< SWITCH ME >
- Written by Marta Martinez
Is there such a thing as European identity? If so, is it something you can represent visually? Something you can see with the naked eye? American photojournalist Damaso Reyes tries to catch the European spirit, finding out how our identity has evolved over the years.
Since 2005, Damaso Reyes has been wandering around Europe, from fancy London to post-war Kosovo, through rural Brittany and high-tech Geneva, photographing people and trying to find out what makes us 'The Europeans'. His book is a work in progress –just like the European identity, and he plans to finish it in a couple of years. The photojournalist shares with E&M what he has noticed after so many years glaring at Europe's face –it looks beautiful, but there are some wrinkles we have to smooth out too.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he began his career as a photojournalist 10 years ago. His work has been published in the UN Development Programme, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair Germany and Der Spiegel, among others.
E&M: Why did you decide to start this project?
In 2002, I was living in Indonesia and had been there for little over a year. I had to decide if I wanted to stay or I wanted to leave. I thought, if I go back to New York I don't want to just photograph press conferences, I don't want to fall into the trap that so many of my friends and colleagues fall into.
I needed a plan, I needed an idea. I started to think about the work of photographers I admire. One of these photographers is a Swiss named Robert Frank. In the late 1950's, Frank produced a book called "The Americans" where he travelled around the United States photographing what he saw. That was in early 2003. The Euro had just been introduced as currency, as a journalist I am always following the news and there was a lot going on in Europe. The European Union was actually becoming a viable political and economic entity, and the thought just popped in my head: Wouldn't it be interesting if an American travelled to Europe and started to photograph what he saw from his outsider's perspective the same way as Robert Frank did fifty years previously?
After thinking and thinking about it for months, on April15th 2005 I got on a plane to London and started working on the project. It was scary because the only idea I had was to photograph how Europe was changing. I had no concept about of how would I do that visually i didn't know what pictures I would take...
E&M: No plans? No content-framing? nothing?
No. I just said: I'm gonna start in London. Then I did have the plan to go to Kosovo, and then to the Netherlands. But what I would photograph, what people I would encounter -I had no clue.
E&M: Did you find what you were looking for?
I found a lot of things I wasn't looking for, and for me that's the moral of the story. This project has challenged me to be open to things which I don't know about, people I've never met, I just trusted that I would find what I'm looking for in a very broad sense. And it's been true. This project has taught me to put away my preconceptions and try to be open to what I discover.
Did you have preconceptions about Europe?
I had a lot of preconceptions. I think it's impossible to go trough life without any preconceptions. The challenge is: when you discover things that challenge your preconceptions, do you stay with them or do you change them?
A concrete example would be probably France. As an American I certainly have a preconceived idea of France. Everyone tells me: "Oh, the French are so unfriendly, so rude". All the time I spent in France has been amazing. I met the most open, wonderful people who shared their homes and their stories with me. When you haven't been to a place, all you have are clichés. In France people do say "voilá". You go to a pastry shop and you order a croissant and they bring it to you and say "voilá". It's true, but there is a lot more to France than that. Through my work I want to challenge other people's preconceptions about the way they see their neighbors, the way they see themselves, the way they see foreigners.
E&M: What is the process of your work?
It varies. In that particular case, I decided to spend 6-7 weeks in London and see what I found. Part of that is doing research and saying I'm interested in photographing this place, this person or this area, and some of it is walking down the street and seeing what you encounter. Both are very valid methodologies. For instance in Geneva I photographed CERN, the particle physics laboratory. That took research, a lot of negotiation, organization and logistics.
There are times when you are walking down the street, like in London, and you encounter a person who you want to spend a week photographing. If you hadn't been walking down that street you'd haven't met that particular person. I try to combine the two. One of the things I try to do is to talk to people who live in the place where I am photographing and ask them: "If you were photographing the theme I am photographing what would you take a picture of?" And you get a lot of interesting answers. Sometimes there are things that you think are boring, and sometimes you get the insiders' perspectives.
There was a real fear that I get to a place and I wouldn't be able to get beyond of the cliché. But it's a healthy fear to have, because you don't want to be too dependent on what you think you know about a place. It's very easy, especially as a photographer, to fall onto a visual cliché. The kind of work I do tries to get below the surface.
E&M: What have you found under this surface that surprised you?
I have found that clichés are valid to a certain extent. Italian people do say "Mamma mia". French people do say "voilá". There are these very superficial things which are true. But what I discovered -and maybe this is part of my perspective as an American, but I don't think so a 100%- is that in Europe people are more similar than they are different.
I think that in people's aspirations, their desires, the way they relate to each other... There is a similarity that exists throughout. If you look at my pictures you will see differences but I think you also see a visual narrative. Europeans are very different from each other. But there is something that is European. I don't know how to define that, I can't point my finger at it, but there is an attitude, a way to approach life, which does exist and doest manifest itself on a visual way.
E&M: And what is this visual way?
You have to look at the pictures. It's like talking about music. One example for me is that I spent about three months living in a small town in Slovaquia on the Hungarian border. It was a town of 10.000 people if not smaller. There is a local high school and I got invited to photograph at their Spring dance. I was taking pictures of young men dancing with young women and all the things that we do as teenagers, and then when I saw the pictures this reinforced the idea that this could be in France, in Italy, in Germany, in England...
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