Award-winning Chilean photographer on the magic of the Atacama

Tomás Munita has traveled from war-torn Afghanistan to the mountains of the Himalayas, but now he’s back in Chile photographing the scenes he loves most. 

Born in Santiago in 1975, Tomás Munita studied photography in Chile before travelling the world to work on multiple projects. During 2006 he moved to Kabul, Afghanistan to work as the Associated Press’s Chief Photographer. His collection Leaving the Shadows documented the daily life of Afghans and won him the prestigious Leica Oskar Barnack Award. His recent book Lost Harvest about the Loa River in the Atacama Desert won the All Roads National Geographic Award.
Now back in Santiago with his three children, he spoke to This is Chile:
This is Chile: What was it like growing up in Chile as a student of photography?
Tomás Munita:I bought my first camera when I was 16 and travelled around the country with it. I soon realized I wanted to be a photographer because of the things it pushed you to do for a shot. I’d traveled before, but now I was going into people’s houses and jumping onto fishermen’s boats to get shots.
I started to look at my surroundings in a different way, much in the same way a young musician starts to hear music differently. I noticed that so many people would walk quickly along the street with their heads down – with my camera, it would take me an hour to walk one block because I was starting to see shapes and colors for the first time. I was completely re-learning an environment that had been so familiar.
TiC: How active is the photography community in Chile?
T.M: For as long as I can remember, there has been a good level of photography in Chile. The work of photographers who documented the dictatorship was so important, and they received a lot of support from foreign photographers. That generation of photographers went on to teach, and some of them taught me.
The new generation is a bit different – there is not a countrywide oppression to photograph, and photographers in Chile are becoming freer, more experimental and artistic. You can tell a lot about a country by seeing what the artists are doing.
TiC: What is your favorite place to shoot in Chile?
T.M: It has to be the Atacama. The desert is so surreal; the colors, and especially the distance. When you are standing in one place, in all directions you can see for such a great distance and so much is going on – the shadows of clouds, the different colors of the soil. You also have these oases, where you go from dry areas to water and there is this contrast, this explosion of life which is wonderful to capture.
Working on my last book, Lost Harvest, I got to meet the most interesting people in the desert, the Aymara and the Atacameños.
TiC: You have taken shots of people in wartime Afghanistan, and you also covered the aftermath of the earthquake in Kashmir. Do you ever feel unsure about photographing people at their most exposed and vulnerable?
T.M: Sometimes I feel uncomfortable, but I never feel bad. Photographers and journalists have a role to play – we let people tell their story through us. It is difficult to do this and you have to work hard, and it must be done honestly and respectfully. It is different when you have a massive group of photographers trying to get an image of the same crying girl – that’s not respect. Things must be done from a humane perspective.
I think some of the most important work that we can do in these places is to break down stereotypes, of which there are so many. Before I went to Afghanistan I had this idea of the Taliban and the people out there – what I saw was so different. I met people who were honorable, respectful, and delicate. They wanted nothing to do with war, and were just trying to rebuild their lives. I tried to tell their story.
TiC: You received the Leica Oskar Barnack Award for your work in Afghanistan. How self-affirming was this for you?
T.M: It was incredibly motivating. I had spent a year practically by myself – I had no one to share my work with or get feedback from. I was very isolated at that time, and to receive the award at least confirmed to me that I was successful in doing what I had set out to do.
That would be my advice to new photographers. You can only achieve so much by following the direction of an editor. You have to work on your own projects. Before Afghanistan, I had quit the AP to pursue a project in the Himalayas. I spent four months in northern India photographing nomads. The work got me another job offer at the AP, and then after Kabul I quit again for another project. You have to follow whatever ideas excite you the most.
TiC: What’s next?
T.M: I have a lot coming up, mostly shooting for the New York Times and Time Magazine. I am going to photograph the Asháninka people in the Amazon, I’m going to Syria, Libya, Mexico, and Cuba. But thankfully, before then I am taking my family on a three month journey through Patagonia. There I will be taking photos for myself.
You can view more of Tomás’s photos on his website.By Angus McNeice.