Good Light: An interview with photojournalist Antonio Aragon Renuncio.

All images in this post © Antonio Aragon Renuncio

Ron B. Wilson: I appreciate your interest in collaborating with me on this interview. Out of all the amazing photographers I met in Sharjah at The Xposure Festival I was most moved by your work. For the people who are not familiar with your work, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and talk a little about your imagery?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: Ron, thank you so much for thinking that my work is worthy of being shown. It is a great pleasure to answer your questions.

I am a Spanish Documentary photographer, even though I have been living outside of Spain for many years. During the past 25 years, I have been taking pictures and telling stories about the unfortunate people of the planet, mainly in Africa and Central America.

I came across photography by curiosity, a lot of interest, and chance.

I had always been an inquisitive child, eager to learn new things. One day, a photo camera fell in my hands and seduced me. I also loved traveling, so I found the perfect combination: to travel, take pictures, and tell stories. Since then, I haven’t stopped. Each time with more eagerness.

I started with kitten portraits and the intense colors of a sunset. Then, I discovered black and white. That defined me and taught me to understand the little I know about light, spending whole evenings inside of a dark room dreaming of the magic. Then, I began to concentrate on color. Mad and full of contrast, the many faces of suffering. And with it the photojournalism from which I had been complaining. I think that there are so many (too many) things that need to be reported and condemned, no matter how you look at them. There is no right in some of the things we are bombarded within the media. Because everyone should be doing something for a change. For more justice, more change.

Each of us is in our own small corner of the world. But we all should strive to do something positive. We shouldn’t stop screaming, the loudest and clearest as possible for those who would listen. 

I take pictures. This is the least I can do. And some of my pictures have worked to help some of the children that live in “Our Paradise of the Forgotten Hearts.” That makes the trip worth it.

Ron B. Wilson: How long have you been a professional photographer, and what inspired you to become a photojournalist?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: I don’t like the term “professional” because the adjective on its own represents the idea of profession. A long time ago, someone more intelligent than me, explained to me that when a passion turns into work and obligation, it stops being a passion. That’s why I intend not to cross the mental line, and I would like to keep considering myself merely as a lover of light that is in a 20-year path telling stories in images and intending to pay the bills with it.

What inspires me? Life itself. Mainly the lives of anonymous people that live in unknown places and suffer – most of the time – anonymous realities for the rest of the planet. Some are brutal and overwhelming realities that generally don’t make sense and to which we close our eyes in their presence. There are too many injustices in the world. Too many lies and undercover business. That is why I think that photojournalism, independent photojournalism, is an incredible tool and very useful to try uncover (those injustices). That is why we shouldn’t stop screaming, always, the loudest we can. Photojournalism taught me to scream in images. And is in that wonderful “war” that I am immersed in. And, I hope, for a long time.

Ron B. Wilson: You’ve photographed subjects all over the world, but it seems like you are most interested in telling stories in Africa. How long have you been working in Africa, and what first took you there?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: Practically all my life as a photographer. By chance, many years ago, I joined a group of physicians in an ophthalmologic expedition to the north of Togo.

The first days I performed my job as a photographer documenting what was happening there, but after the outflow of patients and work, I decided to put aside the cameras and help out as needed. Prepping the patients, serving as a translator, administering treatment, and helping in any way they needed. That expedition was a turning point for me.

A few years later, with the need to raise funds for the projects, I founded a small NGO. OASIS was created as a necessity to try to do something for a more just change. We created the NGO for sports and school material and also the construction of a pool for the kids in the orphanage where I lived (I spent six wonderful years living with the kids in the orphanage). 

As time went on, more and more people were adding to the initiative, and we started with more projects in more places until we arrive at what is now OASIS. For the past 15 years, we have been doing medical expeditions and reconstructive plastic surgery, mainly on children, in Togo, West Africa. To this day, there have been many consecutive years, many operations completed, and many patients who had been helped to improve their precarious living conditions. 

We are contributing our little grain of sand with the forgotten and less fortunate of this small African country. So, to date, it has been 20 years working in different projects and photographing and telling what happened in the countries that I love so much.

Ron B. Wilson: Out of all of the places you’ve been to in Africa or elsewhere, where is your favorite and why?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: They are all my favorites. I can’t pick a sole winner. Each has its essence, its lights, and shades. Even though, by the volume of travel and stays, Burkina Faso and Togo in Africa and Nicaragua in Central America have been the places where I spend more time and done projects.

I always loved traveling. In the beginning, the thought of putting the most amount of flags on my map was the most important. Then, after 20 years of traveling to the same countries, you discover that the most important trip is inside of you. And that the most important are the stories. Those stories that happened to the people in front of the camera and that you want to tell. Unfortunately, injustice and suffering are always the same in all places. A child crying sounds the same and pierces your heart in the same way in an infested area in Africa, a hot refugee camp or a forgotten suburb of Europe. The only things changing are the faces and realities.

That’s why I tried to come back over and over to the same places all these years. To try to understand the whys. 

Ron B. Wilson: I was so inspired by your multimedia presentation, “Snake Kids.” Can you tell me a little about it? How long have you been working on it, and what is the most important thing you’d like for people to know about this project?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: This reportage was the logical consequence of many trips and the many medical expeditions we had done in this African zone and more precisely to the center of Don Orinoe de Bombouaka where we did our humanitarian labor. 

“Snake kids” intends to be a song of hope and tell the story of disabled children that live in this center that houses 70 children – mostly abandoned – with severe physical and intellectual disabilities, and that provides specialized attention to try to improve their quality of life.

These children (especially the girls) are at a high risk of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, or being abandoned by their families. These minors are considered “supernatural” or “demons.” In some places, children with cerebral palsy are known as “snakes” because they sleep on the floor. These children drown in the river in rituals “to get rid of the serpent.”

I spend many hours of my life watching these children laugh and cry. And within all the things, I realized the injustice. That just because you are born on the other side of the border of security, you could be forgotten.

But because they can have a better life, I am and will be visiting the children (my children) in this foreign country, to take their screaming voices to the other side of the ocean.

(Please click play button above to watch “Snake Kids”)

Ron B. Wilson: Speaking of your multimedia presentations, can you explain how you create them? Do you write the narration yourself and put the whole thing together?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: I am a proud freelance photographer without money. I had to learn to do everything… (Laughs)… Besides, I am very controlling. I am a perfectionist and compulsive in all my affairs. Little by little, I learned by myself video and sound editing, so in the end, I realized that I could produce a total product myself and with few resources. 

My work process is straightforward, and I do it always the same way: First, I choose destination and history. Then, I spend enough time taking photographs of the place and understanding what is happening there. 

When I go back home, I edit the pictures and make the final selection. I write the texts. Create the multimedia, and then I create a webpage that holds all the work. I do everything myself: photographs, texts, video, editing, web programming. It is a creative process that is a lot of fun and in which I learn a lot. There are many hours and a lot of work behind each story. The time that I spend with each story in my head, I am convinced of every piece that goes into it. I told you this is my life. So, I usually spend half of the year traveling and taking photographs, and the other half in production work from home. This is a formula that works for me and that I feel very comfortable with.

I believe that these little multimedia presentations are the perfect form and easy to show a story in a few minutes. Nowadays, there are no spaces in magazines, and people don’t like to read. They want everything here and now. I believe that with multimedia, you can reach a bigger audience and have more impact. Short videos are a new paradigm for new generations. We have to adopt this new trend.

Ron B. Wilson: Antonio, you are one of the best photographers I’ve ever seen, met, and followed over the years. Your work reminds of Sebastião Salgado. Who inspires you?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: Wow… Thanks so much for your compliments. It makes me very happy that you like my humble work. To compare me with the M\master Salgado – one of my favorite photographers – are significant words that I don’t think I deserve.

If you ask me who inspires me as photographers, there are many. I admire the work of people committed to their projects and their point of view. I like the classics, and they will continue to amaze me: too many names and too many pictures to mention. But to say some, I am fascinated by Robert Capa and James Nachtwey. These are people from another galaxy—the quintessence of photojournalism. If someone asked me what I would like to be when I grow up, I would say that I would love to be a hundredth of them. Capa for being the father, for changing the concepts, to approach the action. I am a firm believer of his: “the photograph is not good enough if you are not close enough” Nachtwey for his eye, his exquisite composition, and his unlimited work capacity.

Nowadays, luckily, there are a large number of great photographers that are invading the international media and winning many awards. Today we have to try to survive with contests and workshops with their photographs. There are many and very talented. I don’t want to leave anyone out so that I won’t name them. They know who they are and what they are doing. Some of them risk their lives to show us what is going on in the world. Others have a social view that gives a voice to the ones that don’t have a voice. Some from the real trenches of the sewers of the planet’s underworld, and who use the technology to help the less fortunate.

The good are very good, and it is great to enjoy their point of view. The bad, well, with those, you only have to press the delete key. Those are the benefits of technology. But, as I told you before, I am more inspired by life itself. This life is too short, beautiful, and too fascinating not to try to take advantage to the maximum.

Ron B. Wilson: You are originally from Spain, but now live in Nicaragua. Are you working on any stories in Central America at the moment?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: I have been living in Nicaragua for many years. I have a considerable amount of stories on this and other Central American countries. But unfortunately, since a few years ago, due to the number of travels and professional engagements, I don’t have the time I would like to have to create stories “at home.” I feel Nicaragua is my home, and because of that, I had diminished the flow of projects about the country. When I come back home, I want to produce my stories and rest. I hope in a not too far future, I can go back to my local projects.

Ron B. Wilson: You spend a lot of your time teaching photography. Why is being a mentor and leader vital to you?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: I had taught for many years in different universities and doing workshops for many countries. I love teaching, and I enjoy even more learning and spend time with the passionate youth in this wonderful world of image-making. Lately, I had decreased the number of classes and workshops precisely because I had been traveling and doing other projects. But I try, from time to time, to find a little time to do a workshop to satisfy the itch to teach.

The words “mentor” and “leader” are too big to define my teaching side. What I try to do is teach my students to understand the light and my passion for life. To not stop questioning everything around. To make mistakes and learn to make the right decisions to come out of those big wells that sometimes we or others create. I only hope I accomplished it!

Ron B. Wilson: If you had to choose, what one image do you think represents your work the best?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: I love all my photographs equally. They are like my children, and you shouldn’t make distinctions between them… (Laughs). I can’t choose a favorite even though there are some I have a special affection for. It’s normal. Because of the memory of the moment, for the story that tells or by the transcendence of the image.

Like Ansel Adams said: “Twelve good photographs a year are a great harvest.” I genuinely believe that. It is tough to create a good photograph. So when you think you have one, you should save it, and show it as a treasure.

Logically, for your audience, there are two or three images that are always present, and by which they remember and recognize you. Usually, the ones that have been awarded or have been published. So I suppose that those are the ones that represent a photographer and will be remembered.

Ron B. Wilson: I love your use of light in your images. It seems that you are just as comfortable using artificial light as you are with using available natural light. What do you prefer? And how do you decide to introduce a strobe into a shot?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: Light is always light, regardless of whether it is “real” or “fake.” The important thing is to know how to use it and decide what to do with it in each moment. I usually photograph with the light I have available in the moment. I love natural light and look to find the best moment and texture. But I also feel comfortable with flash, and I use it more as a personal taste for each moment. A few years ago I used artificial lighting a lot in some of my images and now is very hard to find something that is not natural light. Is more of a personal challenge. I don’t like to do the same things all the time, so I modify and incorporate the use of technology as I feel it appropriate. I love the use of color and black and white. I started doing classic photography in black and white. Then I discovered color and used it exclusively for many years. Now, I photograph either color or black and white according to the demands of each story. The same happens with flash. Although in the conditions I work habitually, if I don’t introduce light, there is no rational way to get a decent photograph… because it is darker than the ass of a cricket… hahaha

Ron B. Wilson: What is one piece of advice you can give to a photographer just starting out or someone who aspires to produce images as impactful as yours?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: The most important advice is to be happy. Its cliché, but it is true. At least that is what I think.

Besides, I am not good at giving advice. But something that I had always believed and worked for in my job: you have to be loyal to yourself and the way of seeing and understanding things, for good or bad. If you wake up every day with a smile, work hard without expecting gifts, if you push yourself and follow your dream, results will come. And if not, at least you would enjoy the indescribable sensation of knowing and feeling alive. Really alive. And I can assure you that there is not enough money in the world to pay for that.

Nothing can compare to being lost in the middle of nowhere, photographing a real event in which you are the privileged viewer. That feeling you can’t describe with words. To me, that is the most important… life is too short to be lost in malarkey.

Ron B. Wilson: You have won several awards recently, which ones are you most excited about? 

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: Luckily, in the past few years, I have been given many awards and international mentions. It is with pride that I had received them because they recognize the hard and silent work of many years. In some ways, like the images, the spectator is the one who remembers or gives more or less importance to the awards that you have accomplished. Some of them, like the UNICEF Photo of the Year, HIPA Grand Prize, Pictures of the Year Latam, Xposure International Photography Festival, HPA UNESCO Grand Prix, make your work transcend to other frontiers and open many doors. But in the end, I believe that the awards serve fundamentally for two things. For one, they are an instrument to give visibility to our images and stories. And secondly, they are a mere form to find financing to continue with the projects. From there, the noise, flash, and momentary ego rush are simply anecdotal.

Ron B. Wilson: Thank you again for taking the time to collaborate with me. It is a real honor to call you a friend. What is next for you, and what are you currently working on?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: It’s been a real pleasure to answer your questions and an honor that you had remembered me and my work. One of the most exciting and pleasurable things about this work is that from time to time, you find yourself in the most unexpected places with people that have the same concerns and the same approaches. And you, my dear friend, are a very pleasant and perfect consequence of that.

So, what is next for me? I hope to continue to be on the highway. To be able to continue telling stories, enjoying this crazy trip and crazy life that I have chosen to live. Always in motion. Taking pictures. Always on the side of the disadvantaged.

In a few days I’ll go back to Africa to start or finish several stories that I am immersed in: I will continue with Snake Kids in Togo; the terrorist threat to the schools, the teachers and the children so they won’t go to school in Burkina Faso; the problem with global warming that is making the coastal line disappear in Togo and other countries of Occidental Africa.

After that, a few days in Spain (I haven’t seen my mother in more than a year) to spend Christmas, and in January I will continue my travels and new projects. I will go back to Ukraine to the forgotten war in the east side of the country, and the hard life of the few colonists that are still standing, and I will look for new stories, new trouble, new challenges anywhere in the world. I am always busy with long-term projects that are related to conservation, global health, poverty, cultural diminishing, discrimination, and the environment. I am still trying to raise my voice in favor of the disadvantaged and forgotten. And above all, trying to enjoy this exciting trip that is life itself… I hope I can do it a little longer.

Ron B. Wilson: Is there anything else you would like to share with my readers? And how can they follow your work?

Antonio Aragon Renuncio: You can follow my work on my website (www.antonioaragonrenuncio.com) or in my social media: Facebook (Antonio Aragon Renuncio) and Instragram (@antonioaragonrenuncio). I have to recognize that I am not very good using them. I am from the old school. I believe that is my handicap because I am not very good in promoting my professional presence on the internet. I am also very bad at having to “sell me”. 

I had always preferred to live adventures more in the real world and less in the virtual. Social media is very helpful if you know how to use it and use it in the right amount. If you spend more time than necessary, besides the boredom and the tired eyes, it makes you have a biased vision of reality.

The rules of the game have indeed changed little by little in this world 2.0, at least for me. So I am still trying to understand how it works. I am hoping to improve. (Laughs). 

Thank you, Ron, for everything, it has been a real pleasure. And above all, thank you and your readers for enduring this interview to the end… (Laughs)… See you on the road… 

Good light!!

Advertisements