A Conversation with Photographer Juan Orrantia about Guinea-Bissau and his Search for Amilcar Cabral

Technically speaking, photography is the process of capturing light. Compose the frame. Release the shutter. And let the light pour into the camera’s memory, whether a roll of film or a digital sensor. When the captured light is transformed into an image however, it has much to say. It speaks about the environment it once illuminated, the vision of the image maker and if you look closely enough, even history.

With his lens, photographer Juan Orrantia skillfully invites remnants of a place’s history to reveal themselves through light. His work often deals with places that have a history of violence and revolution. Through his projects he shows how the horrors of conflict are transformed into scars not fully healed. Whether manifested in deteriorating physical structures or in the destructive social phenomena left by the war economy, the memory of the struggle endures in the peoples and places that have experienced it. Finding evidence of social memories in the scenes he documents, Juan demonstrates just how dynamic and interdisciplinary photography can be.

Originally from Colombia, Juan has traveled widely, putting into practice creative mediums for producing his critical documentary art. For the last three years, Juan has been based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where he just finished a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Wits School of Arts.

After previous projects documenting the aftermath of violence in Colombia and Mozambique, Juan travelled to Guinea-Bissau for his most recent documentary project. Called Holding Amilcar, after Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary luminary who lost his life in the struggle for Guinea-Bissau’s independence, Juan sought and documented aspects of Cabral’s legacy as they appear in lives of Guinea-Bissau’s citizens and public monuments.

We spoke to Juan about his search for Amilcar, post-conflict social landscapes and the power of people in shaping ways of seeing.

“Why should so small a country, and one so poor, interest the world?”

Your latest body of images, Holding Amilcar, were taken in Guinea-Bissau. What drew you to Bissau and to the ghost of the revolutionary thinker Amilcar Cabral?

Juan Orrantia: I have been living in South Africa for almost five years now. And I felt I wanted to pursue a project that brought my growing interest and what I have learned in the continent with an aspect closer to home. The “obvious” choice was Guinea-Bissau, since as a Colombian it is a clear place where my own history intersects with the continent in contemporary issues. But there was a lot more than the drug business there. There is of course the figure of Amilcar Cabral, a very important thinker, read widely in different parts of the world, and Chris Marker, someone whose work I find fascinating and very important for a type of critical aesthetic form of documentary. With this in mind, together with a Colombian journalist friend Salym Fayad, we decided to go, and the country opened itself to us in all kinds of ways. We had all these interesting topics in front of us, but it was also hard to photograph, since when we arrived in early December 2012 the most recent coup was still in the air. We thus hit the streets initially, and I was fascinated by the postcolonial and (post)socialist landscape.

Cabral was assassinated in ’73 in the war against the Portuguese for Guinea-Bissau’s independence. Do Cabral’s revolutionary philosophies continue to permeate the collective social consciousness of the country? How does Cabral’s legacy reveal itself in your images?

Amilcar Cabral is a very interesting figure in contemporary Bissau. Not only is he part of the founding myth of the country itself but more than being an iconic figure of the past he also seems to fade away and then reappear. In my photos I try to allude to the sense of freedom that he inspired and wanted, yet also to the disappearance of those dreams amidst current conditions. I shot many of the images in his hometown of Bafatá, because I wanted to see how the place is, or is not, filled with his traces. And I am also interested in the role that Cabral played in Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, to which I also want to allude to in the series. There he represented a pole, an example of revolutionary potential and power and its fading into the future. I don’t want to just see him as a source of the past but rather as an element within the present.

Monument, Pidjiguiti. “Rumor has it that every third world leader coined the same phrase the morning after independence: now the real problems start. Cabral never had a chance to say it. He was assassinated first. But the problems started, and went on, and are still going on.”

Many of your images do not contain people, but rather they convey the evidence of human life. What are these landscapes communicating to you?

That’s a nice way of putting it, thanks! When I started in this line of work, I started out photographing people, in their homes, very into the action of moments. But I also always had an interest in place and how it accumulates events and things that happened there (you have to understand, my first big project was in a small town in Colombia where there had been a massacre 5 years before). Since then, I have been slowly moving into another style, where both people and place are expressing issues without one having to rely on the obvious image — lets call it the journalistic one — where all of the information is contained within the frame. I prefer the more ambiguous, expressive, suggestive image, that allows one to interact with the situation and its representation. I have this thing of looking at places and thinking of what has happened there, what the places themselves contain. But I wouldn’t say I am a landscape photographer, I am in search for answers both within people and in their surroundings. I think that also my career has taken me to reject some of my training in anthropology and its almost obsessive approach to having to speak to people to get to some sort of understanding. There are many other sensory ways of interacting that allow one to engage with topics of intellectual concern, and colors, forms, sounds, all participate in that. Having said that, I also wanted to photograph places related to where Chris Marker and Flora Gomes shot their movies, because the project does have a very important “filmic” element (or intellectual relation) to it.

Prison, Bafata (Amilcar Cabral’s birth place)

For the images that do contain people, how would you describe the moments that you are trying to capture?

In this series I am mostly using the images of people from one location (although not exclusively). I decided to juxtapose the images of those who are in a drug/mental rehab center in Guinea-Bissau with the other style of photos (places, etc). These people represent for me an idea of locked up dreams, not dead or past ones, but the idea of moments when dreams are suspended, or put on hold. The idea of postcolonial dreams. These people also represent the “drug” situation in a way. We didn’t want to photograph the drug dealer, the crack head, none of that. Some of it has been done in the country, in very strict photojournalistic fashion. I am not interested in that, I am interested in the subtlety of the situations, of the slow passing of time and the situations this creates, and then of course, how this is suggested through an attitude or an expression. I also had great conversations with them, like this guy whose name is Amilcar and then joked about his last name being Cabral. So I did find my Amilcar here!

How did the people you encountered in Guinea-Bissau react to your image-making?

In general people were great and open. I did feel less comfortable in the capital, Bissau, because of the political situation, and everyone warning us about the camera and the military. But outside of the “official” environment, in closed or intimate situations, things were smooth.

As someone with Colombian heritage, what political parallels did you observe between Colombia and Guinea-Bissau?

Well, not necessarily parallels as such. The history and the way narcotraffic relates to social life is very different in both places. But what was very interesting — having lived much of my life in Colombia, especially during the hard drug years — was to come with an idea of what we were supposed to encounter do to the media representations of Guinea-Bissau (the first real “narco state”, etc). Before we arrived we interviewed high officials from organizations dealing with drug trafficking in the area, and the picture they painted was one where they were literally comparing the country to when Colombia was in its worst time. What we found was a different picture; yes, there is tension, yes, there are signs that the illegal business is there, all that is true. But it is also not so evident or outrageous as it somehow seems to be. But we actually were not there to “follow” or expose the business in strict journalistic terms; we wanted to see what the country looked like, what the people said, how they felt about that and other things as well. And yes, it is a poor and shattered country, but it does not feel like Colombia in the 1990s, not at all.

“That’s how history advances, plugging its memory as one plugs one’s ears.”

You have a PhD from Yale in anthropology and have been called a visual anthropologist, yet you alluded to the relationships you’ve forged with people in your photographic career having caused you to question your anthropology training. How have these personal interactions altered your perspective?

Anthropology gave me a very good perspective of thinking critically. For me it is an informed sensibility that guides my engagement with a question, a topic or even a place. That is what I bring from it to my form of working. But I am also not doing anthropology as such in its analytical form. I was never comfortable doing that. I am more comfortable with the idea of a critical documentary, of creating aesthetic commentaries on topics or places with a purpose. That is where photography and its different ways of working come in, and the end result, I guess, is another form still, produced by the interaction of both (among others).

You often shoot with a medium format film camera. Does medium format film, with its limited number of frames and visible grains, allow you to express your vision in a way that digital photography cannot?

I use a 6×7 format, so it’s a very visible, if very quiet, camera. So people know I am there and taking photos, which I like. Until now, all my projects have been film based. I love the quality, the tones, the grain, and the pace. I shoot very little compared to digital photography, and I also can’t do any on-site editing. That helps me think about the project a lot. I don’t feel pressured to have to take this or that, I rather shoot as I encounter, I think, rethink, shoot some more, and then sometimes a few months later, after the film has been developed and I start scanning the lot, rearrange. By then my ideas and experiences have been a bit more digested, which does help me in editing. It comes down to the relationship between the intellectual idea and the aesthetic choice, and how those two will work out.

“And that is the way the breakers recede. And so predictably that one has to believe in a kind of amnesia of the future that history distributes through mercy or calculation to whom it recruits.”

Your research fellowship has been at the Wits School of Art in Johannesburg. There is an incredible wealth of artists working with visual media in South Africa. Who are your favorites?

The fellowship at Wits was great, and being involved in the photography milieu here was really important. It’s great to be in a place with such a rich photo tradition, and yet in the south, not in the traditional euro-american centers. Personally, I feel very fortunate since I got to work for a couple of years with Jo Ratcliffe, whom I think is an amazing photographer, an intellectually grounded one with a very sharp eye. Santu Mofokeng is a master of the poetic documentary. Penny Siopis makes these great videos with found footage which are very critically lyrical. I think there is also much to learn from works by those better known in international circles like Guy Tillim and Mikhael Subotzky, and — even if not necessarily South african — Vivian Sassen’s engagement with the banal does shake “African” representations a lot….and then, the newer names, some of whom I have worked with through fellowships like Thabiso Sekgala, Vincent Bezuidenhout, Alexia Webster, Musa Nxumalo, and many other people engaging new ways of seeing what history is producing in front of them and through them.

As a resident of Johannesburg for the last few years where historically and currently, public space is greatly contested in various ways from access to control to moniker, what has your relationship been with this dynamic city?

Joburg is not easy, but it also has an edge to it. It is as you say, very dynamic and full of interesting people. I really like that, and this has given me a new vantage point from where to read the world today. But I also have a schizophrenic relationship with it. Maybe its own dynamism shifts me around.

In your life you’ve been quite a wayfarer, how has this frequent movement shaped your own sense of self, place and memory?

It’s tiring! But more than that, it gives one multiple perspectives, it definitely shakes things up, and allows me to connect and traverse different spheres, not just places, but networks, experiences, situations and aesthetics that are being developed through the south.

Now that you’ve completed your fellowship, what upcoming projects do you have brewing?

Well, this Guinea-Bissau project is really in its beginnings, and so I am looking forward to going back and expanding this series as well as other aspects of the project. I am also working on a book project on memory and narcotraffic’s legacy in Colombia, based on work I have been photographing mostly in a small ex-coca and cocaine producing village that I knew well back in my undergraduate years. And I am off to India for five months as we speak, so let’s see what comes out of that!

* Juan Orrantia’s portfolio can be viewed here. The captions for the images are quotes from Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil.

Zachary Rosen

Zachary Rosen is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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