Equipped with his M Typ 240, Cris Toala Olivares documents unpredictable volcanoes as well as the tamed geometry of civilization. Speaking in an interview, Olivares muses on photography as intuition, the power of nature, and why he considers that the Andean condor plays an important role.
What was the turning point in your life that made you decide to become a photographer?
In 2009, while in the Gaza Strip, I decided to change career direction after discovering my passion for photography while working as a volunteer at a hospital. I met a boy who was suffering from leukaemia. He was trying to cross the border to receive treatment for his illness. A police officer stopped him and signalled with his finger by moving it from right to left. Just like you do to a child who just did something wrong or didn’t listen. At that moment I took a picture. The photo got published in a Lebanese newspaper, which was seen by the Red Cross. They contacted me afterwards and asked for the boy’s details to make sure he could cross the border to access the necessary help. I realised that through that photo I was able to give a voice to a boy that no one seemed to care about.
Do you now see any relationship between medicine and photography?
I started studying medicine to help people. Unfortunately, I found out rather quickly that you need to do a lot of paperwork, while being held accountable to several parties, like insurance companies. Hence you spend more time filling out paper work, than actually helping people. My camera is a tool with which I try to help and empower people, without all the paperwork. For me, photography is intuition. My camera is merely an extension of myself. I put my heart and soul into the stories I want to capture, so the people and the stories become part of me.
Why did you decide to dedicate your work to colour photography?
I was born in Ecuador, a land which is full of colour. Growing up, I was fascinated by the Amazon: all the different shades of green of the trees, the bright colours of the flowers, and the impressive diversity of birds and their respective colours. For me, colour is nature; colour is a part of me.
A lot of your pictures are taken from a bird’s eye view. How did you come to this decision? And how do you realise this technically?
I’m inspired by the Andean condor, a South American bird. As a child I always observed them, when we visited thermal sources on family outings. I watched the way they circled. They were often quite close to us, and I noticed how they pointed their heads. I always wondered what they could see. Later, once I had become a professional photographer, I had the chance to work with George Steinmetz. Flying for the first time with him allowed me to explore my childhood fascination. I like the way flying gives everything another perspective. For me, flying is a tool. Sometimes it’s useful to use a different composition. I switch between helicopters, planes and even drones at times, depending on my requirements.
You focus mainly on nature and (urban) landscapes. What does nature mean to you – and what about civilization?
I’m interested in the relationship people have with their environment and how they coexist with their habitat. I have observed and documented this in urban settings, such as city landscapes, but also in places where humans live alongside nature, like around active volcanoes or in the Wadden Sea tide land zone in northern Europe. When people are close to nature, I see how they develop a deep respect for it. In these uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic, I realise more than ever that there are valuable lessons to be learnt from those who are connected to the Earth. We all depend on the Earth. During this period, we can reflect with new emotions and thoughts on how we want to live on this planet.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
Respect is key. When I pursue my stories, this is the essential emotion I need to feel. I must respect my topic, in order to capture it in all its beauty. I try to feel the story I am telling, to connect with it, and then to have what I experience reflected in my images. Through my approach, I remain enough of an outsider to be fascinated by my subjects, while also becoming enough of an insider to deeply understand them.
You travel a lot all over the world – what has fascinated you most?
Witnessing the eruption of the Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador in February 2014 brought me face to face with the enormous power of this natural occurrence. For me, volcanoes represent the force of nature and our planet. During the Cotopaxi eruption in 2015, I found myself among the people that live on the flank of the volcano. They were forced to leave their homes due to the threat of the erupting mountain. Instead of fearing the possible destruction of everything they had worked for, the inhabitants seemed more distressed by the fact they had to leave their beloved volcano. Their connection to the mountain taught me a lot about our connection to nature. This is what inspires me to travel: meeting people who have knowledge and wisdom that can teach me more about our life on this planet.
You photograph (active) volcanos with amazing results! Have you been in any dangerous situation?
Back in 2019, I visited the 3,046 metre-high Gunung Agung in Indonesia. I stayed in Pura Besakih, one of the largest and holiest Hindu temples in Bali. This temple is built on the slopes of “The Great Mountain”. The residents of Pura Besakih knew I was looking for that one photo, and suggested that I go on a pilgrimage to the top of Gunung Agung. It was a hellish, six hour climbing trip along mountain-ridges to get to the top. However, I would not consider any of my trips “dangerous”. Many of the people who decide to climb a volcano, do so in a rush of energy and over-confidence. This is where it gets dangerous. I do not climb, fly or make other attempts before I’ve made a good connection to people who actually know what they are dealing with. This way I am able to concentrate on taking the best pictures I can, without worrying too much. Of course, life is a risk and going to special places brings special risks with it.
Do you have any (photographic) idols who have influenced you?
Among my mentors I can count Jan Six van Hillegom, owner of one of the largest collections of Rembrandt paintings in the world, who taught me about light and the Dutch Masters. Then there is George Steinmetz, a U.S. photographer who specialised in aerial pictures, and who passed on a lot of his knowledge to me during a collaboration in the Netherlands. Also important for me is Max de Jong. Max is a photography connoisseur. He often inspires me to look at my work as an outsider, which helps me to see how I can develop and grow in my craft. Last, but certainly not least, is my wife, Alice Wielinga. Alice is a great artist with a completely different style to mine. Because of this difference we are constantly able to inspire each other to come up with new ideas for our projects.
What kind of equipment did you use and how did it perform? Were there any tricky situations?
I use the Leica M, Typ 240. For lenses I use the Summilux-M 50/1.4 Asph and Summicron-M 35/2 Asph. I have never, and I repeat, never had any problems with my Leicas in any situation. That is the main reason I use them! They are like an extension of myself. I can use them intuitively without even having to think about, or look at the camera.
Cris Toala Olivares was born in Manta, Ecuador, in 1982. He studied medicine in the Netherlands, before changing to photography, and sold his guitar to be able to buy his first camera. Toala’s pictures have been published in Geo and National Geographic, among others. You can find more information about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.