Carlos Villalon the Chilean photographer has forged a two-decade career in the world of photojournalism. His photographic journey began at the renowned Getty Images. At Getty he began to understand the emotively charged relevance of photography as a medium to document history. But it was only when Carlos Villalon began his own independent photographic journey that he was able to point his camera with purpose into subjects that made him ‘curious’ to ‘solve problems’ and tackle ‘injustice’.
High ideals but Carlos Villalon has fulfilled those wishes and more. Under his gaze a myriad of issues pertinent to Latin America are scrutinised. No subject is avoided. From photographing death in all its viscerality, to close and personal documentation of drug use and its effects- it can at times be uncomfortable viewing.
But that is exactly it. Such problems cannot be tackled unless we see the true extent, gravity and sometimes yes, the blood and guts. Carlos Villalon does not revel in the uncomfortable he just shows a willingness to be close to the uncomfortable.
Can you talk about the childhood of a young Carlos in Chile-how did it effect the life choices you subsequently made?
In 1973 I was living in Santiago, Chile. I was eight years old that morning when I heard planes flying over my head while I was playing war with these little plastic soldiers. Next day my father took me to look at the bombed presidential palace. I remember my mother covering the windows of our house with a futon during a shoot-out between MIR (Leftist Armed Movement in Spanish Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria) guerrillas and police forces, that was the Chile I grew up in for the next 17 years, with an incredible family. Basically, I lived most of my childhood and youth under dictatorship. In a way, I think the human right abuses, the fact that we could not, as a society, govern ourselves, the daily violence and the lack of real shaped, in a way, my career into photojournalist.
How did family specifically affect your choice into creativity?
My father, Carlos Villalón used to bring books to me as a gift when I was a small child. He would sit with me and tell me tales. Later in my youth he would play opera and jazz records and tell me stories about it. He taught me Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and I taught him Bukowski. He was essential to my humanistic world. My mother, pure good sense.
When DeNegri was killed, I wasn’t a photographer at all, but I was in Santiago when his murder happened. I feared the police, the military and Pinochet. They were my enemies. Murdered musician Victor Jara was one of the other people murdered in Chile who made an impression on me.
Explain why you made the choice to go to New York to study photography?
Love like fate take you to strange places, in my case it was love and the urge to leave Chile. I was having enough of it. Pinochet was gone. I had to go for a change of life. Once in NYC I decided to study photography to really understand what type of photography I wanted to develop as a career. After taking several classes at Parsons, finally I decided to take photojournalism as a way of life.
You worked with the famed Getty Images what did you learn and how did it shape the type of photography you would take?
Getty was for me a start of this career. Patrick Whalen gave me the chance of becoming a professional photographer and because of that opportunity I came to understand photography as an extremely important document for next generations.
Latin America really came up to me, photographically speaking, because of a plant and a guerrilla group, THE FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in English. After that, in the shape of farmers’ movements, the abandonment of the state and above all, the interest in coca plants and how they affected communities across the entire map.
Your work is raw photo journalism of the highest order which focuses on the disenfranchised, the dangerous, the graphic-what has been one of your most powerful pieces of work that affected you deeply?
It affected me deeply the relationship between drug trafficking and youngsters who live to protect basically a rich trafficker who does not do anything for these poor young men. They die for the boss who really does not care a dime about them, but since they are slaves of poverty, they cannot do anything about it. There´s specifically a photograph of a youngster lying dead on one of Medellin, Colombia, streets who was shot by a rival gang for being at the wrong place at the wrong moment. Another, an indigenous woman shot by an armed group accused of being a spy. Her body, put to rest inside a bar with a single candle to send away her soul.
It states in your bio you focus on coca or cocaine why and indeed what effect has this one plant had on the social, political climate of Latin America and the globe (big question we know but give us a moderate answer if you can)
Coca is a sacred plant venerated by thousands across the South American continent, people really lead their lives because of the plant´s existence. ¨Because of Coca we came to this earth.” A shaman told me a while ago. I considered this thought process incredibly important.
In the aspect of drug trafficking, cocaine has played an incredibly important global role. Presidents have been instated and thrown out because of this drug. Because of the same drug, there are saints created by drug traffickers, Jesus Valverde in Mexico, The assassin’s virgin in Colombia. There´s music created because of it, Narco Corrido and Narco hip-hop. Architecture in some cases has been influenced by cocaine and so on.
I chose this way of life, I can´t be detached, I don´t want to be detached.
Many of your images focus on the effects it has on the people talk to us more about the images you capture of those addicted to cocaine?
Addiction is a health problem and the people who uses drugs are ill. People who don´t want to be sick. Most users I had talked to before I took their pictures were very nice people with a big problem. People like you and me.
We wanted to talk about your images of the effects on the rain forest-what is the future from what you can see?
If we keep acting like this the effects on our rain forests are not our problem but we will have serious troubles in years to come. I see how jungles are depleted in Colombia and the Amazonian rain forest every day and see our leaders doing nothing about it but instead pushing for more mining, oil extraction. This action, in the end will lead to one problem, lack of water, then it is going to be too late to talk about it.
We also wanted to talk about your images of The Beast-what are your views on the Beast and what is the wider story for those who might not know-what made you interested in capturing it?
The Beast, a cargo train that carries thousands across Mexico to achieve their American Dream. But who are these people? Poor women and men who say enough is enough and are obligated to leave their homes because of lack of opportunities and the rampant violence that affects their countries. And what do we do? Nothing. We just look at them as cargo, as objects. They are real people, they love, they feel. We need to create new policy, so they can stay home with their love ones. We need to talk about this violence and how to stop it. Drugs come in, we need to discuss legalization and other ways to end this violence.
Acid attacks tell us more about the victims of the attacks-how they survive and why they became victims and what so interested in capturing those images?
That was a series of assignments from The Washington Post and Al Jazeera. I knew about the problem in South East Asia, but I did not know about it in Colombia. When editors explained to me about the story, I thought, this is something I really want to work in, beautiful souls, women annihilated by a jealous partner, because this is basically what it is, a man trying to put down a woman because she´s not his. Stupidity at its best. These victims are people and despite the damage caused to them, they keep fighting, they are very strong, and they taught me an invaluable lesson for life.
As a photo journalist taking images of death, drug use you must be detached and indeed is it important to be detached?
I chose this way of life, I can´t be detached, I don´t want to be detached. I always try to create a link between people and myself, these are hard to forget.
Lastly in projects you are working on you can discuss.
I´m working on a book project, Cocaine The Lost War all travel is complete, the pictures are taken, design is finished. This is a book that explores Coca as a sacred plant. Also, it is an invitation to discuss, to debate the war against drugs created by Nixon in 1969. That war is lost already. We need to find new ways to protect our youth, to educate them. We need to stop the bloodshed and the misery this war brings to millions across the world.