Photographer Eugenie Frerichs spent a month volunteering at the future Patagonia National Park, taking portraits of our team. She took a moment out of her next adventure–driving from her hometown of Portland, OR, to Alaska as part of a project documenting the modern wild–to share some reflections on her time in Valle Chacabuco. See the full gallery of her photographs from the park: http://eugeniefrerichs.com/valle-chacabuco.
Q. How did you get the idea to visit the park and photograph there?
A. In the Fall of 2012 I had some time set aside to focus on my photography, and I knew I wanted to cover the topics of farm life and wilderness. I’d spent the month of October shooting farm life in Colorado, and as the weather turned in the northern hemisphere, the region of Patagonia came up as an ideal next location. CP’s efforts in both wilderness and agriculture in Chile and Argentina were for me the sweet spot, in terms of storytelling, and with so many exciting developments happening right now at Valle Chacabuco, it was the obvious place to go.
Q. Could you describe some of the adventures you had taking these photos?
A. Traveling to Valle Chacabuco is an adventure in itself, getting dropped off at the Cruce Entrada Baker after a 6-hour bus ride, greeted there by a guanaco and the breathtaking view of the Rio Baker. At that moment I really felt far from home (in a good way).
I spent a week with a group of volunteers pulling fence in La Veranada and was really impressed with the progress a small team could make in one week. We worked in bluebird sun, howling winds, a blizzard, and then sun again; the volunteers were burly and Lilly, the CP volunteer coordinator, was a steady, tireless leader.
Hiking up to shoot the beginning stages of the installation of the Aviles bridge was also a highlight – Dago and Luigi and crew were so excited, and the installation was no small feat. There was another volunteer crew up there, again in all forms of weather, and joining them to be among the first backpackers to hike the trail they’d just completed was exciting.
Q. Why do you enjoy working on portraits, and what did you learn while taking these?
A. I did not decide that this would be a portrait project until I arrived at the park, when it was immediately apparent, for me anyway, that the people of Valle Chacabuco together told a fascinating story. Nearly all of the Chileans who work there are from the region, they know that landscape so well, and are extremely proud of the work they are doing. And for those of us traveling from North America – when was the last time we witnessed the making of a national park, from building the lodges to mapping and building the trails? I immediately wanted to know about the people on the ground, the ones bringing this place to life – to hear their stories and gain a deeper understanding of the valley. I also figured the landscape itself would be well covered by the many great landscape artists who have already visited the park, not least of which being the stunning work by Linde Waidhofer.
Q. What were some of the challenges you faced trying to take these?
A. Ha. The most obvious challenge was the Spanish, especially making the leap from Argentine Spanish, where I’d just been, to the staccato, clipped Castellano of Southern Chile. Everyone was so patient and forgiving, and I’d like to think that in some way my hobbling through the language helped to break the ice; something I’d say would elicit weird looks and then the person would just crack up and laugh in my face. I was glad for this. Aside from that, the other major hurdle was gaining the trust of the people I photographed. Understandably, people were wary at first of the gringa wandering around with the camera, but as I started to have photos to share with everyone at the dinner table, I think they could see that I was relatively harmless.
Q. What was a particularly memorable photograph you took there?
A. Two images come to mind – one of four men from the park, and one of four women. In the shot of the men, Rene, Jaime, Don Hernan, and Arcilio are sitting together at La Juanina after having spent the morning slaughtering sheep for the month’s ration of meat for the park employees. They were so deep in their conversation that they didn’t seem to notice that I was there anymore – a nice place to be, as a photographer. I love the spectrum of age and experience in that shot.
As an alternate perspective on life at the park, there’s also this photo of the four women who work in the kitchen, Isa, Yessenia, Maria, and Haidee. Meals were of course central to the daily life there, so in a way these women had a lot of power, and they were very proud of their work. Maria often called me into the kitchen to have me take photos of whatever she was cooking.
Q. What did you learn about the team and culture at the park through taking these portraits?
A. It’s been six months since my visit to the park, and from this perspective I remember two things most clearly – a sense of family, and a sense of pride. The people there are working really hard toward a common goal that they believe in, and they are looking out for each other along the way.
Q. How would you describe your work in general? What are you most interested in investigating as a photographer?
A. Lately I’ve been distilling the description of my work down to two things – farm life and the modern wild. The themes are seemingly disparate – traditionally one is about taming the land, the other about the untamed – but I see a lot of parallels in the stories that stem from these places. It’s a fascinating time for agriculture and also for wilderness, sometimes alarming and other times inspiring; people are making interesting decisions – sometimes really smart ones and other times not so smart – about their relationship to the land. It is rich territory for storytelling that I hope will inspire others to reflect on their own part in the play.
Q. How did this project fit into larger projects you are working on?
A. I’ve just started in on a new project about modern interpretations of wilderness, and the Valle Chacabuco story certainly plays into that. And then of course there’s just the notion of teaching by doing, which I think Kris, Doug, Nadine, and everyone at Conservacion Patagonica do so well. If I can help to spread some of the word about their great work, if only to inspire others to take similar actions in their own communities, then I will be happy. Traveling to Valle Chacabuco and living in the community for some time was such a gift, it’s become a new benchmark for me as I investigate other efforts in conservation. The work is really working down there, I can’t wait to get back to see what’s next.