José Navarro is a documentary photographer in the humanist tradition, with an MA in the subject from the University of Wales, and who also happens to be one of our tutors at the Open College of the Arts. He works particularly on the relationships between people and their natural surroundings, and even more specifically in remote and inhospitable environments, such as Eqypt’s Western Desert, India’s Thar Desert, the Andean Plateau (for which he received the 1998 Wilderness Award), the Moroccan High Atlas and Guyana. His most recent documentary project was to accompany a group of Spanish ‘trashumantes’ – semi-nomadic shepherds – on their three-week long annual migration in which they walked 5,000 sheep over 250 miles across the barren Spanish Meseta. This, combined with expedition photography and research for travel publishers, gives José a very focused commitment to linking photography with ethnography and with cultural representations of nature and wilderness. He is currently studying for an MA in Environmental Anthropology, also at the University of Wales.
MF: I thought it would be interesting to look at the work of a photographer who is also one of our tutors, particularly as we have a shared interest in both documentary photography and anthropology. How and why did you begin to stream these two interests together?
JN: Both areas of interest go hand in hand. Documentary photography revolving around people demands close interaction with your subjects. It follows that an understanding of the realities of the people that you photograph is crucial for the practice of the documentary photographer. Empathy; I guess this is the key concept. Although empathy also has its limitations, as I have just found out myself joining the ‘trashumantes’ on their northbound migration.
MF: And how did you get started in photography in the first place?
JN: Like many people out there, it all stemmed from my passion for travel, the outdoors and in particular, wilderness. One thing led to another, the involvement in photography increased, and finally decided to take the plunge, coinciding with my moving to the UK, 14 years ago. Now my personal photography, commercial practice and educational involvement seem to work synergically.
MF: Could you expand a bit on that? Your commercial practice, and then how the personal projects and the education fit in with it?
JN: Yes, I think they all work synergically, in a way. Personal projects show that the photographer has motivation and an inquisitive mind, and can bring commercial assignments. They also help build a portfolio to show potential clients. Personal projects are also crucial if you operate in an educational environment. I endeavour to be inspirational for my students – I say this modestly. I hope that my personal photography makes them think and triggers ideas that help them develop their own work. Having a foothold on real-world commercial practice also gives me a certain perspective that I can also share with my students. It all works together really well.
MF: Most – or is it all? – of your projects are personally motivated. And they also involve travel, often to places that are not easy on logistics. Do you have a procedure for planning any new project?
JN: Yes, on a personal level, I only photograph that which I feel passionate about. I also photograph that which, in a way, help us think about our common humanity. We’re not talking about commercial photography here, although both fields do overlap to an extent. The inception of new projects is very much an organic process. For example, I didn’t get up one morning and decided to cycle across Mali taking photographs of people I came across along the way, and then planned the logistics. I like reading a lot, and I mean a lot. I read travel magazines, geography magazines, photography magazines, academic and non-academic books, I ‘read’ photography, as in I am always keen to see other photographers’ work and learn from them. Out of that pool of information and inspiration come out ideas which gradually grow and are shaped into a project. By the way, I keep a physical file of ideas, some more ambitious than others, which serves as a bank of potential future projects.
MF: And how do you fit them into your year’s schedule?
JN: Freelancing has its disadvantages, but it certainly has its advantages too. One of them is the relative freedom to take time for personal photography projects. It’s a trade off, income continuity in exchange of time. Considering we are only on this planet for a limited number of years I’m perfectly happy with that arrangement.
MF: As you mention on your website, your projects are non-profit. Do you manage to get funding for them from grants or organisations?
JN: Well, the money is out there, although in all fairness it is getting more and more difficult to access it – more competition, funding cuts, etc… Foundations supporting documentary photography are now oversubscribed; project assistance awards are inundated with top-quality documentary – think Fifty Crows, or Alexia foundations. Charities expect you to do work for free, which is understandable, but possibly unfair. This is why it is important to introduce a commercial mindset to one’s personal projects, even though, technically speaking, they will be done on a non-for-profit basis. By this I mean that the correct mindset, in my opinion, is to think that the money that you might eventually generate might also cover your expenses, but not make a profit.
MF: So you have to up-front them financially?
JN: Yes, that’s right. Documentary photography is notoriously difficult to publish and even more difficult to make it pay. It is essential that the documentary photographer starts their own personal documentary projects, and builds a portfolio of work in progress. It will be on the strength of this work in progress than funding and publishing opportunities will develop. On BJP online there was a recent interview documentary photographer Claire Martin, recipient of one of the latest Inge Morath Award, who talked about this issue. Even well-known and established photographers are often dependant on grants and awards to continue their documentary practice. Pep Bonet and Alvaro Leiva spring to mind – recipients of the Eugene Smith and Alexia Foundation Awards, respectively.
MF: Can you take us through one of your projects in some detail – I mean in particular how it evolved creatively from your initial idea, what you discovered during it, and some of the things that happened along the way.
JN: Yes, the ‘trashumantes’ project, for example. A non-for-profit project. To begin with, how can one cost something which has taken 6 years to complete? To be more specific. I found out about the semi-nomadic shepherds of Spain in spring 2004. In summer 2004 I contacted them and went over there to meet them personally. We agreed that I would join them in autumn 2004 for the southbound journey. Unfortunately the blue tongue sheep epidemic prevented them from setting off. I tried again the next year, 2005. Same process; early in the year I went to Spain to meet them again and arranged to join them in the autumn. Same story. The evening before I was due to leave for Spain the migration was cancelled due to administrative hurdles. 2006 was the year I finally did it, at last. Then it was a similar story to get to join them in their northbound migration. To the extent that it was only in June 2010 that I managed to do it.
How can you cost all that? The time it takes to plan it, the travel expenses, the time you have to be away from home, not earning money! Best to think of it as a non-for-profit endeavour which might eventually pay for itself – by selling articles to magazines, stock photography, etc…
MF: Actually, speaking of websites, most of us have one but very few are as well organized and maintained as yours. How important is it for your work? And how much time do you spend on it?
JN: It is a showcase for what I do; at the same time I hope that those who visit my website are visually and intellectually engaged, at least for a few minutes. I try to spend as little time as possible on it; I think that as I get older I am becoming a bit of a luddite. I’m developing a certain aversion for spending long hours in front of the computer. I prefer to go out there and engage with the world. My website is based on a free WordPress template which I modified myself. WordPress is a blog-based platform but it also provides visually-rich internet environments for artists and photographers. The main advantage is that updating and adding information is pretty straight forward – it is a blog at the end of the day.
MF: So how much time would you say you spend blogging on it each week?
JN: Not that long really. I make minor improvements to my website on a weekly basis; perhaps I spend 4 hours per week altogether.
MF: Could you tell me how you see psychogeography and the way it can fit in with photography?
JN: I would say that the act of being-in-the-world is primarily – but by no means exclusively – a visual experience. It follows that photography  has the uncanny ability to articulate how places affect our emotions and how we feel about them at a deep, almost unconscious level. The basis of psychogeographies in photography lies in skipping the cognitive process that leads to taking a photograph. What I mean is that we can bypass our minds and take photographs straight from the experience of perception, of the perception of the place we are in. In other words, do not think about the photograph you are about to take, just capture what your body is perceiving that precise moment – with all your senses, although the sense of sight will prevail, obviously. Lee Friedlander springs to mind as, knowingly or unknowingly, one of the first psychogeographers – see his photographs in the book The Desert, published by Thames & Hudson. Raymond Depardon’s Errance photographs are also a good example of psychogeographies.
Note: click HERE for an online review of Friedlander’s book.
MF: Your ‘interfered landscapes’ are a part of this.
JN: Yes, the interferences are man-made, artificial ones. They don’t just make the ‘countryside untidy’ and spoil our aesthetic perception of the landscape. They’re felt by our unconscious, atavistic inner-self who longs for a wilderness which is not there anymore. The orderly arrangements of shapes of visual interferences always clashes with the seemingly chaotic, self-willed land.
MF: And then there those pictures taken with the Holga when you spent seven months on what you called an ‘untimely return to Spain’.
JN:The Spain I found, in the microcosmos of my fragile emotional condition, was a drab, harsh and utilitarian place. I felt dislocated, unable to operate as a full-time Spaniard, incapable of regaining my Spanish customs and timetables, forever kidnapped by my UK alter-ego. These pictures are the result of this state of mind. The images are immediate, unelaborated and affected by the same tunnel vision which afflicted me during that stay. I do not anticipate using a Holga camera again. This is true because the camera broke down after a few rolls of film uncannily coinciding with the end of my 7-month stay in Spain – it was a toy camera after all.
MF: What new ideas are engaging you right now?
JN: I feel the allure of medium format film for documenting ethnographic landscapes. Film comes back and haunts me every now and again. The slower and necessarily more considered practice that film demands is still very attractive.
MF: It may not be representative, but recently I seem to be hearing quite a number of photographers talking about film or actively re-discovering it. I even looked at my old mahogany-and-titanium 4×5 camera the other day – for the first time in years. When did you stop shooting film (I’m assuming from what you just said that you used mainly medium-format)?
JN: I only stopped using film in 2004. Now I rarely use film purely for financial reasons; it is expensive to develop and scanning is very time-consuming. But when I do I find it very liberating. Do you want a practically non-battery-dependant camera that produces 50-megapixel images with superb dynamic range? Just take a classic medium-format camera and load it with fine-grain negative film. Have we forgotten where we came from, photographically I mean?
MF: Yes, I’m with you on that. I embraced digital photography eagerly, but then I’d already grown up with film and its working methods and had learned a lot from it. Photography’s about image-making, whatever the means we use, and the means have their own individual qualities.
Going back to what you said a moment ago, what do you mean by ethnographic landscapes? And why would film suit them?
JN: The landscapes I am thinking about are the product of culture and wilderness coexisting, particularly in arctic and subarctic environments. This is against what we in industrial societies think with respect to the natural world. We seem to think of humans and wilderness as mutually exclusive. I think there is potential for photography to engage in that discourse, possibly together with other media such as writing, including poetry, and oral histories. As I said before, ideas kind of grow organically and this would be a good example of how shapeless they are at the beginning! And why would film suit them? In this case I would choose fine-grain negative film because it is essentially ‘gentle’ on your subjects. Photographing ethnographic landscapes would need a gentle, considered and reflective approach which is more difficult to achieve with digital, because if its immediateness, boldness and high-contrast bias.
MF: José, thank you. Some intriguing thoughts there, and we’ll be looking forward to seeing the results of your new explorations.
José’s website is at www.pangeafoto.com