Nature photography in Chile: Interview with Jean Paul de la Harpe

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 Torres del Paine National Park. Torres del Paine National Park.
 
 
In Chile, the name Jean Paul de la Harpe has become synonymous with nature photography. While studying biology at Chile’s Catholic University he became interested in photography at the same time, so much so that he quit studying for a doctorate in ecology in 2002 to focus on nature photography full-time. He made the decision to make photography his medium for educating and building awareness about the need to conserve nature and biodiversity on the planet. His photography business Abtao offers photography expeditions, courses, and workshops. And a few years ago he started Chile Indomito, a digital magazine about the natural world in Chile.

Jean Paul’s photography has also been published in diverse magazines, calendars, and four books (with a new photography book focused on Patagonia due out later this year). A member of our panel of five judges in the Fourth Patagonia Photo Contest, Patagon Journal’s Zoe Baillargeon spoke with Jean Paul to get his views on photography, such as how his training as a biologist has influenced his photos, and what makes a good photograph.

When did you first develop an interest in photography?
My interest in photography started when I was 15. I was primarily motivated by the beautiful nature that I found on my excursions at the hills near my home. My father had given me an old camera and with that I took my first steps in photography. But it can be said that I also arrived at photography by being motivated by nature, finding in this technique a good tool for documenting and disseminating environmental issues.
 
 
Glacier in Ballena Bay, Francisco Coloane Marine Park, Magallanes Region.Glacier in Ballena Bay, Francisco Coloane Marine Park, Magallanes Region.
 

You were studying biology at Chile’s Universidad Catolica and then changed course to start your ABTAO business. Why did you decide to make that change?
Yes, I have a degree in biology from Universidad Catolica. I worked for a while on research projects at the university, and even managed to complete the first semester toward a doctorate in ecology at the same university. But I realized that I was more interested in exploring nature and making it known in a more transversal and “easy to read” way, rather than through scientific papers. Motivated by my concern for the conservation of the environment, I found in photography a very powerful tool to create awareness of the beauty of this world, and also of the importance of protecting the biodiversity that it houses.
 
Looking for a way to make this a full-time job that would also support me economically, I started my small nature tourism company, which over time has been transformed moreso into a nature and photography school, which is how I like to see it. I like that people come and learn about nature and photography on each expedition, course or workshop.
 
How has being a biologist affected your mission and vision as a nature and wildlife photographer?
I think that studying biology was a very good tool for understanding the world around us in a different way. I think nature photography is very complimentary as it provides you with the tools that make your work easier and backs it up with more fundamentals. But both biology and photography have been tools to channel what really drives me, which is my love of nature. That has been the real driving force behind my ideas and initiatives. If I had to go back and study all over again, I would still go back and study biology again.
 
 
Algarrobo and Milky Way in the Salar de Atacama, Antofagasta Region.Algarrobo and Milky Way in the Salar de Atacama, Antofagasta Region.
 
 
Rainbow Lagoon, Conguillio National Park, Araucanía Region.Rainbow Lagoon, Conguillio National Park, Araucanía Region.
 

In the twenty years you’ve been working as a photographer, have you seen any changes in the public perception of the need for conserving and protecting wild places?
Absolutely. I started at a time when the environmental movement was just beginning in Chile (in the late 1990s), and it was not easy to spread a message in a country which had other priorities. Coming up against many closed doors and indifference from many people was often discouraging and can cause some to give up. But it was the small positive responses that I began to receive that convinced me to persevere. In February 2013, I published the first issue of my digital magazine "Chile Indómito,” which aims to disseminate Chile's natural heritage. That was a clear milestone for me; when I began to really start seeing a positive change in people’s attitudes toward conservation. Today, conservation is priority for most Chileans.

What is your favorite place to do photography?
Uff, hard question. I would say that the more I know a place, the less I can leave it. It is amazing how you can find incredible nature in every corner of Chile, which is always inspiring. But if I had to choose somewhere, perhaps it would be Conguillio National Park, which I visited for the first time as a child. Apart from there, the Aysen region also captivates me, as well as canals that weave in and out of the Fuegian archipelago. In central Chile, I love going to the coast and also Cajon del Maipo. To the north, I love the altiplano. As you can see, there are many places, each different from each other.

What for you makes a great nature photo? Is having a so-called "eye" for a good photograph something that can be taught, or are you born with it?
That's a very good question. I think the most important thing when creating a good image is to first understand that photography is just another of the many languages that exist in the world. Once we understand that we start to see the world through different eyes. We start to appreciate details that were always there, but that are only visible to the photographer, such as color, direction and intensity of light, the natural geometry, the passage of time, the seasons, the weather, etc. That sensitivity is innate in many people, but those who are not born with that gift it can be taught, just like a new language.
 
To create a good image "one should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are,” as the great photographer Minor White once said.
 
 
Tatio Geysers, Region of Antofagasta.Tatio Geysers, Region of Antofagasta.
 
 
Loro Tricahue parakeet (Cyanoliseus patagonus), Cachapoal River, Libertador B. O`Higgins Region.Loro Tricahue parakeet (Cyanoliseus patagonus), Cachapoal River, Libertador B. O`Higgins Region.

 

As a teacher, what is your advice to student photographers?
Giving a single piece advice is difficult, but perhaps the most important thing, in my opinion, to be able to achieve emotional, thought-provoking images is to work hard, be perseverant and patient, tolerate frustration, and be open to the wonderful senses we have been born with. In this society we are taught to block emotion and monopolize our more functional aspects. They teach us to read in a particular way, to listen, to think in paradigms. I think that if one manages to turn off the programming with which they have educated us, we can see beyond the obvious, and that is what a good photographer does, to show the invisible of everyday life.

What are some of the new projects you are working on?
I always have crazy ideas in my head that nag at me, but they are the creative engine of my work. Right now, my photography students and I are about to launch a book about the central coast of Chile, to showcase that beautiful place. In addition, my new book about Patagonia should be coming out soon. That’s on the editorial side. But I am also about to start a new audiovisual challenge that will require a lot of time, dedication, and learning. It’s a new YouTube channel, on which I will show different corners of Chile, its nature, and the best way to photograph and learn from it firsthand. Apart from that, I will continue to travel, discovering and photographing the beautiful nature that surrounds us.