The attraction to the Venezuelan plains is not accidental for Rodrigo Benavides —caraqueño by birth—, because "they are special spaces, they are closer to the center of the earth, there is a greater magnetism and the land pulls. Photography has been a vehicle not only to see, but to feel and, although he rejects the conclusions, his photographic work was reflected in the exhibition La llanura improsulta (2009) and in the book Los llanos de Venezuela. The horizon is the destination (2011).
At the end of the seventies he studied photography at the Focal Point Academy and in the following decade he graduated with honors from the Photographic Training Center in London, where he obtained a scholarship during the last two years of study. He continued with a scholarship at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs at the Université PSL in Paris and conducted training workshops at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie Arles, France, in 1984 and 2004, and in Barcelona, Spain from 1985 to 1988. In 2003 he established the Núcleo Fotosensible School of Photography in Caracas. He directed the National Museum of Photography of Venezuela from 2010 to 2013 and received the National Prize for Culture in Photography 2019-2020.
In the city he goes unnoticed as a photographer because he hardly carries a camera with him. Investigate, observe, before photographing. He is also attracted by the maxims, which he shares with the participants of the workshops he gives: "Seldom the best point of view to photograph a scene is the one from which it is observed for the first time".
—How is Venezuela being looked at?
"There are crossed glances." Perhaps now they are more crossed than ever because the circulation of images has not stopped being a growing issue, by digital means, now; printed, as always. And we have that truly sensitive country that has its own identity, with the particularity that a large group of photographers and photography enthusiasts have been recording the urban in a preponderant way. Something like that, if Venezuela were only Caracas, a disaster, as if life has meaning in a place where there are many people together, where the pre-established political tendency prevails. The international media set the standard and are only interested in chaos, health problems, government errors, but they are not interested in what ordinary people do with their lives.
- What role has technology played?
—This has impacted life in general and photography in particular, that with the abundance of cell phones everyone takes photos, but not all are photographers. What differentiates them is knowing how to look critically. Revealing photographs and images have always been possible, but nothing is conclusive. You can have approaches, but if you have a biased view, you end up revealing your interests. On the other hand, when an author, photographer, photojournalist, documentary maker, makes use of photography to document, testify, he must put all his human capacities to the test because the issue is how to tell stories. It is not enough to take a very good photo.
—Looking on digital and counting immediately is a new way of seeing.
—To represent, because seeing is not the same.
"What is the photograph that we should take of the country?"
—We should photograph everything, as well as write or film everything. However, in photography a series of aspects converge, as perhaps in no other field of documentation, that make this tool a very useful resource to quickly resolve a concern or a need of an editorial, journalistic nature and, above all, put it in capital letters, media. For example, with a photo you can show a news story, to be more precise, a scandal. Tendentious photojournalism is complex and has its own virtues, in the sense that these colleagues have to know how to handle a series of codes, not only the one that has been supplied to them by the companies they work for, but they also have to have a A very clever eye, with very good technique so that they get images that manage to unleash a host of precepts. Documentary photography has that immediately recognizable referent of the real and, in just 10 seconds, it can read messages that are not achieved so quickly with the reading of an article, for example. That is the power of photography, which also spreads everywhere, because it can record everything and it is for all use. And technology is pushing the possibilities of the mind.
—The morbidity, the violence, was frowned upon ...
-…all over the world.
"Currently that is not the case."
—It does not happen because of the overwhelming pace of the record that becomes a consumer good that goes on its own account and arouses innumerable sensations in the public. And editors obviously know they have an invaluable tool. For a drawing to generate that impact of violence, it would have to be ...
"I wouldn't be able to do it even then." The impact that advertising has generated in the world could be counted in its impact on the environment, for example, with the use of aerosols, accompanied by photography. So, in that field of morbidity, of violence, photography has come to accompany that field of the human mind, which young people do not see, and we are entering a great space of insensitivity.
—To take photography you have to have a certain sensitivity.
—What happens is that you can use sensitivity for whatever you want. In this case, the sensitivity is to attack social life, that of the collective, nature. That insensitivity towards life is because surely you are charging for it, it is not just because you like it. That is why I speak of it being a weapon, a power. However, the photography that is made in Venezuela is fundamentally circumscribed to the culture of the urban. Where is the colleague who is in the mountains, photographing the lady in La Guajira who makes those fabrics or the fisherman in Punta de Piedra…?
-Exactly. A documentary photographer must have a national commitment. We understand that there are currently difficulties, but everyone sees how big their commitment is, which is not only for the work for which you receive a salary. But whoever has the talent, who knows that this is valuable, useful for the country, looks for ways to achieve it. Therefore, when I mean that photography is essentially urban, even that which focuses on the field of art, it is because it was coupled with the concept of contemporary art and there are some dynamics that are connected with cultural hegemony. In short, photography leads to globalization.
"Where else does it end?"
—In almost all cultural profiles. Popular culture is included, which is easier to find in towns and villages. You also get it in the neighborhoods. But you don't get it in other parts of the city that there is no need to mention, that have other kinds of valuable cultures. I think the deep country needs to be photographed more frequently.
—How can you photograph the deep country if what prevails is speed in these times and personal comfort?
"You don't have to be uncomfortable to see." What does not make sense is that you are so comfortable that you cannot see. This is where globalization brings us to a point where our true reflective depth is tested. It is not the problem of comfort, but that your reflective ability is sharp. And see how you participate in that whole to which you belong. Photography has been an extremely useful and valuable resource for me to know that I am part of something. That something is my country. You have to feel where you are as if it were your own land. Because it is not a question of borders but of identity, in a non-chauvinistic sense. Being part of something makes me extremely happy.
Analog and digital. Benavides has lived in the plains in its different seasons to be able to pay attention to the sensations. He considers that the one that has the greatest impact on the psyche is "the horizon line that makes you constantly wonder where I am."
—You know that you can be more or less close to a city, but you are always in the same place, because what you are seeing is the same. On the other hand, in the plain you have to be attentive, alert, because it seems that nothing is happening. This is how the Eskimos. They live on a great plain and see 115 shades of white. That visual ability is what has allowed them to survive. Know that one of those shades, at a distance, is a newborn seal, which is white. So the plain, as a visible space, is a laboratory of perceptions.
"How is this laboratory perceived?"
—When I photograph in the Llano with a color film, everything that is colored catches my attention. But you have to know when to shoot in black and white and when in color. Digital photography has blurred this dimension, because if you were interested in recording in color, you should have a camera with a color film, and if your interest was in black and white, you should have another camera.
In the Llano, according to what I saw in color, I translated it into black and white, with a process of analyzing each scene in order to determine what he was going to photograph. But these days, with digital cameras, everything is taken in color. Nobody does it in black and white. Analog photography has contributed in a better way to the training of photographers.
—However, training, thanks to digital devices, takes place without the least knowledge of ethics.
—There are people who photograph everything they eat, because there are many obsessions with the camera. It magnetizes consumption.
"Isn't it a way of looking at the country?"
—That kind of photography is part of social networks. When someone makes use of photography, without pretending to be a photographer, they do so as an automatism. This management, which is growing, ends up on the screens as part of the consumption of social networks. That is why in this area there are lack of criteria and ethics, because there is not enough awareness to analyze what is happening.
"Usually a photo is shown as evidence of something."
—If you get to a newspaper, it is likely that they will give you very little space to publish photos, as well as texts. Spaces are tight. In Venezuelan journalism, in order not to address others, the journalist asks for photos to illustrate his report and this is the one who chooses them. The photographer does not participate in this selection. It is the general complaint of photographers. On the other hand, if a photographer takes 10 photos that tell the whole story, they hardly publish it.
—In the era of visual candy, the word rules.
—The word still rules over photography. And where it rules the most, it is in the field of history, because some historians have a vision that they can only fight each other, but nobody else can fight with them.
"Is there no room for other disciplines?"
-No. That is why it was said that "history is written at night." There are historical novels, such as Heroic Venezuela, written by liberals at the time, but history was written by unquestionable gentlemen. Now insurgent history has re-emerged, rereading history, journalism, photography, the country and life. History has been referenced by what these historians have written and by the occasional painter ... with great merit.
"Is it the image of our history?"
—The historical painting is only independentist. We understand why "Vuelvan caras" is important and others in this same field, but it has remained as something where nothing else fits. Photography does not participate in this approach. Exceptions are rare, such as the Porteñazo, whose photographer won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Carabobo experience
His projects include registering Carabobo to bring him to Caracas in photographs so that viewers can be within that field where independence was defined two hundred years ago. It is not a historical exhibition, but a metaphor, it is "recounting in the thought of what we are today, not of what we were".
—The painting of the Battle of Carabobo by Martín Tovar y Tovar is part of the Venezuelan iconography, but the Carabobo field, the one we are going to bring, is without manipulation of any kind of photography, it is a metaphor.
"Why bring the countryside to the city?"
—Every person knows what it has cost us to be the country that we are in these 200 years and it is interesting to be in that field in the absence of the warlike conflagration, fortunately, for all that we Venezuelans have done to prevent a war here again civil.
"The battle is peace."
"It is the peace we have earned." After all the violence we have experienced, we have been able to contain the international avalanche that wants the country to go down a cliff. That is the photographic metaphor.