interesting place that each photo offers its own story. This is especially true with the photo chosen for OPEN.

Chacarita Cemetery is sprawling, with many sections, eras and styles to explore. In the heart of it all there is a chapel and a space for funerals to gather.

I approached the area looking for a restroom, having wandered the grounds for a couple of hours. It was hot, so I circled the shady edges of the buildings and peeked into open doorways.

The first large room I looked into was empty except for a pedestal awaiting a coffin, and a priest. I could see through the to the other side, and heard a funeral party gathering nearby.

I sensed the need to be even more delicate, and unobtrusive. It is one thing to peacefully stroll through resting places with a camera - it's altogether different when a family is laying someone to rest. 

So I continued down the back side of the building, retaining my invisibility. At a well-shaded inner corner, I saw a doorway into a chapel. The space seemed cool and airy, despite the bright and forceful summer day.

Door #1

I approached softly to look in, thinking the space might have a photo or two waiting. One step in, maybe two, I paused when I noticed the seated clergyman. I realized that he must be waiting to perform his duties, and was messaging someone, or browsing the internet, with his down time. 

My camera was up in a heartbeat - I didn't move from the spot, centered on the massive candle stand, and zoomed in enough to still include its full height. Occasionally I get the feeling that a photo is nearly perfect as soon as I capture it, and that was the case here. I quickly snapped the frame a couple of times to ensure that one would be appropriately in focus, and then backed away from the chapel.

What Does It All Really Mean?

The clergyman stood up not long after. I had chanced upon a rare moment, surrounded by aesthetically appealing elements that were both commonplace and surreal. The holy man pecking away at a ubiquitous, modern device, kept company by "plugged-in" objects such as the facsimile of a flame, created an image that many rightfully find ridiculous, while others may find it more profound.

I don't hold the same contempt for all of organized religion in the way that many do today, though I understand where the contempt originates from. There's a lot of beauty in it. Personally, I substitute cheekiness for the cynicism some feel about this image. The image resonates with me in a way that brings happiness and contemplation. A faceless clergyman prone to the same boredom and frivolity as any other human - are they texting God? Or swiping right on Tinder?

Depending on one's perception of religion, or connection to spirituality, this image can evoke cynicism or humility. The cynics aren't wrong. We often put too much faith in our intermediaries - the leaders with comforting answers. At the same time, we are all simply and incredibly human, seeking a route to communicate with what is real and true. Are we ornate, well-crafted implements at the receiving end of a power cord, drawing energy from the universe to recreate the elements of reality that bring us comfort?

Am I reaching? Doesn't matter. It's a damn good photo anyway.



Posted by
Chacarita Cemetery of Buenos Aires

A History of Argentina's Magnificent, Broken-down Necropolis

In Buenos Aires there is an immense oasis sprawling over gentle slopes, and beneath the earth: a cemetery in the quiet neighborhood of Chacarita, nestled next to barrios Colegiales, Palermo and Villa Crespo. Graveyards are one of my favorite places to explore and photograph – they often have lovely old trees – this one, Chacarita Cemetery, has an origin more grim than ordinary, and is one of the most fascinating places I have ever been.

Spread over 95-hectares, Cementerio de la Chacarita is almost twenty times bigger than Cementerio de la Recoleta, the famed resting place of Eva Perón and many other wealthy families. Almost half of barrio Chacarita's territory is occupied by it.

17th century Jesuits lived on the land where barrio Chacarita is today, but they were expelled in 1767 by the Spanish Royal Crown. The name Chacarita comes from the Spanish word chacra for small farms like the ones belonging to the Jesuits.

It was clear once we looked at a map that Chacarita's cemetery is massive. It is not just a dominating landmark of the barrio, but also a significant feature of the city. There are other extensive green spaces, like Los Bosques de Palermo, and numerous other parks spread throughout the city for the enjoyment of some 3 million residents, but this cemetery is a distinctly quiet place.

I didn’t really grasp the magnitude until putting eyes on it after trekking across Palermo before an upcoming move brought us to the adjacent neighborhood. Zoë and I were living in Palermo, the hippest hood in town, on Guatemala y Armenia (not far from Tufic). We had thoroughly enjoyed that arrangement, but were moving one neighborhood away to Villa Crespo to seek a different experience, and perhaps more peace.  

With what must be 30 foot high walls around much of the property, Cementerio de la Chacarita is like a fortress. I wrote about this first encounter briefly in an earlier essay, and the stupefied feeling the sunset introduction gave me when I glimpsed golden streets of mausoleums through a gateway.

I returned to explore within shortly after we moved apartments. I strolled up and down the somber streets of tombs, and quickly observed that some were cared for and others were falling apart. One mausoleum's marble surfaces would be so pristine that I could see my reflection, whereas the one next door may have broken panes of glass and trash accumulating inside.

I wove through, trying not to miss any details, and eventually emerged at a new segment of the cemetery. It didn't look like much: an expanse of grass with several large concrete awnings spread across. It was also a hot day, and I wasn't overly interested in spending much time in the sun without water, but I went out to get a closer look. 

I remember approaching a railing and looking over, down into the earth, and seeing a verdant courtyard several levels below ground. It was surrounded by layers of catacombs. I realized, then, that those great awnings were entryways down into the underground galleries of Argentina's past lives.

I returned again and again to wander the catacombs. I love the vibrancy of Buenos Aires, but silence is what truly nourishes me, and down there I found a new experience with silence that was enhanced all the more by the scenes I saw. I spent hours underground trying to be lost, trying to find every last corner and seek photographs that could describe the feeling. I was struck by the contrasts – shades of lost civilizations and brute futurism, vastness and intimacy.

Outbreak

1871 was a devastating year for Buenos Aires and neighboring cities, and Cementerio de la Chacarita is intrinsically linked to it. An outbreak of yellow fever, the mosquito-borne virus, struck the barrios near the port, lowlands, and floodplain areas where mosquitoes could easily proliferate, and soon it was everywhere. Mosquitoes are difficult to avoid even when one is aware of the threat they can pose, but at the time it was not even understood that they were the carrier. 

The Episode of the Yellow Fever, circa 1871, by Juan Manuel Blanes is a haunting rendition of the pain brought to Buenos Aires, but also a depiction of illness befalling a specific household. One wonders how many scenes like this the People's Commission had to see. José Roque Pérez is depicted in the center with with his hands clasped.

The epidemic wreaked havoc in the city, with hundreds of deaths every day during its height. Also known as "black vomit," the illness upended daily life as businesses closed, residents fled, and thieves ransacked.

The dead were so many that wagons couldn't transfer them quickly enough, furthermore, the existing cemetery space that would accept victims of the fever became full. Coffins soon accumulated at the gates as the disease spread by leaps and bounds. 

The city needed to increase its burial grounds, and Chacarita was chosen as the location for a new cemetery. Cementerio de la Chacarita was inaugurated on April 14th, 1871. The first to be buried was a bricklayer named Manuel Rodriguez.

The Western Railway quickly extended a line that would transport the accumulating dead. The train that performed this twice-daily task was named La Porteña, but became known as the "train of death."

The People's Commission was soon formed to handle the ravages of the epidemic across the city. The leader, José Roque Pérez, a prestigious lawyer shown in the painting to the left, succumbed to yellow fever along with many others who did not flee.

Over 13,000 people of the city's some 180,000 residents died in just several months, before the cold arrived and killed off mosquitoes. Normal life resumed in time, but this quote from Guillermo Hudson's "Ralph Herne" indicates that the city was haunted by the catastrophe for years after:

"...But the years of peace and prosperity did not delete the memory of that terrible period when during three long months the shadow of the Angel of Death extended over the city of the nice name, when the daily harvest of victims were thrown together — old and young, rich and poor, virtuous and villains — to mix their bones in a communal grave, when each day the echo of footsteps interrupted the silence less often, when like the past the streets became desolate and grassy."

Cementerio de la Chacarita has since become a place of worship and remembrance. Everyone is welcome in Chacarita, from the less-fortunate to the famed. The soil there is for intellectuals, artists, boxers and ordinary people. Cementerio de la Recoleta, which turned away victims of the epidemic, has always been more aristocratic and exclusive. 

While Chacarita receives more residents than Recoleta, it has far fewer visitors. During my time there I never saw any other rovers like myself, just visiting relatives, caretakers, and a funeral gathering. I found it comforting that it's still a very personal place for Argentines. I felt privileged to explore the grounds and tried to maintain a respectfully low profile.

It was inaugurated as the "Cemetery of the West" in 1886, but its popular name stuck, and it was officially renamed in 1949.

Over the years its mausoleums became equally as splendid as Recoleta's, with an abundance of styles and design. Its grandeur endures, but has become worn down in many places. Though some of its aging is serious, I never thought of it as anything but beautiful.

Recently the union workers formally expressed their concern about the aging. There is a degree of abandonment, and water damage, which has resulted in the crumbling of masonry and deterioration of ceilings.

The underground galleries are the most worrying in regard to potential structural issues. In many ways they are lovingly tended to, but there are damaged ceilings and broken floors all around. As well, many of the elevators are out of order, lights are missing, and there are pigeons nesting all over. Saplings have sprouted in odd places and some of the gardens are in need of pruning and attention.

I do not know when the catacombs were built, but based upon some of the building methods and mechanical features I would guess it was in the 1960s. Thinking back on how many nameplates I passed, I could've looked for dates to try to ascertain a general period of time, but the number was overwhelming.

Around the world there has been a shift, over the last few decades, toward cremation instead of burial. It seems this and the correlating decline of visitations have contributed to delinquency in payments for the niches of the galleries.

The declining number of burials and visitations signifies a cultural change in how people remember their loved ones. This could be confirmed by the florists that are found around the outside wall. Those who come to leave flowers in the tombs and in the niches are often elderly people who still retain the customs of other times.

If Cementerio de la Chacarita is to remain a safe and beautiful place, it may need monetary help in a big way before much longer. For now, in its massive underground breezeways there is a pull between the polished, sterile spaces that are both immaculate and neglected, and the lush groves that are at the same time cultivated and wild.

I'll conclude with with this description I wrote after my first day in the catacombs:

"Daylight filters in from the surface with the chatter of swirling green parrots, all else quiet. There is an allure to staying in the cool air of this geometric cavern, wandering what seems like an unknowable layout, but much of the sense of calm I feel may be reliant upon this subterranean library of the dead's frequent connection to the sky and wind."

View more photos from Chacarita Cemetery

Posted by
Street Photography in Buenos Aires

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.

Though a partly cloudy day here, this became my Maine babe's tannest February yet.

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.

Casual breakfast views of Palermo, Villa Crespo, and on the fringe, Chacarita.

Battery Steele is a decommissioned WWII bunker on Peaks Island. I took this with an iPhone 4 while working a carpentry job out there my first summer in Maine. I was beginning to look for photographs everywhere I went.

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

Plaza Armenia rap battle, Palermo, 2017.

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.

Chacarita Cemetery's corner gate, 2017.

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?


Read more about the truly amazing Chacarita Cemetery


Posted by