by Steve Bisson

© Isidro Ramírez, Sunday Market, from the series 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations'

On a previous conversation you mentioned how influential the Goldsmiths and The Photography and Urban Cultures MA course (heavily based on urban theory) has been in your career. Flipping through your most recent book 'Jakarta. Modest interventions and Minor Improvisations' I found confirmed these assumptions, if not developed. What even a casual reader can not but recognize in your work is this theoretical consistency, the loyalty of the gaze. While contemporary photography seems to suffer from performance anxiety, or rather uncertainty, thus becomes increasingly volatile in its own expanding definition, your images detect a conscious path, quite anchored on finding a decisive space able to interpret a place, a contest, and to show what is less apparent, to generate visual short-circuits, to criticize cultural axioms. The city then as a stage where people enact their everyday life in all its nuances. In short, could we say that your photography is somehow about humanistic geography?

Isidro Ramírez (IS): This 'human geography' has become even more apparent in my last two pieces of work. In my earlier work (1999-2005), and in projects from this time like Closed for Winter, I made the very conscious decision to avoid the human figure all together and to show only the consequences of human activity. In my latest project in Jakarta and, in the project I am currently working on in Merapi (a volcano in Java), I have also photographed the human figure. In these latest projects humans are caught 'red handed' in the process of changing their environment for their own convenience, comfort and, in some cases, even survival. In an interview for Gasket Gallery I once said ‘Photography separates what is unimportant or irrelevant from what is pertinent and poignant.’ I still stand by that comment in that I photograph what is important to me, what I want to know more about and what makes me feel curious. For many years now it has been urban culture and 'human geography' that has been on my radar of interest.

© Isidro Ramírez, Meeting Place, from the series 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations'

© Isidro Ramírez, Convenience Store Seating Area #2, from the series 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations'

You wrote me once that what helps us make sense of images is the context in which they are presented. A conclusion in the essay of Oscar Carrecedo Garcia-Villalba, included in the book, is that your images «can become inspiring processes towards a more vibrant and integrative urbanism in our contemporary cities». I find this argument exciting and challenging. What would be your ideal context with this regard? And while being an educator beyond a photographer how would you comment on this?

IR: I am very grateful to Oscar Carracedo Garcia-Villalba for generously agreeing to write an essay for my book and I respect his opinion on my book and other issues tremendously. My personal motivations in doing this book were not for my images to become an 'inspiring process for a more vibrant and integrative urbanism', but I find it inspiring and humbling that someone of Oscar's background and position might think this set of images could achieve such an amazing outcome. Just like you, I find this feedback exciting and gives me the motivation from which to continue producing new work. As an educator I think of the legacy and impact that any work, and in particular, work that is publish as a book will have in its readers. Books are definitely my preferred media, both for looking at photographs and for presenting my own work.

© Isidro Ramírez, Pineapple Shop, from the series 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations'

© Isidro Ramírez, Sky Highway / Bus Shelter, from the series 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations'

I remember one time in Sao Paulo, some Brazilian friends joke about what foreign photographers usually snap. Electricity wires, abandoned lots, informal settlements and other aspects presumably exotic or less usual in the ordinary western panorama. I think the same can happen to anyone in other cities. Many of us are attracted to what is new, different, unusual, opposite. Some of those improvisation attitudes that you have well told in the book, are typical of many cities in the Far East and other continents. They characterize the way of being of its inhabitants and their art of figuring out on their own through perseverance and inventiveness. And for this, I believe that sometime a "foreign" look can offer a better acknowledgment of local ways of sociality, entrepreneurship, and conviviality that are often given for granted or insufficiently appreciated and understood. Still I believe that photography serves probably more to take steps, even within ourselves, to measure the way we look at the world and put ourselves to the test. That been said as a Spanish, a European, living in Singapore how do you relate to these issues? And how a preparatory phase can avoid the risk of returning a stereotypical imagery of a geographical context, especially when photography is not merely a flaneur wandering but the attempt to document and understand what we are looking at.

IR: Electricity wires, abandoned lots and informal settlements are all readily present both in Bangkok and Jakarta where I had based my last 2 projects. And they are also included in the photographs in my book. I agree we are initially attracted to what is different in these cities from the ones we have lived before. But it was very obvious to me that these aspects of the city could not be the themes that drive my projects, only the backdrops (in fact they are hard to avoid). As an European living in SE Asia I am very aware it is easy to fall for old cliches that would not add anything new and or worth discussing to the well stablished visions that already exists of these places. When I first approach a new project I take my time to interact and understand the place I am photographing. It is like an elimination process for me where I think about the possible themes at the same time as deciding what is the suitable one I will pursue. In fact, when I first arrived to Jakarta, I knew almost nothing about it and I had no idea what my theme would be. I did not have a camera on the first encounter. Later, in subsequent visits, my work became more focused and channeled towards what the project has now become.

© Isidro Ramírez, Bird Shop Display, from the series 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations'

© Isidro Ramírez, Housing Developments, from the series 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations'

Speaking about the book, your third one with the Velvet Cell, how was the process? What were the difficulties you encountered in its drafting? What have been the feedback on it so far?

IS: 'Jakarta - Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations' has, without a doubt, been the hardest book I have made this far. It took a very long time and many changes to come to its final form. Éanna de Freine (The Velvet Cell founder and editor) helped to defined the final outcome. Interestingly, one of the hardest and more debated decisions we made was whether the images needed titles or not and what kind of titles would be suitable. This was quite an interesting process that helped me see my work in a different way. Titles have never been that important to my work before.

Still images of the book by Isidro Ramírez 'Jakarta: Modest Interventions and Minor Improvisations' published The Velvet Cell (80 pages / 250 x 200 mm, Swiss Binding, 4 Colour Offset, Edition of 500)


Isidro Ramírez