The Journey with a cell phone, but no signal / by Roberto Mata


I come from a family that had no money for traveling, even when the famous dollar was at 4.30.

Very few trips by land, none by plane and a cruiseship is an experience I still haven’t lived.

Since I was a child, traveling was a more important goal than having a girlfriend, however the first trip I made was when I was 18 years old and I had a girlfriend since I was 12 years old.

I worked as a full-time photographer for the newspaper El Nacional and when I had my first formal vacation, I crossed the street to a travel agency and asked “how far do I go with this”, showing my vacation check. Minutes later, they answered “to Machu Picchu, Peru”.

And I left, traveling for the first time in my life. I did it alone in a gray and red AeroPeru plane, which took me to Lima, the city where it doesn’t rain but you always get wet.

Also on that trip I smoked for the first and only time, in a failed attempt to conquer a beautiful Brazilian woman.

None of these images are from that trip. In fact, I don’t know where they are but I remember them, more with love than with respect.

I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer and I did what an 18-year-old photographer thinks will bring him to the glory of the yellow frame.

Life has allowed me to travel and for some I have done it a lot, which is a privilege that I have not stopped being thankful for. In an incredible way I managed to make traveling become a job, even to the point of making a living out of it.

When my travel photography became more serious, it also assumed a square, rigid, contemplative, aesthetic, and perhaps beautiful character. With an expensive, heavy camera, and some analog film afraid of X-rays in airports charged with that air of mystery, of which it thinks its doing something that few know how to do. I looked for very graphic and visual elements in dissimilar places, contributing very little and verging on the classic imagery that already had existed till now.

Then, convinced of wanting to cover my visual needs and content expectations, I started to get closer to the individual, to the man.

Firstly, through elements that point out his presence in an unmistakable way: the empty chair, the naive advertisement, the curved post, the friendly mailbox, Godzilla on a trip… a small homage from the distance and shyness. Until we literally reach the human figure, tiny, distant, helping the scale, to see us alone, isolated.

Mexico, Portugal, France, Barquisimeto, New York, Merida, Morocco, Italy and many other destinations helped in this mission.

But fortunately, there is weariness, frustration, the void where we can fall when life, which we do not know how to deal with, throws us. And those images annoyed me, bored me and began to give me an immense sadness and being in a remote place, where perhaps some of you would have wanted to be, I took out the camera, measured the light with the knowledge that comes from having seen the same sun for many years, shot two pictures and kept it.

It is likely that I will not be able to convey what it means for a photographer to keep the equipment in a place where the rest of the civilians would consider it at least a mistake. But I did not allow myself to take the same pictures again, in the same way, with the same look that only seeks comfort. A version of myself, a copy. I carried that heavy equipment for 15 days without shooting it. I punished myself. I fell into the pit. I am grateful for the pit.

And then from all that traveling, I got to Auschwitz, in Poland, where many people died, too many people. As well as the coast of northern France, Normandy, where a very important number of soldiers from both sides died during the Second World War. I felt the silence and the absence.

I realized that what interests me is the people, the ones who are alive and can still tell me something, that listening is a way of photographing and that in order to listen I had to lower the camera, dominate the ego and eliminate the aura of protection that means seeing through a viewfinder. To put myself at the level of the other from the camera that makes calls, the cell phone, and to dismantle the paraphernalia of the “photographer me”, “team me”, “developed me”, “star me”.

Only the journey, the traveling as a mechanism to awaken the senses, the five. A cell phone without signal, desire to listen, intention to write to accompany the portrait of an individual and above all, genuine interest in the other.

A photographer who now listens, who does not consider himself an artist and who travels without a camera. A photographer who is not credible.

I approached the individual with or without the language as a bridge in Vietnam or India, and I recognized that I do not need to go to such remote places for that to encounter with the other. That I travel in the interest of who I get to know, rather than place that gets me to know others.

And I started to accept, because with maturity comes acceptance, which I needed and need to write down what I hear. That as a photographer now I depend on the letter, that when I portray I am also making a self-portrait, that I feel incomplete when I leave the image orphaned and that today I am only showing photos and therefore I must read this, written. That I haven’t stopped being a photographer, nor limiting myself to the cell phone, but that I did decide to restart myself from simplicity. Seeing and listening. Reproduce.

The small and apparently insignificant story is what captivates me. The curiosity that marks the course and its depth. The eye shares presbyopia with the seduction generated by the individual who is not used to being portrayed.

Everything happens in a journey, it doesn’t matter where, but the displacement sharpens the perception. My work has lost universality because the images no longer speak for themselves, nor are they worth a thousand words. They must be literally be read after being seen, in most cases in Spanish.