DAYS & PLACES
Country Fictions .
Photography by Juan Aballe, Interview by Natalie Malheiro.
NM: What moment made you realize your passion was in photography?
JA: When I was 15 I got my first camera (a 35mm compact) and started to document my life as an exchange student in the U.S.A. I remember how excited I was every time I went to the photo store to see how the pictures had turned out. I used to select the images that I liked the most and put them into a photo album chronologically.
By showing those images to other people I started to understand that photographs were not only fragments of my experiences. They were also objects full of ambiguity that had a life of their own. A few years later I started to work in the darkroom making my own black and white prints, and ever since photography has been a very important part of my life.
NM: Country Fictions was photographed in the Iberian Peninsula. What drew you to that specific area?
JA: There are several reasons.
First of all, I was born in Madrid, right in the center of the Iberian Peninsula. It is my “natural” environment and it’s also where I am living at the moment. The places I visited are actually somehow related to me or to some of my friends, so the project has a strong personal component.
Another reason why it was shot in the Iberian Peninsula has to do with the significant social transformation that is taking place in our society. Things are changing very fast and a sense of certain stability in life seems to fade away for many people.
I think Spain is also a very interesting place in the way that it offers quite large regions with an extremely low population density (probably like no other country in Western Europe) and a huge number of almost abandoned villages. I was quite interested in that idea of “empty” or “abandoned” land that allowed my imagination to think of some kind of “settlers going west”. At the same time, the concept of “going back” to places abandoned decades ago by our grandparents and previous generations had a strong emotional impact on me that had a lot to do with a feeling of nostalgia.
NM: Did you know your subjects prior to shooting? How did you meet them?
JA: Most of the people in the photographs are friends, or people I was introduced to through them. Almost all of the places I visited were actually related to me or my friends, so the project has a strong personal component. Some of those places are alternative projects I knew before I started the work and to some others I had access through acquaintances.
NM: You’ve said that with this project you wanted to “believe in a simpler and better life”, could you say that your found this in the Iberian peninsula farmers lives?
JA: I am very interested in the basic human need for hope and faith (in a broader sense, not only in a religious context). Country Fictions deals with the need to believe in what I called a "simpler and better life", an idea that only exists as a very personal and subjective Utopia.
Country Fictions does not try to document or describe a rural lifestyle, in fact many of the people portrayed originally came from the city so they weren’t really farmers. For me the project was a visual way of dealing with the mixed feelings brought about by the idea of radically changing my way of life. The images in the project are a very subjective construction of a place somewhere between reality and my imagination. I wanted to create images with a visual tension between a fragile natural beauty and a feeling of not belonging in that new environment.
In a way, Country Fictions is an inner conflict expressed through images.
NM: I feel that there is a widespread social opinion that choosing a simple lifestyle or what society has imagined to be an acceptable lifestyle is seen as an escape route. Why do you think that our world has been trained to see simplicity as a poor choice?
JA: Maybe that is the case in some societies, but I also think there is a growing number of people who somehow feel trapped in the constant noise and the ever growing digital dependence we are experiencing nowadays. On the other hand I feel there is a widespread fear that we'll be missing out if we choose a different path or “escape route”. If simplicity means having more time for the things we consider important in life, I’m all for it, but I guess it is a very personal decision and each of us has to find their own balance.
NM: The children in this series are incredibly powerful. They are exposed to a life that not many people will ever have the chance to experience. Do you consider them lucky for being born into this lifestyle?
JA: Thank you. I do think children very much benefit from spending time in nature, so in that sense they are lucky. However, that is probably not as important as their relationship with their parents and their human environment. I'm sure children can be just as happy (or unhappy) living in the city or in the countryside.
NM: Your style is very organic and raw. Your photos feel as if we are glancing into someones home or private life. What is your process?
JA: I like paying attention to small details and taking my time to create the images I have in mind. One of the most difficult things for me is to find the right mood or “tone” for a project and maintain it throughout the work. In Country Fictions I tried to create images with a visual rawness and "simplicity" that were at the same time multilayered and open to interpretation.
When it comes to portraiture, I like to make my subjects feel involved in the making of the picture. I try to build a small space of trust and take the time to make the photographic moment also an interesting experience for them. I really enjoy talking with people and listening to their stories, that is one of the most important reasons why I love photography.
NM: If you could emulate the same message of Country Fictions but choose a new location, where would you choose?
JA: The project I am working on now also has a lot to do with the idea of a search for a better life. The scenery I chose was California, a place that has been linked to the concept of hope for a long time. I still don't want to say much about it, but hopefully I can show you the work soon!