Photographer Erika Piñeros discusses her inspiration, her Colombian roots and the value of humility and respect. Portrait by Charles Fox.
How did you become involved in photography?
I don’t really have one of those great stories most photographers have. I didn’t get my first camera from my grandfather, or always just knew this was what I wanted to do. I found photography quite late, and as much as I regret this, I also appreciate that fact. It has given me the chance to take my time, and to understand and assimilate what it means to be able to tell other people’s stories. From the beginning, I followed human rights topics. You grew up in Colombia.
Has this affected your work?
I suppose it gave me a pretty good grip on reality. Colombia, like Cambodia, is a place of huge contrasts, which is what I love about it. It isn’t a secret to anyone that Colombia has gone through many hardships. What seems to be a secret, however, is that it is a country that has far more to offer than what is usually shown and reported in the ‘West’. I have been on the receiving end of pity and judgement because of my country’s situation, and that has taught me to approach my topics and subjects with dignity, with the understanding that we are all the same, giving them the chance to show the other side of their stories.
Your latest exhibition, Blood & Sand, explores bullfighting. Why were you drawn to this subject?
I had grown tired of seeing people take such a definite stand on this ‘animal cruelty’ issue, and I realised I actually knew very little about it. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to see who the ‘perpetrators’ behind this practice were. I wanted to talk to them, and see with my own eyes how they treated the animals they would later face in the ring. This story is a reminder to me that we often fear what we don’t know or understand. This project is very close to my heart because of my background. I grew up on a cattle farm. This has given me a different point of view on bullfighting and the issues surrounding it, which doesn’t necessarily mean I support it. From the costumes to the bull, the blood and the sand, bullfighting is an extremely colourful spectacle, so much that it can be visually overwhelming at times. This is why I chose to show the story in black and white — I wanted to draw attention to the moments and characters involved, bull and matadores alike.
What led you to Cambodia?
I wouldn’t be the first one to say that “I came to Cambodia, and fell in love with the country and its people,” but I do think part of it was that I found a lot of similarities with Colombia. Despite being half a world apart, both countries have faced extreme situations at different times in their histories. I guess in a way, by learning from Cambodia, I was hoping to understand Colombia more. I still don’t.
You documented the crowds following the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk. What was that like?
This was an interesting moment to photograph from a professional and personal point of view. I chose to focus on what I couldn’t understand, so I looked at the Cambodian people and their intense emotions. Monarchy and inherited authority are concepts that are very foreign to me, and I question a lot. Initially, I couldn’t understand how millions of people could be so intensely affected by the death of someone they had never met, or from whom they had never received a direct benefit. It was overwhelming to see this collective expression of devotion and grief. Photographing it made me see an angle I hadn’t seen before. It was the uncertainty that moment brought to Cambodia, the closure of a chapter of its modern history, and the hope and unity that King Sihanouk — as a figure — brought to millions across the country despite their social background. That hope, after all, was not such a foreign concept to me.
You often cover protests and human rights issues like evictions. Why?
Photography has given me the opportunity to support causes I believe in without being too directly involved. As an outsider, I struggle with the idea of having a huge input on issues I don’t fully understand, and to have the arrogance to pretend I do. As much as I empathise with these causes, I understand it is not my place to instigate change or take part in these events, but to document them. I don’t see this as a lack of commitment to a cause, but an opportunity to tap into different topics and a chance to showcase them objectively to a wider public. I strongly believe, out of respect for the subjects, that these are battles they have to fight themselves. Do you have any advice for budding photographers? The same thing I keep reminding myself: keep it humble. It’s about the stories, not us.
Blood & Sand is on at Tepui at Chinese House, Sisowath Quay, until Jun. 30. For more, visit erikapineros.com