Humanity’s relationship with landscape has captured the attention of artists since before the camera was invented, and still compels the lens of many photographers today. From Carleton Watkins to Ansel Adams, through the New Topographics to many more recent image-makers, the photographic interpretation of landscape is manifold.
Our visual history of landscape is just as much about our own relationship to land and space as it is about the vast expanses it depicts. For photographer Joel Jiminez, who won a LensCulture Emerging Talent Award in 2018, this inherent partnership runs deep. The resulting images make up his series When the Dust Settles, a group of images that are as much about presence as they are about absence.
In this interview, Jiminez speaks to LensCulture about how he uses photography to process his relationship with his surroundings, the role of social and cultural contexts in defining landscapes, and what he hopes his audience will take away from his work.
LensCulture: This project addresses the convergence of natural landscapes with manmade structures and objects. Since the medium’s invention, photographers have always been drawn to landscapes, but the way you approach this classic subject matter feels different. What first drew you to this theme, and how do you photograph it differently than your predecessors?
Joel Jiminez: That’s an interesting question, because a landscape inherently implies a relationship between space and people. I always turn to a particular definition I found on this subject, which explains that a landscape is a territory impregnated with a subjective point of view, meaning it’s dependent on our social and cultural contexts.
The act of appropriating a space – shaping it to our specific use and placing certain objects within it – also relates to how we identify with our environment, not only on a physical level but on an emotional and psychological level as well. In this project, I’m concerned with how we see the landscape in what’s called the “contemplative mode”: the subjective experience and the emotional impulses that arise in that dynamic.
LC: Why was this an important topic for you to pursue on a personal level?
JJ: For some time, photography has been a tool I use for understanding my own self and how I interact with the world around me. Throughout my childhood, I stayed alone at my house a lot, and didn’t go out much. But when I did go out, I saw the world through car windows, accompanying my parents as they ran errands.
In a way, most of my experiences at an early age were with my environment, and not necessarily with people. I understood myself as I moved through the space of my own house and the places I saw while traveling. That definitely shaped the way I photograph, because there’s always a distance between me and my subjects, as well as physical or metaphorical barriers that appear in the images. But most of all, there are imprints of human activity that indicate some sort of presence in the midst of absence. I’d like to think this all relates to the window that separated me from the world when I was traveling with my parents in that car.
LC: You can definitely feel that lingering presence in these images, where people aren’t necessarily shown, but a mark of their existence is suspended in the atmosphere. How do you decide what settings will best suit the project? Do you come across them accidentally, or plan them out beforehand?
JJ: Working within this mentality has its own challenges, particularly related to the production of the images. Since I’m not looking for a specific scenario, an image can be found literally anywhere I go. Each image I took for this project was the result of an emotional trigger or stimulus that arose within me while I was standing in a particular space.
When I had some time off or when I wanted to take pictures, I would take a bus to a random location and look around to see if something gave me that feeling. Most of the time that meant exiting the bus in the middle of a trip and walking for a few miles, but I was okay with that, because I knew there was a possibility that the feeling in that precise moment would probably not happen again.
The editing process works within these same principles. What’s fascinating is that for some images, the emotional response that I experienced while I took the picture was not present while I was making the edit. It’s a never-ending process that changes each time I do it, and it’s a project that could be extended throughout my lifetime.
LC: Since that emotional response can be quite sudden, what photographic process did you find most useful for making this work?
JJ: It’s a very intuitive project, so I needed something light and fast to carry in case I sensed an image in my path. For that reason, I used a digital camera. The process not only affects the production side, but also post-production, particularly regarding the color grading of the images, which I also select through psychological stimuli related to color experience.
LC: Tell me a bit about the title: When The Dust Settles. What is its significance, and why did you choose it?
JJ: I became interested in the idea of dust as a metaphorical representation of time and memory. These fine particles work as timeless traces imprinted onto a person, space or an object—it is both ephemeral and permanent, present and absent.
The title also refers to the act of settling in terms of the calmness, contemplation and silence that is translated through the images in the series. The scenarios that I try to capture are places where some event has already happened or is yet to happen—it’s about action and inaction.
LC: That being said, where did you take these photos?
JJ: Most of the images are taken in my home country, Costa Rica. But in the larger edit, there are pictures from different parts of Europe. I’m not concerned with geographical boundaries or context representation, even though that also affects the way a landscape is read. I hope the viewer is able to go beyond that reading and look for their own understanding of the space.
LC: You’ve spoken a lot about this work dealing with “an emotional and psychological stimulus,” which you’ve explained from your own perspective. But why do you think it’s important to invite others to do so through your images as well?
JJ: For me, these images are related to themes like solitude, memory, nostalgia and the experience of time. That’s partly because there are elements in the images that trigger those responses in me. For example, in one photograph, the contradiction between a wall that’s supposed to be a door and a sign that says “Bienvenue” establishes a dynamic that I immediately relate to my younger self—particularly in the way I saw the world through the car window, removed but also present, interacting with people who could not hear or see me even though I was right there.
For some people, that connection might be different, or it might not be there at all. Personally, I think the images have various layers that activate a multitude of responses in people, and that’s the ultimate goal. I want to generate some sort of identification within people that is culturally and socially different, so that we can better understand how we think and feel.
LC: And why do you think the idea of a landscape helps foster that understanding in your audience?
JJ: This project was really important as an introspective process, but I also believe that its value lies specifically in how a viewer is able to find connections to their own experience, and how that allows people to reflect on their identity through the environment that surrounds them. Ever since the dawn of the New Topographic movement, and even before that, there have been immediate concerns with portraying the consequences of the relationship between man and landscape. Even though that is represented in my images, I think it’s important to observe the emotional layers that are beneath those topics, and how it relates to all of us as individuals.