Roberto Rubalcava on exploring his fears and finding beauty in tragic circumstances

Features October 17, 2015

“I am challenging myself to explore my fears and memories from my past to overcome my current insecurities; basically using photography as a therapy.”

As we are about the embark on another adventure together with Sunday Mornings at the River’s photographer Roberto Rubalcava in Nepal, we have a little chat with our friend about the different direction his photography is evolving in. From being a poetic fashion photographer to being a poetic documentary photographer, Roberto’s work still has the same effect on our pupils. The subjects he chooses for his documentary work are as melancholic as the portraits he took of his friends in a lake. Roaming to radioactive parts of the world, pointing his camera at the street children of Mozambique and following his friend and fashion designer Amanda Ericsson at the Mexican fabric markets in order to involve the community in sustainable clothing, we can’t wait to work with this multitalented human being in the Everest area.

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Roberto, long time since our last chat. What have you been up to in the meanwhile?
Well, there is so much to tell. I have been very busy. I will start with telling you about a very exciting project that I have been struggling with for a while now. A project you have been editing and which we will publish once I process the rest of my films. The project is called ‘Away from the light.’ All the images in this project are in black and white and I have been processing them at my studio’s darkroom. My first problem is that the films I have been using are not the same. I have been working on this project for at least two years now, so every time I try to buy stock I get the same answer from the stockists: “Sorry they don’t produce this film any more.” So I have been shooting with so many different types of film, basically anything I could get my hands on. The pictures are shot in a very particular way and situation, mostly at night. Most of the time I have been very scared to be in those places. This is what the project is all about. I am challenging myself to explore my fears and memories from my past to overcome my current insecurities; basically using photography as a therapy.

Your work has evolved a lot since the last time we spoke. We got to know you as a photographer who shot romantic, dreamlike scenes with a lot of pretty women in them but the work you have on your website has shifted into a more social documentary direction. What brought this change about?
Rebecca mama mia… what a question! Thank you for asking though. I will answer it straight forward. It has to do with aging I guess. I am 46 years old and have dedicated my life to photography. I have been up and down the ladder many times. I finally want to do what feels right to me. I want to use the medium that I am passionate about, to raise awareness of social issues that I hold close to my heart.

Your project ‘Bottles of Hope,’ a collaboration with puppeteer Karol Silva and fashion designer Amanda Ericsson is one of those social documentary projects, bringing art and creativity to the street children of Mozambique. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?
I am very happy that you ask about that. It was a very big project that was funded by the Swedish embassy. The essence of the project was to use rubbish and unused materials to recycle them and turn them into something new. Karol met the kids very close to where we were staying and she started working with them very late at night. The kids got very attached to her, calling her ‘aunty Karol,’ and slowly she started to introduce them to me. A few days after, we started filming at ‘Nucleo de Arte,’ a local art gallery. I remember this one kid. He was called Josh. He was a small kid, but he had such a driving force. He was like the leader of the other children and he inspired me because he didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and he was just there living his life without any excuses.

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Your focus seemed to have shifted from photography to video. What does film bring to the way you tell your stories? What moved you into this direction? How did you start?
It started in the UK when I was experimenting with video, trying to create a very long ‘photograph.’ I would set up the tripod somewhere and lift the camera mirror to allow nature to perform for me. I loved when something unexpected happened during these long exposures. I called these experiments ‘Breathing Images.’ These breathing images are basically documenting the passing of time.
At some point after experimenting with these breathing images, I went to Mexico with fashion designer Amanda Ericcson where we worked on ‘La vida de un vestido.’ I hadn’t been back home in Mexico for many years so you can imagine how excited I was. I had a small camera with me which enabled me to film. My job was to take pictures for the project but I just felt very inspired to record everything. After three months I came back to London and we handed all the footage to Marcelo Vannina, who edited the film. It was so much fun. After this film I started taking it more serious and things started to happen.
I think filming is just another visual language. It is completely different than photography. But it is very exciting nonetheless.

You have recently been collaborating with Mexican artist Raul Ortega. What can you tell us about your Chernobyl adventure together?
I don’t think I can say too much about that just yet. The project is still in the making, being a big secret etcetera. I think that could fill another interview. Lots to tell. It is a big adventure. We flew into the country during the peak of the Ukrainian revolution. So it was a very exciting time to be there. The first night we stayed in Kiev and our fixer told us that he couldn’t drive the van very close to the hotel but that we had to walk the last bit. He parked the car a kilometer away from the hotel and we had to carry the photographic equipment along the main road with rebels on one side and barricades on the other. So I felt really safe going into a radioactive poisoned and abandoned Chernobyl after that.
It was an incredible experience to find beauty in such tragic circumstances. It was an amazing experience to be part of my friend and contemporary artist Raul Ortega’s project. I was very touched to be the first person to leave my footprints in the dust in a nursery. No one had entered that building for thirty years and finding baby gas masks in there brought me to tears. Chernobyl is like a time capsule and history is very much alive in a place like that.

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You are collaborating with Sunday Mornings at the River in Nepal, I think it is safe to talk a little bit about that one right?
I am very excited about this project. We want to go to the village of Kharipati to tell the story of a local there, who despite having limited resources, still does everything he can to help the community out. I think it is going to be very challenging to describe a story that happened a few months ago, the earthquakes, and show people back home why it is still important to provide aid to Nepal, despite the lack of mass media attention at the moment. Without constant media coverage it is so easy to forget that people are still struggling to put roofs over their heads, especially now that it is monsoon season. Nepal is a country in transit, with a very unstable political system and a divided population.

What does collaborating do for your art?
It expands my knowledge. And I love the challenge to always do different things, which is what inevitably happens when you work together with other people. It helps me to live my life in a unique way, because most of the time I work with someone, we end up doing something that hasn’t been done before. It enhances my life because I see life through art and working together with someone else enables me to see life through their eyes as well a little bit.

A little while back you brought your zine ‘A Story to Share’ home to London with a show. In our last interview we spoke about your upcoming publication ‘Away from the Light’ but not so much about ‘A Story to Share.’ Can you tell us a little about the body of work we published in that one?
‘A Story to Share’ consists of fragments from the last five years of my visual diary. This is why it is very diverse. It covers the places I have travelled too, the people I have met. they are chunks of my life. We took ‘A Story to Share’ to several countries, opening with a show in The Hague, The Netherlands last february. After that we went to Japan, where it was sold out in a week, to Barcelona where it was very well received and it is an honour to end the little tour in London, where everything begun.

by Roberto Rubalcava_15 by Roberto Rubalcava_16 by Roberto Rubalcava_17

Any famous last words?
“Life and love are not two.
They are one.
To love means to see and feel life in everything.
Life is here, life is there, life is everywhere.
There is nothing but life and there is also nothing but love.”

About the photographs in this interview
‘The Life of a Dress’ was a travelling exhibition based on the strong conviction that were dresses are concerned, everything old may be reinvigorated into something new. The exhibition features collaborations with a selection of celebrated photographers and takes you around a world of dresses as well as different art works that have been produced along the way. An open workshop developing shared ideas and skills from its participants. I had the honour of following Amanda Ericcson, founder of fashion label dreamandawake on her quest to recycle dresses in Mozambique and turn them into something new.
The project started in 2009 and has since then developed with the countries the project members have visited. In 2010 it came to Maputo for the first time to explore and learn more about what is happening here around second-hand clothing. The exhibition was set at Nucleo de Arte and within it one room was turned into an open workshop where visitors and workshop participants came and worked and shared their ideas around second-hand dresses locally found in the market.
In October 2012 the exhibition and workshop visited Mexico City to be part of the RE-MEX project. The exhibition was showcasing at the cultural center El FARO de Oriente and the workshop held from 9-24th of October. The final results from the workshop were shown at the Sukalo square the 26th of October.


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