I would leave in March 2011 for a year, starting off at Puerto Toro on Isla Navarino, Tierra del Fuego, Chile – the most southern settlement in the Southern hemisphere. From Puerto Toro, (the port of the bull) I would travel to Deadhorse in Alaska forty-thousand miles to the north.
The journey and working method
If I would have known what I know now, I would perhaps have reconsidered, because it was a heavy year: seven days a week with only two times a week-long break. On the other hand, I would have never wanted to miss it. What we initially characterized as ‘slow journalism’ actually turned out to be rather fast journalism. I am a photographer who is used to work on stories for quite a long time and only stop when I feel I kind of have it. Now, I had promised to deliver one story a week plus collect the rest. And I always considered myself to be a black & white photographer, so that was the original plan. But I soon discovered that the variety of the stories, the working method and the platform I was using, the iPad, required a re-thinking of the more traditional way I habitually work. I am used to publishing in print media, so when I am editing and sequencing photos I keep in mind how my work will be used on a page. With the iPad this was different – it is basically an interactive slide-show medium, which requires a different way of editing and treating the material. I started to use color not only for the different stories, but also within the narrative, often to divide a story in chapters. For example I portrayed two women from Peru who work in Chilean households as maids. After that I went to Peru to visit their families. The story in Chile was in color and I used black and white for the families in Peru to distinguish the geographical locations and the narrative hierarchy.
Via Panam video trailer. Video: Paradox
Another challenge was video. I had made film documentaries in the past and always stated that you can’t do photography and film at the same time. They are different media, which require different ways of thinking, different mindsets. And at that time you also needed a separate still camera and video camera. Today’s cameras can do both, which makes it a lot easier. So since this was an experiment with a new platform I understood the necessity to do both: it would make the content richer, that was for sure. An important lesson was: decide what has priority, photography or video, because you can’t do both with the same quality at the same time. For me, obviously photography came first, so the videos were supplementary to my photographic work. And then there were social media – another relatively new thing I had to deal with to broaden my audience. I had a Facebook account, but never really knew what to post. This became very different now and quite instrumental for this project. I began to use Facebook as a platform on which I would post stories, ask people for ideas, fixers, places to stay, etc. It turned out to be very useful, but at times also discomforting. I always used to work in silence and my work would only be seen when it was done and published. Now I was publishing (semi-) live and a wide audience could share the experience with me, including the hardships and insecurities I sometimes had to face. During the trip I also gave lectures and short workshops for local photographers and journalists. The Dutch embassies in the different countries were a great help in organizing these events.
Via PanAm Exhibition at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile, 2012
Exhibition design: Jeroen de Vries, Video: Frank Ortmanns
The exhibition and a book
From the beginning the aim was to organize a traveling exhibition, which would not only be seen back home in Europe, but would also travel part of the route I travelled for the project. After we had found funding for it we could realize the exhibition, designed by Jeroen de Vries from the Netherlands. At the heart was a multiple screen projection with photography, video, text and sound. Around it, images printed on canvas were hanging freely in the space. The kick off was in Santiago, Chile, at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It was very well received and traveled on to Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, New York, Poland, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.
There was no plan to make a book initially. I felt that the app was so rich in content, that a book could never compete with it. But two years after my return I started to realize that a book is not an app and an app not a book. An app is a ‘dead’ thing in a phone or tablet. It’s not something to pick up and touch and smell and look at. As a medium, in other words, a book is a very different experience and not something that will disappear – as I am convinced the app will. A book is unique and will remain. Thus we made a book, which was published in 2013 by Paradox (Bas Vroege) and Ydoc, beautifully designed by Teun van der Heijden. The book takes the reader along the changing landscapes of the countries I travelled through and zooms in on the lives of the people I encountered. The book also includes an essay by acclaimed Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez. In an inventive design mixing color and black and white pictures and texts on pages of different sizes, the book provides a unique, high-quality closure of the project.
Book dummy, 'Via PanAm - Exploring migration in the Americas'. Book design: Teun van der Heijden / Heijdens Karwei. Publisher: Paradox, 2013.
In the end I consider Via Panam as a meaningful and very rewarding project: it visually investigated contemporary migration in the Americas and concluded overall that migration in most cases is a positive force. It enriches the diversity of nations and many countries benefit from immigrants who come to work. The project was experimental, because it brought together so many media formats like photography, video, sound, spoken and written text. It explored the possibilities of a very new medium, the iPad app, in combination with more traditional ways of communicating like print media, exhibition and book