The Brussels Street Photography Festival (BSPF) interviews Ximena Echague, the 2019 runner-up of the BSPF Singles contest. This interview was included as part of her prize package.
A brief introduction
Ximena grew up in Buenos Aires, became a photographer in Europe and lives now between New York and Brussels. She is a street and documentary photographer whose work on migrants in Europe has been exhibited at the United Nations (New York) and the European Parliament (Brussels). Ximena won second prize at the 2019 Brussels Street Photography Festival for the Singles competition. We sat down with Ximena to learn more about her and her work.
What attracts you to street photography?
I have had the luck, or misfortune, of having lived many lives in one and Street Photography is what helped me to stay focused. It is a kind of meditation that helps me to better understand myself and the world around me. The process is very interesting. When I go out to the street I seek to extract something that reflects the spirit of the one I portrait, although when I see my work, I discover my own in them.
At the same time, street photography provides a type of adrenaline that I need and I do not find in other types of posed photography where both scene and actors are staged. Going out with my camera hunting for images in the streets of any city is always an adventure, a challenge, and you are rarely disappointed.
People seem so central to your photography, yet in the photo that won Second Prize at the Brussels Street Photography Festival is absent of people. Can you tell us about how the winning photo came to be?
We like to go on long walks around Queens, NY, by far the most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse borough of the city, where each subway station belongs to a completely different culture (Flushing is Chinese, Jackson Heights is Indian, Corona is totally Latin American, etc.).
This photo was taken in a traditionally Greek area, in a playground with very few users and often an incredible light. There were some kids playing with balloons and I couldn’t resist watching them and their shadows on the wall, and then the image appeared. I took other photos in the same place, on different days and with different light, that together constitute a beautiful and intriguing series.
You shoot both documentary photography and street photography. What are some of the parallels between the two? How are they different and how are they similar to you?
For me, Street photography is short term, instant, whereas Documentary involves longer-term preparation and research. Of course, there are similarities, both try to capture one aspect of the human odyssey, to portray something you believe is worth seeing and may understand.
But in Documentary, you decide the message beforehand and then shoot it, whereas in Street Photography you are surprised by what the streets tell you. I am interested in both and do them in parallel. I try to shoot in the streets almost every day but have also a couple of documentary projects ongoing for several months and sometimes years. Street Photography is more about instant action, documentary requires reflection and understanding.
You often transpose text over your photographs. What effect do you believe this has as opposed to typical captions?
I only do that for documentary projects, as I normally like to tell the stories in the first person, for example in Odyssey, by the migrants themselves. I think it gives the photo more intimacy and closeness, with the main actor being not only photographed but also given the opportunity to tell and write his or her own life story or the message they want to convey. I believe it gives more ownership to the photographed person, becoming a human being and not only an image.
You’re an Ambassador of Women Street Photographers and the Curator and Ambassador of Fotografas LATAM, an international group of Latin American women photographers. What do you do in these rolls to inspire more women to take to the streets with their cameras?
They are different collectives and my role in them is also different. WSP is a global platform to give Women Street Photographers the opportunity to get their work published and exhibited. It’s created, curated and managed by Gulnara Samoilova. My role in WSP is just to help in different areas, from being a jury of its Artist in a residency program to help her finding events and festivals to exhibit WSP work around the world.
LATAM is a regional initiative to promote Latin American Women Photographers (street photography is only a small part of it) and my role is to curate and organize itinerant exhibitions of their best work outside the region. We try to show a young, modern Latin American photography, which is far from clichés and to inspire and empower women photographers.
You’ve been a finalist at the Brussels Street Photography Festival before, what does it mean to you winning second prize at the Brussels Street Photography Festival?
I have been a finalist in every BSPF edition since its beginning in 2016 and I saw the festival grow and become the most important street photography festival in Europe. So in many ways, I consider the BSPF part of my own story as a photographer.
Moreover, Brussels is the city where I have my permanent home and where I plan to go back next year, after three years in New York. Therefore, winning the prize was both a very special personal satisfaction and also a great honor as I consider the BSPF one of the very top street photography festivals in the world.
You say you go back and forth between Brussels and New York, what is it about Brussels that you love to shoot? Is there anywhere, in particular, you like to shoot in Brussels?
I consider Brussels my adopted home, the place where I always go back after being around the world. I love its self-deprecating humor and its position at the center of Europe and, at the same time, at the border between the two main cultures of Europe, Latin, and Germanic.
Brussels a very cosmopolitan place, which means lots of people on the move, mixing up, and I have always been fascinated by cities with large floating populations (like New York too) and migrations are a central topic of my photography. There are many areas where I like to shoot in Brussels, but my preference always goes to areas ethnically mixed like Molenbeek, Schaarbeek or Matongue in Ixelles.
What is your camera set up like?
Although I have some other camera, the ones I use every day are Leica Q 116 and Sony RX 100 ll. Sony RX 100 is a wonderful tool for SP, small, light and very good image quality. Nevertheless, my love for Leica began when I was very young, although I was able to buy my first Leica only a couple of years ago.
What advice do you have for up and coming street photographers?
In Street Photography, you should not expect anything in return but your own fulfillment. The adrenaline that gives the SP does not give money. So, it is something that is fundamentally done by and for oneself, through which you would try to reflect something of the human condition, even without people.
We learn to see with all our senses, not through a camera. We learn soaking up art, music, books, love and much more. Then, go out and shoot. Trial and error is the only way to improve. Studying technique can be useful, but shooting is the ultimate test. And watch great photographers work as much as you can. Besides that, dear to show your work to others, in workshops or photo reviews, send it to photo magazines and festivals.
You can view more of Ximena’s work on her Instagram.