When you try to imagine what Samuel Aranda might be like; a photographer who has won a World Press Photo of the year (amongst many others), whom collaborates with one of the most important newspapers in the world and that dedicates his time to travelling the world covering conflicts and social drama, it’s easy to imagine the typical intrepid or adventure photographer with hundreds of incredible stories to tell and subconsciously you paint a picture of the man with his camera fighting the natural elements and flying bullets.
We met Samuel for the first time in a Café in Barcelona. He agreed to meet with us to talk about a collaboration we wanted to do for one of our photo tours in which he would join us as a guest instructor. It’s a weird feeling meeting someone that you admire and much too easy to idealise that person as the cliché we mentioned at the beginning, however we quickly realised that for starters, Samuel tries to stay as far away as possible from adjectives that include: adventure photographer, intrepid photographer…war photographer. He also has an extraordinary ability to get to know people and, more than the courage needed to go to the places that he has been, we think that what makes him such a great photographer is his capacity to gain your trust in a short amount of time and the honesty (sometimes brutal as you’ll soon see) that he projects.
In this interview we’ll try to get to know a little more about Samuel Aranda, photographer…full stop.
The Raw Society: Why did you become a photographer?
Samuel Aranda: Oh c’mon, seriously? (laughing) What a drag. But a drag for having to explain it all again, not because of the question.
It was by accident. I used to do graffiti and I had a camera which I used to take photos of my work and of the stuff that was going on in my neighbourhood and then, as a result of several coincidences, I started selling my photographs to newspapers. At the beginning it was just a way of making money, a way of economic survival, and then it became the only thing I knew how to do (laughing).
TRS: What is the hardest photo you’ve had to take?
Samuel Aranda: There are two stories that I have covered that have really marked me.
The main one was the story of the refugees, it had a big impact on me because it was happening in Europe. Until then I had a more innocent view of Europe: to me it was a place that respected human rights, a place where people could come to and find opportunities in, and seeing first-hand how we were treating the refugees was a real shock and a harsh reality check.
In other occasions you take a plane to Africa or the middle east and there is always a sort of cultural barrier, you fly home afterwards and the barrier is up, well no, not a barrier because I have many friends there and I’m still in contact with them, but the point is it doesn’t affect you at home. When you photograph refugees that are arriving to Europe or Barcelona even, or the people who save them are Catalan, the guys from Open Arms, it all becomes much more real and I think that that is what makes it so difficult to cover.
The second story was during the Ebola crisis, mainly due to time; I was there for a very, very long period and it was intense every single day. It was also very impractical to travel back and forth because you would have to do long quarantines which is why I ended up staying for 8 months and it was tremendously difficult.
TRS: What went through your head the first time you landed in a war zone?
Samuel Aranda: I guess I wanted to go back. I’m not sure when the first time was, Palestine I think. I do remember the first time I heard a shot, it was during a funeral in Ramallah, just before the second intifada, and I remember thinking to myself “what am I doing here”, “what the hell have I done”, “I want to go home”, “this is not for me”, and then soon afterwards, becoming more habituated, getting to know the people and liking it a lot more.
TRS: Tell us about a project you have always wanted to do but haven’t found time for yet?
Samuel Aranda: Well Japan, I hope I’ll have time soon (laughing), I think so. Cuba has also always appealed to me and the Trans-Siberian is another story that I have wanted to cover for long time, look for a theme around there…but well, little by little.
TRS: Do your projects become personal?
Samuel Aranda: Yes, when I am there for a long time they do. They become personal when you live in people’s homes.
Aside from the Ebola crisis, in the Middle East where I spent many years for example, or even in Yemen where I lived for almost a year, they became personal because I got to know the people and lived with them. It ceases to be just an assignment in which you fly in, spend 2-3 weeks and fly out. You begin to make friends, have a social life and you continue these relationships afterwards from a distance.
Now in Yemen, a place that I have a lot of affection for and where they treated me very well, I’m still in contact with friends that are photographers there and when I call them…last time it happened with Mohammed Sayali, he was telling me that everything was fine, that I should not worry, that the family was well and all the while I could hear bombing in the background. That was just three or four weeks ago.
TRS: Which historical figure would you have liked to photograph?
Samuel Aranda: Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. I think they are good examples of struggle for specific ideals and principles.
TRS: What gear do you use?
Samuel Aranda: Sony. I changed gear mainly because of the weight and size; and to be more discreet. I travel with 2-3 bodies but I never have them on me to work, I only take one each time, I don’t even think I could mentally cope with taking all three (laughing). I have to make things easy for myself.
TRS: In a time in which photography is undervalued, how do you manage to have such large volumes of work?
Samuel Aranda: I don’t think photography is undervalued, what I think is that here in Spain there are very few options and that the profession is not valued. However, outside of Spain, there are more and more options and photography each time occupies spaces where previously it didn’t even exist: In terms of foundations, museums, festivals…places that not long ago were reserved for paintings and “more classic” art now feature photography as well. I think that there are a whole lot of possibilities.
And how to get such large volumes? Basically, by forgetting about local (Spanish) clients. That’s the only thing I did. For many years now I work exclusively for international clients, mainly The New York Times and with French and Dutch agencies.
TRS: What are your views on the future of this profession?
Samuel Aranda: Very good. I think things are changing and that the digital world for example, has given many people access to photography. Having said that, the format with which I began my career: having an assignment, going somewhere, documenting it and handing in the film, that will end and be replaced with other ways of working in which the photographer will be in charge of the photographic process and searching for the idea; from executing it to showing it.
I believe that working as a team, in multi-format, like the project I did in Mali is closer to what the future holds for photographers. The project consisted of a collaboration between 4-5 people and together we thought of the idea and how it was going to be exhibited even before going out to shoot. Within this team one of the people, Jorge, was exclusively in charge of managing, looking for financing, representation and places to exhibit, things that if a photographer works alone, will have to do by himself.
TRS: Almost every photographer has a county that occupies a special place in their hearts, which one is yours?
Samuel Aranda: Yemen and Pakistan. It’s where I have learnt the most on a personal level.
They are places with many stereotypes and which you travel to with many preconceived ideas and even prejudices. Then you get there and realise that it’s absurd. I was in Pakistan for several months and I don’t think I paid more than 5 nights in a hotel, everyone invites you to their homes and then you get to the villages and the people are absolutely wonderful. It was a great experience. Yemen is the same. The first time a went there it was in the midst of war, during the fall of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and people did everything to be helpful and makes things easy for me. Furthermore, both are culturally and architecturally fascinating. They remain untouched and uncontaminated by the west.
TRS: What advice would you give to photographers that are just starting out?
Samuel Aranda: To leave Spain and not waste time. And I’m saying this from a positive stance because I don’t like saying “there’s nothing to do, there aren’t any opportunities”, no no, that’s not what I’m getting at. The thing is, time is limited and the time for having a career is even shorter, occurring between your 25-35 years in my opinion, so in those 10 years you have to give it everything and you must do so in a place that makes sense, Spain simply doesn’t make sense. I would tell them that. To leave.
Also, regarding gear and mainly because everyone obsesses a lot over which camera to use and how to use it, I would tell them that it’s much more important to take photographs and get out rather than worrying about their gear.
TRS: Name a hero.
Samuel Aranda: A hero? I only have one: Messi.
And so our interview with this brilliant photographer and friend comes to an end.
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