The Colombian photographer Charlie Cordero’s Zillenials project explores the identity of young adults born between 1993 and 1998. In an interview, he spoke with us about his noble aim to portray a whole generation, about the challenges he faced at the beginning, and about his feelings of great joy and the close friendships he made.
Your series deals with the life of Zillenials. What brought you to this topic? What was your initial motivation?
Five years ago I was contracted as a university professor. It was a new experience for me, and at first it was quite difficult. I was young, but even so I felt like I wasn’t connecting with my students, who ranged between 18 and 22 years of age. So, it was the need to understand them, to connect with them, to know how they think, how they relate to one another, and how they see the world, which motivated me to investigate the matter. The truth is that a few years ago there was not much information about this; even so, I was curious to understand them better, because that way I could improve as a teacher. That was the necessity that, with the help of a friend, led me to get to know a group of girls and boys who today, after three years, have become very good friends.
Was there anything special you wanted to focus on?
My main interest was to witness how they related to each other, how they communicated, what subjects interested them, to understand their love relationships, what they dream about and what spaces they shared. I wanted to explore their fears, their changes of mood, their relationships to the environment, their euphoria and their loneliness.
In a few words, how would you describe the people portrayed? What distinguish Zillenials from other generations?
I would describe them as digitally native youngsters who are socially and ecologically aware. They courageously promote values such as gender equality, no discrimination, peace, no racism, care for their surroundings, LGBTI rights, love for oneself, and feminism. They are intelligent, audacious and free.
In my experience, one of the things that most differentiates this generation from previous ones, is that they are always connected, they are the true digital natives – that’s where they communicate, relate to each other and live together. Another thing is the absolute recognition of the privileges offered by diversity. This generation values differences, and that’s where it becomes strong (for example, in the LGBTI movements or in feminist movements, etc.). Another of the things that differentiates this generation is their environmental awareness, which they promote and practice from a young age. They know that we have caused a lot of harm for decades, and that they are the ones called to stop it. It’s a generation that fights, that is not afraid because it has access to information from a young age.
You were often very close to your subjects. How did they react when you photographed them?
It wasn’t an easy process to gain the trust of the girls and boys. I knew that the only way to document these kids was to get to know them and for them to get to know me, and to connect with them in that honest and sincere manner. It was difficult at first, but as we spent time together and shared experiences, everything became easier. The project wouldn’t have been possible if it was just about a photographer carrying out a project; it was really because I became their friend, a companion along the way who documented their journey and adventures.
Did you establish connections to the young people portrayed?
Yes! There’s no doubt that to be able to photograph their lives I had to establish strong links with them. I continue talking with all of them; most of them remain friends of mine to this day. This project began over three years ago, and during that time the relationships have strengthened to the degree that today they consider me a friend.
Where did you take the photos and how did you choose your locations?
Most of the places that appear throughout the project are places the boys and girls used to go to frequently: a petrol station on the outskirts of the city, inside a discotheque, on the beach, in their homes, and so on. They took me to places where they spend time. I was invited to lots of parties and other plans they had; there came a point where I saw that I’d turned into their personal photographer. That was something I really liked and that, no doubt, gave me lots of access. I also had the chance to get to know their homes: most of these kids are university students and live in rented flats around town.
Were there any difficulties while shooting this project?
Being accepted was the most difficult thing; to be seen like just one of them, step into their surroundings and their world, opening up a way between them one night in a discotheque and feeling that they were comfortable with my presence and my pictures, whatever the situation. Another thing that I found difficult was to maintain the balance between what I was interested in documenting about their lives, and their private lives. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, nor feel like I was invading their spaces, nor that they might feel that I was looking at them superficially. Keeping within that line was something I always had in mind.
Is there anything you learned from this project?
I definitely learnt many things, which, I must admit, I did not imagine I would learn from a group of kids who were nine years younger than me. Speaking about feminist ideas, I came to understand how many mistakes men make at times without realising. On the other hand, becoming more aware of the environment and all the changes we need to make if we want to preserve this planet. Understanding that the success of future societies is in tolerating differences, accepting them and making the most of that diversity.
Could you share an anecdote that you’re sure you won’t forget?
As I mentioned before, this generation, and this group of kids in particular, really enjoy making plans that have to do with nature. They often invited me on trips to go camping on the beach, which is something I personally enjoy a lot. It was these kinds of spaces where I was able to document the more intimate aspects of their friendship and the relationship between them. On one occasion, following a rainy night, we got out of our tents and from very early we lay down to look at the sunrise. It was one of the loveliest dawns I have ever seen, and also the feeling of just being one more in the group made me quite happy. I think that was the moment when I went from being a photographer working on a project, to a friend documenting their lives and their adventures.
What equipment did you use and how did it help to accomplish your goals?
I worked on this project with a Leica Q2, which helped to a great degree towards the success of the project. First of all, it’s a discreet camera, which helped me be in less evidence and less invasive, even when the kids were going to such small and crowded places, like a discotheque, or to a beach or a concert. In second place, the great luminosity thanks to its excellent sensor and lens, which had no difficulties is helping me sort out low-light situations, during night-time parties or dawns on the beach.
It is an ongoing project. How long do you want to continue shooting?
I really don’t know. It’s been an incredible experience both for myself and for them; creating evidence of their changes, their improvements, their difficult moments, their joys, their goals and their dreams. They are very grateful for this. For them, documenting their lives is creating unforgettable memories; it all about remembering, never forgetting how they were and what they will become. Currently, most of the girls have finished university, though there are still some to go; and I think that when they have all finished it will be time to stop, because as of that point it’s possible that their lives will take different paths and they may even get separated.
Charlie Cordero is a documentary photographer based in Colombia. The subjects that reoccur in his work are human rights, use of the land, memory, social relationships and the environment. Currently he is working as a professor in the fields of Social Communication and Journalism at the Universidad del Norte, the Universidad Sergio Arboleda and the Universidad Autónoma del Caribe in Barranquilla, Colombia. His work has been published in the national and international media, including most notably, National Geographic, the New York Times, The Guardian and Vanity Fair. Find out more about his photography on his Website and Instagram channel.