Lima-born documentary and fine art photographer Raul Guillermo has been based in Paris for close to a decade, yet his homeland continues to play a central role in his work. Through portraits mostly, he aims to capture what it means to be a man in contemporary Peru and to redefine the cliché-packed, oftentimes warped view the rest of the world has of the country. Based on journeys from the capital Lima to the Andes and through the Amazonian jungle, his most recent body of work, Sin Título, is a gorgeous study on the themes of masculinity, its flawed definition within Peruvian society and a celebration of the diverse beauty of his homeland and all of its territories and peoples. He speaks to us from Lima, set against the turbulent backdrop of the country’s current crisis.
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Hi Raul. It’s lovely to finally meet you ‘in person’. Can you start off by introducing yourself?
I’m originally from Lima, (Peru) where I got my Bachelor of Arts in business but I then decided to move to Paris (France) to pursue photography. My plan was always to return to Peru but I somehow ended up staying in Paris and have been based there for close to 9 years now. I usually travel back to Lima during the long, dark and grey winter months in Paris, where it’s summer and warm here and that’s what I’m doing here right now. I’ve been here for a month and the idea was to finish the project I started a while ago – however, my plans got slightly interrupted. What's more, all of my family is here so I get to spend some rare quality time with them.
You have now been based in Paris for a while. How did that happen and can you tell me a bit about your background and experience?
I’ve been taking photos since I was 15. It started off as a way to release stress and spend time with myself, more like a hobby. When I finished studying, I decided to properly pursue photography for a year and that’s when I realised it was my calling. Studying photography obviously changed my approach to the art and helped me understand what I was interested in. For instance: being in the studio doesn’t really cut it for me, I need and love to see the textures of things and to find creativity in a more spontaneous way. Most of my early experience was in fashion, even if I don’t know much about it – I think I’m a bad fashion photographer (laughs) but I love taking portraits in my own way and capturing the essence of the style itself on someone.
Could you tell me a bit more about the project you’re working on in Peru?
My initial plan was to come here and travel around the country, through the Andean mountains and the jungle, in order to document another side of Peru, one that is less Lima-centred, basically divided into coast, mountain and jungle. But, as you might have heard, the political instability in the country and the roadblocks have cut off all major routes and most places are closed (Machu Picchu included). So, my plans changed and instead I decided to explore more of Lima and today went to the second largest cemetery in Latin America called Nueva Esperanza, located in a southern suburb of the city. Because it’s Sunday, everybody flocks there to bring flowers, food, and alcohol to their loved ones’ graves. While I was there I bumped into an old man who was playing the harp and he begged me to take his picture, do you know why? He wanted to have a photo of him to put on his grave when he died, because he wanted to be buried here and didn’t want anyone to forget about him.
The art scene here is only for a certain privileged part of society, it’s less of a necessity than in places like Paris, however, music plays a central part and is everywhere. It’s actually the first time I’m doing one whole project in Peru and the first time I have delved into doing portraits. I used to focus on land and cityscapes but I started working on portraits during lockdown in 2020 and I loved this new approach. As a photographer, there comes a point where you experience a certain shift, when projects start to feel very repetitive and you’re just dying to feel something new, to experiment and force yourself to do something bigger and get out of your comfort zone. I’m so shy and have a lot of anxiety so talking to strangers is a huge challenge. When I’m alone roaming around and can connect to people, that feels really special.
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You define yourself as a documentary and fine art photographer. How do these two labels fit into your work?
I’d definitely define my work as a crossover between documentary and fine art photography. I don’t feel like a reporter, however, I really enjoy and identify with this in-between space where context isn’t always needed – although I do realise it is sometimes necessary to understand the bigger narrative, depending on what story you’re trying to tell. My work includes everything from studies on people and city scenes to fashion.
I discovered your work through Instagram and was particularly drawn to your portraits of, mostly, Peruvian men in their everyday environments (as previously mentioned). What is it that you enjoy about taking these portraits? Are they spontaneous or staged?
It’s all about breaking the barrier – the way I work is that I walk around and start chatting to people and see where that takes me. As you can tell from my photos, like the bodybuilder on the beach, a lot of my subjects have a really tough, outside shell but once they open up, they’re actually super sweet and vulnerable. It’s really lovely getting to experience these men opening up to other men, a rare feat in my country.
For instance, that old guy playing the harp in the Nueva Ezperanza cemetery who just wanted his picture taken to put on his grave – I love connecting with people that way and it often reaches a point where I think this person could be my friend. Don’t get me wrong though, a lot of the time people aren’t keen and become very suspicious – today, I approached a kid with his older brother, whose portrait I wanted to snap but they turned me down immediately. I prefer a challenge and when I’m walking around I’ll think, I want a picture of this person, I really prefer authenticity.
So, to answer your question, I’d say eighty per cent of my work is spontaneous-staged. Can I say that? I like to direct my subjects. One of the photos I included is of a recent shoot of a cock-fight, which was staged because I had a very precise idea of what I wanted. But I love the surprising effect of connecting with strangers, it’s a really powerful thing. It always starts off in the most casual way: what’s your name? What are you doing? Some of them are really curious, flattered even, but in our society a lot of people also question my intentions and decline, feeling uncomfortable. But when it’s a yes, I go all the way! This would be my documentary-style approach.
Your gorgeous ongoing series Sin Título was shot in various parts of your home country. Can you tell me a bit about your idea behind it and your experience shooting it?
My current project is to make a record of the image of being a man in Peru because there’s no room for this anywhere in our society. When you see ads here, people unsurprisingly look much more fair-skinned than we actually are and we never address our own masculinity. We are encouraged to look European and Peru is so homophobic: if you’re different, then you must be gay but what I want to show is that there are different types of masculinity and it’s time for us to find a new narrative. I sometimes find it difficult to tell a narrative through photography though, it’s more of an observation, a study, but I think this issue affects the whole of Latin America and living in France has made me realise how conservative the country really is and how fragile our concept of masculinity is.
I’d like people to talk about this more because I’m not sure most Peruvian men understand/realise the pressure that lies on their shoulders – society expects you to be tough, to be a winner and to dominate, this can be seen everywhere. I think this is a legacy of our political system: most of our presidents have been military men and this idea of being tough is deeply rooted in our society. The idea still lingers that if you’re not tough enough, then people will take advantage of you and that’s all the attributes you need to survive in this society. It’s not all negative and there have been some positive changes over the years but I think this story still needs to be told. The works of the prominent Peruvian anthropologist and academic Norma Fuller and Pierre Bourdieu’s take on toxic masculinity really helped me in my research phase for it.
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To bounce right off what you just said, what narrative are you trying to convey through your photos of the people and places of Peru? Is there a story you feel needs telling and that you want the world to see?
An extremely clichéd image of South America and specifically Peru exists which portrays us as a land of lamas and ponchos and I just don’t believe it: there’s another story to tell, one that isn’t and doesn’t need to be beautiful but is much more urgent. Generally, my audience are curious people and I believe they want to know what the real story of Peru is: a mix between the traditional and the modern. I want to tell a story of the Peruvian coast, mountains and jungles, one that is all-encompassing and includes all of our territories – not only the scenic landscapes that we all know exist here but the harsher, harder-on-the-eyes reality that exists here too.
8A big part of your work also focuses on cityscapes – mainly Paris, where you are based. How does your experience of shooting scenes of Parisian life differ from your current project back in Peru? Does this work also focus on the people of Paris? (street photography).
As I mentioned before, my interest in photography started with landscapes and cityscapes but my recent experience has drawn me closer to portraits – it’s new and I’m still experimenting with it. I no longer have a whole project based on landscapes and cityscapes but rather, I integrate them as part of the narrative I’m trying to tell. I’m not a huge fan of street photography, although I have a tremendous amount of respect for it. I tend to enjoy photography which is more research-based and I personally need to prepare and know what I’m shooting. What can a picture tell me? I like to take pictures in both places, they are both challenging environments, as long as it is meaningful to me.
I’d like to go back to your series from a few years ago, entitled Plage Isolée, which is more of a landscape project, aiming at capturing the desolate beauty of the French coastline. Are landscapes as interesting to photograph as people?
In fact, I did that series as a part of my photography studies. Sometimes I look back at the photos and understand that it was my ‘early work.’ I still like to look at those images and realise that it was a project of introspection, reflected in the landscapes with a seaside view. My intention was to portray the feeling of isolation that I enjoyed when I was taking pictures in my free time. It was practically like teaching myself or someone to do therapy: it’s important to spend some time alone in order to be able to integrate with others again. Today, I think it's still fascinating to do landscapes as portraits. However, I don't see myself producing a project completely composed of landscapes.
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Tell me about your future projects. What do you hope to work on next?
In the future, I would like to be able to work on something not necessarily related to my country of origin, but maybe related to the people or culture that it is made up of. One idea would be to focus on the Latin community that exists only in Europe. It's still very ambiguous, but I have a couple of ideas up my sleeve that will gradually develop.
Could you pick out one of your favourite photos and tell me about it?
This question suggests an unusual answer, but I would say that all the photos I have taken remain my favourites (laughs). However, I could talk about two photos that I consider special and that are always on my mind. The first is the one of the boy in the boots that I took near Iquitos, an emblematic city in the Amazon. I am absolutely fascinated by the expression this guy has on his face and the posture of his body. He looks like he is made of stone somehow. In my opinion, the punctum of this photo is the red question marks on the pair of jeans he’s wearing. The fact that it's upside down for the viewer makes me think this person drew them with that intention.
Therefore, only he can see those signs from his point of view and maybe he's questioning himself. Also, I would say another memorable photo is the one of Jorge Vasquez's hands showing me his rooster. The detail of the marks of some kind of allergy and the signs of mature age on his hands, from constantly handling his animals, is really striking in the image.
To conclude, do you care to comment on the political situation in Peru at the moment?
It’s been really hard for me to position myself within this conflict. Being back here has made me realise the extent of it, the sheer size of the demonstrations and how important the moment feels. I do know one thing however: violence and extremism are not the way but there definitely needs to be more dialogue and it’s definitely going to get worse before we get to any kind of solution. You must remember that Peru is an extremely segregated country and that most of Pedro Castillo’s supporters (ousted president) who are fueling the demonstrations are peasants from the Andes and the Amazone and what they are calling for is radical change, an end to the brutal inequality and poverty in this country. If you’re looking for a good reporter who’s doing great work documenting contemporary Peru, then Musuk Nolte is one of the main references of contemporary Peruvian photography.
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