Camilo Amaya is a Colombian photographer born in Bogotá in 1980. He studied visual communication at the Politécnico Gran Colombiano with a focus on photography. After his studies he moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and worked for a commercial studio. Two years later he decided to come back to Bogotá to start his personal research. In 2010, he moved to Bilbao, Spain, and founded a publishing house. He actually lives and works as a photography teacher at the CFC - Centro de Fotografía Contemporánea in Bilbao. Camilo Amaya has developed a very personal and expressive vision, focussing on poetic imagery that he mixes up with music, writing and cinema. His series In/Signe and Medula are a very personal immersion into the labyrinth of memory. Starting with a very strong emotional connection with the past, he explores new abstract expressions of his own subconscious. In all his bodies of work, including Andetag, photography is the result of an intense immersion into the limits of existence, the territory of a very deep psychological vision.
P.D.F.: Camilo, in our first meeting, you showed me In-Signe and Medula, two of your black and white series. The title you gave to those series had a lot to do with your own personal definition of photography, its essence nestling in the memory and symbolism contained in every image. I was wondering if the meaning of those signs was generated by personal memories or if it is rather a free interpretation of the combinations of form, light and shadow that shapes it. Are these images a way to reactivate memory, making it tangible?
C.A.: The images are for me a way to recognize a moment in the past and shape the intangible - those forms and sensations that inhabit a specific place in your brain and have a symbolic meaning only for you. That meaning is given by a series of moments which have been recorded in your mind. Those memories describe situations that are only recognizable for you, impressions that have been stocked somewhere in your subconscious and remind you of positive or negative things you have experienced. For me, photography is a way of getting closer to that thing you call "memory", something that was but that you only remember through a series of flashbacks you don’t control completely. My intention is to make that impression a real thing.
P.D.F.: How exactly can those images re-activate your memory, how do they reincarnate that new reality, breaking free from that place in your mind where they had been stocked? How did you work on those impulses of the mind and when could you say: "this is the image I was looking for"?
C.A.: When I work with photography I always look for a meaning, something that could drive me in the image-making process. I have always been curious about the moment when memories of random moments came back to me during that process. Episodes that I shared with people I no longer share my life with. Due to the way those memories manifested themselves, I decided to translate them into images by using photography. It was all about liberating those preconceived images stocked in my memory and creating something new with those forms and impressions that I suddenly had in mind: places, objects, situations that I recognized.
Once I could catch those flashbacks and see them again and again in form of images, I could start identifying them as if they belonged to one single time and space reality that was somehow in between my memory and that symbolic universe I was creating. It was a very hard exercise that was almost like trying to make images out of music, or even writing about what music stimulates in you. With time I started to select the images, refusing those that I had no specific connection with, keeping those that were somehow more complex and stronger. Even when I couldn’t explain those images with certainty, I kept the ones that where activating my memory and stimulating me at a subconscious level.
P.D.F.: There is something absurd and poetic in your entire black and white series, something that we can identify with but cannot explain with words. The philosopher Lawrence Olivier once said that it's impossible to destroy that emptiness, that vacuum, that very absurd element that is at the very essence of language. When we look at your work, we recognize the forms of a modern city, as if the images where deformed memories of your immersion into the cityscapes you explored. Those images are what I consider the territory of the absurd, the experience of something we cannot really describe. Besides the fact that the photographs deal with your experience of time and memory, what is the meaning they have for you, what do they say?
C.A.: I like that definition of photography being poetic and absurd at the same time, I recognize that language and keep it as it is. It’s true that sometimes you cannot translate into words what you have seen and experienced with your eyes. John Berger talks about the existence of a meta-language. Also Kureishi wrote about that: he defines it as a private language, something we keep for ourselves, something we usually cannot express with words. In my opinion, that private language is what gives meaning to photographs, paintings or music. What you call absurd is what I try to describe through photography. I finally care more about the feeling, the illegible representation of sensations that I have called In-Signe. It's like seeing what is contained in the mind, looking at something that has its own personal meaning that we cannot describe but we can exteriorize and express visually. The image I keep is the one that best expresses the contradiction of a presence of what is in fact absent.
P.D.F.: Very often we think we understand images when they tell a story. Yours don’t have a speech, they don’t seem to be really memories but symbolic images, flashbacks of instants that you have turned into photographs. Those moments do not longer belong to you, once they are printed out. When you started In-Signe series, you were trying to find out if remembrance has a concrete existence in space. You asked the viewer: is there any place in the world made of solid objects where the past is still going on? I was wandering if photography was that “place”, where the past comes back to us in a different shape….
C.A.: The past is something we only have “here” and “now”. We can only work with the past through books and cinema. Photography has the capacity to take us closer to that static moment, that tangible instant we call a "dead moment". I know how I looked like when I was a kid, I have seen how my father looked like when he was 17 years old, I have seen him running behind a ball in a soccer game thanks to photography. A writer once said that the past is an owner’s luxury, no one can put its past in a pocket, you need to have “a house” to keep it. The body is the only thing that human beings have and own, but it cannot keep memories, as they go through it. They never remain frozen. I guess photography is the perfect space to generate, keep and express that concept of time. We can even anticipate the future by recording the present in a photograph, or at least interpret how we will remember that instant.
P.D.F.: To describe your work you say that there is a hidden tension contained in the images, fragments of reality that you have been collecting. You say that you are confronted with situations that seem familiar, memories for yourself, a memory altered by your experience, a figurative universe that puts a certain distance with the everyday and makes reality become something more symbolic and wider than what you expected it to be. What are those familiar situations you talk about and that compose the very personal universe you recall through the image? Can you give us an example?
C.A.: Sometimes I feel it’s easy to remember specific emotional experiences from the past for the strong impact they had on your mind. They are all projected in one same spectrum of vision. The more recent memories are easily remembered. But I personally have a lot of memories from my childhood and adolescence in Colombia. Memories of time I shared with my cousins, brothers and friends that have created an illusion of the past. But there are also bad memories that inhabit us. The violent death of a good friend of mine is one of them. It’s not that I want to remember the memory of his absence, but I simply cannot forget it. The images of that friend belong to a specific memory. When we work on the memory of a loss, we provoke certain distortions into our mind, as if we try to falsify those images, to classify them and put them aside. The visual expression of a loss is usually represented negatively. I always try to think about what I do and how I do it, even when it concerns those bad memories.
P.D.F.: I suppose that memory is for you a flash that breaks into those moments and reveals them to your mind, just as photography does with our experience of an actual moment we experienced. That mechanism is in itself very understandable. But when we look at Medula, there seems to be something else, something more interesting contained in the images. The images look like negatives of your daily experience in the city. What do these images say about your experience of the world?
C.A.: You defined my photographs as absurd and poetic, now you say they could be fragments of a more recognizable reality. If I had to make Medula more legible, it’s as if I was trying to determine something that belongs to the subconscious and that by definition would be too constrained if I match it with a concrete experience of reality. Those images work like a life jacket, they are an anchor for those who want to look at them that way! If they do reveal a conscious and concrete reality that you can absorb and recognize as personal or real, I am ok with it. It’s the same thing we do when we read literature or listen to music.
I think that the urban space is something that is shaped by emotions. They are the ones that register things when they happen, right there, in the heart of a city. The concrete aspect of the city is not the most relevant element in the image, it carries an atmosphere but it doesn’t translate any specific fact. It is like that paragraph you read and you make unique because you are convinced that it means something for you....
P.D.F: In the '20s-'30s, the experimental filmmakers used a very abstract language to express that a mechanical art could also achieve a pure and absolute expression of the form, it could express the illusion of movement instead of trying to explain it with words. Fernand Léger & Dudley Murphy made photograms to promote their Ballet Mécanique, a film made in 1924. The symbolic forms they reveal show a series of light and shadow mechanisms that are very similar to the ones that our memory produces when we remember. How does that mechanism of the mind become poetry?
C.A.: It’s hard to define when a photograph becomes poetic when you start with reality. If you can translate that thing you see every day into symbolic and abstract forms, it’s because you recognize that there is something more in reality, something that overcomes it, that is perfect. Ambiguity is the basis of poetry. We have tried to classify the world that surrounds us and to give a unique sense to life and existence. We live under a very utilitarian world, a place where people give use to everything that they see and make. The visual consumption is massive. That’s one of the reasons why creating a different relationship with what we see, opening our vision to a different understanding of what you call reality, is difficult.
Vanity and seduction are the most common languages that have been shaping our culture. The advertising images are permanently sending those subliminal messages to stimulate consumption. When we work on a different level of the image, our understanding of reality is altered. We no longer have the elements to understand it and I think it’s fine. I think that poetry comes in when you work at an emotional level that replaces all those utilitarian uses of the image. If an image evolves under a very personal perception of things, we detach from appearance to produce images with a deeper meaning.
P.D.F.: In your series Medula, you quote a very interesting text by Karl Knausgår, author of The Father’s Death. He describes the eyes of Rembrandt as he contemplates one of his self-portraits: “The only thing that doesn’t change with time is the eyes. They are as clear as the day we are born. The veins in the eyes can become apparent, and the retina can become matt, but the light in the eyes never change”. Do you think that the only thing that will always make a photograph is light? Is light the abstract form you want to achieve, light distorting reality to create poetic images?
C.A.: I try to use light not as a simple element of the image but rather as its main subject. Light is matter. It is the language of photography. In Medula, the use of light helps me defining forms and connects me to that flashback effect I feel when I remember. In some images light is freeing the image, making things become less recognizable. That is what happens when a memory dissolves. Light is for me a very abstract expression of our memory fading away with time.
P.D.F.: In a previous meeting, we mentioned the possibility of editing those two bodies of work into one single book. Talking about the editing process, we were both trying to avoid using a narrative form. How would this editing process be? Would you think that book in the same format Godard edited his film Adieu au Language, a series of flashbacks taking us into your own subconscious, or a series of poetic associations?
C.A.: I am definitely trying to make a book out of these series. I have worked on a few dummies already, but the editing process is not yet finished. When I take photographs and edit them, I usually think more in the book format than in the exhibition one. Before talking to you I had never thought about integrating the two series, but I guess they both talk about the same thing, they are experimental, symbolic and very much linked with the search for a poetic and abstract form. What you mention about Godard is fascinating! That film is a clear example of someone that has really searched to question the images produced by mass media and consumption habits. From a very personal, conflictive and poetic point of view, he insists in creating new languages for cinema. I would like to explore a new way of compelling my poetic universe without betraying the principles of an open and powerful imagery in black and white. I hope the book creates a radical shift into the project, making me question everything I have taken for granted until now.
I would start by being more and more selective with the images I integrate - it’s important, if we want that new language, to work in a formal way. But I also look for a new idea, another way of looking and understanding those images. One that would not take poetry and absurdness out, but rather create a disturbing sequence that would work as a riddle for those who enter the book. All my editing process is based on a better understanding of memory.
By now I haven’t found a proper sequence for the images. I like to think of a beginning where the reader is not able to identify anything of what he sees and a progressive shift towards a more concrete vision of what you call reality, with the city fragments becoming more and more apparent. In any case, abstraction is essential in my work. It would certainly be a gathering element for all the images in the book. Poetry and emotions are the last two elements I would like to consider when it comes to editing. They are the two things that give the work a more personal and authentic vision.