6 oktober 23, Utrechtsestraat Amsterdam
All images: Felipe Romero Beltrán
Femke and Peter talked with Felipe about his career so far and in particular about his project Dialect, which he presented at FOTODOK’s Book Talks in Tivoli, Utrecht, on October 5, 2023. Felipe told how, after finishing school at the age of 17, he decided to search for opportunities outside his native Colombia. Successful applications for stipendiums in photography, brought him to Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, Oldenburg, and Madrid. He acquired a broad spectrum of experience while making a living as a free-lance photojournalist and working on assignments in fashion and advertising. In Madrid he entered university and received his master’s degree. Then he started a PhD project in photography, which also qualified him for a residence permit. Felipe’s career indicates a strong drive of going to places unknown, wherever he sees an opportunity to develop his skills and vision. Presently he is living and working in Paris.
FEMKE: Can you explain how your projects originate? Do you have strategies in terms of concept, interest, and style?
FELIPE: It normally begins like a mess or a chaos. Presently it may be different, but before I never thought beforehand of how to conceive a project. I was used to do commissions for a newspaper or a studio, for professional photography. But because of my academic side, I started to develop more personal things. You know, like in life itself, what you do follows what happens to you. And thus, out of necessity I felt kind of urged to start this project of Dialect. I just had this intense feeling to do it, therefore started to take pictures, and then began to really develop the project itself. That’s how it always goes, how it starts out of chaos and grows in a bigger sense.
Felipe Romero Beltrán, Dialect 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
PETER: I can imagine how it works, coming out of chaos. At the same time, I noticed that there’s a very apparent unity of style in this project. So is there a moment you decide: this is my the style, the one I want to apply for this specific project?
FELIPE: I think it happens gradually, like speaking. From the beginning I learned that photography is photography, and verbal knowledge is verbal knowledge. These should not be confused. I notice while teaching that people sometimes think that you can apply verbal knowledge to image knowledge or image thinking, and it’s completely the opposite. I think the language of the image is like an autonomous language. I work a lot on developing that language without the words, without the structure, without the organization on the verbal side. I just want to be conscious that I’m trying to achieve a photographic surface that resonates with me. It’s a matter of decisions, it’s also a point of view. It requires distance with the subject, decisions about certain densities, certain contrasts, certain lights. The photographic medium absolutely comes first. Sometimes it happens that I apply conceptual devices or conceptual thinking to photography, then my photography is a tool to reflect that. I think at least that’s how I’m working, and that photography is an autonomous agent in my work.
PETER: So it would be a problem if you try to describe in words what happens in the pictures.
FELIPE: That’s it, for me. It’s kind of tricky because, whatever image you have of my work, it explains almost nothing. I mean: every single time that I’m taking a picture, I don’t want to be informative in that way. This approach connects to something older than verbal language itself. I try to relate to this kind of intense and thick relation that we have with the image, which is in essence nonverbal. The image as such is not qualified, it’s not like a structure. It’s more primal, more elementary, and therefore it’s not complex. On the contrary, as related to culture or religion, everything that we have developed as humans through image is really, really old, and really, really nonverbal. So that’s something that intrigues me and keeps me working in images. That’s why I normally separate text and images. I don’t use captions (unless of course for assignments, yes, but for personal works I don’t use captions). I don’t explain the images. I place text with the images, but that text does not explain the images, it’s autonomous as well. Images and text resonate together and sometimes that produces something new. In some cases, people don’t understand this very well, and sometimes I make mistakes, sometime people feel disconnected, and all that is for me also a process of learning.
In this respect, for me, the question is: what’s important? My last work in Colombia was about this huge river, the Magdalena River (2017). And I wrote an essay myself, giving context to the images because this work was a quite a strong political case connected to the civil war. So in this case of course you have the responsibility to contextualize the images, you can’t let it just explain itself.
But working on Dialect I was wondering what happened if different people would help me out with the text. These are friends, people from the book, people around me, who had already worked with me on the development of the work. They perfectly knew about the process, the project, and everything that was happening with the images. They did not aim at explaining the images, but as I said, they let the images resonate, and then offer some conclusion or reflection. This approach is different from explaining the first layer of the project, following the images, and saying “it’s about blah, blah, blah”. Obviously, it’s necessary to offer some context, but I see that as an autonomous device that resonates within the book.
Felipe Romero Beltrán, Dialect 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
FEMKE: Imagine that you could have like 100,000 copies to hand out, who would you give those copies to? It’s a crazy question perhaps, because if the work is autonomous and it’s really aimed at connecting at the same time, who would you give those copies to?
FELIPE: Well, that’s a freaky question! Probably it’s true that certain things in the book are kind of unconsciously made or codified in the art context. I can see that therefore it may not be accessible for a general public. But I probably would like to bring it first to certain communities especially related to documentary photography. This would give another point of view and build another narrative around the situation of migrants than the stigmatizing image existing especially in Spain. For that reason I think it would also be important to give the book to institutions that actually have certain power to make decisions around politics.
FEMKE: So, what do you think that’s lacking there? I mean: what should be corrected in the public language of image? And do you want to provide guidance?
FELIPE: So many things are lacking. I mean like it’s a learning process. I just want to keep working, and in that sense keep learning about the formal decisions that I make. Sometimes I think like there’s some basic things in my own way of photographing, if you see some of my past projects, you may understand.
FEMKE: Can you say a bit more about that?
FELIPE: I started to make certain decisions on staging photography and on composing. But now I think I want to probably come back in a certain sense to a more primitive way of photography. You know, I am completely in love with the 19th century photography, because it embodies this amazing view on photography as a mechanical thing. Right now, I think my images are nice of course, well made. But I think I need a step further in the proper photography language, and to keep pushing that a little bit more.
Felipe Romero Beltrán, Dialect 2023 courtesy Loose Joints
FEMKE: You mentioned that Spain stands out towards other countries in stigmatizing immigrants?
FELIPE: I mean I think it’s a general situation in Europe. But politically speaking, Spanish media are having a huge impact by giving a certain image of immigrant communities, in particular the Latino and the Maghrebi. The Latino community has a strong negative image. Funny enough, as a Latino, I feel much more welcome in France that in Spain, even though French is a completely different language. In France, racism is directed against their Maghreb community and not towards the Latino community. So, I noticed the very negative image against migrants from Morocco and as a Latino, I could easily relate to that. And I decided to do this work, one of the first in which you can see just a group of guys in those circumstances. It always was my goal to work with a group of guys, dealing with their political situation, how they embrace it, and to make the book. And for me, as I said, this subject was just for grabs.
In my personal life and in my work things overlaps. It’s just my way of thinking. Now I’m aiming towards doing something in Colombia once again, but for a family reason. At the same time, it takes lots of effort, consciousness, and time to conceive exhibits or produce shows or a book. This kind of things you cannot replicate each year. I know that some kind of photographers do it as a profession. But honestly a few years ago I made the decision that I’d rather prefer to make a living from professional photography, like applicational photography, fashion or such assignments. That will enable me to give time to the personal projects, just to allow them their own rhythm to develop and to keep working on that on the side. Thus, I won’t feel the pressure to have to show everything every single time, like a new project, a new product, and a new brand. I rather prefer to stick to the to the chain of capitalism and try to make the best of it. But I’m not a person that it’s complicated to sustain. I just need a few jobs per year and I can make a living with that.
Talking about overlaps, I became kind of an expert on migration matters because I needed to. I needed to find a solution to my own situation in Spain and the option I chose was to start a PhD. This enabled me to acquire a residence permit. This also enabled me to make a living. Now I have financial support, and much more: emotional support, by my friends, by my family, by my partner. That makes it much easier, and I don’t desire too much, just stay with the simple things. Of course, everyone has ambitions, desires, ego, whatever. But at the same time I know that such feelings require a complicated lifestyle. And that’s something that’s not for me. If it goes well and I can save some money, well that’s super cool.
From Bravo, (2021 – ongoing)
FEMKE: So that connects to your talking about the visual language as an independent language. Is there work we should see as a reference for you? As a reference or as a language, a visual language that really inspired you or helped you develop?
FELIPE: You know like every single language allows you to discover or to approach reality from a different completely different way than your native language. And visual language allows you to express such deeper feelings. In that respect, painting always is something like an inspiration that I’m looking for. The project is obviously influenced by Sevillian baroque paintings. But not only because I had it on my mind, because it’s the city itself, it’s all around in the project, that does it. So that’s like another layer for me that was important. The treatment of the bodies in the photographic setting was done by me, by them as well, and also influenced by the city itself. You know, Seville is a city full of images, full of religious images, full of allegorical images. So that influence is part of the project, I think.
FEMKE: So which direction do you think your work will take for the future?
FELIPE: I think I’m just starting now, literally like I come. I kind of feel that presently I am achieving certain poor conclusions on everything in photography… And now I am quite excited to start understanding how to achieve this. I’m really looking forward to starting as a photographer, and now I’m really feeling that I’m starting to take pictures. It’s like a new beginning. It’s like the PhD thesis, it is just bubbling and saying nonsense. At the same time this is the process that I probably need to be able in a few decades to build a proper statement or a proper thesis around something. So, this is just the beginning of my work as a photographer too. Yeah. For me, I think. Hopefully it can develop with time.