Photographer Jorge Uzon has been a photojournalist for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) from the years of 1996 to 2004, working in Guatemala and then in Mexico City. He has worked as an independent photographer since then, photographing two major projects: in Bolivia (2006-2008) on social changes since Evo Morales became president and one in Patagonia (2008-2011), on the struggle between those opposed and those in favor of building five dams in the area. He has received two grants for his work there, and he talks with Pictureline from his home in Toronto.
Pictureline: Tell us a little about your personal relationship to the Patagonia in southern Chile.
Jorge Uzon: When I lived in Chile, I made many trips to Patagonia by hitchhiking or by traveling with my parents. My mother was born in a farm in the south surrounded with a landscape pretty similar to what you can find in Patagonia. My family spent many summers on this farm, so the work I am doing now is a search for the same imagery.
Pictureline: You seem to have taken a very familial approach to this project, bringing your entire family into the Patagonia with you. I think this is very rare for photojournalists, but it seems as if it allowed you more freedom. Tell us about how your family was involved in the project and if it made it much easier or more difficult to accomplish your goals.
Jorge Uzon: Since I left my job in the Agence France-Presse in 2004, I do not consider myself a photojournalist. I try to do something more like documentary photography, and in that sense working with my family is not an obstacle. I have taken my family because I did not have another alternative. My children are young, and I do not want to be without them, so they are traveling with me and, in some ways, the work has benefited, thanks to their presence. At the same time, my wife is an anthropologist, and she has been developing her own work on the issue of the dams and the people of Patagonia. Therefore, even if we have both traveled alone to the region a couple of times, this has been a sort of "family project" for us. For my children, this has certainly been an amazing experience, especially for my eldest son. He was four years old on our first trip, and since then he developed strong feelings about nature and environmental care. He can spend hours exploring a mountain, looking for insects or simply watching the animals on a farm, which is exactly what I was doing at the same age when I traveled to the farm of my grandmother.
Pictureline: There is always a tenuous relationship between the photojournalist and how that person is perceived…whether a supporter or someone in defiance of a project, such as the proposed dams in the Patagonia. How do you walk that line, as you have said that you are not an activist?
Jorge Uzon: That's never been a problem for me. In Patagonia, I am looking for the images that I grew up with, so the hydroelectric project has never been the engine of my project, but rather an excuse to photograph the area. This does not mean I do not have my own opinion about the subject, but I do not want my opinion against the hydroelectric project to influence my work or my relationship with people. I hope my photos will give that message to the viewers.
Pictureline: Tell us about your choice to shoot in black and white (and what equipment are you using?) Was there a specific reason you chose to do this?
Jorge Uzon: I made 90% of my project with a Leica M6 with a 35mm lens. I am using film because I can do it, which means that I don't have any pressure with this project. I can take my time. During my last trip to Patagonia, Associated Press asked me for photographs about some specific issues, and because they wanted the photographs the same day, digital photography worked perfectly, but usually the situation is that no one is waiting for my photos in real time. Besides, one of the central ideas in this work is to produce a testimony and a digital file, but for me this is simply not enough. I am using black and white because I can't find a better choice with film. In one of my trips I used slide film, and I feel that slide film works great if you have ideal light, but with my work in Patagonia, I can't wait and I don't want to wait for that.
I do not feel like Patagonia is a colourful place, like Guatemala or Bolivia, just the opposite: the large spaces where people live are, mostly, full of dark green that works pretty well in black and white. In autumn, there is an explosion of red by the maturation of the leaves on the trees. I don't know why, but I've never been interested in photographing that.
Pictureline: Do you have any upcoming projects you are excited about?
Jorge Uzon: For now I don't have any other projects on my mind. I am still developing my work in Patagonia. I am looking for ways to bring a public exhibition to the places where I took my photos, so this project is not over.
Pictureline: If you were to offer any advice to young photographers would want to photograph in a documentary style and who want to photograph similar projects that involve human elements, the environment, or social change, what advice would you give?
Jorge Uzon: For me the most important thing is to find a project that really interests you, do not choose a topic simply because it could be fashionable or become a commercially successful. You have to think that such projects last a long time, and demand a deep relationship with people that are, in many cases, pretty different to you. If you are not truly committed to the work in an emotional sense, it will cost much to the photographer to develop the work after the excitement of the first encounter is over.
Pictureline: Thank you very much for talking about your Patagonia project. It is fantastic work. You can see more of his work on his website, www.uzonphoto.com.