of crossroads and men
VICTOR DIAZ LAMICH
Diaz Lamich grew up in a country marked by great social
inequality. His knowledge of both the haves and have-nots of
the world is firsthand. He knows what it means to live pragmatically
as well as creatively. For many years he worked in the environmental
chemistry industry, and since 2001 he has been working as a
professional photographer. Both careers have been influenced
by his deep socialist sympathies. During the 2010 Montreal
International Jazz Festival, Arts & Opinion
conducted an in-depth interview with the man and the photographer.
& OPINION: You were seven years old when Chile was taken
over by the ruthless military dictatorship of Augusto
do you remember from that period?
DIAZ LAMICH: Lots. A few days prior to Sept. 11th (1973), in
Santiago, I was in the dentist’s chair, my mouth was already
open awaiting the needle to freeze my gums when my aunt and
mother rushed into the room and grabbed me; we ran outside and
managed to find a taxi. Once inside, my mother forced me to
lie down on the floor because she feared for my safety. I could
hear the rat-tat-tat of machine guns and the sting in my eyes
and throat from the tear gas as we drove away. That was the
beginning of the coup.
O: In retrospect, do you wish you could have seen what she didn’t
DIAZ LAMICH: Yes, but no. That same day, we returned to Buin
-- my little village in the Maipo Valley -- about 35 km. south
of Santiago. My uncle, who was a union leader, was taken prisoner,
tortured and later assassinated. We were living in constant
fear, even terror. One day, Pinochet’s military thugs
broke down the door of Grandma's house. They conducted a brutal
search, but I managed to escape to our house next door. Even
though as a 7-year-old you don’t really understand what’s
happening, I remember desperately clinging to my grandmother’s
leg, and even if she didn’t say a word I could feel her
rage and instinctively knew that something was very wrong. One
day you’re living in peace, playing fútbol
with friends, and the next you’re looking up the barrel
of a gun.
O: How did you end up in Canada?
DIAZ LAMICH: Ten months after Pinochet's junta took over, we
got accepted into Canada. Packing our bags, going to the airport,
knowing that the plane could be stopped at any moment was very
scary; it was only when the plane took off that we realized
we were going to be safe. A new life in Québec was ahead
ended up in Québec City where, without a word of either
French or English, I was sent to third grade. I learned French
in a few months, Le Petit Séminaire de Québec
gave me an excellent education and I grew up to become a Québecois.
I studied sciences, moved around from St-George de Beauce to
Toronto and then Montreal, and slowly I became interested in
environmental protection issues in the chemical world. All this,
never forgetting my Chilean roots nor my family and its struggle.
O: What is the mandate of environmental chemistry work?
DIAZ LAMICH: I would analyze the industrial behaviour of companies
in fields such as automobile, aeronautics, printing, pulp and
paper, sanitizing and disinfection, and then propose environmentally
friendly and safe solutions. For that reason mainly, this work
was very satisfying.
O: And where does photography fit into all of this?
DIAZ LAMICH: It was always there, but I was looking elsewhere.
In my late 20s, my chemical employer proposed that I set up
a branch in Chile's capital, Santiago. I accepted the challenge
and, to my surprise, stayed there for six years. While in Chile,
the job required me to travel all over South America and I would
carry a camera around at all times looking at certain aspects
of life through a lens, always taking pictures of the environments
I was investigating. So, not realizing it at the time, my eyes
were already being trained.
Chile is an extraordinary beautiful and diverse country: glaciers
in the south, orchards and vineyards in the middle, the magnificent
Andes that run along the entire eastern border, and finally,
in the north, the awesome and madly inspiring Atacama desert
which features otherworldly landscapes.
sits in a valley just below the Andes. So during the weekends
I would visit the beautiful Maipo, Colchagua, Rappel, Aconcagua
Valleys, which are famous wine regions. Apple orchards, orange
and pear trees, kiwis and avocado, peaches and apricots; this
is truly one of the great earthly paradises. So, I would shoot
these landscapes to the best of my knowledge and often leave
prints on the house coffee table for people to look at. I then
became curious, even fascinated watching people look and respond
to the photographs. Years later, while writing the introduction
to my first published book about India -- Inde, sur la route
des Jeunes Musiciens du Monde -- I had a vivid flashback
to my childhood as I remembered as a kid watching my grandmother
brought to tears just by looking at a photo of her late husband.
And I found myself asking, how is it possible that a piece of
paper with an image engraved on it could produce such an emotional
reaction? It was probably at that exact moment that I became
fascinated with the possibilities of photography. But before
I could begin to think of myself as a photographer, I would
have to figure out how I could insert my photography into the
world, especially in consideration of social justice issues.
I didn’t know at the time that it would take the better
part of ten years to find the right situation and/or right cause
that would allow me to think of myself as a professional photographer.
O: But during that long period of transition, a photographic
opportunity presented itself in Bolivia, which opened up your
eyes. Tell me about it.
DIAZ LAMICH: It
was 1997, I was on a motorcycle -- doing a sort of Che Guevara
trip -- descending from Tambo Quemado at 4,600 meters in the
Chilean Andes towards La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. This fairly
new highway abruptly stops at the outskirts of the city and
you have to get through the barrio, El Alto (the poor section),
before you can get to the centre. This barrio, unfortunately,
ranks with the poorest in South America. As I arrived to El
Alto, I came upon dead bodies on the street. Since I was in
the habit of always carrying a camera, I spontaneously decided
to take shots of these corpses. I innocently took out my little
Instamatic camera and naively just shot. But the sound of the
film automatically advancing, or maybe just my motorbike looks
catching the attention of the locals; I immediately understood
that they wouldn’t be friendly to a guy shooting their
dead, so, when they glared at me menacingly, I instantaneously
understood two things: first, one must show respect prior to
deserving it, and second, that I had a lot to learn before becoming
a true photo-reporter.
It was much later, reflecting on what had happened in Bolivia,
that I realized what it really meant to be a photo-reporter;
how a reporter's work in the field loses its nobility when it
gets in the hands of the editorial people that sell the news,
plus how degraded human behaviour gets when at war. It became
even more clear in the year 2007 when it was my great privilege
to befriend the journalist Paul Marchand, author of Sympathy
for the Devil. He was a war journalist who mainly covered
wars in Beirut and Sarajevo. He would talk at length about his
work, the risks he took , the horrors he witnessed – to
finally just make the news for a minute and a half between some
fashion report and the weather. Listening to him gave me the
shudders both from war itself and the business of news. But
through him I also realized that ‘no one’ is really
cut out to be a war photographer or war journalist; that everyone
pays the price one day or another.
O: And what is that price?
DIAZ LAMICH: Some call it post-traumatic stress disorder, some
call it plain craziness, I call it normal-consequences-of-witnessing-the-worst-of-humankind.
Looking at evil in the eye corrupts you. Period. From Paul (Marchand)
I learned that the façade which cool and calm war journalists
show to the world has nothing to do with the tortured thoughts
they carry inside. I suspect that after having witnessed one
inhumanity after another, after again and again writing about
the evil human beings are capable of, the psyche can't take
it any longer, and in an ultimate act of disgust, one might
understandably withdraw from the human race.
& O: But I know you don’t completely subscribe to
that view because you have participated in projects that demonstrate
that we are caring species, capable of sacrifice and doing good
for the sake of good?
DIAZ LAMICH: That is definitely true, but after I returned to
Canada from Chile, it would take many years before I was able
to convert that thought into concrete action.
By the end of 2001, an opportunity presented itself at Voir
Montréal Magazine, where I was chosen to be their
official photographer. While working at Voir, I got
the opportunity to shoot people like Mr. Costa-Gavras, the director
of the first film ever made about the Chilean coup, Missing.
A couple years later I became one of the three official photographers
at the world famous Montreal
International Jazz Festival, which was a very
important career step. But it wasn’t until I went to India
to participate in the Young Musicians of the World project (Jeunes
Musiciens du Monde=JMW) that I really felt like a professional
& O: So you didn’t feel like a professional photographer
when you photographed Costa-Gavras but you did when shooting
in India. Explain?
DIAZ LAMICH: A group of us collectively conceived and underwrote
a project to help YMW in India who, we thought could use a helping
hand to realize their full potential. We went to India with
the idea of taking photographs of India, to give an inspiring
story a well deserved tribune by turning it into a book with
all the proceeds going to help these young kids develop their
talents. The book became reality in 2005 and we have so far
handed tens of thousands of dollars to the YMW organization.
To this day, this book represents one of my most satisfying
accomplishments as a photographer: not the shots in and of themselves,
but the purpose which they serve. It has never been enough for
me to consider my photos from a strictly aesthetic point of
view. Ideally, I would like my photography, in its own small
way, to participate in a world so as to make it a better place.
O: How do you realize that lofty goal when shooting, for example,
a concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival?
DIAZ LAMICH: By realizing that it is a privilege to be witnessing
a great artist who has contributed significantly to world culture,
the fact of which should discipline the photographer to look
for and ‘wait for’ those magic moments when the
artist reveals himself in such a way that what is exceptional
in his art is reflected in his expression while performing.
difficult is the task, I believe when you get a shot like that,
it helps us understand the magic and mystery of the act of creation
which might inspire other artists to reach higher.
O: Should a great photograph be considered equal to a great
DIAZ LAMICH: The quick answer is of course no -- a great photograph
can never equal the art of Diego Rivera or Miro, or the great
Abu Ghraib paintings by Botero. Nonetheless, we cannot deny
the fact that many photographs have had great impact just like
great paintings. Photographs, in the truths they lay
bare, can make us aware of social injustices, war crimes, crimes
against the environment. Photographs can be instrumental in
revolts and revolutions, photographs can alter historical outcomes,
so in their effects, if not their aesthetic values, photography
carries its own weight and therefore justifies its role. I consider
the photos of Olivier Föllmi, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Steve
McCurry, Korda, Ansel Adams, James Natchway, Cartier-Bresson
and even Toronto born Gregory Colbert to name a few, to be very
serious works and inspiring not only to photographers but to
O: Reconcile photojournalism that seeks to represent the truth
of a person (who usually isn’t aware of the camera) with
portrait photography that edits out the truth. A man or woman
comes to your studio and asks you to photograph them at their
best, where the end result might be a lie.
DIAZ LAMICH: You can’t productively compare them; the
aims of each are radically different. First of all, there’s
nothing wrong with wanting to look at your best since there
isn’t a human being who wouldn’t rather look good
than not good. Wanting to look good isn’t vanity but human
nature. So what I try to do in a portrait session is to get
the subject to reveal something of him or herself that has intrinsic
value, which means I have to get to know enough of the person
and be able to turn a contrived, self-conscious moment into
a spontaneous one. I enjoy the challenge (along with the wine)
and I take as much pride in my portraits as my social realism
O: Is there anything in photography you can’t do or haven’t
DIAZ LAMICH: I love the fact that I will always remain a student
in an infinite world; and that understanding light is to me
endless. Where ever you are on earth, every single sunrise and
sunset is unique. And indoors in the studio, how do we study
and learn the light of a flash that lasts 1/10 of a millisecond?
It just amazes me.
O: What is your biggest missed opportunity?
DIAZ: LAMICH: The scene I saw but couldn't shoot gives the value
to the one I did shoot and helps me evolve.
& O: What is the least attractive aspect of your profession?
DIAZ LAMICH: Discovering a spec of dust on my capture, realizing
it will appear on every single pic of my entire shooting . .
. arrrghh (laughs)!
O: I must ask this technical question, analog versus digital
photography. Your position?
DIAZ LAMICH: Digital photography has achieved unprecedented
quality. I believe that film will always remain. But in terms
of research and development, precision, resolution, flexibility
and rapidity, digital wins hands down.
O: Is there a bond between photographers?
DIAZ LAMICH: Very sadly, the answer is NO. Unless it’s
envy. But since digital cameras democratized photography, it
is now more difficult for some professionals to make a living.
There once was a time not so long ago when a photographer would
take his shots, and really put his experience, his trade into
the actual work: mastering light has nothing to do with knowing
a camera, human behaviour, history and politics etc. Nowadays,
if you have the money, an amateur can buy an expensive professional
camera, come up with shots and submit them electronically within
minutes. That's what we're up against.
O: Where do you see photography in five or ten years from now?
DIAZ LAMICH: The camera, as we know it, will become obsolete.
It is being replaced by a multi-media apparatus, capable of
taking extraordinary quality pictures, shooting HD movies and
recording professional quality sound. Photographers will become
multi-task multi-media professionals. But what we will show,
share and report will always be in relation to human beings
-- not the cameras.
O: I know you’re a music lover. Has music influenced your
DIAZ LAMICH: Definitely. I played in a band, I published a book
about a music school, I have dedicated ten years to the Montreal
Jazz Festival, FrancoFolies and Montreal High Lights, covered
the Rio Carnaval and have shot many album covers. Music has
helped raise my level of consciousness and has made me more
empathetic which helps me zero in on situations or moments I
might otherwise overlook.
O: You’re sentenced to life on a desert island, what 100
minutes of music would you bring?
DIAZ LAMICH: Bach, Inti-Illimani, the Buena Vista Social Club,
Brel, l'Heptade de Fiori, Ferrat, Serrat, Mercedes Sosa, Sylvio
Rodriguez, Barbara, Cohen, Mozart, Debussy, Paco de Lucia, Gabriel,
Sting, Floyd, and of course Miles. You said 100 minutes . .
. ooops (laughs).
O: What five books would you bring to a desert island?
DIAZ LAMICH: On the Road from Jack Kerouac, The
Little Prince from Antoine de Saint-Éxupéry,
Confieso que he vivido by Néruda, Arviente
pacienca by Antonio Skarmeta and La Nouvelle grille
by Henri Laborit.
O: Who has been the most influential person in your life?
DIAZ LAMICH: It may sound corny, but I must say my dear mother,
O: Who has most influenced you in respect to photography and
DIAZ LAMICH: Ex-aequo Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Olivier
Föllmi have done a great deal not only as photographers
but also as humanitarians; they, through their photography,
can actually create conscience and awareness.
O: If you had the power to clone one person, who would that
DIAZ LAMICH: Mr. Nelson Mandela.
O: You have traveled extensively. If money were no objective,
what country would you choose to live in?
DIAZ LAMICH: Brazil.
O: And why Brazil?
DIAZ LAMICH: To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why, but
I’ve visited Brazil on several occasions and there is
something magical there. Perhaps because of the way the people
mix: everywhere you go you see people of different colour and
ethnicity mixing as if it were the most natural thing in the
world. For sure, this is inspiring. It’s something that
as soon as you experience it you wish it on the entire world.
Even in the worst favelas in Rio the problem is poverty
– not race.
O: Are there any photographic assignments you would refuse?
If yes, why?
DIAZ LAMICH: I wouldn't put my name nor receive any amount for
any shot that has to do with promoting the trafficking or use
of weapons, military, violence or abuse.
O: To protect the profession of photography, should there be
a guild? Should journals only be allowed to purchase photos
from certified professionals, much like only a certified dentist
can pull a tooth?
DIAZ LAMICH: And how do you certify that photographer?
problem here is not only that the profession is in constant
revolution, but also the fact that pros and aficionados compete
instead of collaborate with each other. I have spent much time
sharing knowledge, teaching, giving out tricks and formulas
that I have discovered over years through books and seminars,
as well as on my own trips; sadly, I have been deceived by people
that I really thought were friends and in whom I recognized
comparison, difficulties in the field are just like in life
– a great shot doesn’t come often, and decent people
neither. Nonetheless, I keep on sharing and not prejudging people.
I tell myself . . . let's keep on trying new ideas and let's
promote collaboration. Let's see where this amazing adventure
of life leads us . . . with a camera in one hand, curiosity
and respect in the other . . .
O: I want to thank you for your time. May your shooting continue
to be a shot in the arm for humanity.
photos © Victor