|1. You grew up and went to University in
Montreal, Canada and you have since moved to Sao Paulo and now to Rio
de Janeiro. I am sure it has been quite difficult adapting to the warm
weather and sunny beaches. : )
Yeah, it's been really tough! Heck, I miss those blizzards and ice storms, and the crater-sized potholes ;-) Seriously though, there are a lot of things I DO miss about Montreal because it's a great city and my family and friends are there, and I have a lot of fond memories of growing up there. I miss the crowds on St. Denis St., the spontaneity of St. Laurent St., the quaintness of Old Montreal, my favorite sushi joint "Ginger" on Pine St., the Jazz Festival, snowball fights in Mount-Royal Park, and the smell of fresh bagels at the Faubourg on Guy St. on Sunday mornings. Montreal has a lot of character. Let's face it- where else would you see a guy with a turban speaking in perfect French and working in a lesbian bookstore?
Brazil has been an enlightening experience. This country is blessed with so much natural beauty and the people have this zest for life that I've never seen elsewhere. There are many things that make Brazil a wonderful country like the climate, the landscape, the music and the mix of cultures, but Brazil's greatest asset is its people. I've lived in and traveled to many places around the world and never have I met a people so alive and vibrant. Despite all the obstacles around them, people here always have a reason to smile. I've learned a lot from them since I've been here.
It's not all rosy though. Being a relatively young and dynamic nation, Brazil has its share of severe social problems too. I think in the future, with good leadership, if these problems can be overcome or contained, Brazil may be one of the best places in the world to live. Like Canada, it is a peaceful nation. Before I came here, all I heard of was the crime because that's how Rio and São Paulo are portrayed in the Western media. When you consider that the population of Rio and São Paulo combined is almost 3/4 of all of Canada's then for sure you're going to have crime, but I don't think it's any more dangerous here than any big city like Miami or LA.
2. You began your career within the field of aeronautical engineering before you embraced photography. Have you found parallels between these two fields? Has there been elements of aeronautical engineering that have helped further your knowledge of photography?
My work as a photographer and my work as an engineer are worlds apart. One is dictated by the left hemisphere of my brain and the other by the right. There is a brick wall separating the two. For me photography is about imagination, creativity and the search of beauty, and my brain has to work in a spontaneous, unstructured- almost reckless- kind of way to see and interpret things to come up with ideas. Engineering, on the other hand, requires the brain to be very objective, rational and disciplined. In some ways though, this discipline and objectiveness is useful outside the creative process when I have to deal with the logistics of a photo production. It allows me to manage my team efficiently and focus my attention on the end product. In the end, I think any good photographer has to be a good director, and discipline and objectiveness are valuable assets.
You'll notice that in most of my images there is a strong emphasis on geometry and space in the composition. I think that also stems from my scientific background. I approach composition in mathematical terms and often draw imaginary lines and shapes to visualize the spatial and geometric relationship between of the subject(s) and the overall scene. Many people assume that because of my engineering background, I am obsessed with the technical aspects of photography but that couldn't be farther from the truth. In reality, most people who work in your local photo store probably know the technical lingo of photography better than me. I learned everything by myself by trial and error and by making mistakes. Failure is the greatest teacher. Certainly anyone who is serious about their art should have a strong grasp of the basics but I think it's equally important for a young artist to experiment and to develop his or her own style and technique- to delve deeper into realms beyond the formal structure of school. Eventually what really counts as an artist is how we "see" the world and that, I believe, cannot be taught. It has to be acquired through personal experiences.
3. Many photographers believe that their best work results from spontaneity while other photographers feel that planning a shot and the technical elements that are involved are necessary for high quality work. How do you approach your photography?
First of all, as in any field of practice, being a professional we are expected to have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of our craft so whether a shot is staged or spontaneous should have nothing to do with the quality of the images. All images should be of the highest quality. The goal in all my photographs has always been and shall always be to evoke a feeling of wonder in people- to allow them to see elements of reality from a completely different perspective. This is accomplished in different ways- sometimes through staged shots and other times through spontaneity. It all depends on what I am trying to convey. For me, every photograph has its own story- not just in the picture but also behind it. Although a fashion photograph is usually staged, many times the best images are the ones I didn't plan to do. So many times I kicked myself because the Polaroid looked better than the so-called technically "perfect" photograph since the Polaroid had this unrestrained quality to it. What I've learned is that I cannot go into a photo shoot and expect anything. I arrive on the set having only a brief sketch of the scenario, and usually, everything just evolves naturally from there.
A fashion shoot is generally quite complex and challenging, especially since most of my images are atypical fashion photos. Most are shot on location and involve a huge team and many props. It's almost like creating a mini movie. Again, that's where the good director's role comes in handy. The hard part is that I have to tell a whole story in a single image so everything has to be perfect. Yet I'm always at the mercy of the environment, and the weather is often a fickle companion. In a photo-documentary, the scenario is much different. I generally have no control whatsoever of the elements, and much of what I capture on film comes from spontaneous exchanges between the subject(s) and myself or the environment. This can be rewarding and at times frustrating.
A portrait, on the other hand, involves more improvisation. Although I obviously retain control over the outcome, I never make the subject aware of it. Instead, I let them create their own story for the camera with their eyes. In a portrait, everything is in the eyes. In order for a subject to reveal anything deep or intrinsic about his or her nature, for sure they must have an implicit trust or bond with the photographer. As much as possible, I try to know my subjects well in advance so they feel totally at ease with me during the photo session, almost as if I'm not even there. I think any good photographer has to master the art of being invisible. For example, when I did a series of portraits in the Amazon jungle for Earth Pilgrim, I actually lived with the Indians for 2 weeks before I shot a single roll of film. I lived as one of them and shared in everything they did to make them feel like I was no different or superior in any way to them. Can you imagine doing portraits of these fierce and noble people just by showing up on their doorstep with a camera? It might get you killed. All this is ultimately reflected in what I call the "soul" of the image. It also adds to the whole experience of being not only a photographer but more importantly, a human being.
4. You use both digital and traditional photography equipment. Which situations call for digital and when is traditional equipment more appropriate?
That's actually not true. I don't use any digital equipment whatsoever. Believe it or not, I detest digital cameras. I know a lot of people are going to hate me for saying this but in my opinion, digital takes the beauty out of the whole photographic process. Nowadays, some young photographers don't even bother to learn proper exposure techniques, let alone darkroom techniques. It seems as if every mediocre photograph can be corrected with Photoshop. If you create images with this kind of attitude, photography becomes a mechanical chore rather than an elegant process. For me, nothing can ever replace the experience of breathing life into a glorious black & white print in the darkroom. Even to this day, the whole process seems like a miracle!
I am a purist. I am forever obsessed with quality so I only shoot with medium and large format cameras. For shots that require digital manipulations or effects like a lot of the images in the "Lucid" section of Eccentris, I still shoot with traditional film and have the slides or negatives drum scanned at a very high resolution. We then rework the digital files in Photoshop and output the final images as digital match prints. This is a very expensive process so we only do this when there's no other way to achieve the desired effect.
Of course I won't argue that a digital camera may be indispensable to some (like field journalists) so it all depends on the type of work one does. But I think that if you're a serious fine art photographer, digital still leaves a lot to be desired. It's sort of like the old CD vs. vinyl debate. Although CDs sound good, most purist audiophiles will tell you they prefer the sound of vinyl. Perhaps it's an acquired taste or perhaps it's a fear to give up what we know. Right now, there's still a technical gap between the two mediums, however that may not be the case in five years from now. In the grand scheme of things though, does it really matter what one uses? It's a personal choice to suit one's style, and as long as we have a formula that works for us and produces high quality work, then that's all that should really matter. A great photographer like Avedon will not be remembered because he shot digital or analog. He will be remembered simply because he produced powerful images. I recently caught an exhibit of his in New York City of his old American West portraits, and as a photographer; I could appreciate the work that went into each and every one of his images. There's a whole story behind each photograph about how he met his subjects, set everything up and shot them, and printed the negatives so meticulously. Attention to detail sometimes makes the difference between a great photograph and a mediocre one.
Pilgrim is a photographic journey into remote corners of the world
where you have documented the lives and cultural aspects of various primitive
tribes. How much of a dependence on technology must you strip away when
traveling to these remote areas of the world and how difficult is this
At first it was extremely difficult to do. In fact my first trip to the jungle in Borneo was a disaster. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible and never return. The immensity of the jungle was overwhelming. I was completely unprepared for the radical shock to my body and my brain. Basically, everything I had learned and believed in were irrelevant in that environment. Everything related to "me" was insignificant. That's really hard to grasp at first because of our egos. However, with time and understanding, my fear of the jungle transformed itself into a total respect and an unconditional love for nature and her powers. Now when I go to the Amazon for example, the only reliance I have to anything modern are my camera gear, soap and mosquito repellent. I eat what they eat, believe what they believe and live as they live. I leave all the excess baggage of my cluttered Western way of thinking and living behind. This is the only way to fully appreciate the natural state to which we really belong.
The analogy I like to make is that the body is the hardware, the mind is the operating system and the culture is the software. Religion, education, upbringing and our environment are all the subroutines of that software. We can configure ourselves with whatever software we want but if we base our lives solely on that, we will exist in a one-dimensional virtual reality. When you go to the jungle you must shut off the software and allow the hardware and the operating system to function independently, absorbing as much as possible from the environment without the interference of thought. It is incredible how much thought controls our day-to-day existence in the modern world. Thoughts rule our world like a Renaissance pope, bringing order and structure to everything with their holy interpretation of reality.
We are born without any thought, any software. Our brains are blank. Our day-to-day needs revolve around the basics of survival and we are entirely dependant on the body's innate intelligence. However, from the age of 5 or 6, we are conditioned to think in a certain way because, in one way or another, we are all imposed with education, dogma and a code of moral and rational ethics that dominates our worldview and forms an integral part of who we are. Hence it becomes extremely difficult to break out of society's pattern. Of course the hardware and the operating system are useless by themselves alone (as you can observe by the way a baby functions), therefore the software is necessary to give meaning and function to everything but we must not forget that our software is only a means to an end- a way to interpret ONE reality. Two people can be in the same environment and share identical experiences yet it is entirely possible that each one's software interprets two completely different realities (as it often happens with married couples ;-).
If we understand this, we can treat our software merely as a tool that allows us to accumulate experiences from which we may derive knowledge to evolve to a higher level. The only thing that separates us from animals is consciousness, so if we don't use that consciousness to advance as human beings, we are no better than animals. In fact we are worse because we are given the chance and the means yet we use it for the wrong purposes. This is why I believe that to make any radical changes in this world we must reprogram this software within each of us because in these dark days, there seems to be a nasty virus that's spreading rapidly and making things go haywire. The only way to reprogram that software is by instilling a different kind of education in our children, where different values and ideals are emphasized, and the importance of respect must be branded permanently in their minds- not just respect for one another but for all living things.
7. After five years of study, what has the Earth Pilgrim project taught you about human nature and what do you hope the project will teach others?
I came to the simple conclusion that humans everywhere have this "herd mentality" and need to feel a sense of belonging to something- anything- whether it's with a particular culture, religion, race, country or group. We fear being isolated and somehow feel more secure and empowered if we can identify with others of the same caste or creed. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it promotes cultural diversity, yet on the other hand, a blind patriotic bias towards our own sense of belonging breeds ignorance and causes the rifts within our society. In too many examples throughout history, we have gone to great lengths to protect and perpetuate our egos at the expense of human lives (when I refer to "we" I mean we, collectively, as a human race, not we individually). Mankind has achieved incredible things yet our arrogance and ignorance towards other cultures has inflicted unimaginable suffering onto others. The genocide of the North American and South American Indians is one of the most brutal, inhuman and shameful outrages man has ever committed upon his fellow man. Like the Holocaust, it is a black spot on the history of mankind yet rarely does anyone acknowledge this. The proof is in the way all the history books are written. Kids grow up without knowing the truth and the extent to which these people were humiliated and made to suffer. So everything we could have learned from that shameful part of our history is lost. This is why intolerance and lack of compassion are still such glaring problems in our society.
The goal of the Earth Pilgrim project is to educate people about the beauty and richness of the remaining few authentic tribal cultures left on this planet. In viewing the uniqueness of their cultures through images, it is my hope that one can stop and perhaps realize that we must help these communities to become autonomous and protect them at all cost from the onslaught of globalization. It is our responsibility to educate others and to give back to these people from who we took so much. We must all do our part in preserving the rainforest and its cultures for the well being of the earth and of future generations.
8. Through an insatiable demand to fuel our desires, Western Civilization has been destroying the natural resources which once made up the land of these tribes, pushing them further and further into the rain forest. It is understandable that these tribes would be hostile towards a Westerner. How have you been received in these remote locations and how have you approached these journeys with this danger in mind?
I try to do as much research as possible beforehand in order to gain a better insight into their culture and to know what I'm up against. I never travel to these locations alone because that would be plain foolish and sometimes suicidal. Someone who has a good relationship with the tribe in question and a fluent understanding of their language and culture always accompanies me. Even then it does not guarantee acceptance by the tribe. Most often their initial reaction is one of hostility because of the reasons you mentioned but these are very wise and intuitive people and they can generally figure out your true intentions within seconds. If you are permitted to stay, this means they are willing to give you a chance and from there on, it's entirely up to you to "make it or break it" with them. In all indigenous cultures, trust is paramount. If you manage to instill a trust in them, then they'll treat you like family and go out of their way to ensure that you are well taken care of and well fed. They will take you to places more beautiful than words can describe and show you things you could never have imagined. They would share their soul with you if they could. They are a very giving and caring people who bestow their trust upon strangers in good faith. The conquistadors were aware of this and lamentably, they exploited it to the max, using this trust and goodwill to deceive the tribes and to eventually destroy them.
As far as the dangers involved in this type of travel, there are dangers aplenty! I have countless scars and bruises to prove it. But in all honesty, I think I'm more scared of the mosquitoes and the deadly strains of Malaria they carry than I am of the hostility of the tribes. Early last year while I was in Ecuador, I found out about a terrible form of cerebral Malaria in the Huaorani area, which caused the victim to succumb within 24 hours. Then there's always the flimsy single engine aircraft that we have to take to get to these areas that scares the crap out of me each time I step foot into one. The weather can also turn deadly within a matter of seconds in the jungle. This past December, again in the Ecuadorian Amazon, as we were traveling down a river in a motorized canoe to get to a nearby community, without warning, we found ourselves caught amid a violent rainstorm. The gusts suddenly increased threefold and the rain pellets jolted my skin with such intensity that it actually stung. The waves also began to increase in steepness and rapidity. Ultimately our whole boat capsized and all my film and $20,000 worth of equipment began sinking into the abyss of the Amazon River.
As my two companions began swimming towards the shore, unable to accept defeat, I recklessly dove underwater to try to salvage at least something. My heart froze as my whole world became engulfed in a profound darkness. I was sinking into pure blackness, completely disoriented, unable to ascertain which way was up or down or left or right. Luckily, somehow, I was able retrieve my camera case and using that for buoyancy, eventually I found my way back up to the surface. Unfortunately, the bag with all my film, plane tickets and other important documentation was never to be seen again. These are unexpected situations that I've come to expect in this unpredictable environment.
I always prepare for a trip to the jungle (like my trip to Peru and Ecuador next week) with the mindset that I may not come back. In that way I do not fear death and it never becomes a deterrent for anything I do. That's not to say that I will take reckless chances with my life. On the contrary, I value my life greatly and tread cautiously anywhere I go. It's all a part of the whole mental training that goes into a journey of this nature. Being alone in the jungle for so long, your mind can be your worst enemy if all fears and paranoia are not eradicated beforehand. It is also crucial to be in optimum physical condition because you cannot afford to get sick in such an isolated environment. Needless to say, there's a fair amount of mental and physical conditioning that must take place before embarking on such a journey.
9. I understand that you are preparing an major exhibit of Earth Pilgrim in Sao Paulo. What will be showcased? Will the exhibit visit other cities?
There will be approximately 100 to 120 16"x20" silver gelatin and platinum palladium prints on display from the Earth Pilgrim collection. Although they will feature a mix of images of indigenous cultures from Borneo, Thailand, Korea, Burma, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, the main emphasis will be on the Amazon tribes and the highland Andean cultures. We will find out the exact dates of the exhibit only at the end of March and it will be posted on the website. Most of the proceeds from the sale of prints will go towards helping some of the less fortunate and isolated Amazon tribes to buy much needed medical and educational supplies.
With each trip to the Amazon, my mission is becoming less about photography and more about humanitarian issues. For example, in this next trip to Ecuador, I am financing the construction of an airstrip in Sua, a remote part of the jungle where there are a lot of children that often need medical attention. With an airstrip, it becomes easy for people like my friend Carlos Godoy (who runs a Medivac aircraft in Puyo with the help of Wings of Hope from St. Louis) to get in there quickly if there is an urgent medical need or if someone needs to be airlifted to a hospital.
After Sao Paulo, the Earth Pilgrim exhibit will travel to Tokyo in the second quarter of 2004, and from there, although nothing has yet been arranged, it is my intention to bring it to the US, perhaps New York or San Francisco, and then to Canada, either in your hometown, Toronto or mine, Montreal. Beyond that I'd like to expose it in Europe but that's way too far down the road to even consider at this point. I'm also planning to publish my first book of all this work shortly after the exhibit here.
10. It seems you have developed a strong relationship with Firstborn, who have completed both Earth Pilgrim and Eccentris which just won the Communication Arts Interactive Design Award.
I have a lot of gratitude and respect for Firstborn. I began the idea for Eccentris more than 3 years ago and went to three different web design companies before I finally approached Firstborn. In the pre-Firstborn days, I cut corners and tried to get an exceptional product using mediocre talent. I ended up spending way too much time spoon-feeding the designers and becoming frustrated. I actually learned Flash myself in the process. After wasting much time and energy, I almost abandoned the idea at one point because I realized that none of these companies could produce what I wanted- it could only be achieved by a solid design firm with a proven track record that was at the top of their game. Then I remembered a site Firstborn had created for Yigal-Azrouel a few years back which I really loved so I decided to contact them.
I had initially considered 3 well-known design firms as the potential candidates: the WDDG, Kioken and Firstborn but in the end, I went with Firstborn because I loved their style and their professionalism. We had a mutual respect for each other's work, which was also important. The success of both sites stems directly from our willingness to create something unique and the fact that we worked together as a team to meet a common goal. After 3 years of tinkering with Eccentris, at least I had a half-decent working model of what I expected from them so the work was pretty clear-cut. There is a lot of talent at Firstborn and both my sites as well as their entire portfolio is a testament to that. For all the blood, sweat and tears that went into creating Eccentris, the overwhelming response we've received from people around the world has made it all worthwhile for everyone involved in this project. Since its launch five months ago, Eccentris has drawn over seven million visitors and still continues to receive over 600,000 hits per month. That's incredible considering we never publicized or advertised the site anywhere! Sachabiyan.com is doing very well also, although that site is less mainstream and seems to have developed a cult following.
11. And as a final question Sacha, what was the last great movie you have seen and what was the last great book you have read?
I don't have much time to watch too many movies these days but the last great movie I saw was while I was back up in Montreal for the holidays. I watched a videotape of my favorite movie of all time, "Nosferatu", the 1979 German version directed by the great Werner Herzog, and starring Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani. It is the most beautifully photographed film I have ever seen. There is a vampire image in Eccentris inspired directly from that movie.
And the last great book I read was "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sednak.
Thanks for this Sacha. We hope you can bring your exhibit to Toronto!