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On Documenting Devastation: “We Have to Keep Telling These Stories”

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
featured, photo & video

Old cemetary outside of Bahia Murta.  Photo courtesy Brigitte Grignet.

Old cemetary outside of Bahia Murta.
Photo courtesy Brigitte Grignet.

Should a photographer remain a neutral observer? Absolutely not, says Aaron Siskind Fellowship-winner Brigitte Grignet, whose stunning project, ‘The Damned and the Beautiful: Patagonia Without Dams,’ is featured in Granta 126 this month.

Brigitte traveled to Chile to shoot the people of Los Ñadis, a community whose land and way of life are threatened by an impending dam project that would divert water away from their region. This kind of thing is happening all over, Brigitte says, and must be documented.

“Places sitting at the edges of the world are often destroyed in the name of so-called development. We have to keep telling these stories. It is crucial to capture the nature of these places and the menace they are facing,” she told Granta’s Daniela Silva.

Enrique Sanchez goes to check on the waterfall that lies on his land in Los Ñadis. He uses big hoses to bring water from the waterfall to his house. But the water doesn't belong to him: in Chile, most  water rights are in the hands of private companies. Photo courtesy Brigitte Grignet.

Enrique Sanchez goes to check on the waterfall that lies on his land in Los Ñadis. He uses big hoses to bring water from the waterfall to his house. But the water doesn’t belong to him: in Chile, most water rights are in the hands of private companies. Photo courtesy Brigitte Grignet.

Brigitte, too, though is part of the project. Part of the reason the photographs are so moving, she says, is because she was moved by the people and their plight, and her own desire to tell the story of Los Ñadis — from the inside. “I think it’s important to really become part of the community, rather than just observe it. And I think you have to care deeply about what you are photographing,” she explained.

Los Ñadis residents weren’t immediately accepting of Brigitte’s portrait project due to a growing wariness of journalists — but she eventually gained their trust by eating, living, and working as a  Los Ñadis resident. “I never show up somewhere and start shooting right away. That said, there are no hard and fast rules. I have taken a portrait of someone on the street in five minutes, and I have stayed with people for two weeks. I work best when I am able to stay with people and live with them.”

You can see Brigitte’s photos and read the full interview in Granta 126 here.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.