Andrés Donadio is a Colombian photographer born in Bogotá in 1986. He studied informatics at the Andes University before entering the École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie in Arles, France, in 2009. Since then he has developed a remarkable photographic work, questioning the territorial identity through images that lack of identity. His initial focus on informatics gave him the possibility to confront his work as an artist with the use of new technologies that distort the nature of the image, provoking a disturbance in the identity of the territories portrayed. His series No Landmarks, Undefined Landscapes and Renderings expose photography to its inability to represent or identify a specific landscape. In 2016, the MAMBO in Bogotá exhibited his photographic work on the Tequendama Falls titled Fog: visions of the waterfall.
P.D.F.: Andrés, in your most recent series of photographs you have focused on the fall of the Bogotá River, a place called “El Salto del Tequendama”. That territory you decided to photograph is a place of remembrance for many Colombians. Since the XVIII century it has been the source of different stories that we all keep in our minds. Before talking about memory, I wanted to know why you consider that territory as a place impossible to represent.
impossibility of representing a territory is for me a recurrent
topic. In general terms, that idea is related with a certain
suspicion I have when it comes to use photography to document a
territory or a specific event. In this case, that impossibility of
representing a place has a lot to do with a common idea we have about
the territory surrounding the falls of Salto del Tequendama.
When I started investigating about that place, I had to confront the preconceptions that many Colombians have in their minds today with the history that has informed it since the pre-colonial era. How to gather all those different stories and point of views about the fall in only one work? If I had started on different premises, I would have probably given too much importance to one specific story about the fall. In the end, I decided to leave the doors open by concentrating on the fog as a symbol of that impossibility to capture the entire landscape. Curiously enough, I felt that the impossibility to photograph was embracing all sorts of interpretations.
P.D.F.: The fog, after which you entitled the project, works also as a metaphor. It is saying that the memory of that specific place is covered in clouds. What we can say is that the waterfalls near Bogotá are present in our minds. Since the colonial period, a great number of poets, scientists, botanists and immigrants have written a lot about that place. We can think about F. Charry Lara, Francisco José de Caldas and Alexander von Humboldt, all describing the density of that fog when they visited the falls. It is a very strong element of that landscape. In his diary, Humboldt says: “I have seen waterfalls more rich in water but I had never seen one with such a permanent fog, pending permanently over the Tequendama". Alexander von Humboldt, Diario: viaje al Salto del Tequendama, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, 26 – 27 de Agosto de 1501. Do you think that those two interpretations, that of the scientists and that of the poets, have created an imaginary that unconsciously nourishes your practice?
A.D.: The journals of the first European explorers and the lines that Tequendama falls inspired among poets have been a clear reference for me, no doubt about that. I have also looked at the gravures and the paintings that described the Tequendama Falls landscape as a paradisiac place or a rare and exquisite beauty. Reading all that literature allowed me to have a wider perspective on a place that I only knew through more dramatic stories, shared by journalists in the first half of the XX century. Those stories where ratifying the very sad vision I had of that place.
My personal memory was based on the weekends I spent there with my family, when we took the road to la Mesa and had to drive over that fog, closing the windows when we got closer to the fall not to feel the terrible smell of the polluted waters of the river. This idea of a dead river is unfortunately what many Colombians have about Tequendama Falls. Now I guess my vision of that place is somehow half way between the stories of the first explorers and the chronicles I read about the suicides of the river and the pollution of the place.
P.D.F.: It is fascinating that your work starts with the impossibility to photograph a place, but also with the difficulty to reactivate that memory of a territory, just as a documentary photographer would have done. Coming back to the idea of the fog, I would like to know what is really absent in your photographic records, and what you really have been able to represent through photography.
A.D.: I think that my images have created a mutual beneficial relationship with the memory of that place and the stories I gathered. The project contains some found documentary material - mainly images that depict incidents we cannot see behind the fog - which is given a second life by the photographic records I integrated. All the images acquire a different meaning and become credible for the viewer. I don’t consider them as being images illustrating a book or images that talk about a place that no longer exists. The images are there as the place is there, lost in the middle of a dense fog. Sometimes the photographs hide more than they reveal.
Even if the photographic records I integrated to the series seem to be re-interpreted, they create a storyline, a meaning, a photographic sequence of that never ending exploration of the Tequendama Falls. They express what I experienced during those journeys of exploration, while the archives are what allow me to put this representation in doubt. By using the archive material, I try to question all the preconceived ideas we have of that place.
P.D.F.: There is something more I want to know concerning your philosophy on landscape and territory. In a small text in the book Lost Territories: Fruit Garden published by Sputnik Fotos, the authors talk about a feeling of oppression experienced by eastern European citizens after the fall of the Soviet Union. In their vision, and more particularly in the mind of Rafal Milach, nature represents a form of deliverance from that suffering. He says: “Nature is simply that innocent thing…” . You decided to quote Francisco José de Caldas to share the vision of the Tequendama Falls. What the botanist and scientist felt when he saw that landscape was terrifying: “The pleasure and horror are here, drawn over the entire landscape. It seems as if nature was pleased to gather the majesty and beauty of the landscape with the fear and terror of that master peace she has created” Francisco José de Caldas, El Salto de Tequendama, Banrepcultural, 2017. What was your experience when you first entered that territory?
Exploring the Salto de Tequendama is a strange experience. The
landscape can change radically in one day depending on weather
conditions and the quality of water. Sometimes I found a very calm,
silent and transparent waterfall allowing me to observe everything
around, with no mystery. In other occasions, the waters of the
Tequendama Falls were roaring and we could only hear their sound
behind the dense fog. I think the explorers where not wrong when they
described the fascination and horror the landscape could inspire.
But I do agree with the idea that nature is an innocent thing. It’s a subject I care about. It has been present in my entire work. I remember well Raskolnikov, the character from Dostoievski’s Crime and Punishment talking about the nature as if it was a pure an innocent thing we humans have lost. In the particular case of Tequendama Falls, I think the fear comes from the actual characteristics the river has acquired and to the ignorance that surrounds its existence and its physical presence in the territory. Many stereotypes have been misleading the vision of what that place really is.
P.D.F.: Not only explorers and poets have told the story of that waterfall. There are also many chronicles and family stories that talk about suicides happening at the Tequendama Falls. I remember that my great-aunt told us about a friend of her, a poet that killed herself when they where visiting the waterfalls on a school trip. When the sisters knew that one of their students was missing, they came back to the place finding a pair of shoes and clothes that belonged to that person, on one side of the fall. What role have those stories played in your work?
A.D.: During my investigation I had access to several chronicles that where reconstructing the scene of those suicides, telling the story of the disappearance of many people in the Tequendama Falls. I also found the strange stories of José Joaquín Jiménez García, better known as Ximénez, a journalist that became famous for collecting copies of the poems he wrote from the pockets of those who wanted to end up their lives. There are lots of stories surrounding that place. I found out that the Tequendama waterfalls are among the 10 most frightening places in the world. For years that place inspired ghost stories liked to an old hotel built by German immigrants, a place that had a view on the waterfalls. Today it is a museum called Casa Museo.
It's true that the falls have become the perfect place for people to commit suicide, but that landscape is wider and richer than we can imagine. The chronicles do not allow us to see the whole frame. I did include the notion of death in the project, but without making any direct reference to those events. I even integrated a music track from Noel Petro in one of the videos and included the image of Warner, the “non-suicide” man that crossed the waterfalls.
P.D.F.: That landscape must be very hard to photograph. Is there anything you would have loved to record and simply couldn’t?
A.D.: The territory nearby the Bogotá river and the Tequendama waterfalls is quite hard to embrace in terms of photography. It is almost impossible to represent. I was lucky to be able to develop a very honest companionship with people working at the Casa Museo Tequendama that had been working for years in that region, trying to clean the waters of that river. Thanks to them I was able to meet the inhabitants of the region who guided me through the landscape.
There are many places I would love to visit again and other I could never go and would like to visit. There are roads that take you down the waterfall and it’s even possible to cross the river just at the end of the Natural Park of Chicaque. Some of the images I made talk about the frustration I felt when facing a place that was so difficult to access.
P.D.F.: Could we say that your photographs interrogate the anonymity of a landscape and explore the phenomenon of the loss of identity of a specific territory?
A.D.: I guess it’s not possible to talk about the Tequendama Falls without embracing all the changes it has been facing during its entire history. Even if we share a collective memory about the place, many economic, social and political issues that determined the destiny of the Tequendama are have been completely forgotten and ignored. It is one of the most representative cases that demonstrates the indifference and negligence we have had towards nature in Colombia.
The destiny of that territory has lost importance since the colonial period. That is why I decided to include images shared by indigenous groups living there and other historical records that show how we have progressively erased that place from our memories. What was considered a national item has now become the symbol of our capacity to forget the past and ignore our territory.
P.D.F.: What explains your interest in that process of loss of identity of a territory? Is it the need to go beyond the limits of what photography can represent or is it about making visible what we will never be able to know or see entirely in the landscape?
A.D.: The work I did at Tequendama Falls was one of my first encounters with the documentary format. In my former projects I always started with the idea of erasing the trace of a recognizable landscape to make it look anonymous. It’s what I did with No Landmarks, the series of photographs where I decided not to give references of the landscape photographed: date, location, place, etc.
In Fog: visions of the fall, the landscape is really relevant. Firstly because it was the result of a residency program I did for the Alliance Française and Arles School of Photography. The main topic was: the territory. Without entering into a pure documentary field, I felt that in this case it was important to develop a very personal commitment with that place to feel some respect for it. I was facing a neglected territory that has not been totally understood and I knew I could not be able to embrace the entire place in one series. That is probably why I decided to include archive material in the final project. I wanted to treat the Tequendama Falls with a more tangible dimension if compared to the abstract and conceptual frames I had developed earlier. In this place where people get lost and disappear, I found a new way of dealing with the main subject that is about the impossibility to represent a singular territory in its multiple dimensions.
P.D.F.: I recently read a philosophic text by Henry David Thoreau titled Walden, Life in the Woods. It’s hard to compare that experience of wilderness with yours. In the first half of the XIX century, many intellectuals and liberal thinkers wanted to get away from the city to live closer to nature, as if that experience embraced a sort of existential and philosophical redemption towards modernity. Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Ellery Channing and Bronson Alcott thought that society corrupted the human nature. Such a philosophical and liberal thinking did not develop in Colombia. How have you faced the wilderness you encountered at the Tequendama Falls? How did you perceived it?
A.D.: You’re right. The idea of getting lost in the wilderness and finding a sort of redemption in our contact with nature is not very common in Colombian’s recent history. Thousands of people had to run away from their land, and the city has been the main destiny for them all. In our recent history, the countryside has been the territory of conflict. Today things are changing. We start to be more conscious about the territory we live in. We try to know it better and to identify ourselves with it. I have several friends who in the last 10 years have chosen to quit the city and move to the fields
For me, the Salto de Tequendama is a very unwelcoming place. Besides the fact that the waters of Bogotá river are polluted and that the forest is being protected from tourism and business, it’s hard for me to image such a place as a form of paradise or as a place for redemption. I agree with the fear and fascination that many travellers felt when they first saw that river. It’s a quite confusing landscape.
It doesn’t mean I have a negative vision of that territory. On the opposite, I think that wilderness is what makes that specificity of that territory. But we definitely should learn to respect those places. The hostility of nature and the difficult access of those lands are telling us there are limits we shouldn’t cross.
Are the visions of the Tequendama Falls part of our own identity as
A.D.: What is totally contradictory is that the capital is a few kilometers away from that place and we keep on ignoring its presence. We prefer to live and remember the place by hearing the stories our grandparents and relatives tell us instead of going there on our own. We ended up getting such a bad image of a place that one hundred years ago was considered an icon of Colombian geography: the Tequendama Falls where represented in bills, flags or stamps along with the Nevado del Ruiz or the Sierra Nevada. When we think about that landscape we can only remember suicide events and ecologic disasters. The fog that covers part of the images I made is a symbol of that situation. We have preferred to look at the surface of things instead of trying to discover what hides under the mist.