Tony Suarex: A Life Less Ordinary

16 Nov, 2010 | Lorange Dao


Tony Suarez. A name most people in La Paz know and associate with his eclectic photographic corpus. But did you know that this man had a life as eclectic as his pics? Born in Cochabamba, Tony moved to New York when he was twelve and lived there for about 30 years be- fore coming back to Bolivia. Despite having moved at such a young age, he confesses that he always felt like a migrant, ‘not really from there, neither from here’. After quitting Time, he decided to go back to Bolivia, a country he thought he knew too little about. When asked if he finally felt at home in Bolivia, he evasively answers: ‘I’ve been here for almost twenty years now and I’ve got my family and my networks. Moreover, I’m getting old and it would be harder to move and settle somewhere else. (...) Bolivia is a really amazing country, there’s so much to see.’

Tony’s chaotic career path first took shape during his time at university. He had enrolled for engineering, but quit after a year. These studies didn’t give him a ‘global vision of things’, it was much too restricted for his taste. He only really enjoyed English literature. After his mother gave him the choice to either go on with his engineering studies – which she would pay for – or to work, he went for the second option and began as a mail clerk at Time Life while also attending night classes. He tried a bit of everything before ending up in architecture, which he studied for about 18 months after which he finally found out what he really wanted to do with his life: photography. At that point he still had a part-time job at Time: he worked there in picture follow-up, developing and making safety co- pies of the flurries of the photographs converging upon their office from the whole world, before sending them on to Chicago. ‘I think it’s good to do other things than just what you studied to do. It gives you more possibilities and you learn a lot from it’, Tony adds.

After about a year working at the news center, he was appointed assistant photographer and later, photographer. All in all, his big adventure at Time lasted from 1968 till 1990 when he decided to quit because at that point it was becoming too restricted. The magazine didn’t give him enough opportunities anymore. Nowadays, he collaborates with various magazines such as Pie Izquierdo, Datos and Metro in La Paz, and In and Ve in Santa Cruz.

On a Monday afternoon, I went to his studio to interview him. He ushured me in his office, a small room crammed with hundreds of books and unusual objects – from a superman doll encased in its plastic box, to sinister masks and wooden crosses on the walls, dispersed among photos and paintings.


BX: Are there places, events or experiences you particularly remember?

TS: There are so many! I had the opportunity to attend the first spacial launches, five Olympics games, football cups, I travelled so much... and I enjoyed it all. Even though sometimes, I did so many different things, went to so many different places and everything was going so fast I didn’t really have time to sort of digest it all.

BX: So it was like an overdose of images and experiences...?

TS: No, I enjoyed as much as I could. It felt so good to experience so many things and have the feeling I was totally free. I remember once being on a bus abroad and thinking ‘I am so free that if I died tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter’. I love the variety and discovering new things. In this aspect, Bolivia has a lot to offer, since you have so many different things in just one country and you don’t have to go far to see a quite different type of landscape.

BX: Do you dedicate yourself to a specific kind of photographs - portraits, landscapes...?

TS: In Bolivia, the market is so small that you have to do a bit of every- thing. Otherwise, it’s not possible to live from it.

BX: Do you work more with Black & White or colour pictures?

TS: Black & white and colour pictures are two different ways of thinking but they’re both really interesting. I used to work a lot in Black & White but it’s better to work in colours for the archive. When you archive pictures, it’s always better to have them in colour. And then, you can do whatever you want with them, you can edit them and turn them Black & White. On the other hand, the process to develop B/W pictures is more complicated and it’s harder to get good B/W pics. For example, in books, it’s much easier to print a good colour picture than a B/W. The colour also helps a lot, it catches the eye before the spectator pays attention to the composition. While with B/W, if the composition is not good enough, there’s nothing appealing to the picture.

>BX: What do you think about digital photography? Do you prefer film cameras? Do you use editing pro- grams such as Photoshop?

TS: Photoshop is a program which integrates really well the logic of the photolab. Nowadays, I work with a digital camera because here, it’s not possible to find the chemicals to develop the pictures and consequently, there are no lab to develop them. It’s hard to import chemicals because of drug import issues. But both ways of taking pictures have their charms and advantages.

Digital photography is more accessible and quicker while film photography is a bit magic: you see the image re- veal on the paper, spring to life. But it’s also an art; many photographers do not have the technique to develop the pictures themselves so they have to work with someone who does in the lab. In this case, they have to each know what they want in order to collaborate and get good results. I’ve always developed my pictures myself because I had the opportunity to use a lab from the beginning: when I was studying, I also worked at Time, where I could use a professional lab for free and I also frequented people who gave me advice. I learnt a lot from it.

As for Photoshop, I don’t know enough to do more than just editing my pictures, i.e. correct the brightness, contrast... I don’t have the skills to really ‘create’ a picture with such programs. But I believe that it is a great thing to have to opportunity to do it. However, when you use such a tool, you have to mention that you’ve used it, that the picture has been modified; maybe I’m old-school, but you have to keep some professional ethics. You cannot use Photoshop in journalism, to modify the content of a picture. As for the artistic point of view, a photoshopped picture can be as good as an instant pic. But you have to differentiate the documentary value and the plastic/ aesthetic value of a shot.

BX: Do you have some specific projects in the near future?

TS: To work on a book. The truth is that I did many things and I haven’t had time to just go back to them. So I’d like to see what I’ve done and then, see what could be done out of it, try to bring out a main theme. But a book is something which has its own life. It starts developing it’s own character as soon as you start writing. Even if you have ideas in the beginning, it doesn’t always end up the way you thought it would.


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