Culture has suffered heavily as a result of the corona pandemic, and the Venezuelan orchestra La Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho was no exception. With gentle and harmonious portraits of the members of the ensemble, Ana María Arévalo Gosen shows how, despite the circumstances, they managed to find a way for the music.
How did the project come about?
In the beginning of 2021 I was in El Salvador doing the extension of my long term project Días Eternos and, as a beautiful coincidence, I reconnected with an old high school friend. Eugenia Vegas is the sister of Elisa, the director of the Venezuelan orchestra La Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho, but she is also the organizer of the huge machine that represents this independent orchestra of 75 professional musicians. She told me with such passion and impression what the orchestra was doing during the hard times of quarantine caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. She described how the musicians were dealing with the situation, by recording an album with whatever they had in their homes. My curiosity was immediately aroused; I decided to go to each of their houses to see how this magnificent music was being made individually from home, but also to show how an orchestral musician lives in the country, and how they played together live after so long.
What does Sinfonía Desordenada mean?
Sinfonía Desordenada means jumbled symphony. It is the name of the music project itself. The arrangements of the eight songs they recorded are by the mythic Venezuelan ska band Desorden Publico. The band plays some of the most famous songs in our country, they are anthems that defined Caribbean ska. Moreover, La Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho orchestra is unconventional in every sense of the word. Starting from the director Elisa Vegas who is the only female director of a big orchestra in the country. It is also founded on the idea of getting outside the box of classical orchestral music and experimenting with other musical styles, such as ska in this case. They are revolutionary, because their mission is to bring people together by trying to make music accessible for everybody. So I think the Sinfonía Desordenada title fits them very well beyond this particular project.
Does photographing an orchestra also mean trying to capture music?
On the one hand, yes. But the most important part for me was trying to capture how these people are deeply shaped by music and how vital it is for them. I needed to bring together their passion for music, the omnipresent spirit of music in their lives, but also underline their qualities and their different traits of their personalities. It was not only about capturing music, but about going beyond that to understand the true meaning of doing music for our communities, and how the orchestra managed to find a solution while being quarantined.
What does music mean to you personally – and to Venezuela?
Music for me is my other artistic part. From a very early age I started singing and never stopped! It is a fundamental part of my soul. When I’m making music and singing I’m in my element. It can be used like photography. Music is for me a beautiful way to tell stories, connect with others and be present in the moment. For Venezuelans… well, we have music in our blood! Music wakes up and goes to bed with us; there is always music playing somewhere near us.
Is there a difference between Venezuelan music and music from other countries?
Elisa Vegas, the director of the orchestra, answers the question as follows: “Venezuelan music is certainly different to music from other parts of the world, because many cultures and rhythms collide in this country.” You can feel the influence of African music and western music, united in a kind of ‘tropicalisation’. Therefore our music if very joyful, vibrant and rhythmically complex. Our music is a combination of luminous melodies. That’s why I believe that the essence of the Caribbean, in conjunction with traditions from different parts of the world – specially from the West and from Africa –, makes our music different.
How did you choose the locations for the portraits?
It was fundamental to depict how resilient the performers are in using music to do good and powerful things for our country. To underscore how they overcame the difficulties of recording at home, I chose to go to each of their houses. I took portraits in the homes of the 75 musicians. That way the spectator could have a glimpse of their lives and the elements that define their identities. Talking to many musicians, they expressed how hard it was to record at home because of the noise: the buses that pass, the banana seller with a loudspeaker, the neighbours listening to loud music, or their family members calling them for dinner just when they were pushing the record button on their phones. To represent those scenarios, I decided to take a few of the musicians out of their homes, and portray them on top of a truck that sells bananas, or playing outside in the streets. I also included their family members in some of the images.
You used the Leica M10 for the series; what was your experience with it?
Yes, I used the M10-R with 28mm and 50mm lenses. The 28mm was for the environmental portraits, and the 50mm for the closer ones. It was my first time with the camera and I have to say it’s fantastic. It’s quick and silent. I got used to the manual focus quite quickly (beforehand I’ve used the Q with autofocus). The quality of the photos is magnificent. It highlights the true essence of Leica cameras: it is small and comfortable to carry, it photographs all the soft contrasts and powerful colours, and it reads the shadows with amazing accuracy.
How important is colour to you in your photography?
Colour is the way I see the world. I was born in the magnificent, colourful Caribbean, and it is what defines my eyes. When I’m working, I pay a lot of attention to the palettes in the compositions, because I know that it allows the audience to be carried along by different emotions. I am very aware of how light works on colours, and how I want to represent my images through the light that touches the shapes.
What do music and photography have in common?
Doing Sinfonía Desordenada and spending time with the members of this orchestra taught me that, a lot like photography, music can also be used as a weapon to fight despair, to solve adversities and to be of service to our communities. It is a wonderful and powerful way to transform souls, to bring hope, to carry a message or to tell stories. Music is a way to connect with unknown people and bring them together; it allows you to be present in the moment, to experience the immediate. It is a direct and satisfying way of being aware of the ‘here and now’. Photography and music share the way they are built and sequenced in common. Photographic narratives are at their best when they are constructed like a song: with a central, energetic body, but with bridges, harmonies and silences.
You have just won the Leica Oscar Barnack Award. What does this prize mean to you?
The LOBA award represents an immense feeling of gratitude towards the people that have been supporting my work throughout the years: my family, the editors who have seen my work evolve, my colleagues who support me all the way; but specially, towards all the women who allowed me to photograph them during the vulnerable time of imprisonment. This prize allows me to go on, to keep on working on a body of work that has become my mission.
Ana María Arévalo Gosen (born in Caracas,1988). Ana is a fighter for women’s rights and environmental issues using visual storytelling as her weapon. She is a National Geographic Explorer and a member of Ayün Fotógrafas. Mixing rigorous research with intimate stories, she wants to make a positive impact through her projects. Her most challenging work is called The Meaning of Life. It is the story of her husband’s fight against testicular cancer, which she uses to raise awareness. In 2020 she won the LUMIX Photo Award and Lucas Dolega Prize, and in 2021 the LOBA Award for her series Días Eternos series about the conditions of women in prison in Venezuela. Ana is based in Bilbao, Spain, and spends long periods of time in Venezuela developing projects. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram page.
The images of Sinfonía Desordenada will be shown at Leica Galerie Madrid from January 30 to April 22, 2022.