Luis Weinstein received an honorable mention in the exhibition “Documenting the Impact of Covid-19 through Photography: Collective Isolation in Latin America,” sponsored by ReVista and the Art, Culture, and Film program at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS.)
The exhibition, based on an Open Call for Photography launched in July 2020, aims to create a critical visual record of our unprecedented times so they can be remembered by future generations. 2020 will be remembered as a watershed year in which a pandemic laid bare the inequalities and fissures within our society. It has also underscored the importance of living and participating in communities even while experiencing the pandemic in isolation. The exhibition seeks to promote a regional perspective from Latin America and the Caribbean of the collective isolation imposed by Covid-19.
Collective isolation is a centrifugal force: as we spin around the axis of public health and growing public fear, we are crushed against our inner walls, which separate us from anyone on the other side. In Santiago, while we quarantined between May and September, we could only guess at what was happening to other people.
During those long hours spent staring at books and screens, I began to think about the idea of ceteris paribus, “all other things being equal.” This abstract notion, often used in economic or social-scientific models, means to hold a set of variables steady while you alter them one by one and examine the consequences for the rest of the system. During lockdown one question has been: what happens when you stop movement in a city, in a street? And how do you show this stress through photography? During this curious window of warped time, I used every chance I had to peer outside my front door to record this shifting experience in Santiago, Chile.
When I read about this invitation to send a seven-image project about “collective isolation” to DRCLAS, I decided to edit a series from photographs taken on walks near my home. One of my main interests with photography is to explore how images work as a complex visual language, a new space of meanings, relations and possibilities issuing from what the late Vilém Flusser called the “technical image.” We live now in a space in which the written text is not the only medium to discuss and organize concepts of our individual and social fabric. Images influence our way of thinking in many aspects. In this series there are always images within images, and text and pictures are mixed together so there’s a trace of some intention in the framing of each photograph.
The story begins in the aftermath of the social unrest in Chile, which lasted from October 2019 until the lockdown. In the second picture a solitary masked bus driver in the foreground is pictured against a background of political graffiti. He is immersed in graphic signs. Every image is a story in itself: towards the end of the series we see a coffin on a plinth branded with the word “acoger” (shelter). It is being photographed by a grieving couple, for whom the threat of the virus is so real they can photograph its consequences, even being photographed as they proceed. And yet the rituals of grief have been reduced to a bare minimum, and the picture will bear witness to the large party not allowed to be present. The last image shows the erasure of protest texts on a wall: only the “vende” (sale) sign will remain after the virus.
In early April, when we had a few free days between curfews and quarantines, I walked to the plaza where the city’s major confrontations and mass gatherings have taken place since at least the 1940s. It was deserted, except for the police officers guarding a statue of a 19th-century general that had been covered in graffiti just a couple of weeks before. The statue had been a silent witness to massive protests that led to a plebiscite to change the constitution and almost toppled the government—and this monument too.
When I approached, the police asked for my press credentials. I had to prove that I wasn’t just a regular citizen taking pictures on the street—even though a regular citizen is perfectly entitled to do so. Otherwise they would take me to the police station to “check” my ID there. Angry about recent criticism of the police on social media, they interrogated me about my intentions. I asked if it was now forbidden to photograph a city landmark, but they didn’t bother to answer. I wasn’t allowed to take the first shot of this series until I found my press pass hiding at the bottom of my pocket. This fear of photography is a barometer of the social pressures we live under, and further demonstrates that the medium offers an opinion of reality, not just an “objective” or mechanical depiction. The government, including the agencies of law and order that depend on it, know this all too well.
I have been a professional photographer since the late 1970s, working mostly in the streets. It has been difficult to tell the story of a pandemic that has no precedent in photography, and whose deeply harmful effects often show themselves in subtle ways. Without the assistance of captions under the photographs, how do you show a city depleted of cars and people in a way that feels different from a regular Sunday morning? How do you suggest the silence of the pandemic rather than the regular silence of a day off in a big city?
Including masked people in the frame helps. But then you need pedestrians on the sidewalk, and during Santiago’s strict lockdown there weren’t many available. When I spotted this line of people queuing under a sign that read ‘vívelo fácil’ (live it the easy way) I saw a way to overcome this issue. The juxtaposition of texts and street life is one of the most arresting aspects of taking pictures in the urban context, where, as in a surrealist’s plot, chance and careful observation play a central role. By the same token, such photographs speak in a local rather than a universal language—you need to understand Spanish to “read” them. But that is a central issue for Latin American photographers seeking to make statements about, and from within, their own countries and struggling to circulate them to a wide audience.
As I tried to find ways to expose what was going on through photography I could, of course, have gone to hospitals or cemeteries. But since I’m not a working photojournalist, whose job is to tell the community about the pandemic on a daily basis, to do so would have been to burden the working lives of first responders and to become part of the problem. I tried other neighborhoods too, but found myself stopped at barriers designed to limit travel between districts. So I reframed my scope and looked for images in my immediate surroundings. As time went on, they included the lonely sadness of Covid-related funerals in my own family.
As I write we are still deep in the pandemic. Death and poverty loom over our heads. Immune systems, both social and individual, are inflamed. We rely on our social webs to support us.
While enduring this experience I have understood that if there’s a solution, it’s collective.
Luis Weinstein of Chile has worked as a professional photographer since 1979. “Walking with my camera has produced a large archive, which I have shown in over 40 exhibitions and nine photobooks. I am looking forward to developing my best work yet,” he says, and adds, “with special thanks to Simon Willis for his patience editing my curious English.”
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