His mother was an adventurer who grew while traveling around the world, and then used the trips with her small son as an excuse to stay on the road. So seeing the world was a natural thing for Nicolás Piwonka since his childhood. He describes his mother’s journeys as “experimental, uncomfortable and strange”.
But it were those journeys that developed in Nicolás a true passion for Nature. The photographer is now widely recognized as a remarkable talent for capturing Chile’s landscapes, Nature and people. The use of his lens has been for him the result of “personal and solitary experiences that I have been able to share with others through photography. It has help me to express how I feel”.
He says that his childhood experiences were “a very intense input”, with which he tried to continue as an adult. His first trips were by himself, “hitchhiking, by car or train; to the North and South. As soon as I finished high-school I went to the Altiplano for three months”.
It was precisely during that trip that he decided to take portraits of people, something he rarely does. "My main interests have been landscapes, plants and insects; and that is the result of a big shyness and respect towards people. To me, it is much simpler to have an individual experience with Nature than to relate to other people", he explains. Nicolás has a degree on Biology, and majored in Ethology, the science that studies animal behavior. He worked as an assistant of Chilean professor Humberto Maturana.
"Maturana taught me how to understand from a scientific perspective what life is about, including in that the emotional aspects. So I was able to have an explanation for a mystery that is still very surprising to me", Piwonka explains.
—Actually, you have worked with very un-scientific subjects, such as natural healers and chamanes. You have a book about them, right?
—Right. There are so many domains and places from where you can explain life. You can have a scientific explanation, but also one built out of emotions, or even from magic. These visions can complement one another.
—Are you a self-taught photographer?
—Yes, and I’ve always been interested in photography: before, during and after studying Biology.
—So you never got to work as a biologist?
—No. To me, studying Biology had more to do with understanding life a little bit more, but I’ve always felt more of a Naturalist than a biologist really.
—Like a cotemporary Claudio Gay, but using photography instead of drawings.
—Exactly! It was very important for me to work at the magazine Expedición a Chile, where I got to be the Photo Editor during the magazine’s last two years. In there you got to meet all these wise men from different areas of scientific knowledge: geology, anthropology, biology, entomology, etc. We would plan a trip to some place in Chile, and each one had to focus on those aspects that had to do with his area of knowledge. So while we where traveling, every night we gathered around the fireplace, and one of us would take notes of what was discussed. The goal was to make both pictures and writings that could later be used to explain to a general audience what we had experienced; even a child was supposed to understand it.
—Have you always been a free-lance?
—I had a job contract only once, when I was hired by Roberto Edwards to make trips throughout Chile for two years and make a photo archive. A great job! But it was never published. I’ve done some university teaching and worked many times for the Pre-Columbian Museum’s catalogues.
—How can you make portraits and win people's confidence?
—Making pictures of Nature is still what’s most wonderful to me, and I still feel very shy about approaching people I don’t know. This has been a gradual process for me, which started about ten years ago. I began little by little to feel confident about learning from human nature.
—Which have been the most interesting experiences in that sense?
—For instance, pictures of the Mapuches and Chinese people. Those have been wonderful experiences. To be a photographer is like carrying the key that lets you into extraordinary situations, which would probably take a lifetime to know if it was not for my job. Ceremonies, private and sacred places… it’s great to be able to enter for a couple of months a human field that can make you grow. And people treat you as “Mister Photographer”, and they take good care of you: they have everything ready when you arrive and make sure you feel comfortable. So you get into these very diverse worlds. It’s great fun for me, really. It’s more of a way of life than a job.
—What happens when you make portraits of anonymous people; from those worlds that may be out of the cultural and social centers? What happens to those people?
—You must remember that they might feel that they are not seen in a good way.
--So they must be fearsome, right? How does one solve that?
--Just by sharing a moment that is pleasant for both sides. If there’s a good contact, you’ll get a good picture.
—Is it frequent for those photographed to see the result?
—No. What matters is what happens when you are taking the picture, and that’s what’s left, really. Now, if that portrait is going to end up in a book or an exhibit, you have to be careful for the context not to alter the essence of that picture, because it was the result of a certain human contact.
An island of contrasts
—Can you see any connection between your work and the Chilean identity?
—There might be, but it’s not something I work on consciously. When I’m taking a picture, I basically let myself go, and the rest is just a consequence. There’s two ways of taking a picture: the first one is with the intention of documenting; like when you take a picture of, say, a sunset, and then you say “the picture looks just like it”. The other way is to photograph. That means that, in front of that same sunset, you look for a reflection, a movement, try to capture an emotion or feeling. So when I’m surrounded by people, it is emotion what people give me and is that what I try to capture. I’m not thinking in how to connect one element with another in order to represent a certain identity. Not at all.
—But, nevertheless, your work is very much connected to patrimony. You have made a great job in promoting our people and landscapes.
—It is the emotion what translates as identity. It’s hard for me to talk about “Chilean identity” since for me frontiers are fiction, they’re political and completely secondary. I prefer to talk about this geographical island, which is separated from the rest of the world by the mountains, the sea, the ice from the South and the dessert in the North. That insular condition produces many interesting things.
—On the other hand, such a contrasting geography develops completely different cultures…
—Right, and that’s what identifies us: diversity, and not a shared quality. Rain produces certain characteristics, traditions and ways of thinking. Dryness, some other. You can’t introduce the ‘cueca’ in Magallanes or in San Pedro de Atacama. What democracy should really allow is a diversified concept of identities: the northern, the southern, etc. It would be so much richer for all of us. You can’t try to force a unification over what one supposes is national identity. On the other hand, you have different points in the world where you do see cultural coincidences.
—Which one of your works has given you the greatest satisfaction?
—All of them. Just the fact of living those experiences is worthwhile for me. A very low percentage of what I photograph ends up in books, magazines, the web or exhibits. But I’m happy of having lived through each one of them.
—Do you believe that people are now getting closer to photography?
—I believe that as long as people are able to see a picture and feel some kind of emotion, identify themselves with it, they will be motivated.
—In that sense, photography is a privileged way to promote patrimony.
—Absolutely. Because the first step for taking care of something is to know it. I can say “let’s take care of the forests”, but it happens that some people have never seen a forest. And there are also some people that live inside a forest, and don’t know how valuable it is.