16 March 2016

Documenting the Harsh Extremes of a Canadian Winter

16 March 2016 - Written by Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

Cristobal Olivares talks to us about how his project -42º developed from a simple desire to capture his experience and relationship with a climate that was completely unknown to him.

© Cristobal Olivares, from the series -42º

During the northern hemisphere winters of 2011 and 2015, Chilean photographer Cristobal Olivares travelled to the city of Winnipeg, Canada to visit his mother who had emigrated there many years earlier. In those months he explored his own personal relationship with the city and the extreme weather conditions that the inhabitants have to endure. -42º is the lowest temperature Olivares experienced on his first stay of six months.

To start with, Cristobal, can you tell us how you got into photography?

At home I always had a camera to photograph family parties and holidays. With my brother and cousin we would take the camera to have fun, this of course without our parents’ permission. Back then in Chile film was very expensive to buy. Later on, I started to do things that in one way or another led me to photography.

I used to skateboard non-stop for 6 years and that experience taught me to be on the streets. I was also very into magazines (mainly about skateboarding) which were not only about skate tricks, but also the documentation of a lifestyle. A little while later, my older brother, Alejandro, studied photography and that helped me to become immersed in the medium, and from there my interest started to develop more and more.

How did your project -42º come to fruition?

In 2010 I put my photography studies on hold and I went to travel across Canada from East to West. During this time, I lived with my mother for a while - she had gone to live in Winnipeg a few years previously. At the time I visited her it was winter, but it was a completely unknown winter to me due to where I come from. Everything seemed to be more complicated - I wasn’t able to stay long outside on the streets and I had to be so careful with my digital camera, which would either freeze or condensate.

I started to go out only with my Holga, which is made out of plastic. There was no need to be careful with this camera and the act of photographing seemed more natural to me. On these grounds, the project developed without much pretension - non-other than capturing my experience and relationship with this climate in physical and psychological terms. I was looking to understand people’s lives and my mother’s new life, who next to her new husband, Patrick, are fundamental characters in this project. I was able to get closer to my mother, to know her and understand her better. She is an immigrant and I was too for a short period. In January 2015 I went back to Winnipeg and the effect was the same.

© Cristobal Olivares, from the series -42º

All of your personal projects are produced in your home country, Chile. In contrast, for -42º you went to Winnipeg, Canada to visit your mother. Tell us about photographing in a location where you are the foreigner and your surroundings are unknown. How was that photographic dynamic?

My first trip abroad was to Canada. Before that I only had a few years photographing. This trip helped me to understand “why to photograph?” (however, I am always asking myself the same question). The photographic dynamic is not only to be standing in front of the person that you wish to photograph, it is so much more than that. To me, it is a lot about being in the present, looking at what is happening here and now - to hear stories, languages, ideas.

The act of photographing is an excuse and the resulting photograph is a record of all of that. I have been fortunate to photograph in many countries. Like most people, I like travelling and at the same time I like to photograph what is happening in my own country. When I came back to Chile after this trip to Canada many things were happening that involved me directly. I was interested in seeing them closely and registering them in order to explain these problems and to create opinions about them.

The way you photographed this project is very different to your other work. Could you talk a little bit about your approach, which seems less controlled?

I think each story is different and it has a different impact on me and that affects directly the way in which I perceive and how I want to photograph. I feel like that’s where the challenge of this practice is too. To look for new ways to tell a story. To me it is pretty impossible to photograph everything the same way. A photograph, or a photographic project, is like music or a record - you have the idea, meetings, feelings, execution, time management, etc. Then you put all of that work in your record and the songs play in an order that also transmits something. For your third record, if you do the same as you did for your first one, it is going to be uninteresting.

© Cristobal Olivares, from the series -42º

To finish with, can you talk to us about your publishing project. How’s your editing process when you are going to print a photobook?

Talking as a member of Buen Lugar Ediciones - first of all, it has to be a project that interests us, and in which we see an intention and potential. Aside from looking at the images, I always look for other things that can help me with the general idea or help with the design: whether it is a notebook, an object, manuscript, etc. Then, depending on the nature of the work, I gather information to help imagine an original story.

From there, I try to give shape to something - get the images on the table, make a sketchbook to see how the edit flows in a book form, check the paper, etc. All of these phases take place in constant dialogue with the author. I don’t think this process differentiates much from any other publishing company or editor. The idea of Buen Lugar Ediciones is that we get everything done in a friendly and close environment, where we can create a relationship with the authors. There are three people working at Buen Lugar Ediciones: Alejandro - my brother - and my partner, Aribel González, who is an art director and designer. So, we are pretty much a family based business, where we all have the same level of input.

In the case of A-MOR, my first book with Buen Lugar Ediciones, the work was considered for a long time, but it wasn’t until the last year that we started to see it with more clarity. Finally we settled on a date for the book to enter the printing house and then things started to flow really well (within the normal parameters of stress).

I really like the process of editing and generally for my work I do a lot by myself until I decide to pass on a sketch to somebody. In this case it was to the photographer Nicolás Wormull - our guest editor - and also Christopher Morris. Parallel to all of this process Aribel is responsible for all the design magic, in response to what she perceives during the editing process. This is a team project.


Cristóbal Olivares is a Chilean documentary photographer focusing on contemporary social affairs in his home country. He is represented by VII Photo and is the co-founder of Buen Lugar Ediciones. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

Reading time

8 minutes

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