Santiago, Chile-based Hugo Infante specializes in crisis photojournalism. His work has appeared in Newsweek (en Español), Stern, The New York Post, The Los Angeles Times, London Times, and various Chilean magazines and newspapers. He is a contributing photographer at Polaris Images.
Wayne: What in your childhood helped you get started as a photographer? As you point out in your biography, you came of age in Chile during the political, economic and cultural shift from Allende to Pinochet. What memories do you have of that time? How did that transition impact your career choice? The way you see visually?
Hugo: [It] was my father’s old Nikon that introduced me to this world, but it was the demonstrations against the dictatorship that caught me. I realized the world was watching us when I saw a bunch of skinny, long-hair photographers shooting everything, and getting [struck by] the police. They were amazing. In those days, the police were really violent. They had respect for nothing. Being a photojournalist was a dangerous job in the ‘80s.
I was one year old when the military took control of the country. I am part of the so-called “Pinochet Boys.” As many others photographers of my generation, we grew up in a dictatorship. Pinochet and his aides were everywhere.
The influence is important because the most important graphic referents of Chilean photography are pictures from those days. Photographers like Alvaro and Alejandro Hoppe, Juan Carlos Cáceres, Santiago Llanquín and Marcos Ugarte did an amazing job. They started documenting a country in dangerous days with amazing images.
Personally, sometimes I feel that our generation will be remembered as the generation who buried Pinochet. And we did it two weeks ago. But the most important thing that I learned from those guys was looking for unexpected drama, contradictions of reality.
Wayne: How and why did you get started as a crime reporter at La Tercera? What kind of crimes were you covering? How has that work impacted your work as a photographer—for instance, was there a natural segue into covering crises? What, if any kind of resonance, do you see in the work of Weegee, who used to cover the New York crime beat?
Hugo: I started as a writer, but I was always carrying my camera. I usually gave a hand to the photographers shooting the Santiago crime beat. [It] was amazing for me. [I] started shooting with real legends like Mario Riveros, Marco Muga, Carlos Ibarra and Samuel Mena. It was a great learning experience, not only for shooting pics. They taught me journalism—covering murders, dealing with people who don’t want to talk with you, with people who want to harm you, but when they realize that you are [just] doing your job, they open their houses and give you interviews and pictures. We got close to the people. It was a big learning experience. I put all that knowledge later into my work covering crises.
Weegee came to my eyes when I was in college. It was amazing to see how a guy can see an entire world living without the daylight, and how a guy can capture their bizarre reality. It is a photographic work close to my reality. A friend of mine says my work is impacted by Weegee. I don’t think so. I can’t see how. The only thing we have in common is that I was a night shift editor for many years. I saw the bizarre [side of] Santiago.
Wayne: How did you make the decision to go to Iraq for United Press International (UPI)? Why did you decide to stay during the Shia Revolution?
Hugo: After 11 years as news editor in La Tercera (the second largest newspaper in Chile), I decided to grab my camera and start shooting again. It was a hard decision, which I started by doing stringer jobs for UPI in Chile. After getting the “breaking news rhythm” again, I decided to leave my 11-year job with that newspaper. I talked with UPI, and they gave me the stringer position in Baghdad. I grabbed all my savings and jumped in an airplane to Baghdad. My job situation changed from a fancy position in Chile to being another dude with a camera in Baghdad.
That period was really dangerous for all the photographers in Baghdad. I arrived on March 17, 2004. But it wasn’t until April 5th, a day before the killing of the U.S. [military] contractors in Fallujah, when the situation changed for all of us. That came with the Shia Revolution, when the U.S. Army started a man hunt for Muktada Al Sader. The country was exploding everywhere. It was a time when you weren’t able to leave the hotel. Places were surrounded by the U.S. Army and their tanks. It was a really heavy situation. My editor Pat Benic called me to offer me a ticket back to Washington DC. But I decided to stay, as Mitch Prothero (the UPI Bureau Chief) did too. And others like Jason P. Howe (WPN), Eros Hoagland (Redux), Shawn Baldwin and many others, most of them with foreign bureaus. A lot of guys left the country, but others stayed too.
We were waiting weeks for an “embed” in Fallujah. Some got it. Personally, I thought it was a waste of time. [For a] whole week, I could not manage to go out for pictures, so I increased my writing production for the Latin America Services.
Wayne: You note that you teach at a private college. Are you teaching photography? If so, how has your experience in crisis situations impacted the way you teach?
Hugo: I am teaching Crisis Coverage at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez for senior-year journalism students. As a journalist in Chile, I had assignments covering crisis in the country, and as a editor, I had to lead teams too. Also, the Baghdad experience was important.
I don’t teach photography, but I use all the photography experience and work to teach how to cover a crisis. With the experience of other photographers and myself, I developed a program which includes many highlight moments, such as WWII, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the First Gulf War. I focus all my teaching in photography, but—sounds ironic—I am not teaching photography. The journalism school is reluctant to teach photography. They think that is a job for other guys… bump!
Wayne: Can you talk about your work process? How much and what kind of research do you do before you go to a new part of the world to cover it as a photojournalist? And what do you do differently and similarly to other photojournalists in making contacts, learning about the situation on the ground?
Hugo: If something taught me writing journalism, it was researching. If I have to make an assignment in Bolivia about the Aymaras in the Titikaka Lake, I check all the pictures related with that job. I don’t want to shoot images already taken. Also, I check the crisis situation, internet connections, phones rates, cars rental, taxis, accommodations, [and so on]. I don’t leave anything to my good luck. My idea to get off the plane and start shooting. I won’t waste time looking for hotels, etc. Sometimes, when the assignment gives me the chance, I contact my subjects before I arrive in the country. Second, as your question says, making contacts on the ground is the most important thing. A fixer can be useful, but in some places, like war or crisis zones, or in countries where you don’t speak the language, making contacts on the ground is better. For example, in 2004, I started a job with Peruvian immigrants. I am so close to them that when they have a problem with the Chilean police, they call me. They know me when I go downtown, and they allow me to shoot anything. Other photographers cannot, because it is dangerous. Now, I am in long-term research of drug dealers in a poor neighborhood in Santiago. My approach to them was to drink a few beers with them on the street.
Wayne: What are the similarities and differences between your crisis reportage and your more personal work, such as your rodeo series? What appealed to you about the rodeo?
Hugo: I am gonna be real honest. The crisis reportage costs money. You need tons of money to do that job, especially if the crisis reportage is out of Latin America. It is hard for a Latin American photographer to do freelancing in the Middle East. The incomes here are real low, for everyone. For that, it is really important that somebody hires you for crisis reportage. Reportage [assignments] like [the] rodeo are close to you. It is not necessary to invest tons of money to do it. But when you see the results, you realize that the rodeo becames really important like any other reportage. It is a matter of chances. If I had more chances to do crisis reportages, I would focus my work in that only. But it is only [what] we have. That happens for living in the ass of the world.
Wayne: Who are your favorite photographers and photo influences, and why?
Hugo: Capa and Natchwey for their war coverage. They represent two moments in photo history. Sounds like a cliché, but they are the best of their times. But, you have a lot of monsters of photography around them like [Joe] Rosenthal and Don McCullin. However, I feel more of a sense for McCullin. His composition is so simple and that makes him a genius.
Wayne: Which Chilean and/or Latin American photographers do you feel should be better known internationally? Can you explain why you think they are important?
Hugo: There are two Chilean photographers that should be better known. One is Claudio Almarza. He may be the best nature photographer in Latin America. He is the only guy who knows Patagonia like his hand. He has documented the place for years. His work appeals to things that you don’t see in any other photographers. No one can wait for months for a Puma. He does it.
Carlos Espinoza is the teacher of many young photographers. He is recognized for that. But he has an amazing documentary work about religion in Chile. He has spent the last 10 years doing that. Sooner than later, he will became the main documentary photographer in Chile. If you see Espinoza’s work, you will see [the blending of] commitment and idea.