In the Heat of a Conversation with Arturo Soto
Sai Villafuerte speaks to Mexican photographer, Arturo Soto, about his debut photobook 'In the Heat' and what it means to negotiate our place in a city.
Arturo Soto is pensive. In contemplating the inspiration behind his debut photobook, In The Heat, he looks back at a six-year process which has taken him to this point. His pause lingers, as if he caught himself cogitating on a memory relived.
“In The Heat represents the humidity of Panama,” the Mexican photographer says, “but it also comes from the expression ‘in the heat of the moment’ – the climax of a situation.” Soto is currently completing his doctorate in Fine Art at the University of Oxford where his work explores the significance of sociopolitical symbols in everyday urban spaces. In the Heat, which focuses on his subjective experience of Panama, was born out of a dual meaning. “I moved to Panama for personal reasons and that situation ended up not working out” he remembers. “Although that is not present in the photographs, the title represents the overwhelming situation of feeling alienated in a hot place.”
Soto is not interested in the exotic beaches we often see re-packaged in travel brochures, nor does he aim to paint a portrait of the country’s economic renaissance. His focus on urban quotidian scenes problematises a culture which feels rather unsure of itself. “I’m not an expert” he warns, “but based on my experience there, I believe the influence of colonialism and the management which came after made it difficult for Panama to develop its own cultural identity.” The importance of cultural institutions in fostering this identity remains largely under-promoted in the country. Soto uses the example of the Panama Biennial, an international arts salon that started in 1992 but went bust in 2008. “They stopped the biennial because they couldn’t secure funding. This is despite the development boom and the large amount of money flowing in and out of the country as a tax haven,” he remarks. “That says a lot about the state of culture.”
This neglect of culture, Soto explains, manifests in the way visitors situate themselves there. Instead of developing their own understanding of the country, tourists leave with memories designed by Thomas Cook, the travel agent. “People that go to Panama sometimes don’t spend a lot of time in the capital,” Soto recounts. “Maybe they’ll spend a night there, go to a nightclub or a nice restaurant. They’ll spend the next five days in a beach resort where everything is programmed for them, then come back to the city just to get on the plane.”
“What surrounds you, what is at your disposal, what affects your mental well-being; the way you go from point A to point B – all these factors change the quality of your life.”
Indeed, this sense of detachment within an environment is a theme pervading much of Soto’s work. In using photography to negotiate his position in a space, he reacts to some of photojournalism’s traditional tropes, such as working within clearly defined objectives. “I’m not looking for the thematic consistency that photojournalism aspires to nor do I want my photographs to have social agency. If anything, I see this book as a historical document that merely reflects a certain point in time.” Soto alludes to John Gossage’s famous photobook The Pond, consisting of photographs taken at the fringes of Queenstown, Maryland, but with a couple taken in Berlin, where nature intersects with the built environment. This gave Soto the licence to make photographs in this same sequence where their ambiguity, he feels, forces the viewer to derive meaning from their context. “I want to produce images that challenge you a little bit — to figure out what you are looking at and why.”
Like Gossage, Soto challenges the ‘beauty’ of classical landscapes by focusing on snippets from everyday life. “It’s the aspect we pay least attention to,” he asserts. “People, when they go to nature, make these wonderful philosophical reflections, but then they tend not to think about the environment they live in, which arguably influences them the most.” Soto refers to the Situationists, a European intellectual group who, in the 1950s, sought to challenge the reductionist, consumption-dominated experiences of the city they believed were the norm. “What surrounds you, what is at your disposal, what affects your mental well-being; the way you go from point A to point B – all these factors change the quality of your life.”
Can observing the mundane really challenge the way we situate ourselves in a space? Perhaps not. After all, Soto captures the very essence these spaces represent where the city, for example, can make us feel fragmented and out of touch. Belligerent inequalities, perpetuated by rising house prices, austerity measures and the McDonaldisation of society, are especially apparent in cities. But as the art critic John Berger once said in his seminal book Ways of Seeing, “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” Every ‘way of seeing’ is constituted by a partial understanding where each fragment, in the grand scheme of things, represents a larger body of knowledge that can help us interpret our position in a space.
“By taking these fragments of a city, you are kind of fictionalising it,” he says, “creating a version that doesn't exist.” Soto brings us back to Thomas Cook who, in the same way, are trying to sell you a city to spend all your money. “It's just a different fiction, and how we go on to represent that fiction has to do with the different decisions that one makes. In doing so, you can construct some sort of worldview out of those snippets of reality that you take out of context.”
In the Heat is published by The Eriksay Connection. You can order a copy here.
On Friday, 27 April, in partnership with St Cross College, we will be hosting a panel discussion with Dr Paul Edwards (Maison Français d'Oxford) and Dr Rolando de Guardia Wald (Florida State University Panama City), to discuss Arturo Soto’s debut photobook, In the Heat. Copies of the book will be sold in the event. You can register for free here.
Anna Isabelle 'Sai' Villafuerte is an MPhil student in Development Studies at Oxford's Department of International Development (ODID). Her research interests involve human capital development in cultural and creative industries, where she is studying at the impact of the Internet on creative value chains in the Philippine motion picture industry. In 2015, she worked in Unicef UK alongside the Head of Emergencies, drafting advocacy plans on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Beyond her studies, she writes for The Huffington Post and has published pieces on topics relating to arts, politics and wherever they intersect.