Introduction to the book ’25’

Road to Tablón, a flat mountain above el Quinche, Ecuador. Photograph taken when I was 12 years old.

Photograph and text by Pablo Corral Vega

Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley

Photography has the unique ability to call up our past. Its journalistic, scientific, and commercial uses represent just a tiny percentage of the images captured around the world each day. The vast majority of people take photographs simply to remember.

When we press the shutter, we are saying Here I am; This moment matters, I matter; These are the people I love; I wish this moment would last. When we take photographs, we are rebelling against death, rebelling against the passing of time. This subversive act is the human act par excellence — only we humans are conscious of the passing of time, so only we humans can conceive the impossible: stopping it, freezing it.

The shutter isolates this instant from all others, gives it a unique importance, rescues it from its otherwise inevitable transience. But the fact that an image exists means precisely that that moment is gone forever, that it was swept away by Heraclitus’ inexorable river.

The images gathered into this little book are just memories — memories for me, a testimony of moments I have lived. They have no other pretensions. This book is not a look back over my work during the last twenty-five years. There is no systematization here, no intention to create a “retrospective” in the art-gallery sense of the word — it’s too early to think of a legacy. I feel I’ve only barely begun to acquire the tools to express myself.

My dear friend Loup Langton and I sat down for three days to look at photos, and we chose several series that have marked my professional career. Among the ones chosen there were very few from my earliest years — they didn’t pass muster for the critical eyes of the present. Nor have we included my work in black and white, or fashion photography, or portraits. We have included only my work for magazines.

From my first works we chose the photograph at the left, that rural road that rises to my beloved Tablón, in El Quinche. It was taken exactly twenty-five years ago. The world was new for me then; death was no more than a philosophical concept. I was just fifteen, and for the first time I recognized the power of that camera that had been with me since childhood. My father and I climbed the mountain to watch the sunrise; it was our moment of complicity, of wonder. I can still remember the penetrating smell of the wet earth, the raindrops like thousands of tiny prisms, the cold, transparent wind. It was then that I began to create my “photopoems,” audiovisual presentations that combined my poetry with my photography and that I screened in auditoriums in Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil. It was then that I realized that photography is a thousand times more powerful when it is shared.

In the house of my boyhood, where even now I am writing these notes, there was a wrought-iron grate with a phrase from The Little Prince: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” Saint-Exupéry was everywhere — in my closet my mother had painted scenes from the book; she would read him to me almost every night, along with Selma Lagerlof stories, Rilke poems, and Unamuno essays.

In The Little Prince, the fox says to the young hero, “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” I never understood that then. In my years of adolescent rebelliousness it struck me as melodramatically romantic, and really not so deep. It comes in a passage that talks about the creation of bonds, about how the time we spend with other people brings us closer to them, domesticates us, teaches us to lower our barriers. And that is the ultimate meaning of life: coming closer to one another, communicating, creating ties of affection. And, of course, the eyes of the heart are powerful, intimate, revealing.

The core of Western culture is the creation of those bonds. After a trip to southwest Asia, during which I’d seen and experienced Buddhist philosophy first hand, I went to Perpignan, in southern France. There I came across an installation—an entire church covered with red hearts, sent from every corner of the country, on which each person had written about the concrete and personal meaning of “love” to him or her. At that moment I realized that unlike the East, in which the foremost value is letting-go, remaining coolly aloof from others, not showing affection, in the West it’s just the opposite: the ultimate value is the creation and strengthening of the ties of affection.

When my father died, I wrote the following words:

“How welcome is this grief, this pain, because it means we have lived! Because it means we have loved, we have dreamed, we have feared, we have hurt, we have laughed. Welcome, grief, and welcome, pain, this most human of pains, because thanks to you we know how much, and how intensely, we have lived! Beautiful pain!”

Only if we have loved fully can we experience that overwhelming and mysterious pain — only if we have constructed true, deep bonds. In the West, the quest is not to eliminate pain through an understanding of eternal change. No, in our culture we seek to be fully and intensely alive; that is, connected to others, rebellious, always trying to stop time, save it, preserve it, celebrate it in our moments of intimacy. We have faith in emotions, in attachments, despite the fact that reason tells us that those emotions, those attachments will be broken and defeated by the eternal passing of time.

For me, this passage from Unamuno sums up the ultimate meaning of our culture:

“There are those, indeed, who seem to think only with their brain, or with whatever other organ they may use for thinking, while others think with all their body and all their soul, with their blood, with the marrow of their bones, with their heart, with their lungs, with their belly, with their life.”

What does this have to do with photography? A lot.

I share the opinion of the ancient Greeks that the only two subjects that matter are love and death. And the truth is, those two subjects can be reduced to one: the bonds of affection. Death is painful, terrible, because it is the breaking of those bonds. Eros and Thanatos are the two sides of a single coin.

But it is not enough to have a clear goal; the road is equally or more important. For a photographer who wants to tell a story, the only way to approach the mystery of the other person is through empathy. Once again, one sees clearly only with the heart.

A generous gaze is essential if one is to be a good photographer. But more than that, the gaze must be curious, filled with the emotion that the Greeks called ?????????, thaumasmos — awe, a wonder at the manifest face of nature, and a recognition of our ignorance and smallness as we stand before it. We must employ that formula that novelists use: put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We could hardly tell the story of a human being if we weren’t full of curiosity and empathy.

Our ability to understand others depends on how much we ourselves have lived. To understand others we must turn to the reservoir of our own experiences; we must relive our own happiness, our own pain, the heartbreaks and disillusionments. And sometimes, despite the fact that human experience is essentially a common one, we cannot manage to imagine the darkness or light that another person has experienced. When that happens, all we can do is stand silent in wonder, or approach the mystery on tiptoes.

The other gives us our only possibility of looking at ourselves. The other is the essential mirror of our human condition. We human beings define ourselves on the basis of our community and on the basis of our bonds. We are the vulnerable animal, the animal that has lost its claws and fangs, the animal that can no longer run, the naked animal, born fragile — devastatingly fragile. A baby cannot even feed itself, much less defend itself. Our only strength and our only possibility of survival is through the community that surrounds us.

Throughout life we find ourselves with others, we look at ourselves in the mirror of other people’s experience, we are enriched through conversation, we are strengthened through love, and we are broken when love is broken in death or falling out of love. You and I, I and you — two human beings that speak to one another, that meet. There is always an “I” and a “you,” a two that look at each other in a moment of recognition.

I believe that we human beings are the sum of our encounters. We do not know what those encounters mean — some are pleasurable, others painful; some are doors into alternate universes; some are fleeting, others are long, and involve our entire lives. All lead us to a new place.

The most extraordinary miracle of life is the constant possibility of being, of living, with other human beings, the possibility of dialogue, of conversation. Every encounter is unique, unrepeatable, and every human being that we meet touches us in some way, affects us, changes us.

These photos are a testimony of my encounters — some more successful than others. I hope that these images may conjure up the rich universe of those who were photographed, may be windows through which you enter other worlds. I hope they allow us all to remember that one sees clearly only with curiosity, with empathy, with affection. As for me, in this job of looking I am just a beginner. I am a man naked and without claws or fangs, pleasurably vulnerable, who is learning to celebrate the fleeting miracle of being alive.