Photographer: Matthew Tufts
Heidi: How long were you in El Chaltén for this project?
Matthew: I reported on this project in El Chaltén for about three months–from late June till mid-September. Austral winter is the village’s offseason, and I planned to document both local culture (sans tourists) and the ski community, so the timeline was perfect. Three months is quite the investment on a story I pursued on spec, but there were two main factors that solidified my decision to commit that time:
1) The weather is wildly unpredictable in Southern Patagonia. Perhaps the most mercurial in the world. You could go for a week and ski six days; more likely, you could go for a month and ski three. I hedged my bets on volume and scored with some amazing, unprecedented weather windows near the end of my trip.
2) The purpose of the story wasn’t simply to shoot skiing in El Chaltén; it was to document the community culture. I immersed myself in the community at a variety of levels and built trust and friendships with locals that couldn’t be forged overnight.
The main story from this project was published by The Ski Journal – was that also spec?
Sure was. The whole concept was a passion project from the start, an idea I had since my first visit to Chaltén a half dozen years prior. And as most of my editorial projects go, this one was, you guessed it, on spec. I pitched a handful of publications and brands prior, but went into it without any guarantees or contracts–that was par for the course in my outdoor industry experience, so I wasn’t particularly disheartened. I don’t think guaranteed return on investment is a good measure of value for a passion project; maybe if I did, I wouldn’t find myself personally funding so many audacious storytelling projects… haha.
I figured there’d be interest in the final story from editorial publications, but I also intended to shoot for commercial clients that had expressed interest in licensing images on spec. While skiing, there’s not a big difference between the two–I typically take the same approach to capturing editorial and commercial deliverables. I want to keep things real and raw and let the scene do the talking. Let the athletes do what they’re naturally going to do while I adjust for composition. The athletes appreciate that approach because they’re out to ski, not shoot photos, and I come away with something that feels true to our experience in the alpine. Even when shooting product, I’d rather let the action and environment speak to the efficacy of the ski / apparel / equipment etc. I love shooting skiing when it’s dumping snow, windy, and whiteout conditions just as much as beautifully lit sunset powder turns. I just want my images to evoke a feeling–I’ll let the environment and the athletes dictate what that feeling is.
Back in town, my photojournalistic approach really hits its stride. I spent many a day walking through town with a camera in tow without a particular objective, simply observing. I looked for the unfiltered in-between scenes that serve as the connective tissue to a complete story: kids playing in the streets, “closed for winter” signs, the local bar scene, ping-pong matches at the climbing gym, a local guide tuning his skis. I did this on my first day in town and my last, and many times in between.
How do you know when to pull the camera out and when to enjoy the moment? Is that ever a struggle?
When you spend that much time in a locale on a longform project, there’s definitely a balance to be struck. In town, I’d be more apt to put the camera away during conversations and cultural moments where I wanted to feel present and engaged. However, on walks through town, I found that looking through the lens immersed me in otherwise trivial moments in a way I would never see without the camera.
When we’re out in the backcountry, I almost always have the camera accessible. The most powerful images often come from moments you don’t expect (or want) to shoot. When things get heavy and ice is freezing to the lens and I just want to pack up and go home, that’s when I remind myself I ought to shoot. And the same applies to those quiet moments in the tent or the refugio when your subjects are at their least guarded–that’s where the cover photo for Skialper came from. So although both those moments feel like they should be given space from the camera, they’re the scenes I find most imperative to document–when your subjects are vulnerable and simply being themselves.
What did the 4th day offer that was different from the previous days?
Funnily enough, I think that was the first day we skied! And what a difference that made in my ability to connect with the community. My Spanish was passable, but certainly not great when I arrived. (It often turned into a blend of Portunhol (Potuguese and Spanish spliced together), that I attribute to a semester of studying in Brazil many years ago.) However, when I went skiing with a handful of locals I’d only met the day before, we instantly connected over an experience that transcends words. That felt like the inflection point at the start of a long process of embedding myself within the community–every day thereafter, I learned a little more and grew a little tighter with that crew.
Describe the day’s rhythm.
There aren’t a lot of constants in El Chaltén. The region is known for some of the wildest and most unpredictable weather on the planet, so settling into a “routine” basically meant you were prepared for anything—I could get a text at 9:00 p.m. the night before, telling me the crew was planning a 12-hour ski day; I could get a text at seven in the morning that the wind came in too strong and shut down any plans to get into the mountains that day. The latter happened more frequently than the former.
When the mountains allowed us to ski, it was usually a full day affair. Up before the sun and back after it had set, we typically had to hike miles with our skis and boots on our backs to get to the snowline. That point would only be the start of our real ascent and then after skiing we’d have to schlep our gear back down through the forest again. While ski photography is often centered on perfect, steep powder turns, I’ve always made a concerted effort to document the approach and the ascent just as meticulously. It’s a matter of telling the full story, and in Patagonia, most of your time backcountry skiing is going uphill!
On days we didn’t ski, I’d typically walk down to the panaderia—the local bakery—grab some sort of baked good, walk through town with a camera in hand, and then eat and sip maté in the morning while I wrote and edited photos. I met with locals at the bar, at the climbing gym, and in their homes to chat about life in the winter and their day to day in the offseason. I enjoyed the rhythm and the intentionality of those moments. In the States, I live full-time in my camper and work and life can get rather frenetic; three months in El Chaltén during the offseason taught me to embrace a slower pace of life, and that showed in the intentionality and intimacy of the work.
It’s great to see images being shared globally and the words translated–how much of your work is getting repurposed/syndicated? More due to the pandemic?
This project in particular made the rounds through a number of different publications and outlets. The Ski Journal, Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line, and Adventure Journal all published unique feature stories and images from this project. Daybreak Magazine later ran a Q&A about the experience and then Skialper picked up the first European rights to the images and story. And there are still literally hundreds of unpublished selects I’m in love with sitting on my hard drive! Haha. It’s the story that keeps on giving.
The print editorial sphere is a tough place to navigate as a photographer and storyteller. The pay is quite variable and every year it seems another stalwart publication folds (RIP Powder). But simultaneously, there’s an emergence of beautifully crafted and curated coffee table magazines, each with a loyal audience that sees the value of these tangible collections of art. During the pandemic, so many folks spent countless hours on screens; it appears, now, that they’re looking for ways to engage with visual storytelling in a more tangible medium. Magazines are going up in quality, from image selection to the paper they’re printed on. People want something worth holding onto. And the fact that this project could appear in so many unique publications shows the value of a good story and its ability to reach audiences of widely varied backgrounds.