Ximena Echagüe doesn’t just photograph moments, she captures the entire essence of cities within the view of her street-photography lens. She's traveled the world and her award-winning street and documentary photography have taken people's breaths away. Now she shares her most intimate journey yet with her first ever book, Trapped (published by Daylight), which documents life during the Covid pandemic. Across the streets of New York and cities in Argentina and Europe, Ximena captured the anxiety and uncertainty at the height of lockdown, telling a story that is indispensable and increasingly prevalent in our bridging societies.
Ximena, congratulations on your first ever photography book! After years of accredited work and experience as a documentary and street photographer, how does it feel to have your own book and what has it taken to get to this point in your artistic journey?
I think that, for any photographer, publishing your book is a dream come true. Especially in these times when so many things happen mostly online, I remain very attached to paper and to see your work embodied in a book is a real pleasure. I have been doing photography for over 30 years and this book feels like a culmination of a long process. After so many exhibitions and publications, a book feels different, more permanent and even more real.
Can you talk a bit about your upbringing in Argentina and what drew you to now be based between New York and Brussels?
I lived the first twenty years of my life in Buenos Aires, surrounded by journalists, photographers and filmmakers, but I only became a photographer in Madrid, Spain, where I also lived for twenty years. Since 2010 I have not stopped traveling. I recently spent 3 years in New York, which I consider a turning point in my personal life and in my photography.
Now I'm back in Europe and, although Brussels is my center, I continue to travel. I spend time in places that inspire me, those sacred places for street photographers like New York, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, India and so many others. This has led me to expand my work and create Holy Grounds, a bimonthly video series about the cities I visit, in which local street photographers offer tips and advice, suggesting places and times to photograph in their city, and also tell us about themselves and their photography.
How did you become a photographer, and what specifically drew you to street photography?
Photography has always been around me, although I began my journey at age twenty working with a photojournalist. Photography quickly became my way of looking at and trying to understand the world. I consider myself at the crossroads of documentary and street photography, as I always try to capture human dynamics in my photography, with its drama and contradictions. In my work there is a lot of street portraiture, expressions of those that we normally don't stop to look at. I always try to be invisible, stealing the image as they say, to maintain a candid un-staged vision.
Your book documents life during the Covid pandemic across a few different cities and countries, how have each of these cities influenced you and your photography, and how did you come to the decision to include these different places in your book?
I was in New York when the pandemic began and returned to Europe at the end of 2020, where we faced a second lockdown. At that time, we couldn't travel freely and so I had to focus on those places that were at least partially open (like Turkey, Argentina and Spain), so naturally my work ended up including those places, but the main focus is still New York.
What main similarities and differences did you notice between all of these places and how they handled the pandemic? 
There were many similarities (anxiety, lockdowns, empty and eerie streets) but each city has its own personality that influenced how you felt there. For instance, New York felt pretty wild whereas European cities were rather subdued.
You described that the photography in your book includes themes of anguish and resilience as it relates to the pandemic. As a street photographer during such a traumatic and catastrophic historic event, how has documenting this personally and artistically impacted you and your work?
I was a street photographer without streets, so I had to reinvent myself not only through self-portraits (something that would never have occurred to me if I had not been in such an extreme situation), but also focusing on elements that we normally tend to neglect such as shadows, balloons or other objects floating around, suspended in space and time. And all this inevitably meant becoming introspective, symbolic, even metaphorical. It was a personal challenge and an uncharted adventure.
As a documentary artist, you also take a stand on a lot of social issues through your photography. Can you talk a bit about that and your motivations as a photographer? What is the message you are trying to send?
I always try to offer my personal views about human and social issues. For instance, huge and growing inequalities feature prominently, and often unconsciously, in my work. I don't have a particular message to convey but rather I try to push people to ask themselves questions about the contradictory and often quirky world we live in.
Speaking of motivation, who is someone you look up to and inspires your work as an artist?
There are many photographers who have inspired me over the years, in addition, I am an eclectic person and different currents have inspired me, starting with great masters of photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Don McCullin, Saul Leiter, Mary Ellen Mark, Nan Goldin and also photographers such as Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Alex Webb, Martin Parr or other younger and more recent photographers such as the brothers Vineet and Rohit Vohra, each one with their own style. It is actually a very long list that I am sure will continue to grow over time.
What does your artistic process look like? Do you have specific ideas of what you want your photos to look like or does it come to you at the moment?
At the level of documentary photography, everything is planned and staged, but in street photography I let myself be surprised. You never know what you will find and that leads you to sharpen your senses, looking at everything from a macro perspective to capture even a detail that many times you did not consciously see, and you just realise what caught your attention when editing some time later. This is a magical process that causes an addictive adrenaline rush. It also has a lot to do with the mood of the moment, which leads you to pay attention to one thing or another. It happens to many photographers that they remember their own personal emotions from the images taken at a precise moment. I could say that there is something of ourselves in every photograph we take. In any case, I never go out with a preconceived idea because it would lose its charm.
There are several ways to approach street photography. To simplify, most photographers approach it in two main ways that we call fishing or hunting. Fishing means finding a good background, or a place where the light is reflected in a particular way, or something that will participate as another element in the image, and waiting for some interesting situation to be created. The hunter looks for his prey by mingling among the people. Clearly I am the hunter type, I wander in search of the unexpected, so, above all, the images come to me.
You have participated in over 80 groups exhibitions, and are also involved in the Women Street Photographers and the exhibition of Fotografas LATAM for Latin American women photographers. How did you come to be part of these communities and find importance in supporting other artists?
Both of them appeared in my journey while in New York. Women Street Photographers, founded by Gulnara Samoilova, is a great platform to promote the work of female photographers in a field traditionally dominated by men. I got involved with it in New York and then continued once back in Europe, acting as mentor, jury and curator. It was important to me not only in terms of exposure but also as it allowed me to meet and support many extremely gifted photographers from all over the world. Fotografas LATAM was a way for me to reconnect with my Latin American roots and support their work, in particular by curating their first exhibition in Europe (Paris).
I do find it important to work with, and support, other photographers, otherwise photography tends to become rather lonely. My personal experience showed me how important it is to receive support at different junctures of your career, which I have always regretted that it doesn't happen more frequently. Therefore, whenever I can, I always try to do it. I support up-and-coming photographers who, for various reasons, may not receive the recognition they merit.
As a result, I have become involved with a cultural management startup to establish La Vie en Bleu, a Residency and Exhibitions program in Nice, France. In this programme, a panel of experts will choose the most impressive portfolio, and the selected photographer will have the opportunity to collaborate with me as a mentor on a personal project in Nice in June 2024. Alongside their daily photography sessions, they will refine their editing and curation skills in preparation for an exhibition at a local art gallery. The recipient of this programme will have all of their expenses covered.The programme also includes fifteen other photographers who will exhibit their images in the gallery during June 2024. This will be the programme's first edition, and we are doing it with great effort, hoping that it can grow in the coming years and offer more opportunities.
Your book also includes some self-portraits. How have you included your individual journey throughout the pandemic into your book, and what was your reasoning for that self reflection?
As I said already, I have never done self-portraits before, it was a real discovery forced by the circumstances but nevertheless fascinating for me. I tried to capture in them how we all felt during the pandemic, the fear, anguish, and uncertainty. And I believe the combination of those rather abstract interior portraits with the eerie exterior images of the half-empty streets illustrates pretty well how our lives were de-constructed during the pandemic.
The title of your book, Trapped, and the photograph on the cover of someone's face under water tells a bit of a story of its own before you even open the book. Would you say that this bold title and image are meant to foreshadow any of the photographs in the book?
Yes indeed. We had long discussions with Régina Monfort, my editor, and Ursula Damm, the art director, about the cover but in the end we all felt that it was necessary to set the tone with such a dramatic self-portrait. On the contrary, the title appeared to me early on in the process and I think it describes in one word how we all felt during those years.
Finally, now that you have published your first ever photography book, where do you see yourself going from here? Are there any new cities you are looking to photograph?
Life is always full of surprises and I prefer not to plan much ahead of time. As to cities, as I said earlier, I will always go back to those that I consider holy ground for street photography. I can't help it, I always gravitate towards them and I guess I will continue to do so, as those places (New York, Istanbul, India) never cease to surprise and inspire me.