Bolivia Remembered

Bolivia, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, December 2011. The camera stares at, grins at me lying on my hostel bed in tropical heat–I shoot angry glares back. The camera has been kicking my butt every day for some weeks and I hate it right now. Despise photography. But I need to pick it up and go create something. Need an outlet. A dark storm hovers in my mind, I am depressed, all purpose seems lost and recent events including a suicide made me fall in a black hole devoid of all light. I walk the world feeling completely disconnected from human life. Despising myself and my existence. As always, light this bright casts some very dark shadows. Despite an abundance of sun light in tropical Santa Cruz I have been in the shadows for days. I like extremes–I seek extremes. Fitting then I guess, that I am in the darkest of moods in the brightest of warm tropical weather.

Get out. Walk. Standing still never worked for me. Must keep moving. Or shadows catch up. Grab the damn camera and walk, walk the streets of this hot, weird and interesting melting pot of a city. Get out of this hostel from hell. Walk, damn legs, walk. A market appears. A gigantic chaotic market bigger than any market I have seen in Asia or anywhere else. A world inside a world. No hiding here. Not a single gringo in sight anywhere. I break out the camera. Channel my darkness into looking, seeing, shooting, making images.

Flemming-Bo-Jensen-Bolivia-Santa-Cruz-street

Flemming-Bo-Jensen-Bolivia-Santa-Cruz-street-women

These are two of my favourite pictures from Bolivia and I like putting them together. They look like one image, almost. The top image is from the street I lived on and an easy image to make. The second image is my favourite from Bolivia, women at the largest market ever in the history of all markets–that I have been to. Filled at least 15 square city blocks. Hard to shoot this image. NO ONE wanted to be part of any photos. Had to steal images as I walked around being the most noticeable person in the entire city.

Memories are funny. These words are written about a year after the images were made. And I want to return to Bolivia. Have been on my mind recently. Calls me back. It is one of the hardest places to work in that I have experienced. I was in a dark, dark place for the 10 days I was there. But it was a very interesting place filled with awesome people and places of contrast and extremes. That’s why I want to return of course. The challenge. And I need the extremes. To create. To feel alive.

Street Photography in South America

Street photography. Look it up in the dictionary and it could say: ‘See Henri Cartier-Bresson and his decisive moment. Also see under very hard’. It can be really frustrating, and really rewarding. “You need a great moment, and some great light, and then you need to actually be there at just the right time to capture it, and then you must create an interesting composition and image of all these elements. The changes of all of this happening at the same time, are very very small” — Said by, I believe, Doug Menuez and very true.

South America was for me, a trip to delve much deeper into and learn street- and documentary photography. Also the subject of the Photoexperience.Net workshop in Peru. For months I wandered the streets of towns in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. Every day, hours and hours of walking and searching, searching for the light, the moment, the skill, the vision to have it make sense, make some great images of great moments. Sometimes (read: rarely) I would get up and walk the streets in the morning, but always I would walk the streets in the afternoon and evening shooting and failing, lots of learning by failing. Some days, here it is a market in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I would have great light and shoot straight into beautiful soft afternoon light, diffused by clouds but still casting shadows, wishing, wanting for a great shot but mostly just getting the light and nothing else:

But where’s the moment, that moment of real-life worth capturing? Not interested in banalities, nor comic moments but some real life moments with meaning, be it sad, happy, absurd or scary, and a view into the life of others. So you shoot. Shooting hundreds of shots, sometimes several days without anything even remotely usable at all. Street and documentary photography demands this. Tests your patience (and I have little). It kicks your arse, tells you to go deeper, to find more meaning, give more of yourself, get over yourself, get in there, get closer, then get closer again. It seriously frustrated me many, many days and on top of that, most people in Argentina and Bolivia said no! to any type of shots and hid when they saw my camera. Most images were shot candidly and stealthily, like a thief on streets stealing moments and images. Not my favourite feeling. “Get over yourself, get in there, get closer, get images, find the image within the image” but many days I failed this. Then, in those once in a blue moon moments where everything comes together, it is an inspiring moment of great joy to have frozen a worthy moment in a worthy image. Again, Santa Cruz, Bolivia and one of my favourites from South America. A strange composition to many I am sure, but I like the three women, their expressions, the frozen moment, the zig zag of the light and shadow in the image:

Many things finally clicked in the workshop in Peru taught by Daniel Milnor and Adam Weintraub. Many weeks of frustration was rewarded when things suddenly made sense, technique and vision started coming together and the pieces of the puzzle in the street and layers in the street image all began to feel natural. Street photography is always hard, supposed to be hard, will continue to kick and trip me, but feeling inspired and enlightened by months of practice and then the workshop I shall keep walking, keep searching, keep shooting. Get over myself, get closer, get deeper, realise that great images takes a lot of work and happens very rarely.

Aventuras de América Del Sur

An adventure it was, an adventure featuring classical elements. Lows, highs, challenges, disappointments, adversity, darkness, light, sadness, solitude, tears and smiles. Got a bit bumpy in the middle there, but it all sort of worked out in the end. The story of my life. But let me backtrack some.

July 2011, Copenhagen. I talk to Daniel Milnor and Adam Weintraub and soon after excitedly sign up for the PhotoExperience.Net workshop in Peru in December. The thought then becomes, with no other plans and since I am going to Peru, might as well inflate the trip into a couple of months of exploration of this, for me unknown continent. In my mind are day dreams of a South American adventure, jumping around the continent in my ‘time machine’ from country to country, capturing the lives of the people of América Del Sur. Dreams that have nothing to do with real life as we know it. Story of my life. Tend to day dream out loud and then get bruised as dreams meet reality head on.

1st of November 2011. The day has come, it is time for take-off. Time in Copenhagen stretched and warped, simultaneously feeling slow and fast. Now, sitting in the airport, time ran out, ran much too quickly. Not ready to go, not ready to stay, not prepared.

Argentina. So begins the Adventure of South America. Splashed down in Buenos Aires in my time machine. Big city, not at all my thing and not expecting to like it, but liked it even less than I expected. Saving grace was the fantastic Valentin and Ava, their brilliant B&B and the wonderful fellow guests. Finally meeting longtime acquaintance, adventurer and photographer extraordinaire and member of The Explorers ClubDaniel Fox – was also a true pleasure.

My mind balked at traveling again. Had been stalling for months meaning I had prepared nothing for this trip, apart from learning Spanish. Any attempt at preparation depressed me. What I do is not even really traveling, having no home means I am always, and I am never traveling. Just living in different places in the world. A lifestyle I no longer wanted, could no longer justify to myself. No purpose, no direction, drifting and feeling I was not much to anyone. Or not enough, anyway. Not really ready to leave Copenhagen, yet not really ready to stay. Living out of a bag, the constant transport and instability was not something my mind wanted any part of again. Buenos Aires served a purpose, it made it crystal clear what I did not want. To live as a nomad anymore. And made it crystal clear what I wanted. A home and everyday life again in Copenhagen near old friends and family. This decision gave me some much needed inner peace and strength. Somewhere in my mind a few gears clicked and started working. I finally knew I was going to be ok. In that respect I thank Buenos Aires. So I came close to giving up right away, as I saw no purpose anymore, but escaped to Salta in the Andes Mountains, hoping I would make it to the workshop in Peru.

Landing in Salta, this warm, dry and dusty desert town instantly appealed to me. Decided to find a place to hole up for a spell. Or I would go crazy, or go home – or both. Fortunately I found a nice house to rent. A house in an interesting poorer and very non-touristy part of Salta, me being the only gringo on the streets. Dusty dry streets and run down houses, cobwebs could blow across the street while gauchos slowly ride by and it would fit right in.

It was an interesting experience living in Salta for 5 weeks. Having the house and the very warm dry Summer of Salta calmed my mind. The surrounding areas and landscapes are very special and beautiful, the villages and people very interesting. Ultimately though, also a very frustrating and very lonely experience. Did not want to move, did not want to stay. Tired, the kind of tired sleep does not cure. Been on the road for too long. Really, just wanted out of my nomad lifestyle, but now that I was here in South America, must make it to the Peru workshop. Photography in Salta proved very hard. Explained in Spanish who I was and what I was doing and got to know some of the neighbors – but most people did not at all like the fact I was on the streets making pictures, and refused portraits. Sometimes drawing accusing and suspicious looks and not many smiles. Being much too sensitive to ignore this tension I grew disillusioned with my work and the nomad life I no longer wanted. Told myself that sometimes it takes a while to ‘get going’ but nothing really ever got going, running the time machine on an empty tank.

When time came to move, my mind broke down at the looming prospect of new instability. The very same day of packing my things, the last day in Salta, an acquaintance of mine in Copenhagen committed suicide. Not a close friend, but an amazing person and it affected me very deeply, sending me to a dark and lonely place. Came within a mouse click of going home to Copenhagen.

Instead, arrived in tropical Santa Cruz of Bolivia. Spent a few days and ultimately decided to weather the storm in my mind. I desperately wanted to make it to Peru and the workshop, the purpose for going to América Del Sur. My otherwise quite awful hostal had a nice swimming pool and tropical weather agrees with me. The food was much better than Argentina and cheaper, so I tried to be good to myself.

Next stop was La Paz. The first time that I actually let out a ‘wow’ in América Del Sur. The airport is located at 4km altitude in the Andes mountains. After landing, a drive down the mountainside suddenly and dramatically reveals La Paz. Mad, impossible La Paz, desperately clinging to the sides of a steep valley. Only the discovery of gold could produce a city in such a surreal location. La Paz takes your breath away. Literally. The 3.7km altitude, thin air and very steep streets are a trying combination. The ‘wow’ was short-lived. It rained an awful lot and was extremely cold, my mood was dark. Working was even harder than in Argentina. What little inspiration and energy I had left for photography, and travel, I lost.

Arriving in Cusco, Peru, and meeting me amigo, the awesome Adam Weintraub was a great relief. The workshop with Dan Milnor and Adam was now only a week away, the reason for going, the reason for not giving up. Stayed at Adam’s B&B enjoying the great hospitality of Adam and his family, and recharging internal batteries. Cusco is a fascinating and cool city full of great people. First time I got a ‘si si!’ to making a portrait of a person I was so surprised I screwed up the image. The cold weather took it’s heavy toll but the workshop was now very close.

The PhotoExperience.net workshop I have already spoken highly of in previous stories from Peru. It was a phenomenal experience and also a million laughs, very sorely needed. The workshop was worth the wait and even surpassing expectations. The fact I ended the workshop quite ill does not diminish of a fantastic time with fantastic people in wonderful Peru. The workshop challenged and rekindled my drive for photography, and especially documentary photography. My thanks to the whole workshop gang, the ‘giggle crew’, have not laughed that much that hard for that long. Peru and the workshop was a great high, a great end.

My Aventuras de América Del Sur ended in Santiago, Chile. Really just a few days of pit-stop waiting for my flight to Australia. Disliking big cities even when I am not sick, time was spent in the garden of my nice B&B recharging and recovering in the lovely warm Chilean Summer. Feeling slightly better, I boarded the plane for 24 hours of time travel to Perth, Western Australia.

So it ended, the América Del Sur adventure.
Got a bit bumpy there in the middle but it worked out in the end. The story of my life.


Postface

Not quite sure why I am even writing this post, except I feel I need to. My time machine has now brought me from the Amazon jungle in Peru to the other side of the world in a matter of days, to the sunny and warm Western Australian summer, visiting wonderful friends. Healthy again and re-charged, I look back with a different perspective. I realise that despite of, perhaps because of the hardship, América Del Sur very much crawled under my skin. Especially Peru affected my soul. The anarchy, chaos, energy, life, landscapes, villages and most of all wonderful people of Peru with their smiles and incredible hospitality left a deep impression. I feel drawn back to Peru.

Waves of homesickness hits me presently, and I seriously look forward to being home and creating the next phase in Copenhagen. Awfully exciting actually. I have traveled enough, for now. Seen enough, for now. Though, as much as it can hurt, I am not sure I ever want to stop daydreaming out loud. Only moderate it some. Questions enter my mind, with all I have seen, all I have done, can I just go back? Will it drive me crazy? Perhaps, but a life in Copenhagen is now what I want.

Whatever happens, it will be exciting. Whatever happens, I will be ok. Whatever happens, it will be another adventure, probably featuring all the classical elements.