Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 9, No. 4, 2010

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of crossroads and men



Chilean-born Victor 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.

© Victor Diaz LamichARTS & OPINION: You were seven years old when Chile was taken over by the ruthless military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. What do you remember from that period?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: In retrospect, do you wish you could have seen what she didn’t allow?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: How did you end up in Canada?

VICTOR 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 of us.

We 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.

A & O: What is the mandate of environmental chemistry work?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: And where does photography fit into all of this?

VICTOR 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.

Also, 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.

Santiago 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.

A & O: But during that long period of transition, a photographic opportunity presented itself in Bolivia, which opened up your eyes. Tell me about it.

© Victor Diaz LamichVICTOR 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.

A & O: And what is that price?

VICTOR 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.

© Victor Diaz LamichA & 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?

VICTOR 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 photographer.

Costa-Gavras © Victor Diaz LamichA & O: So you didn’t feel like a professional photographer when you photographed Costa-Gavras but you did when shooting in India. Explain?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: How do you realize that lofty goal when shooting, for example, a concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival?

VICTOR 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.

Ibrahim Ferrer © Victor Diaz Lamich

However 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.

A & O: Should a great photograph be considered equal to a great painting?

VICTOR 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 © Victor Diaz Lamichlay 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 humanity.

A & 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.

© Victor Diaz LamichVICTOR 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 shots.

A & O: Is there anything in photography you can’t do or haven’t learned?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: What is your biggest missed opportunity?

VICTOR DIAZ: LAMICH: The scene I saw but couldn't shoot gives the value to the one I did shoot and helps me evolve.

A & O: What is the least attractive aspect of your profession?

VICTOR DIAZ LAMICH: Discovering a spec of dust on my capture, realizing it will appear on every single pic of my entire shooting . . . arrrghh (laughs)!

A & O: I must ask this technical question, analog versus digital photography. Your position?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: Is there a bond between photographers?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: Where do you see photography in five or ten years from now?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: I know you’re a music lover. Has music influenced your photography?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: You’re sentenced to life on a desert island, what 100 minutes of music would you bring?

VICTOR 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).

A & O: What five books would you bring to a desert island?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: Who has been the most influential person in your life?

VICTOR DIAZ LAMICH: It may sound corny, but I must say my dear mother, Gloria.

A & O: Who has most influenced you in respect to photography and why?

VICTOR 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.

A & O: If you had the power to clone one person, who would that be?

VICTOR DIAZ LAMICH: Mr. Nelson Mandela.

A & O: You have traveled extensively. If money were no objective, what country would you choose to live in?


A & O: And why Brazil?

Paraty in Brazil © Victor Diaz Lamich

VICTOR 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.

A & O: Are there any photographic assignments you would refuse? If yes, why?

VICTOR 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.

A & 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?

VICTOR DIAZ LAMICH: And how do you certify that photographer?

The 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 true talent.

By 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 . . .

A & O: I want to thank you for your time. May your shooting continue to be a shot in the arm for humanity.

All photos © Victor Diaz Lamich

Dominican Republic facing Puerto Rico © by Victor Diaz Lamich




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