Oscar B. Castillo: Documenting The Reality of Violence And Gangs In Caracas

Oscar B. Castillo was born in Caracas on March 4th 1981 and has lived a rich life. Growing up, he never lived with his parents and was expelled from four schools. Castillo is a freelance documentary photographer and a member of Fractures Photo Collective. In his own words, he describes himself as a “singer in a hardcore band, psychology student, freeparty traveler, riot, illegal immigrant, detained immigrant, expulsed immigrant, photography student, immigrant with papers, temporal worker in depots, in supermarkets, in merchandise delivering, in post service, photojournalism student, father, photography worker, curious traveler.”  Castillo has has published internationally and his work has been shown in various different photography exhibition. His reportage in Caracas, Venezuela during Hugo Chávez’s electoral campaign can be found in the latest issue of LFI.

Q: Hi Oscar, how would you describe your photography?

A: I’m looking for balance between an interesting and visually attracting image and an image that gives information and intimacy while respecting others people’s lives.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and art form, a profession?

A: I spent many years travelling, squatting houses, having all kind of parties and crazy experiences and wanted to keep those memories in images (unfortunately I was so wasted at the beginning that I lost my camera really fast). Also I liked a lot the feeling inside the darkroom amongst all those magical products and all that process of developing and copying was giving a really relaxing sensation.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self taught. Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: At the beginning, I studied something like Fine Art Photography, more related with conceptual photography and contemporary art. Soon I realized it was not my way even if I was in contact with many interesting ideas. After that I started looking more for documentary photography and photojournalism and enrolled in a Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, first as student and after as assistant. It’s been a great learning experience with well known and great photographers and persons like Ron Haviv, Kael Alford, Adriana Zebrauskas, Michael Robinson-Chavez, Walter Astrada and many others. There are many photographers I admire like Eugene Richards, Jan Grarup, Kadir Van Lohuizen, Mary Ellen Clark, Darcy Padilla, Rodrigo Abd, Anders Petersen and recently one of the most beautiful and strong books I’ve ever seen, ALMA by Miquel Devener-Plana and Isabelle Fougère.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: Normally I work with a Canon 7D and 16-35 mm lens. For the last months of this ongoing project i had the opportunity to work with a Leica M9 and a 35 mm f/2 lens.

Q: What genre are your photos? (e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc)

A: For me, it is a mix of documentary photography, street photography, photojournalism and some portraits. However, I am always trying to not manipulate the subject. So even for portraits, I am looking for candid moments where there is a relation between subject and photographer. where the person unveils and adopts the attitude that thinks better represents him/herself.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Leica cameras like M9 have always been a reference for photographers looking for great quality and discretion. Since the beginning of my photographic passion, I’ve been looking at its development. Sadly I can’t afford some of its products so the opportunity to test it on the ground for a long period in a difficult project gave me a good vision of all its possibilities.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: For me, photography is a tool for understanding the ironies of life. t helps me to express my opinion on subjects that matter a lot for me. It gives me voice and gives voice to people. My idea of photography is very far from that merchandise-product treatment it mainly receives. I’m not sure if it changes the “big situation” but at least brings some awareness and reduces the ignorance and indifference about other people’s struggles. Photography for me is part of a biggest way of seeing how the world could be without this repressive and exploitive system, it takes an important place in solidarity, unity, balance and respect.

Q: I see you’re a member of “Fractures Photo Collective.” Can you tell us about the organization and how you got involved with it?

A: Fractures is a collective experiment recently created to bring together different visions but similar ideas about how photography could be a useful tool for social, economical and political struggles and an important element to impulse the awakens of the people more than a merely merchandise to be consume like little pills of entertainment.

Q: What were your goals behind taking the images in Caracas?

A: The goal has been constantly changing and growing. First I wanted to witness a really hard and difficult situation for Caracas inhabitants. While working on the subject, I felt the need to get closer and closer to the different protagonists of this bloody reality to understand better their reality. Now I want to keep close to them and see how their lives continues and changes with the time also I am really interested in initiatives that are taking place to challenge this plague and take the youth out of this destructive spiral.

Q: The images featured in LFI are all black and white. Do you always shoot in black and white? Or is there a specific reason that these images are black and white?

A: I shoot colour pictures as well ,but for this project specifically I wanted to avoid the “mental noise” colour produces sometimes. In a place like Caracas full of movement, people and chaos, I think colour distract the people of the message and keep them away from thinking about the situation while black and white can communicate in a less noisy way even if the subject is screaming.

Q: I heard that these images were taken with a Leica M9. Can you explain why you chose that camera?

A: That camera is part of the collaboration Leica proposed, and I was really happy to test its possibilities. Something that strong that can fix in a pocket is always an interesting tool. Also is solid and so well built that can resist almost any test.

Q: What lenses did you use?

A: A Summicron-M 35 mm f/2. ASPH. An amazing and beautiful lens, great quality, compact and solid.

Q: What sort of emotions do you hope to elicit from the audience? What do you want the viewer to think, in other words?

A: I want the viewer to think, to analyse, to look for him/herself and, with my images and other people’s information, make their own conclusions and take part in the solution. I would like that the viewer takes the place of the subject and for an instant understand that anyone could be the one that pulls the trigger or the one that receives the bullet so it is up to everyone to understand that situation and help changing it.

Q: What was your photographic approach to this reportage?

A: I’m trying to see beyond the violent facts, trying to see the “while” but also the before and after. I had to put my “a prioris” on the side and face every situation as it was coming without judging it. My main goal is to see, understand what i have seen and, after a long analysis, share what i have learn in order to help other people to understand better and, hopefully, do something about it.

Q: What inspired you to do this reportage? Or what was the idea behind it?

A: The idea is to give some help, to motivate the discussion and give some tools to the people to have a deeper and better insight. For me it is about trying to find some peace, inside and outside. Without exaggeration, this constant bloodbath in Venezuela is some of the most painful situations i’ve been in contact with, not only trough the lens. I remember a gun pointing at my head and the feeling that it could be the last second and the end of everything. I think about my family, my friends and their everyday risk, about the young kids that leave this life just when it is supposed to start. I think about the parents that receive the worst new you can hear, some even more than once. Is all that that inspired me and gave me the motivation needed to take the risk, work by myself without any sponsor or economic support and keep going putting a lot of energy, money and heart in order to contribute a little for a big change.

Thank you for your time, Oscar!

- Leica Internet Team

Please find Oscar B. Castillo`s reportage in LFI 01. Also available for the iPad. Watch a video interview with Oscar. To learn more about Oscar, visit his website and Fractures Photo Collective.