Bolivia’s Lost Flagship Airline
Nick Ballon’s work takes its inspiration from his Anglo-Bolivian heritage. In Ezekiel 36:36, a photographic essay about Bolivia’s grounded flagship airline, he takes a gentle, melancholy journey through a time now gone.
Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB), Bolivia’s now defunct flagship airline, was the jewel in Bolivia’s crown for nearly 80 years. With its headquarters in Cochabamba, LAB played an important part in the nation’s history, flying aircraft both domestically and internationally over Bolivia's stunning terrain and mountainous peaks. In its heyday, it employed some 2,000 workers, but now, after its post-privatisation decline, there remain only a handful of loyal workers, clinging to the ghosts of the past.
Inspired by his own Anglo-Bolivian heritage, Nick Ballon spent six months in Cochabamba in 2012, grounded in a hangar with the fleet’s only two remaining planes, one of which is called Ezekiel 36:36, taken from the Biblical reference:
“Then the nations that are left round about you shall know that I the LORD rebuild the ruined places, and replant that which was desolate: I the LORD have spoken it, and I will do it.”
Its name is perhaps fitting, as it encapsulates the unwavering loyalty of the handful of crew who remain, day after day, fending off the advances of the taxman and inevitable government occupation. Theirs is a bittersweet devotion, captured beautifully in Ballon’s book, Ezekiel 36:36.
"I was passing through Cochabamba Airport, en route to visit family. I had seen LAB’s facilities some years back, but this time my gut instinct told me there was an interesting story to be told – one that hadn't been told before. The company had recently found some multimillion-dollar financial investment to get its planes in the air again, so the future seemed promising. But over the course of my visits, this hope all but disappeared and the workers’ newfound optimism was replaced with faith and loyalty to the company they love, even though their salaries were halved and the work stopped," explains Ballon.
"When I had starting shooting for Ezekiel 36:36, I was being chaperoned around the facilities by a young employee who spoke English. As we were walking past an idle plane, she told me a story about a botched terrorist attempt to blow up one of their Boeing 727s in the 1980s. After hearing this story, all I could think about was finding a way to get on board the doomed plane. I managed to persuade my chaperone, even though it meant breaking in. As I walked through the desolate aisles, there was no grenade damage, no shrapnel; instead, there was this very peaceful, small dead bird on one of the seats (pictured). To me, it beautifully summed up so much about the state of the ill-fated airline," he says.
Ballon, a documentary and portrait photographer, has made quite a name for himself commercially, doing shoots for well-respected international companies and publications, among which are Monocle, Avaunt magazine, The New York Times, El Pais and Der Spiegel, as well as Christie’s, IKEA and Soho House.
His personal work, however, takes its inspiration from his heritage. "I’m fascinated by my Bolivian ancestry. I try to better understand my background and how it shapes me as a photographer. It’s this sense of foreignness, mixed with my broad base of cultural understanding, that gives my work in Bolivia an interesting dynamic," he says.
"I can never forget the time I made my first real “decision” - and it has stayed with me my whole life. I was four years old and my family was travelling to South America. I was going to meet my grandmother for the first time. Being a boy, and the eldest, especially in South America, I became the apple of her eye. I bonded with her immediately. Halfway through the trip, my family decided to head to the seaside in Chile, but I decided to stay behind with my grandmother in La Paz, even though I had only known her a very short time. It’s interesting to me that I was able to make that choice at such a young age. In lots of ways, I have carried this strength of mind in my work, making decisions early on, having discipline and running with my with ideas - sometimes failing, sometimes not, but always letting things run their course."
Nick Ballon is a documentary photography currently living and working in London. Ballon’s rich Bolivian heritage plays a key role in his subject matter and identity as a photographer, alongside a desire to feel more connected and explore the idea of ‘foreignness’ within a country close to him. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Donatella Montrone is a freelance production editor and journalist based in London, United Kingdom.
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