An artist’s success could be as serendipitous as his creativity. For the Peruvian-American photographer Carlos Jiménez Cahua, success has come as an unintended side effect of his sincere passion for photography. Just one year after graduation from college, Jiménez Cahua had his first solo photography show at a gallery in the Lower East side of Manhattan. His Lima exhibition, which includes 10 photos focusing on the development of young towns in Peru’s capital city, received approving nods from art critics of The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and Guernica—among others. A recent Princeton University graduate, Jiménez Cahua was born in Peru and raised in New Jersey before moving to South Carolina. His latest photography collection, Ciudad de los Reyes, was on exhibit at Princeton’s Studio 34 Art Gallery last month.
Wunderkammer: The most expected but also the most important—why photography? When did you start making photos?
Carlos Jiménez Cahua: I didn't come into college thinking I’d do photography. At the time, I would still call myself visually minded despite never before having made art. I appreciated art but didn't necessarily want to study it. In my sophomore year I signed up for a black and white photography class out of curiosity, and was so taken by it that I ended up doing a color photography class after that. I applied for a Visual Arts Certificate. I continued to make work, obtained a thesis-permission to focus on photography, and now I’m trying to do more.
WK: Do you remember your first photograph?
CJC: I do. The first photograph I made – at least as an intentional piece of art – was in a park near South Carolina where I was from. There was this very steep hill next to a road, and at the edge of the hill there was a tree where you could see its roots coming down to the ground. It was like an ant colony, a maze made of roots. Just imagine taking a tree underground and cutting it on the side. It was so interesting that I photographed it. That was my first color photograph. My first black and white photograph was taken at a gas station, but I almost work exclusively in color now.
WK: Why? Is there something lacking in black and white photos?
CJC: No, there is nothing lacking in black and white pictures – there are a lot of terribly beautiful black and white pictures out there, and I definitely would not rule that out for the future.
WK: How did you remember Peru as a child?
CJC: I don’t, zero recollection. I moved here when I was one or two years old, but the reason I maintain a connection is that we go back almost every other year. My mom took my two siblings and me back to Peru for the first time in middle school. There I met my family and became close to them. That’s sort of how the country stayed close to my mind. A girl from California emailed me a while ago about my work and she was saying how she herself was adopted from Peru and she lived in California with non-Peruvian parents. At one point, she went back to Peru to look for her biological family. The point I’m trying to make is, even though she grew up in an American family and did not remember Peru as a child, she still felt that urge to return to where she came from. With my older siblings, they remembered Peru a lot better than I did, but they are not very connected to the place. Whereas I, the only one who doesn't remember it, really wanted to go back.
WK: Is this about retrieving a memory lost? What was it like growing up in New Jersey as a Peruvian-American?
CJC: Yes, I tried to retrieve that memory in some sense. It was not a certain thing that my family and I would come to the US. It was our plan, but it easily could have failed. It was pure chance that we settled here. From what my mom told me, it was a very arduous journey from Peru, a lot of planes, buses and trains—she came with us three kids, and she had to carry me the whole time.
Peru is technically a relatively poor country, and I suppose that was something that intrigued me in a way. Growing up as a Peruvian was regular, but one thing interesting about New Jersey is that the state has around 15% Latino population. All my friends were at least ethnic minorities, if not mostly Latino—Columbians, Peruvians, Indians, or Africans. I didn't have a lot of Caucasian friends, but all that changed radically when my mom put me in a Catholic school in a different part of the town in the 4th grade. That was my first experience with something that was not diverse. That’s probably one of the most admirable things about Elizabeth, New Jersey—its diversity. Of course, at the time when I was in a minority community, I did not think to myself, “Oh my god! This is so diverse!” But it was quite surprising to me that when I went to catholic school, I was probably the only Hispanic in my class.
WK: Did you have a hard time reconciling your Peruvian and American identities when you made the transition from a community in which you looked like the people around you to one where your appearance immediately made you ‘foreign’?
CJC: It was something I never thought about until we moved to South Carolina. Growing up, I was surrounded by kids whose parents were all from somewhere else, so to me that wasn’t unusual, ‘foreignness’ was the norm; a regular kid was someone who grew up in Guatemala or Colombia. But once I was in South Carolina, all of a sudden I wasn’t Peruvian, I wasn’t “regular.” A lot of people actually considered me Mexican, which I obviously am not. I guess it’s because their only experience with Latinos was with Mexicans, either directly or through pop culture. As a kid I already knew that there were Mexicans, Peruvians, and Colombians. There is quite a diversity within these ethnic and linguistic categories, you know. Take an America kid who has moved to Indonesia, and everyone starts calling him British; He would be like, “What are you talking about? I am American. Just because we speak the same language doesn't mean we are the same.” Similarly, Peruvian and Mexicans are different, and I didn’t invent or imagine these differences—it was just wrong to assume that we were one and the same.
WK: You returned to Peru three years ago and brought back some very arresting and original images of the urban sprawl in Lima. Man Ray said, “An original is a creation motivated by desire.” What desire brought you back to Lima? What prompted your project?
CJC: There were multiple reasons for Lima and my perspective. I went there in the summer after my sophomore year with my family. When I was there, I was amazed by how desaturated Lima was. I didn’t choose to capture the city specifically on overcast days; it was like that for the three months that I was there. I saw the sun about two or three times, but otherwise it looked hazy all the time. The place is literally a desert. It gets half an inch of rainfall a year, and you have this white blanket of haze covering the pale, brown earth, and then there is a huge sprawling city. It’s unbelievable to me that this existed. The atmosphere of Lima is what attracted me there: the white sky, the bare, brown and barren earth, and also the people who are making their homes on the hillside.
If you Google-Image Lima, you’ll see that there is this colonial city, complete with balconies and boulevards, but that was boring to me; that might as well have been Paris, Buenos Aires, or any other European or western-influenced city. I have no interest in making images of a city centre like that. If I were in Brussels, I probably wouldn't make images there because it is something that we have all seen.
Although Lima is a city, you step on dirt all the time, even when you are at home. This would not be possible in New York City, a metropolitan area so developed that it is impossible to see nature, whereas people in Lima literally live on top of the earth. That might sound weird, but when you think about it, what’s really weird is living in a condo in Brooklyn on the top floor, where you feel like you live in the sky. But in Lima even when you are indoors, you still live on the earth. Whether the people there recognize it or not, they have a close connection to the earth itself because that is what they see whenever they look downwards.
My previous project before Lima was a series of photographs about construction sites. I’m interested in how man develops things, and that’s the most apparent theme in these photos. The place photographed was merely a desert five or ten years ago, but now it’s a pueblo (a young town) and a compelling place to be.
WK: In your statement for the Lima series, you mentioned that people of Lima do not dominate their land or shape its identity. Does the land, then, shape the identity of the people? Have your memories of the land helped shape your own identity?
CJC: I think only a person who lived there all his life could answer that question fully. When people see my images, they are surprised, like, “Oh my god, people actually live there?” But if people in Lima see you living in a 30th floor condo they would probably say, “Wow you live in the sky!” One is not better than the other, people don't really have a choice, they have to be here or there. Lima is a very popular city. A lot of people live there to have jobs. They don’t complain much about the hazy weather in the city, although the people do prefer good weather. We once drove outside Lima and went to this place where the sun appeared above us and my companions were very happy. I know they would like to live in a place where they could see more sun.
WK: Were there any significant encounters with other images while you were there?
CJC: Yes. In Lima, I made some images with my personal digital camera instead of my usual 4 x 5 camera. I was on a hill looking around for images near some huts when I saw a guy chiseling into a rock. They were dumping a pile of stones together to make a reinforcing wall that would hopefully prevent erosion of their homes when nightly rainstorms sweep down the hill. Except the man leading the construction, all the other builders were housewives whose husbands were working somewhere else. It was a very poor neighborhood, and the women were doing most of the work. To me this was very compelling because their efforts have nothing to do with aesthetics or salary. Instead, they were doing it simply to preserve their homes. Many people in the US are obsessed with interior decorations and so-called ‘styles’ of living. But decorations to those housewives are meaningless. To them, work is not about decorating lives but ensuring that tomorrows would exist, that tomorrow would be better. I didn't make images of them for art, but it certainly made me reflect on my own mindset and made me think more about expanding the scope of my work. I would like to experiment with portraitures, too.
WK: How did studying photography with Emmet Gowin influence your work?
CJC: A lot of my classmates at college said it was Emmet who first taught them how to use their camera. But Emmet wasn’t my first teacher. I already started studying photography in the fall of my sophomore year, so the influence he had on me was probably less than others. But I still feel his influence. Something that still probably affects my work or my thoughts on photography was a statement by Sally Mann, who is a famous photographer and a close friend of Emmet. She did a series of work on her children. I remember her saying that she wasn’t particularly interested in children as a subject, but these were her children. They have a deep connection, and that's why she made the images, and that is why her images are so compelling. The same thing could be said about Emmet. He has hundreds of images of his wife that he’s taken over many years. This says something.
When people think about photography, they think National Geographic, they think Mavericks, they think of photographers going to the Sahara or Costa Rica, taking pictures of strange people and strange lands. But people don't have to necessarily do that. You don't have to travel that far. It is good to take pictures of what is up close and make a subject of your work something that has a link to you personally. That part of Emmet’s teaching really crystallized for me, so I knew I should go to Lima because it feels so close to me.
WK: Is there a story with Emmet Gowin that you can share?
CJC: It’s a very different experience having a class or with Emmet. He is not just about photography. He once played us a tape of someone reading a short story, which had nothing to do with anything, or if it meant anything, it was confusing and didn't make sense. But that’s why he played it for us. Maybe the greater lesson that he was teaching us was that art isn’t an interest in and of itself. Maybe we should do a lot of studying outside of photography. It wouldn’t necessarily make us a better artist technically, but it’ll make you look at art in a different way. That is something that I have certainly taken from Emmet – looking for influences not just outside photography but also outside of art. In the end, photography is so much more than just aperture and gears.
WK: What’s next for you?
CJC: I'm going back to school in the fall, to Massart (Massachusetts College of Art and Design) for an MFA, and before that I'm taking time off to make work and recalibrate from NYC. I'll split my time between South Carolina and Peru. I'm attracted to the landscape of the former, which is similar to the rest of the eastern US, except for the soil, which can be as red as flesh. I won't be more specific about my future plans or work for fear of making God laugh.