Hugo Infante specializes in crisis
photojournalism. His work has appeared in Newsweek (en Español),
Stern, The New York Post, The Los Angeles Times, London Times and
various Chilean magazines and newspapers. He is a contributing
photographer at Polaris
What in your childhood helped you get started as a photographer? As you
point out in your biography, you came of age in Chile during the
political, economic and cultural shift from Allende
to Pinochet. What memories do you have of that time? How did that
transition impact your career choice? The way you see visually?
It was my father’s old Nikon that introduced me to this world, but it
was the demonstrations against the dictatorship that caught me. I
realized the world was watching us when I saw a bunch of skinny,
long-hair photographers shooting everything, getting beaten by the
police. They were amazing. In those days, the police were really
violent. They had respect for nothing. Being a photojournalist was a
dangerous job in the ‘80s.
one year old when the military took control of the country. I am one of
the so-called “Pinochet Boys.” Like many other photographers of my
generation, we grew up in a dictatorship. Pinochet and his henchmen
influence is important because the most important graphic referents of
Chilean photography are pictures from those days. Photographers like
Alvaro and Alejandro Hoppe, Juan Carlos Cáceres, Santiago Llanquín and Marcos Ugarte
did an amazing job. They started documenting a country in dangerous
times with amazing images. Personally, sometimes I feel that our
generation will be remembered as the generation who buried Pinochet.
And we did it two weeks ago. But the most important thing that I
learned from those guys was how to look for unexpected drama,
contradictions of reality.
Wayne: How and why did you get started as a crime reporter at La
What kind of crimes were you covering? How has that work impacted your
work as a photographer—for instance, was there a natural segue into
covering crises? What, if any kind of resonance, do you see in the work
of Weegee, who used to cover
the New York crime beat?
I started as a writer, but I was always carrying my camera. I usually
gave a hand to the photographers shooting the Santiago crime beat. It
was amazing for me. I started shooting with real legends like Mario Riveros, Marco Muga, Carlos Ibarra and Samuel Mena. It was a great learning experience, not just
for shooting pics.
They taught me journalism—covering murders, dealing with people who
don’t want to talk with you, with people who want to harm you— but when
they realize that you are just doing your job, they open their houses
and grant you interviews and let you take pictures. We got close to the
people. It was an important learning experience.
that knowledge later into my work covering crises.
came to my eyes when I was in college. It was amazing to see how a guy
can see an entire world living without the daylight, how a guy can
capture a bizarre reality. It is a photographic work close to my
reality. A friend of mine says my work is impacted by Weegee.
I don’t think so. I can’t see how. The only thing we have in common is
that I was a night shift editor for many years. I saw the bizarre side
Wayne: How did you make the decision to go to Iraq for United
Press International (UPI)? Why did you decide to stay during the Shia Revolution?
Hugo: After 11 years as a news editor at La Tercera
(the second largest newspaper in Chile), I decided to grab my camera
and start shooting again. It was a hard decision, which I started by
doing stringer jobs for UPI in Chile. After getting into the “breaking
news rhythm” again, I decided to leave my 11-year job with that
newspaper. I talked with UPI, and they gave me a stringer position in
Baghdad. I grabbed all my savings and jumped in an airplane to Baghdad.
My job situation changed from a fancy position in Chile to being
another dude with a camera in Baghdad.
period was really dangerous for all the photographers in Baghdad. I
arrived on March 17, 2004. But it wasn’t until April 5th, a day before
the killing of the U.S. [military] contractors in Fallujah, when the situation changed for all of
us. That came with the Shia
Revolution, when the U.S. Army started a man hunt for Muktada Al Sader.
The country was exploding everywhere. It was a time when you weren’t
able to leave your hotel. Places were surrounded by the U.S. Army and
their tanks. It was a really heavy situation. My editor Pat Benic called me to offer me a
ticket back to Washington DC. But I decided to stay, as Mitch Prothero (the UPI Bureau Chief)
did too. And others like Jason P. Howe (WPN), Eros Hoagland (Redux), Shawn Baldwin and
many others, most of them with foreign bureaus. A lot of guys left the
country, but others stayed too.
were waiting weeks for an “embed” in Fallujah.
Personally, I thought it was a waste of time. For a
whole week, I could not manage to go out for pictures, so I increased
my writing production for the Latin America Services.
You note that you teach at a private college. Are you teaching
photography? If so, how has your experience in crisis situations
impacted the way you teach?
Hugo: I am teaching Crisis Coverage at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez for
senior-year journalism students. As a journalist in Chile, I had
assignments covering crisis in the country, and as a editor, I had to lead teams too. Also, the
Baghdad experience was important.
don’t teach photography, but I use all my photography experience and
work to teach how to cover a crisis. With the experience of other
photographers and my own, I developed a program that includes many
highlight moments, such as World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the
First Gulf War. I focus all my teaching on photography, but—it sounds
ironic—I am not teaching photography. The journalism school is
reluctant to teach photography. They think that is a job for others!
Can you talk about your work process? How much and what kind of
research do you do before you go to a new part of the world to cover it
as a photojournalist? And what do you do differently and similarly to
other photojournalists in making contacts, learning about the situation
on the ground?
Hugo: If something taught me about print journalism,
it was research. If I have to cover an assignment in Bolivia about the Aymaras in the Titikaka
Lake, I check all the pictures related to that job. I don’t want to
shoot images that have already been taken. Also, I check the crisis
situation, Internet connections, phones rates, car rental, taxis,
accommodations. I don’t leave anything to luck. My idea to get off the plane and start shooting.
I won’t waste time looking for hotels. Sometimes, when the assignment
gives me the chance, I contact my subjects before I arrive in the
country. Second, as your question says, making contacts on the ground
is the most important thing. A fixer can be useful, but in some places,
like war or crisis zones, or in countries where you don’t speak the
language, making contacts on the ground is better. For example, in
2004, I started a project with Peruvian immigrants. I am so close to
them that when they have a problem with the Chilean police, they call
me. They know me when I go downtown, and they allow me to shoot
anything. Other photographers cannot, because it is dangerous. Now, I
am doing long-term research on drug dealers in a poor neighborhood in
Santiago. My approach to them was to drink a few beers with them on the
What are the similarities and differences between your crisis reportage
and your more personal work, such as your rodeo series? What appealed
to you about the rodeo?
Hugo: I am going to
be real honest. The crisis reportage costs money. You need tons of
money to do that job, especially if the crisis reportage is out of
Latin America. It is hard for a Latin American photographer to do
freelancing in the Middle East. The incomes here are real low, for
everyone. For that, it is really important that somebody hires you for
crisis reportage. Reportage assignments like the rodeo are close to you. It is not
necessary to invest tons of money to do it. But when you see the
results, you realize that the rodeo becames
really important like any other reportage. It is a matter of
opportunities. If I had more opportunities to do crisis reportage, I
would focus my work on that only. But it is all that we have. That's
what happens when you live in the 'ass' of the world.
Wayne: Who are your favorite photographers and photo
influences, and why?
for their war coverage. They represent two moments in photo history.
Sounds like a cliché, but they are the best of their times. But,
have a lot of 'monsters' of photography around them like [Joe]
Rosenthal and Don McCullin.
more of a sense for McCullin.
is so simple and that makes him a genius.
Which Chilean and/or Latin American photographers do you feel should be
better known internationally? Can you explain why you think they are
Hugo: There are two Chilean photographers that should
be better known. One is Claudio Almarza.
the best nature photographer in Latin America. He is the only
guy who knows Patagonia like his hand. He has documented the place for
years. His work appeals to things
that you don’t see in any other photographers. No one can wait
for months for a puma. He does it.
many young photographers. He is recognized for
that. But he has done amazing documentary work on religion in Chile. He
has spent the last 10 years doing that. Sooner rather than later, he
will became the main documentary photographer in Chile. If you see
Espinoza’s work, you will see the blending of commitment and idea.