For this week’s edition of The Creative Journey, I’m excited to be featuring Rafael Rojas. Rafael describes himself as someone who strives to encapsulate concept, emotion, and spirituality in his work. I’ve known Rafael for a number of years now, dating back to the days when he was running WhyTake.net. His work has always stood out to me as very personal, thoughtful, and masterfully executed. Make sure you check out Rafael’s website and Facebook page to keep up to date with his work. I want to thank Rafael for taking the time to share his story with us!
I was reading on your website that earlier in life you were an engineer and university lecturer but decided to make a change and pursue photography as a career. What was it that influenced you to make that change and what type of impact did the decision have on your art, being that you were able to focus on it full-time?
It was a decision that was very gradual and smooth because ever since I finished my studies, I was constantly changing jobs to things that I enjoyed more but at the same time paid less. Every time that I switched careers it seemed like I was cutting my salary in half, which actually turned out to be a good thing because it helped make the decision to become a photographer a little easier. For many people, going the other way around, you’re establishing your career and making more and more money, and getting into a more complicated lifestyle, and then it ends up being more difficult to make that jump.
I’m one of those people that when I’m fascinated by something I can’t stop working, but on the other hand if it’s something that I’m not passionate about, I can’t move at all. I really think that the spark came during a five-month trip that I made around the world. During that time I got bit by the photography bug, and soon after I decided to make the jump. I was thirty years old at the time, and I thought, why not, life is short.
When I decided to pursue photography, I already had in mind a number of other things that I wanted to do as well. I liked traveling, I liked teaching, I loved writing. So I figured that I would do a number of different things, not just simply create images. I had many ideas already planned, so I never really was worried about what I was going to do. Looking back, I was already spending all of my free time pursuing photography, so really, it ended up being a gradual transition that was consistent with the other choices I had made before in my career.
Looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions you had about pursuing photography full-time compared to how you view and value it now?
The truth is, once I decided to pursue photography as a career, I ended up having more free time, which I filled with the task of accomplishing more things, which ended up leaving me less time for creating images. I think the biggest change was psychological—realizing that it was the only thing that I had to do now. When I was still working and doing photography at the same time, there was a kind of tension, because it felt like I was in two different worlds. It was strange. And then little by little I felt more confident, or more like a photographer. So when the day came that I said, “Ok, now I’m just going to do this”, it took me a bit to become used to that idea. It was more psychological, but that only lasted a week, and then it just felt like I had been doing it for my whole life. I think the moment that I crossed from one side to the other, it was very natural.
What were some of the early struggles you faced, do they still exist today, and how have you managed or dealt with them over the years?
The truth is, I can’t say that I faced that many struggles. If I take a look at the last six or seven years, I feel that I could have never forecasted the things I was going to do even in the first year. It seems like every two years I experience a major change, or I get deeper into something that I didn’t even know existed, and then I completely focus on it.
For instance, at the moment I’m publishing books, and printing with platinum in my darkroom. Also, I have a large interest in film photography and currently make most of my work in black and white. It seems like I’m always opening doors and exploring new things. That’s one of the reasons that I like the life of an artist—the fact that there are no limitations. You can do whatever you want and you’re constantly exposing yourself to new experiences, new places, new people. I don’t even like planning much these days. The most beautiful things that have happened over the years have been unexpected, and I could have never planned them in any way.
I can’t say that there were any misconceptions because really, I didn’t expect anything. And I don’t really want that to change.
It’s one of the things I’m trying harder every day to erase from my mind. I like the surprise of living with that mindset, and of a life where I don’t know what is going to happen next.
Inconsistency and self-doubt seem to be two of the biggest road blocks stopping people from reaching their true potential. Have you ever suffered from those, and if so, how do you push through the periods of time where you’re lacking creative or emotional drive?
I can’t say that I really do. I mean, there are certain times where I don’t feel like photographing, but I accept that don’t create until the urge comes back again. At the beginning, I was photographing in a very compulsive way. My trips at that point were very productive because the work I was creating was more along the lines of classical images, or based on templates—work where you’re just applying rules, templates, cliches and so on. In that sense, I was able to feel productive all the time. But then there came a point where I started to become bored of it.
Nowadays, when I don’t feel like photographing, even on trips, I just don’t photograph. Sometimes it can even last for a whole week under beautiful conditions. I’m ok with that though, and I think it’s a good thing. I’ve noticed that the major changes that happen in me every three or four years were preceded by moments where I’ve been kind of bored or lost the passion and drive. Nowadays when that happens I say to myself, ok, this is going to be the beginning of a new thing.
I believe that we don’t really need to create constantly and that the periods of non-creation in between are equally as rich and necessary as the times when we feel the presence of the muses.
The fact that I’m focusing on so many different things helps as well. I can be writing, printing, photographing, or teaching, so I end up jumping from one thing to another, and they can be very complimentary. When I feel like I really want to write, I start writing, and that goes smoothly. And when I start to feel bored about that, I get my camera and I go and make some photographs. And then when I don’t have anything to do with my photographs, I sit down and I contemplate the landscape. And then when I’m home I start printing. I think because all of these things are creative, but in different ways, I never get in a rut where I say, “Nothing is working”.
Nowadays, it can take me many months, even years to finish my images. I have a backlog of almost three or four years since I started making images with film. So that mean that the images I have on my website right now are images from almost six years ago, and the ones that I’m making today aren’t going to be seen, even by me, until maybe four years from now. You get used to that, and then you lose track of how productive you are. I’m detaching myself from the object of my work, and because of that I’ve ended up focusing on the process of creation, and am less concerned with what’s going on in the photography world, or whether a trip was productive or not. I don’t even pay attention to that anymore.
I’ve always been drawn to the fact that you choose to create portfolios based on specific themes or stories, rather than displaying your images as individual pieces, or by geographical location. Tell me a little bit about the role that a theme or story plays in the creation of your work, and what influenced you to move in that direction as a photographer?
I realized that every time I was attracted to a subject, there always seemed to be something more I was attracted to than just the superficial place or location. Minor White said: “Photograph things not only for what they are but also for what else they are”. Every time that we react to a subject or a place, it seems to be ascetically only—either it looks beautiful or there’s a nice sunset or sunrise etc. The truth is, I stopped making those images a long time ago because I was becoming bored by them. I was making those images on autopilot. Basically, I would scout for a good location, apply certain compositions, and then wait for the good light.
Moving beyond that, I started to become attracted to things not just because they were beautiful, but also because they were mysterious. I realized that mystery was what attracts us, not the place. It could be some concept or some emotion that we can feel associated with all of the things that haunt us. For example, maybe it’s time passing by, or maybe it’s death.
I realized that I was reacting to different places in very similar ways and that it was because of those equal or shared concepts. I wasn’t photographing the places, rather the things that lay behind them. In reality, I was always photographing projects, I just didn’t know it at the time. The moment I figured that out, it seemed like I could create even deeper photographs because I understood why I was making them.
Themes give an artist purpose because otherwise, you end up with a pile of images on your hard drive that you don’t have a purpose for. Once you put a collection of images together you can share them and say, “This is how I see the world, or this is one thing that is haunting me”. I started making books, portfolios and printing my work as I became more interested in that style of image making. In the end, one thing really led to another.
The truth is, I still create photographs when I like what I see, even if it’s not for a project, because sometimes those images that you create out of the blue, in an unexpected place, and under unexpected conditions, give you a clue for another project that is going to come later.
I still photograph single images here and there, but only if I feel a very strong connection. What I do after I’ve made those images is look for patterns or trends and think, “What am I really reacting to?” And when I find that, I understand that it’s something that I’ve been working on, even if I didn’t realize it at the start. So very often, the project has already begun without me even realizing it, and then I end up finishing it in a conscious way. But typically, half of the project has already been done in the shadows.
Normally I don’t sit down and try to find things that could be interesting because it would end up being too similar to something that I’ve already seen. It’s quite difficult to imagine from scratch something really personal and different. You need to go out and realize that you pay attention to certain things, and not to other things.
I remember once, I made an exhibition of colour images, and someone said to me: “Have you realized that all of your images here are already monochromatic?” There was an image with only blues, one with only greens, one with only reds and so on. Basically, I was already responding to tones, shapes, and textures, much more than colour. The colour was just giving a little emotional context, so really, black and white was already there waiting for me in a certain way. Nowadays, most of my personal work is made in black and white.
You get whispers of these things when you pay attention to your images, or just by explaining your work to other people. For example, I remember going to the Hebrides and photographing it for the very first time. During that trip, I had never really made long exposures, but that was the way that I was reacting to the landscape. When I came home, after a few weeks I started to put together the images and I thought, wow, all of these images have been made in a very similar way. The truth is, that was exactly how I felt standing there in front of the landscape—very calm, and soothing even though we were under extremely strong winds.
I think the important thing is being able to get outside of yourself so that you can look at yourself and understand the specific way that you are reacting to things.
Your work strongly showcases a sense of depth and purpose and comes across as very honest and true to yourself. Was there ever a point earlier in your career where you felt pressured to create a specific way in hopes of appealing to a large audience? Is there anything in particular—an approach or mindset—that helps you maintain authenticity in your work?
To be honest, not at all. In fact, since I was a kid I’ve always had a little bit of an anarchy spirit. I really like knowing that I’m alone doing something in my corner. And even if I’ve started going in a certain direction, the moment that I see a lot of people trending in the same direction, I’ll change the path and go somewhere else where I can be alone and do my thing.
That means that I’ve never felt like I should be creating a certain type of image because that’s what people expect. It’s actually been quite the opposite. Sometimes, when I see too much of the same, I just get upset, and I need to isolate myself.
I never ever think about the audience when I’m creating or try to provide what people are expecting me to create. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and I try to surprise myself. I’d like people to be surprised, taken aback, or almost disoriented by what I’m doing. I consider that a good sign because it means that I’m exploring new things and getting out of the safe harbor.
I know that my audience is changing more or less all the time. And I know that can be risky, especially for business. But that being said, it’s the most beautiful freedom that I give myself as an artist, and I’m not going to compromise that.
What are some of the ways that the experience factors into the creative decisions you make, and how do you “tune out the noise” while you’re in the field creating?
You hear people say all the time: “There’s no such thing as bad light”, or “There’s never any bad weather to photograph in.” But the truth is, I digested those thoughts very strongly in the beginning, and nowadays I know that there are images everywhere waiting to be found. If for some reason I don’t see them, then the problem lies inside myself.
I don’t feel forced to create, and I don’t feel forced to please people, and the moment you really believe that mindset, you become totally free.
That’s when there’s no more noise because the noise comes from your mind telling you that you should have images that are good. But if you say to yourself, “It doesn’t matter if I come home with any images”, then you’re free from that noise.
What I do is focus completely on the place that I’m in. I’m not able to make photos in places that are crowded, or with too much company. For my most personal work, I need to be alone. I only go and visit places where I feel that there is a magnetism of some sort. They don’t always have to be beautiful, I just need to feel a strong emotion. It could even be a place which is not beautiful at all, even industrial, but it has to have a strong emotion that I feel.
If I feel a strong connection, I realize that I’m going to grab the camera automatically without thinking, and I’ll start making photographs. So that basically means that I don’t really ever try to cancel out the noise, I strictly photograph when there is no noise at all. It’s not the wow that get’s me because the wow often comes in the form of a beautiful sunset, or spectacular qualities. It’s more when I experience a strong feeling, or when there is a call, a connection, or a magnetism.
Other than your “Glorified Landscape” portfolio, a large portion of your work is at first glance more subtle, with softer contrast, muted colours, or finished in black and white. When did your interests trend in that direction, and how often are you compelled to create bolder, more colourful work?
Particularly talking about my most personal work, I don’t think that I will ever go back to those kinds of images. In a way, those images are very much tapping into the spectacular of nature, and I’ve realized over time that hyper-realism—making nature look more beautiful than it is—doesn’t leave much for personal expression.
When the location and the light are so overwhelming it doesn’t leave much for the photographer to add.
So in a certain way, those images relate to a moment when I was learning the technical skills of photography, and I liked traveling, and where I wanted to hunt down experiences of great light in wonderful locations. Nowadays, those moments still happen in front of me, but I don’t feel the need to record them because doing so I would be putting a barrier between me and the moment.
When I want to photograph really is when I can transform something ordinary into something extraordinary, or when there is a certain mystery or a magical call that urges me to create without me having to think: “Ok, I’m going to make an image of this because this is great.” That’s when I focus on photography. And when that doesn’t happen, I just contemplate the place.
In a way, with the glorified landscape images, we are only showing one face of the landscape, and that almost leads us to assume that individual face is the only good one, and basically any other face isn’t good. In reality, the landscape is the same under cloudy skies or under a fiery sunset, so why only photograph it when it’s under a fiery sunset. It would be like photographing portraits only when the subject has makeup.
What type of work from your collection are you most excited about at the moment, and can you see yourself pursuing in the future?
Over the years I have grown tired of just portraying the beauty of the world, and particularly the landscape. Sure, the beauty still attracts me, but just as one of the ingredients of the photograph. What I intend to inject in most of my images nowadays is mystery. Beauty is something that grabs you quickly, but if that is the only ingredient of your image, then you’re going to glance away right after. When mystery is there, you make the viewer part of the image. One wonders, dreams, and experiences emotions and feelings. Through mystery you can also change the perspective people have of the world, or at least provide a different one.
Nowadays, I’m interested in exploring ideas, concepts, places or experiences and creating series of images which depict my subjective and personal relationship with the world.
My objective is being able to provide a different view of the world, my personal view. For this reason, in my personal work, I am favouring black and white over color, abstraction over documentation, anonymous places over iconic landscapes, etc. I am also working on more metaphysical concepts which can be illustrated with images which become visual metaphors.
Teaching and helping other photographers is a big part of your career, and you currently offer workshops and e-books through your company Essential Seeing. If you had to pick one message or lesson that you think is most important, or that most photographers seem to struggle with, what would it be and why?
What I tell people the most is to stop and look. I remind them that they’re not obliged to make photographs, and they’re not obliged to produce work to please people. I realized that those things are what can free you completely, otherwise, the noise is too strong. Amateur photographers are always looking for approval from other people, and I think the moment you really convince someone that there’s no real obligation to please anyone, or even to photograph, one stops worrying and working and starts playing. That’s when the reward stops being external and starts being internal.
Some workshop participants have told me that they’ve been surprised to see me in the field not creating images, in situations where most photographers would have usually gone wild, like during beautiful light etc. They end up realizing that I’m just enjoying the place, and the moment and then making photographs if I feel in the mood and am ready to say something. I think that’s the most important thing for people to understand, is that they should not be forced to create, or to please other people, rather themselves. Nothing is important.
We give a lot of importance to everything we do, but in the end, we’re all going to die and nobody is going to remember us. Basically, everything we do really isn’t needed and will not remain, no matter what we think.
Nowadays, social media is without a doubt the platform that most photographers share their work on. Unfortunately, it seems like the desire for acceptance and recognition can have such a huge impact on photographers and the direction they take while creating their images. What advice would you give to others who are struggling to develop their own creative vision?
I think that the problem with social media is that people react in a very different way when they’re looking at Facebook compared to when they’re sitting down in an actual social setting talking to the artist. In my opinion, it’s just a circus that’s been created to give people what they want quickly. It’s instant gratification.
I was talking the other day to a very successful social media guru, and he was saying how I could successfully sell my eBooks, my workshops, and other things on different platforms. He was advising me that I spend multiple hours a day on social media, which I personally can’t imagine doing ever. If that was the case, I’d stop photography immediately and go back to my former life.There are so many social media platforms, and you can end up spending thousands of hours, or months of your life working on a certain platform, in the hands of someone that you don’t even know.
I prefer to meet people in person. For example, for my book “Timeless”, we decided to sell it directly to our audience. When I say directly, I mean giving lectures, talking in front of people, having a drink, having a discussion. The process of selling becomes one of sharing, and the reward is not just purely financial. One of the most important reasons for me to make books is to share my passion and work with other people. I prefer talking with real people rather than spending time online.
I think the biggest problem I see with social media is that it pushes people to rely on external gratification, and the moment you do that, you’re lost. Social media is all about likes, rankings, and fans. We were talking about noise earlier, and well, that’s the perfect example of noise. We were also talking about creating for yourself, without the need to produce work every day, and social media is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum.
On social media, you’re supposed to produce all the time, because every morning you need to blow the socks off of people with an amazing new image.
If I want to be consistent in a certain way with my own philosophy, the worst thing I can do is go on Facebook. When I go on social media—even if I spend five minutes—when I close the browser I feel depressed, saddened, and empty. I realized that it was killing my most basic principles in my life philosophy. All of the noise comes, and then you start comparing yourself with others, and then you lose that self-confidence. I’ve always seemed to have self-confidence, and haven’t experienced much noise, and have had no urge to create because I’ve almost isolated myself in a certain way.
I know that my business would be better if I embraced social media, but it’s not for me. And because it’s not for me I’m not going to try to force it, and that’s fine.
It’s often easy for people to get tunnel vision when it comes to photography and the pursuit of becoming “successful”. Unfortunately, this can often lead to them ignoring all of the other amazing benefits that come from being a photographer. If you had to pick one thing that photography has provided you with that you consider the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
I think it’s introspection. Being able to dig deeper into things, and feeling stronger emotions—just cutting through the surface of things. For some people, that can be scary, because the moment that you feel alone with yourself, you freak out. That’s why I think there are certain plateaus for some photographers where they reach a certain level and then they don’t want to move on from there. It can be unsettling because you open doors and you look inside and you don’t know what you’re going to find. You expose yourself to yourself to the people around you.
To me though it’s the greatest advantage of photography or any creative endeavor. I’m always interested in getting deeper and deeper, and through photography, I can explore more, live more, and better know myself and the world.
Here at Image & Rhythm, we’re all about showcasing like-minded people with the goal of inspiring others to chase their dreams and become more successful photographers. Who would you like to see us interview next and why?
The first that comes to mind is Gregory Colbert, his work is really lyrical, metaphorical and of a great beauty, mystery and simplicity. Secondly, I also like Nick Brandt. I really like him because he’s very consistent with creating work that defines his own beliefs. He even created a foundation to protect the wildlife he has been photographing for decades. Another photographer I really like is Pentti Sammallahti. His work is haunting, so diverse, so strong and personal. He also devoted a big part of his career to the crafting of prints and books, controlling the whole process from concept to materialization of the final project. My last choice, in the field of nature and landscape photography, is someone who I really like as an artist and personally is Hans Strand. I believe that he is one of the masters of landscape photography.