Alejandro Chaskielberg: illumination and reflection

Buenos Aires born Chaskielberg established himself as a photo-journalist at the age of 18, garnering a reputation for his reportage on a range of social and political issues. Chaskielberg photographs by the light of the full moon (with just a ‘kiss’ of flash), asking his subjects to recreate their daytime activities in darkness, resulting in images that appear hyper-real, with almost psychedelic colouring. British audiences have a chance to see Chaskielberg’s striking work as he participates in the Brighton Photo Biennial on the invitation of Martin Parr.

After gaining a degree in photography from the National Film Institute of Buenos Aires Chaskielberg turned to developing documentaries for television. His work has seen him push documentary photography to its limits, and win numerous awards including the Curriculum Cero, one of the most prestigious prizes awarded to young artists in Argentina. He participated National Geographic ‘All Road’ traveling exhibition, across the USA in 2009.

In the last 20 years or so, there seems to have been a shift in photography’s status from the journalistic to the artistic, people such as Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky and Gregory Crewdson have deliberately mimicked the look of ‘old-master paintings’-I was wondering what your take on this was?

I think that documentary photography is art in itself, I can´t separate or think these as two different ideas or structures.

Which image makers were you looking at in your formative years?

I am not used to looking at too much photography, so I can´t name any important influences from other photographers. However, from cinema, which has been my main foundation, I can name Herzog, Greenaway, Polanski and Lynch.

Your work has journalistic intentions- the depiction of Paraguayan immigrants, but is rendered very beautifully, this ‘magical realism’ runs against the standard look of documentary photographs. Could you explain a little bit about your shift from the earlier work towards the more expansive, choreographed newer work.

I have always been interested in political issues and documentary photography. I started working in a weekly magazine, where I photographed social-issues as well as studio-portraits, sports, shows, everything. In this magazine we made a big strike to stop lay offs. I was one of the youngest and most combative photographers during the strike. All this got me exhausted and I decided to leave photojournalism; so I joined the Buenos Aires music conservatory for four years. I was playing violin and thought I would never shoot again.

The music conservatory was the turning point to get back into photography with a more personal approach.

Do you know the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto? I am reminded of his project of photographing films in cinemas – he would leave the exposure rate of the camera for as long as the film resulting in a white glow. This makes me think of a few things in relation to your work- this interest in duration and a wish to return to the first experiments of photography. You have mentioned previously an interest in the mechanics of photography – could you talk a little bit about this interest in process, how do you think digital has changed this process?

I think that photography has changed due to experimentation and it is now part of its own language.

Since I got my first camera at 10 years old I have been conquered by technique.

My photographs are made in 4×5 large format but at the same time I shoot with a digital camera to see the images instantly. I also use the digital files to support a correct developing process. My work would be very different without the digital support.

Are the people in your photographs acting? From what I understand you ask the subjects to re-enact scenes and to stay still – is this acting important? Picasso said that art was a lie to a greater truth, is this something that you could say in relation to your work?

Yes but posing for a photograph is a way of acting, even if you shoot during the day or in a conflict area. I like the idea that photography decodes the real world and transforms it like a subjective mirror.

Your work makes me think about these very personal stories being depicted but somehow you elevate them to a historical, public space – you treat their stories in a filmic sense -elevating them – how do the subjects feel about being in your work?

When we are photographing they usually feel strange, but at the same time they trust me. In the end, they like the images.

How much post-production is there in you work? Is it mostly ‘in-camera’?
It is mostly in camera.

When you show the work in a gallery, how large are the photographs?

The print sizes are mainly 43 x 55″ but I am preparing some 65″ wide prints.

Your work portrays people in the great social realist tradition; workers, essentially the ‘under-represented’. You mention in previous interviews that you work alongside the people in your photographs, earning their trust. What do you want to achieve through these photographs?

Photography is for me a tool for discovering. I lived in the islands of the Delta for two years, where I got involved with the daily life of the islanders.
There are two ideas that I like as a way of understanding reality: illumination and reflection.

With these photographs, I tried to merge these ideas and document this community that has been photographically ignored throughout the years.

Where do you hope to take the work next?

The next step is to print a book with “The High Tide”, coming very soon. I am also planning a sailing expedition along the Paraná River from Buenos Aires to Paraguay.

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