Mateo Gómez Garcia was born in Bogotá in 1988. He studied photography in Argentina with Juan Travnik, Ataulfo Perez Aznar and Alberto Goldestein. In 2009 he came back to Colombia, where he currently lives and works. His photographic language uses the documentary form to create a more pictorial vision of the different communities and urban landscapes he discovers. He portrays the life of people we tend to ignore. Some do tell us the complexities of living in the big cities, others instead take us deeply into a very exclusive environment, where people live in close communities and practice a series of rituals that Mateo Gómez Garcia looks at with a touch of humor and irony.
His photographs tell stories. The most recent one has been commissioned by The California Sunday Magazine. It tells the story of René and Juan Carlos, two young persons living in Bello, a very tough neighborhood of Medellin city that decided to escape from violence and drug trafficking by becoming priests.
In 2014 he published his first book A place to live with the publishing house La Silueta, a perfect combination of images and paper, showing the contradictions of a big city, Bogotá. More than a recollection of pictures describing the life in the city, the book is a very ironic portrait full of little stories and happenings the photographer experienced while walking at the margins of the city.
P.D.F.: I was very surprised by your project "A place to Live", published by La Silueta in 2014. Rather than looking at Bogotá as a modern city, you show how difficult it is to feel comfortable with a place that is permanently growing. There is chaos in Bogotá and the situations you capture with your camera are quite surprising. Can you tell us about your experience with the city of Bogotá when you came back in 2009? Was it really a place where to live for you?
M.G.G.: Coming back to Colombia was great, people are very kind and there is an informal way of doing things that I love. Being submerged in the Andes Mountains, eating all sorts of fruits from the tropics all year round is a privilege. I'm not in the right position to talk about Bogotá, as I have lived elsewhere for many years. What I know is that cities like Bogotá are violent. You need to understand certain codes of behavior that people have integrated informally to avoid getting robbed. One of them is to be discrete when you go out, not to call the attention of possible thieves.
P.D.F.: Among all the Colombian photographers we have been talking with, you are the one that has more accurately captured all kinds of situations. You wander around the streets and let the moment arise. You are developing a very interesting series of photographs taken in several places in Colombia. You have called that project "Paradise". What is that project about?
M.G.G.: "Paradise" is a project that talks about several topics. The main subject is optimism, seen as part of a wider criticism on patriotism or, in other words, this idea that we have to be pride of being Colombian.
We believe blindly in a pre-confectioned vision of our country. But that marketing approach hasn’t really changed anything in the way we behave. There is no critical approach towards what it means to live in Colombia. We are still the same people. We live in a paradise that is a mental projection, an idea that we simply absorb from the media. Our nature and our culture is something we see through television. But reality is that Colombia is a territory we are ignorant about. Our pride as a nation is always stimulated by an external event and the media act as a filter. In the everyday we are an individualistic society, everyone cares about their own interest. Only when it comes to support the national team in a football match we suffer, we cry and we feel good about being Colombians. What lies behind it is the economy of the entertainment industry, which uses that idea as a marketing strategy.
The project employs a humorist language as a direct reply to the media's one. What is interesting about photography is that it’s a very flexible language open to all kinds of interpretations. I just wish we each find our own real paradise and not the one that’s been sold to us.
P.D.F.: All the photographs share the same humor, the one you find when you face unexpected situations. I think that the weirdness many Colombians experience in their everyday is inherent to a particular way of life we all share. Are these photographs expressing a unique and personal vision of reality, or do they reveal the common absurdness of our way of being?
M.G.G.: The photographs I make are informed by my personal vision, even if I like the pretension that we as photographers somehow state: “the world goes this way”. But I am also aware that those images reflect my inconformity and my personal prejudices. Photography is a powerful tool. I refuse to consider the images shared by the media as a mirror of reality. My mission is not to consider that the media are the owners of the truth. Their language is based on a distortion and that is for me synonym of a lie.
P.D.F.: These pictures also reveal how odd and fascinating the idea of identity is. We behave in ways that do not seem to be universal. What is familiar to us as Colombians might not be familiar to a foreigner. How odd is the reality of the people you have been in contact with as a photographer? Did you have this idea in mind before taking the pictures?
M.G.G.: I try no to talk with the people I photograph. I don’t want to get involved with their personal conflicts because that would influence my vision of things, charging the image with a message that is not what I want to convey. I need to keep a certain distance with reality in order not to get distracted by those elements coming from the inside. I want to work from the outside.
P.D.F.: When we look deeply into the urban landscapes, we are not looking at a promised land. It seems that those places you photograph are at the margins of the big cities, where the space is facing a very chaotic transition towards “modernity”. That promise of a better future is somehow betrayed by reality itself. Are your photographs a way of documenting that state of things or a way of going beyond that reality?
M.G.G.: I try to go beyond reality. Life in many ways works as a metaphor. An insignificant detail can tell many things. "Paradise" is a very personal project, but I think there is a generic and collective idea of it, where culture and habits play an important role.
P.D.F.: I have the impression that the more you approach reality, the more absurd it gets. Is there any clear line which separates reality from the projection we have of it?
M.G.G.: I think that reality as an objective form doesn’t exist. Each one of us has its own perspective of what we call reality. My traumas are not the same as yours, but we can have something in common in this vast environment where everything can happen. We are the ones that put names over things. I do believe there is a sophist entity that conditions your vision of things, telling you when to be happy and when to be sad.
P.D.F.: I also wonder if your pictures contain any kind of visual difference allowing us to distinguish an illusion (the ideal of a modern city, for example), from what we have unconsciously integrated as part of our identity. Is the concept of Colombia as a paradise a promise, an ideal or a distorted vision we have about our territory?
M.G.G.: It’s all of those things together. The idea of a paradise is like a promise that we adjust to our needs as with do it with culture in general. I think that the idealistic vision of things gives rise to a society that is very conflictive. We idealize happiness in a very hostile environment, in a country of predators. The reason why our society is stuck in the present and refuses to change is because it is an indulgent society accepting to be ruled by politicians that are often involved in corruption scandals. I denounce these things through photography.
P.D.F.: These may seem a very strange question, but do you think there is innocence in photography? Documentary photographers will probably tell us there is no such a thing. They would probably argue that photographers always have an intention when they portray reality. What do you think about that?
M.G.G.: It’s a very good question! The act of taking a photograph is spontaneous, the reaction when you activate the shutter is innocent. That innocence is about doing things without having a specific or conscious intention. It's after a series of innocent gestures that photography reveals its own meaning. What is important is to keep a certain distance with the photographs you make so not to take photographs in a generic form. I depend on the innocence, but it’s hard to keep the mind clear.
P.D.F.: Maybe there is a question of honesty in photography… People who look at "Paradise" would think you are a street photographer. But you are not only taking pictures "on the street". By reading an interesting article on your work on The California Sunday Magazine I realized that you are also interested in photographing communities - for example, persons practicing specific religious or social rituals. Why did you decide to photograph priests at Bello, in Medellin City?
M.G.G.: The project you talk about was commissioned by the magazine. At that moment I started to be interested in the religious activities of certain communities in different cultures. That project in Bello, Antiioquia, was a very big stimulus for me. It allowed me to better visualize how people follow the same spiritual quest. What elevates them spiritually also restricts them. These people condition their behavior and their thoughts to fit that spiritual need. It’s interesting for me to see how some people look for freedom or redemption through a very repressive attitude.
P.D.F.: There are certainly many aspects of the human behavior I don’t understand. I guess fanaticism and dogma are both restrictive. The rules of a community of thought can also be oppressive when they ignore people’s need for freedom. We do live in societies and sometimes we are part of close communities. My question is: why do we gather and how do we identify ourselves as a community or nation? The easy answer may be that we are “social animals”. Do you think there is something unconscious in the way we behave as human beings? Something that only photography could reveal?
M.G.G.: I don’t have a specific answer for that. I think that photography is definitely an innocent gesture. It is unconscious right in the moment where we as photographers take it. There is a lot of unpredictability and a lot of doubt before that image comes to be. I guess it’s the same with life: each person has to face uncertainty, but that is what makes us feel alive!
P.D.F.: Gabriel García Márquez told the journalist Josep Sarret in 1979 that reality was the only thing a writer should really engage with. Nothing more interesting coming from the writer that introduced what Arturo Uslar Pietri called the "magic realism" in Latin-American literature. Do you think this is also true for photography?
M.G.G.: My source is not reality, as I said. I don’t believe there is an objective situation, but multiple experiences and perceptions of life. My source is instinct. If I don’t feel that a place has the potential to be photographed, I just leave. I do believe there is something supernatural in all this. Let’s say that photography is about senses. You got to have the nose…