Matt Wallace is a photographer based in Switzerland. He first became interested in photography at age eight when his parents took a photography class. Since then, Matt has never looked back. Trained as a health care professional, Matt’s interest in indigenous health motivated him and his spouse to travel to Bolivia. He often photographs during his travels around the world. Matt talks to atlas this week about how he came to capture profound images of the indigenous culture and the vast and gorgeous highlands of this South American country. (Editor’s Note: This week we are sharing another favorite feature of ours from Matt Wallace. Enjoy!)
How did you first get started in photography?
Matt Wallace: My interest in photography started when my mother and father took a photography course together when I was about eight years old. I recall them taking pictures all the time and I was fascinated by the entire process. Later I was really into skateboarding and my friend and I used to take photos of each other doing tricks. I think this helped me learn about composition in a very organic way. It made me visualize how to best capture a scene and made me aware of how certain techniques can dramatically influence how a picture turns out. This led me to take up photography in my final year of school (2000). It was in school I learned about the chemistry of film and basic developing techniques in the darkroom. I loved working in the darkroom so much that I would cut class to develop prints and became obsessed with all aspects of film photography.
How would you describe your photography?
I do not think photography can be easily defined as one particular genre. They all overlap. Landscape can be documentary, documentary can be street, and street can be travel or portraiture. I just take photos of things that interest me or are related to a particular topic or project that I am working on.
You have travelled all over the globe, including Bolivia. Your images from Bolivia, including images from Salar de Uyuni are spectacular and masterfully composed. Can you tell us a little bit more about your photographs from Bolivia? What inspired you to travel to Bolivia in the first place? How long were you traveling in Bolivia? How did you decide which photos to capture while you were there?
Thank you, I think you are too kind! Bolivia is a very amazing place. It is extremely photogenic. At the time I had just finished working in remote indigenous communities in Australia where I specialized in indigenous health. My wife was interested in child labor and indigenous rights and in the process of writing her thesis. Bolivia is known for its strong indigenous culture, so this made it a place of interest to both of us and we spent a few months there. I was most interested in the remote highlands, very vast empty spaces. In these areas, I find that you can see how people interact with their environment. The photos I took in these areas felt more genuine because they are more obvious. They are about these empty isolated spaces that portray a sense of isolation and being alone. The photos are generally composed very simply and often with a central focus.
Did you face any challenges while shooting in Bolivia? If so, what were they?
No, not really. Like anywhere you have to be respectful. One can sense if it is the right time and place to take candid street photos. I think if one is respectful, confident, and able to read people and a scene you will not have any problems. I feel most people do not mind having their photo taken. But if you are disrespectful about it or intrusive then they may feel you are taking advantage of them and will take exception. Basically, do not think you are Bruce Gilden. Battery life was a challenge as it was cold and we often had long intervals between having the opportunity to charge. Also it was very dusty in some places, so my gear took a bit of a hammering.
You shoot exclusively in black & white. In fact, your Instagram page is filled with stunning black & white images. Do you prefer to shoot in black & white? Do you ever shoot in color?
I do really like color photography. Most of my favorite photographers shoot in color. I am never satisfied with the photos I take when I shoot in color. I go through phases when I shoot only color but I always find myself returning to black and white, even my digital cameras are set to monochrome at the moment. I still shoot a lot of film, and black and white is easy to develop. Overall, I like how it looks and the feeling photos have in black in white. I think by shooting in black in white you are not making an exact replication of the scene. Instead you are simplifying it and bringing the elements that you want to be exhibited to the forefront. This attracts me as I like simple composition and simple photos.
Are there any photographers whose work have influenced you? If so, who?
So many! There are too many to mention. I find myself reading American Power by Mitch Epstein over and over. Another book I come back to is William Eggleston’s Guide. I am a fan of topography photography, particularly Bernd and Hilla Becher. Other photographers whom I admire are the New Typographic exhibitors such as Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, and Nicholas Nixon. In addition, the Swiss photographer Ludovic Stefanicki has been a source of inspiration recently. The great photojournalists from the Vietnam era have also been and remain a huge influence on me.
Are you self-taught or did you have a formal education in photography?
I did photography at high school (a long time ago) but other than that I am very much self-taught.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?
Read and study photo books! Be obsessed. Do not just take photos. Think of projects and topics that interest you and then take photos that demonstrate these things. Start with film, learn good techniques, and then move to digital. Have fun. Don’t submit photos to critique groups on social media. Get critiques — get a lot of them — only from people whom you respect.
Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Matt!