Interview with Nicolás Piwonka: Photography in Patagonia

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Photo: Nicolas PiwonkaPhoto: Nicolas Piwonka
By Patrick Nixon
Nicolás Piwonka, a professional photographer for more than four decades, has been featured in multiple expositions, worked as a scientific advisor and photographer for television programs in Chile such as the series La Tierra en que Vivimos, and has published numerous nature and landscape photography books. His most recent book is Patagonia: The Wild Side. Also a biologist, from 1994 to 2000 he helped create and lead Parque Ahuenco in Chiloe. Patagon Journal editor-at-large Patrick Nixon interviewed Piwonka recently as part of a special series of online conversations via our Facebook page. Excerpts:
Patrick Nixon: What started first, your interest in nature or photography?
Nicolás Piwonka: Nature. It has been like that for me from a very early age. Being in nature was where I felt most comfortable, where I marveled at the possibility of observing and discovering new things. When I was at school, I would go out into nature alone, into the hills and mountains. The way to show what I was seeing there was through photography. I kept cultivating that interest until I entered university, where I studied biology in order to learn even more about nature. There I specialized in animal behavior, which has taught me a lot about animal psychology, about their behavior, about how to approach them, and to learn more from nature.
What kind of camera did you start with?
I started with an analog camera. The first camera that came into my hands was one my father lent me when I was about 9-years-old. I was always more partial to the Canon brand, until the digital age arrived. During the analog era the type of lens you used was very important. When I switched to digital I realized that Sony was the best brand in terms of sensors, and have stuck with them until this day. I am very interested in the definition of the photo. I like to approach the image thinking that it is going to be printed, so I consider all the details.
Photo: Nicolas PiwonkaPhoto: Nicolas Piwonka
You are a self-taught photographer. How did you get started professionally?
The first time I was hired, it was a dream job. At that time, there was Paula magazine and Workshop 1, both publications owned by Roberto Edwards. I told him that I was interested in taking photos for them. He said, "perfect, I have a project." This consisted of documenting all of Chile photographically. The next thing I knew they had bought me a new Toyota Land Cruiser and we were off traveling the length of Chile from Arica to Punta Arenas.
What grabs your attention about Patagonia in particular?
The skies. Although one could say millions of interesting things about Patagonia, the skies, for me, are always very distinctive and spectacular. Although it is not something that one can see every day.
What is important for you when photographing wildlife?
I believe there are three potential situations. The first is when you first sight the animal, which is often by chance, and have only milliseconds to react and take the photo. The second is to win its trust, to allow it to see you, to spend time there interacting with the animal before taking any photos. The third option is that you study the behavior of the animal and wait for it somewhere where you know you are going to come across it, or where it is going to fly overhead. You wait for that right moment.
 Photo: Nicolas PiwonkaPhoto: Nicolas Piwonka
Tell us a little about the new technique you have been using in recent years.
I've been using a technique called black and white infrared, which is not Photoshop, it is putting a filter on the camera's sensor that lets only one wavelength through that even we do not see, because they are like only 900 nanometers. It is in the infrared of the light scale. That is, the world seen based on heat. The warmer it is, the whiter it looks and vice versa.
What do you think about filters and manipulation of photos?
I think that is something very personal. Photography is an expression of the emotions, feelings and sensations that the photographer has when taking the photo and they attempt to convert all that into something visual. And it is very likely that many photographers see an image and express that image visual through colors. In my case, I have never used filters. And the polarizing filters, I had one but barely used it. Now with the digital age, RAW is quite flat, even flatter than reality, so you have to work with it to be able to reach an image that resembles what you felt and saw and, there, you can add a bit of color. But not a fictitious color, rather highlight what you were seeing. If you are depressed everything appears dull to you and if you are happy, everything appears bright. I have never placed or inserted new things or transformed images to make them look like something that is not real. Now, with infrared in black and white it is not Photoshop, it is a filter that I am using to see something that we do not normally see behind the lens and seek to portray how nature appears when captured in a sensor.
Macro or landscape photography. Do you have any preference?
Absolutely. I love landscapes and being there in that place, taking night and underwater photos. I am passionate about all of that. But macro photography is what I love most and spend most time doing. It is in the micro world that one can really appreciate thanks to photography.
Photo: Nicolas PiwonkaPhoto: Nicolas Piwonka
Which editing program do you use for your photos?
Well, I'm far from being a professional in editing photos. What I do is work a little in Photoshop and Lightroom, but I'm very amateur in that regard. When photos have to be published, I pass them on to a specialist and I tell them what I perceived more or less and we work together until we reach the most appropriate color.
As a member of the panel of judges of the 5th Patagonia Photo Contest, what will stand out for you when judging a photograph during the selection process?
I think that photography is very personal. The important thing is to convey an emotion. I would differentiate between a photograph that conveys an emotion and one that merely seems to record or document a moment. The latter consists of copying what is there. Photography, for me, has to do with emotion. It doesn't matter if it is out of focus, blurred or lopsided. The important thing is that I can see the image and it inspires an emotion. If that is achieved, then the photographer has succeeded. What I can say is that I try to tell whether the photographer has connected with what they are doing and resonated with that photo. Do something that fulfills you, if you do this, then you will get a great shot.

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