I have lived in the islands of the Paraná River Delta in Argentina for three years. Far away from the city and connected with the river and the local people. During these years living in the islands, I photographed its community under the light of the Moon. Influenced by books and stories about the great Paraná River, I began to observe how people live and work in a natural environment where the primary element is water. Every day I crossed the Paraná River in a motorboat, meeting island residents here and there—on the wharf, in a store or at the floating gas station.
I became an islander in order to document the everyday lives of the people in this community on the Delta. Posing on islands illuminated by the full moon, families, fishermen, sailors, loggers, and hunters contributed to my portrait of this island community. I worked with a large-format camera to capture staged nighttime shots that included people, water, sky and vegetation. Each photo required a long exposure that forced my subjects to remain motionless for as long as ten minutes. I sought to convey the extraordinary visual and poetic impact of the river as well as the intimate relationship between the Paraná Delta community and their environment.
My appetite to see and discover new work is insatiable, so when Marcelo Brodsky suggested that I meet some young Argentine photographers, when I was considering who to show at the Brighton Photo Biennial for 2010, I jumped at this opportunity.
By the time I had seen the third image in Chaskeilberg’s folio I was convinced this was a major new photographer. I had never seen any images like this before and few with such maturity from a new photographer.
On one level his work is documents a rural community living on the banks of the Parana river delta. But there is so much more than this. All taken during the full moon, his photos are a virtuoso exploration of how flash, torches, moonlight and posed portraits all fuse together in a seamless manner. The photographer has combined subject and methodology so convincingly that you know he has resolved this brilliantly. So much so, you hardly notice the thin line between subject and style.
When I first saw his work, he had already a good year of shooting behind him but I was convinced he needed to return to fully realise the potential of this project. So he returned to the area from mid 2009 to mid 2010 to consolidate his exploration and documentation.
Every photograph is carefully researched and rehearsed. As each one needs to have the backdrop of the full moon as an essential ingredient, the window for shooting is no more than three clear nights. The subjects, being hard working foresters, are usually tucked up in bed by 9pm, have to be persuaded to stay up late and sit for many minutes while the long exposures are made. The fact he stayed in this community was an obvious advantage. All the subjects knew his project and were willing sitters. The image featured on page xx is remarkable as this was the first time one itinerant Paraguayan worker had ever seen a photo of himself.
The documentary value of these images is the real bonus. If we did not know who they were, or indeed where they were taken, these images would still delight the eye.
I think a key element of this work is the fact that Chaskielberg was previously a director of photography in the film world. The rigour of setting up artificial lighting, staging and making the frame work – all contribute the essential elements to this project.
This remarkable body of work ticks all the boxes. It is art, it is stylistically innovative, it documents a fragile community, and it helps to give substance to the new emerging photographic culture to be found in Argentina.
Martin Parr Feb 2011
LIGHTBOX TIME INTERVIEW LA CRECIENTE
Since 2007, Argentinian artist Alejandro Chaskielberg has been living periodically in the Paraná River Delta Region. Chaskielberg spends much of his time observing the lives of the locals, whose days center around labor —mainly fishing, boating, and farming. Chaskielberg, who studied film and began his career as a photojournalist, expands the conventions of documentary photography by putting real people in re-imagined scenes of every-day life. The surrealist photographs are shot at night and in twilight, which are lit with a combination of available moonlight, flashlights, strobes and lanterns. The integration of the real and the artificial transforms the images, according to the Yossi Milo Gallery, into “a dreamlike work where perceptions of color, light and space are challenged.”
How did you come about photographing the region?
The first time I went to the Paraná Delta, I was eight years old. I went with my family to a vacation house near the port closest to the city, called Tigre. From the beginning, I was fascinated by the unusual vegetation and the brown color of the river. In 2007, I started visiting a friend who was living in the Delta and writing a script for a movie. The house was close to the Bajos del Temor [Shallows of Fear], an area of shallow water and islands that expand with the sediment that comes down the Paraná. At the time, I was experimenting with making images by moonlight. I decided to make these kinds of images in the Delta. I started by shooting landscapes of the islands, and very soon I got involved with my neighbors, the islanders.
What are your inspirations for the series?
Some writers have inspired me for this work. They describe the atmosphere of the Delta and the life in the islands. One writer is Haroldo Conti, in his book Sudeste, and another is the Uruguayan Felisberto Hernandez in Casa Inundada, and Horacio Quiroga who wrote about life in the jungle of northern Argentina. There are also influences from the music of the Mesopotamian region the Paraná River flows through, like the Chamamé, folk music with roots in the native Guaraníes, with German influence due to immigration. Another influence is a photographic book on the Paraná River by Argentinian photographer Roland Paiva; although his images are very different from mine, in his book, you can smell the river.
How do you come about choosing your subjects?
My everyday work consisted of sailing the rivers of the Delta on a motorboat. I met the islanders randomly, on piers and in general stores, sometimes sharing a glass of wine at a grocery store or getting gas at the fuel station. Some of them were my neighbors, and some were people recommended by other islanders. Once, while sailing down the Canal Five, I waved to an old man on the bank. In the Delta, everybody waves to each other. The way he waved his hand to say hello was very generous, and I knew he had a big heart. I stopped the boat, and we talked for hours. That is how I met José Castel. We agreed to have a dinner of island stew together the next day and take a photo in his kitchen.
How long do shoots usually take? And how long does it take to produce a single image?
The exposures usually take five to ten minutes, and the shoot for one scene usually takes about four hours. I work using the full moon as a key element in my composition and lighting. Therefore, the window for doing the shoots is only about three clear nights. During the rest of the month, I work on planning and pre-visualizing the images, sailing, following the islanders in their daily work and setting up the night for the shoot with them. The way of producing these images is completely different from what I was used to: sometimes, it takes months to gain confidence with the people before shooting an image. It wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t moved to the islands for two years.
What are the tools you use to make the images—props, cameras, lights?
I photograph with a Sinar Norma 4Å~5″ large format camera with positive film. I use different flashlights, some incandescent and some LED-lights with different white balances, to illuminate the images. I also make my own lights with bamboo canes and compact flashes.
Do you have favorite images in the series?
One of my favorite images is The Paraguayans, because it is the first photograph that the subject had of himself. It was a difficult shoot and one of the first ones with an islander. The night of the shoot was really cold, and I was nervous. The moon wasn’t in the right position for the composition I had planned, so we watched a soccer match on an old TV, waiting for hours until the moon was completely perpendicular to the earth. Another interesting image is The Three Steps. I wanted to shoot a low metal barge loaded with willows. As I got the shot ready, Ramón, the night watchman, and I shared wine mixed with lemon soda. He told me that he was originally from Gualeguaychú, and that he had come to the islands after serving time for manslaughter. ‘He was a bad guy,’ he told me. ‘He stole my tools, and one afternoon found both of us armed. He had been drinking and fired two shots at my house. I came out holding my deer-hunting rifle, and, thanks to my bad luck, my shot got him in the chest’. After six years in jail, he arrived in the islands and adopted Pepino, a rooster who follows him everywhere he goes. Ramón carried on talking, and everything seemed to be at a standstill. It was midnight. I turned my camera around and asked if I could take a shot of them together.
How have the images been received by the subjects?
They usually like the images, but I feel they don’t have much interest in looking at photographs. I think they appreciate the images merely as records of their lives. They are used to seeing amazing colors and landscapes in everyday life, and they express more interest in me as photographer than in the images themselves. One of the islanders I photographed is Don Segundo, who is seventy years old. He lives alone in the woods, in a small hut made of poplar logs. He emigrated from Chile when he was very young, because he found the pain intolerable after his mother abandoned him to the care of his father. Since he left Chile, he has had no contact with his family. Don Segundo is an otter hunter, and his only belongings are twelve rusty traps and a yerba mate set. He is a believer; he speaks slowly and nods his head in silence. When we met the first time, he said, ‘I am proud to have made the acquaintance of a photographer.’