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A Photographer Finds Peace in the Vast Emptiness of the Altiplano Region

When Vancouver-based photographer Chiara Zonca started her Moon Kingdom series, she already knew how to lose herself in isolated locations. She had been exploring what she calls “the switch”—an emotional process that occurs when she is surrounded by a landscape so surreal that it feels like a dream. In a month’s time, she travelled with her husband to “alien-like” locations in the Altiplano region that separates the border of Chile and Bolivia.

Yet channeling “the switch” wasn’t always so accessible for the photographer. Before Zonca began this series—and her work as a photographer—she lived in a world dominated by fear. She was terrified of everyday things like taking public transportation, talking to people, and flying. However, through practicing photography, Zonca is overcoming psychological barriers and using the medium as a method for self-healing and introspection.

Her landscapes evoke of a sense of hope in a desolate world, and her emphasis on gentle color brings beauty to bleak locations. And most of all, she inflicts a part of her psyche into ethereal scenery; she becomes her own subject without ever appearing in a photo. We spoke with Zonca about her struggles with anxiety, how she uses photography for self-healing, and how her Moon Kingdom series became her first book, Desert Portraits, which is currently available for pre-sale and releases in November.

Hi Chiara, it’s great to speak with you. Are you comfortable opening up a little bit about your anxiety?
“Sure, it’s a theme that is really important to me and pivotal to my work. I started taking photographs because I was unhappy. Nothing looked bad from the outside—I had a cool job as a motion designer in London, one of the most exciting cities on the planet, and a lovely apartment. I had everything I thought I wanted in life. Still, like many others, I was hiding something. My life was literally ridden with fears, such as taking public transport, a plane, or even walking down the road sometimes. Not to mention bumping into people or talking to people.

“At the very worst of it, I spent a whole year barely leaving London and my apartment, looking for an excuse not to travel as I was too scared of flying. The moment I realized that I was essentially living a vicious cycle dominated by fears I knew things had to change. I figured the best way to address this was taking the bull by its horns so I booked myself a long haul flight to California. The excitement of the destination, or so I was hoping, would blur my hatred for airplanes and push me out of the false sense of comfort I was in. That trip was the fire starter of a slow personal revolution.

“In that journey, I was looking to experience the opposite of what my life had been thus far. I just wanted to be alone, in nature, surrounded by no one. America’s wide open spaces literally quietened the constant noise in my head. I felt great, and more importantly, I felt free.”

How does photography serve as a form of self-healing for you? 
“I have always been very introverted but I never actually understood how much being surrounded by people would affect me psychologically. Until, of course, the human element was removed from the equation. What a discovery that was! It was like I could feel and experience a place for the first time, with fresh eyes.

“Ultimately, it’s all about personal experience. When I am shooting, I need to be at one with the landscape. The best light is achieved very early or late in the day and in the most remote locations, which means camping is a welcome necessity. By spending the night in a place I’m about to shoot, I have enough time to establish a connection. I can use that later on when I take the photograph. At that point, it’s like I am telling the story of myself.”

Tell me about your Moon Kingdom series. How does this series tie into this theme of introspection?
Moon Kingdom comes at a time where I already had a clue of what kind of places I wanted to get lost in. I had been digging to find what I call ‘the switch’—it’s something that happens in my brain when I am surrounded by landscape so surreal that for a moment I am second-guessing my presence in the world, and I mostly believe I am dreaming. It’s basically a form of meditation and that’s what I am inspired by the most.

“For Moon Kingdom, I was intrigued by the dream-like nature of Chile and Bolivia. I knew that it would be the perfect location for my ‘experiment.’ In the span of a month, I travelled with my husband, mostly in the Altiplano region that separates the two countries, seeking alien-like landscapes where I could reach to the depths of my thoughts. We camped mostly alone, waking up before the sun, going to bed after sunset, and becoming part of the landscape. What made this location so special was the complete silence—it’s the driest location on earth so there aren’t many plants or animals. No birds singing, no noise of wind between trees. Nothing.

“I am very instinctive when it comes to locations. I usually survey the area before planning a trip, making sure it’s diverse and with plenty of locations to shoot. Once I am there, I don’t like to think about it too much—I let my eyes pick a location purely based on my emotions. It usually involves a lot of dirt roads and hours and hours of driving or scrambling. The only thing I try to really be mindful about is light. I try to predict how it’s going to be throughout the day, and I pay lots of attention to how it hits the landscape and the best time to shoot. It’s usually sunsets and sunrises, although I’ve become increasingly interested in night photography as well.”

Moon Kingdom is became your first book, Desert Portraits. Tell me about that.
“Of course. My book, Desert Portraits, is coming out in November and is now available for pre-sale. It focuses on my personal journey of the Altiplano region and investigates the connection between those landscapes and the human psyche—how unobstructed nature has a certain power or energy on us. I really feel a need for reconnecting with ancient, timeless places. I am hoping that with this book I can share my experience and encourage others to do the same.”

Tell me a little bit about your background and focus as an artist. Is there a unifying principle you aim to deliver with your work?
“So far my work has all been about wild solitary places—places that appear ’empty’ but are actually full of meaning. I like to inspire respect for the wild and the untouched parts of the world. There aren’t many of those left and people just don’t realize it. I also like to continue describing the importance of living freely, from my personal experience or from someone else’s, when and if I will be ready to interact with people again.”

I realize you shoot a lot on film. In a world where so many people are obsessed with megapixels and the best and baddest digital technology, why do you make this choice aesthetically?
“I actually shoot on both. I started on digital only, but analog is quickly gaining momentum for me. With film, I feel like I capture the essence of what my naked eye can see naturally. Digital is more flat, more synthetic. It takes a good deal of effort to project my soul into digital work, but it is possible, and sometimes the effects are striking and surprising. I guess for me it’s really important to keep using both as my eye develops and let the final edit decide whether digital or analog produces the stronger image.”

Where do you find inspiration outside of art and photography? Is there anything that influences your work that is completely unrelated to art or photo?
“Movies, graphic design, and music. My next project is going to be heavily influenced by all three.”

All images © Chiara Zonca

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