Based in Bogotá, documentary and street photographer, Juan Cristóbal Cobo shares how he experiments with available light during lockdown to explore new forms of self-expression through self-portraiture. Join Juan and Jennifer McClure in our upcoming Leica Akademie online workshop to find new visual techniques that speak your unique narrative through self-portraits. Learn more here.
1. How has the pandemic impacted your approach to photography?
Before the pandemic, I was mostly working as a documentary and street photographer. I usually found myself photographing in situations where I didn’t have full control, especially on the streets where everything moves at once and very fast, and decisions are made in the split of a second. Once we were ordered to a full lockdown, I no longer had the possibilities to travel or go outside to work as I was used to. At first, I thought I wasn’t going to be doing any photographs, but that only lasted a few hours. I started to look and look again within my own home, something I had almost never done before. I started to look and photograph in a much slower way, taking the time, waiting for the right moment of light, using a tripod, carefully arranging things in front of the camera. I then became curious about myself and started to do self-portraits.
2. What initially inspired your idea of creating a series of self-portraits at home?
The idea of doing self-portraits was new to me, and it was the result of not being able to photograph other people out in the world. Being in confinement confronted me and allowed me to start thinking not only about the present events but also about myself, my relationships, my family and life in general. It was like looking at myself in a mirror, and I actually started by photographing everything through a mirror as a tool to examine myself and as a way to look at the outside world from the safety of my own home. I suddenly realized I had been trying up until now to understand people through my lens, unaware that I was a strange subject to myself that needed to be explored. Self-portraits are a powerful tool for self-discovery and expression.
3. How does your background as a cinematographer influence your photography?
I have always worked with images, mostly moving images through cinema, and that of course has a lot of weight on my present work, but I’ve tried to distance myself from that narrative, since I consider still photography a completely different art form. I still always start with light, just like I did as a cinematographer. Light for me has the power to transform life and emotions and it is my starting point most of the time. I still find that many people refer to my work as “cinematic”, so I think film-making still has a grip on the way I communicate through photography.
4. Tell us about the camera equipment and technique you used.
For this entire time, I’ve used exclusively the Leica M Monochrom and a 35 mm Summilux lens. I’ve used the 12 second timer the camera has, a cable release, or the mirror.
5. Your father appears in a number of your images. What impact has this project had on your relationship?
For the first two months of the lockdown my father was staying with me. I started to photograph him through the mirror, trying not to be very imposing since I knew he’s not very fond about being photographed. Little by little the mirror disappeared, and he knew what I was doing and didn’t resist. When he looked at the photographs, I guess he realized how important it was for me to document this unique time together and my hope is that he became aware that this was done with profound love from my part. At the end, I hope it became a silent dialogue between us, another way to communicate.
6. You present your photographs as diptychs, is this new for you?
Yes, it is rather new. With diptychs I find I can expand the ways a photograph can be read. Many times they are just free associations from photos I may make at random, and that I then pair. I can also see how a photograph might serve as a “comment” to the other.
7. As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, what is one advice you have for photographers to help encourage them to find inspiration through their surroundings and in everyday moments?
Be curious about everything, approach every day with amazement and gratitude. We have one powerful tool in our hands: the camera. If we remain curious, we will never feel isolated or useless throughout these times.
View more of Juan’s work below.
Follow him on Instagram at @juancristobalcobo.
Exploring Self-Portraits Online Workshop | Aug. 6-9, 2020
Join Jennifer McClure and Juan Cristóbal Cobo for an intensive weekend learning different approaches to self-portraiture that shares your narrative and story. While McClure’s perspective is that of a new mother, Cobo’s experience is that of a son sheltering in place with his father. McClure has been making narrative self-portraits for years, while Cobo brings a filmmaker’s and street photographer’s eye to this new branch of his documentary practice. We will explore the intersections and creative processes of these photographers, hoping to provide vision and inspiration.