Woman Crush Wednesday: Julia Pontes
Interview by Mariajosé Fernández-Plenge
How did this project begin?
I left my hometown, Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, 12 years ago. Every time I would fly home, as I approached the airport, I became more and more surprised with the devastation caused by open pit mining. Seen from above, the landscape resembled a Swiss Cheese.
Last November, when a tailing dam of a large mine broke, releasing 10.5 billion gallons of mud onto small towns, its' residents and one of the country’s most important water sheds, it was a breakthrough for me. It was the largest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history and the largest mining accident ever registered in the world. And it happened due to lack of regulation and law enforcement and minimal inspections by the governmental agencies.
In addition to that, Mining activities provide very little social compensation to the Brazilian society and companies pay only 0.2 to 4% on royalties. And, some cities have already experienced a 2 degree Celsius temperature increase which is the defined global limit to minimize the effects of climate change. On the other hand, mining is still deeply rooted in Minas Gerais. It runs in the blood of almost every single native, including myself. I am not only a spectator but also participant: my first job was at a small iron ore processing plant, that my family had in the past. The smell of burned iron is still familiar and comforting to me. I wanted to explore and investigate that contradiction as well as that emotional relationship between man and the land.
Brazil’s former environmental minister, Izabella Teixeira, said that this was not a natural disaster, “It is a disaster prompted by economic activity but of a magnitude equivalent to those disasters created by forces of nature”. Nonetheless, in your photographs you show a beauty in it: colorful landscapes that are appealing to the eye. Why did you choose this way to portray it?
From the beginning I knew I didn’t want to make typical aerial landscape photography. I didn’t even bring wide lenses with me. Instead, I wanted to look closely, to examine the land, to make an investigation by slicing it into smaller pieces. Nevertheless I had no idea what I would encounter. I had never seen the landscape from that exact perspective before as the flight is different from commercial flights.
I guess my photographs are a reaction to what I saw and of how I felt. I think there is a melancholy, nostalgic feeling towards the landscape. I couldn’t help the tears at the vision of the destruction of the land I loved.
You got on a plane to take these photographs. How was the whole experience for you?
In one word: crazy! As I mentioned, I had been wanting to photograph the changes on my homeland for a very long time. But the idea of using a plane started for two main reasons: one because the area where the accident happened had its access forbidden, no one could get in except with a specific permit (which I only got later on in the project). Second because the full extent of the human and environmental devastation caused by open pit mines are obscured by the region’s mountainous terrain relatively inaccessible to the local population.
I felt a great growth in my craft as it forced me to make an important technical development. When I look back, it is hard to believe that in the past few months I learned to use an 8x10 film camera as well as a drone. It was quite surreal.
Without a doubt, the best part was the people I have been meeting on the way and the amazing and great help I have been receiving, which I will be forever grateful for.
What technical issues did you face and how did you plan to photograph from a plane?
Well, there is a lot of planing envolved and I had no experience whatsoever with aerial photography. I must confess that even now, almost a year after I started this project, I still feel I don’t know enough.
First, I had a map of Minas Gerais and I singled out all the locations where there was social or environmental problems related to mining. I sat with the pilot and he patiently pointed out that there were two crucial issues: one was the amount of money to fly all that distance at once, even if I was just paying for gas. The other was that the skies are regulated. I couldn’t just fly anywhere, there are routes to be followed and most of the places I wanted to go were located in forbidden aerial space.
I had to go back and make a better plan, trying to have the best use of each hour - and the pilot accepted the challenge to defy some of the “forbidden aerial spaces”.
Nevertheless, no matter how much I planned, it’s a project that, in the end, relies on nature. If the weather is not in favor, nothing can be done. In January, the wet season, I had to wait more than 4 weeks until we could fly a full straight day without rain. In July, the dry season, one day the weather suddenly changed - low clouds that are not predicted by GPS - and we were trapped in the sky trying to find a safe place to land.
Second, technically wise, the plane must be adequate for photography. We made half hour test flights before starting each flying sessions and that was really important. It helped setting the focus - I only use manual with vintage lenses and also helped to get the timing and to have a better idea on how the process should be.
This last time, I adapted a Large Format film camera but I protected it better to prevent the bellows of getting damaged. Also, I was lucky enough to have access to a top gimbal that allowed me to have better motion control. But still, l I didn’t count that metering the light would be so hard, the plane move too fast for that.
Last, but not least, I suffered from intensive motion sickness. I now start dieting and preparing my body many days in advance with proper food and medication.
I understand that aerial photography is only the first part of an ongoing project, where you will be including different ways and media to portray the disaster. What is your vision with this project? What do you want to say with it?
First, as you mention, the images are beautiful, therefore I felt the need to place video cameras on the wings to show the extent of the damage to the landscape. But also, I experiment a lot, it is a great part of my artistic process. So I felt the need to include different mediums besides digital and film photography, as video and audio.
I also collected bricks and iron ore stones from every place I stop. As for now, I don’t have a clear idea of what I will do with that. It takes time to digest and let the project speak for itself.
I started with aerial, and it is still a very important part of the project, but I felt the need to meet people that related to mining activities and the communities affected by it.
I had a lot of theory and reading about the topic and I needed to see if for myself to be able to develop a proper opinion from experience.
I drove by myself throughout my State, focusing specially on small towns. Not only I got access to the site where the tailing dam accident happened but also to very small communities that are hidden between the mountains that have no water, suffer from respiratory diseases or have been living with shaking grounds because of open pit mines or their huge iron ore ducts. I spent time with families, around their kitchen and cooking stoves, listening to their life stories.
I think that if I had the opportunity to see the things I saw and to hear the stories I heard, I also have a social responsibility of telling those stories, even if it is as an artistic interpretation of it.
I firmly believe in the power of art and photography to perform social transformation. Not only do we have the power to perform change pressuring leadership for better legislations for our society and environment but also our decisions as consumers can deeply affect the demands for those goods.
The WCW Questionnaire
1. How would you describe your creative process in one word?
2. If you could teach one, one-hour class on anything, what would it be?
Probably a survival class.
I believe that when we get to adulthood it is hard not to be broken by the many challenges and hardships we need to face. I think I would have a few good stories to share. I did break, but I am still here.
3. What was the last book you read or film you saw that inspired you?
Well, for a book hoarded that’s a very tricky question.
Last inspiring book: “A cegueira e o Saber” from the Brazilian writer Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna and in English
Inspiring book that I always go back to: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Last inspiring documentary: definitely Eva Hesse.
4. What is the most played song in your iTunes Library?
Honestly? A meditation that I really love and that I should be practicing more often. Unfortunately, I get the impression that it is the most played in Itunes only because Spotify is the way I really listen to music. On Spotify: Claire the Lune, by Debussy.
5. How do you take your coffee?
Americano, black. Every single morning.
In Minas Gerais coffee plays a very important social role. EVERY single house I visited I was offered fresh coffee. Always the same style: very very mild and with lots of sugar. It was the sweetest thing, from every point of view.