In 2011, photographer Brigitte Grignet was awarded an Aaron Siskind Fellowship grant, which allowed her to travel to Aysén, Chile to photograph the community under threat from the government-approved HydroAysén project – a series of five dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers that would flood ranching land and force the inhabitants of Los Ñadis to relocate. Photographs from this project, ‘The Damned and the Beautiful: Patagonia Without Dams’, are featured in Granta 126: do you remember. She speaks with Granta’s Daniela Silva about the origins of the project, working within communities and the passing of time.
DS: How did you find yourself in Patagonia, Chile, and how did you find out about the HydroAysén project?
BG: When I was a child my mother had a pupil from Chile. It was the seventies and Pilar, my mother’s student, had to escape the dictatorship with her family. I had no idea what this meant, or where Chile was. Yet somehow, the idea of this place must have made an impression on me.
Years later I saw pictures of Chile in a magazine and it looked nothing like I had imagined. I decided to go. I rented a car with my boyfriend at the time and we travelled around for a month. At the end of the trip, the eighteen-metre tower of the church of Chonchi (in Chiloé, an archipelago in the south) fell on the car. We were inside the church. That was the beginning of my story with Chiloé. I travelled and worked on a project over there for seven years. I was adopted by a family, and slowly people grew to trust me. In 2011 I got an Aaron Siskind Fellowship grant. I decided to use that money to go to Aysén, a bit further south. I must have read about the dams being built in some kind of news report, or while doing research.
Contemporary landscape photography is motivated by both an appreciation of the natural environment and a desire to see it preserved. Is this what drives you in your photography and in this project?
It has been a long-standing tradition for photographers to record what is threatened by demolition or the passage of time. Eugène Atget, for instance, did an incredible job recording Paris before its modernization.
Personally, it has always been difficult for me to deal with time passing by. Even when I was a child, I would often feel that I was not fully in the moment because I was anxious about the fact that the moment would end. When I was on vacation I would count the remaining days. At home I looked at my old family photographs and would wonder where all these people and places went. I had discovered that photography was a way to feel I existed in the present.
Patagonia is a rare and precious place. It was once the home of the Tehuelches, the native tribe of Patagonia, who were decimated by Europeans, or assimilated. Places sitting at the edges of the world are often destroyed in the name of so-called development. We have to keep telling these stories. It is crucial to capture the nature of these places and the menace they are facing.
I also want to document the human and social impact of the dams. The community of Los Ñadis would be flooded, and people would have to relocate to the city, or to estates too small to allow cattle to survive. Others would not have to move, but their life would become more difficult. René Muñoz and his family, for example, live next to the planned Río Baker 2 dam. To travel to Cochrane (the main town) he has to ride his horse for about three hours, cross the river, then drive to the highway on a road that he built himself. If the dams are built this road would be underwater. His only way to Cochrane would then be the subsidized boat once a week, and it would take him six to seven hours.
Lilli Schindele lives with her husband Rosendo Sanchez and their two children in Los Ñadis. She is one of the main public activists against the dams, and has seen how the relationship within the community has gotten tense. At first, everybody was united and against the dams, but then HydroAysén sent friendly people in nice suits to talk to families to try to convince them to sell their land. They would do things to make the community trust them, bringing them food and medicine from town. They lured them with promises of a new hospital in Cochrane, new schools, paved roads, new jobs. Lilli says that some people got scared, or thought they’d be better off somewhere else. So now there is mistrust among the community.
There is an intimacy in your photographs that struck me as soon as I came across your work. I can see a connection between yourself and the Tehuelches. How do you make the community that you’re working in feel comfortable and trust you?
I try to spend time with the community. I never show up somewhere and start shooting right away. That said, there are no hard and fast rules. I have taken a portrait of someone on the street in five minutes, and I have stayed with people for two weeks. I work best when I am able to stay with people and live with them. I am not a pushy person; I am quite shy and it takes a lot to go up to people and ask to photograph them.
In Los Ñadis, I went door to door and asked to take pictures. With some people I asked to photograph, I felt some reluctance. They were getting tired of journalists coming and asking the same questions about the dams.
I think it’s important to really become part of the community, rather than just observe it. And I think you have to care deeply about what you are photographing. I have met really wonderful people in Aysén. I remember when my daughter and I stayed with Miriam, René and their daughter Macarena on their farm for a week. One day Don René started running after his sheep, caught one, and before I knew it he had killed it. I had seen it done many times in Chiloé before, but my daughter had never made the connection between the nice animals you see outside and the meat you eat. I just had the time to distract her before there was blood all over the grass. But Don René had to kill three sheep to sell in town, and in the end my daughter just wanted to see it. She took it very matter-of-factly. I am not sure why I instinctively wanted to hide it from her. You realize that in our society we have become disconnected from nature.
What are your future projects and where would you like to go next?
I am preparing a project in Northern Ireland that would examine the aftermath of the Troubles. I would also like to start working here where I live, in Belgium. I just have to figure out a way of not getting distracted by everyday life.
There are so many places that appeal to my imagination. Apart from the money issue, I have other factors to consider: school vacations, diseases, danger. I take my daughter everywhere with me, which is wonderful. Patagonia will have to wait for a little while before I can go back.
Feature photograph © Brigitte Grignet/Agence VU
In-text photographs © Brigitte Grignet