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Scene and herd: Tracking bison with photographer Edgardo Aragón

The latest video project by Edgardo Aragón – a finalist in the 2013 AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize – tracks bison across North American, in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, in Yellowstone National Park and near Chihuahua in Mexico, his home country. We talked to him about the project, made possible by his AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize residency.

AGO: Of the three places you visited for your project, which was the most surprising, in terms of defying your expectations? Why?
Edgardo Aragón: I was very surprised and still I am about Fort Smith. Given the conditions under which people live in this place, it could seem impossible that there’s life there, but life exists, along with one of the strangest lights that I will ever see in my life.

Since going to these places, has your plan for the project changed?
Whenever I plan a new project, I always expect that the circumstances change the nature of the project itself. In this case the change happened, without a doubt. Natural conditions modify the project a great deal, complementing and giving body to it in a way that a sketch could not. I’m satisfied.

Many animal species migrate – why did you choose to focus on bison?
I chose the bison for two reasons. The first is that it had a natural frontier that would shift according to the climate conditions, modifying substantially the life of the First Nations people who depended on the bison to survive. They would conform to the bison’s behaviour. That’s why the project is not, in fact, trying to create a portrait of bison so much as one of the invisible men that has ceased to live in harmony with it.

The second reason is that this animal species does’t migrate. After nearly becoming extinct at the hands of the white man, it has endured some sort of domestication. Today it is a species in the process of recuperation in Mexico and Canada. It is curious to note that in the U.S., where there are more reserves, the bison is not a protected species and is limited to its territories. This domestication is an aspect of extermination as well, of the animal and its animal nature and, of course, of what little spirit of the First Nations people remains.

Why did you decide to use video for this project instead of still images?
Video is a more organic tool, more malleable. You can move it in many directions to generate a specific discourse or an open one. I think I choose video because I like having elements that are closer to a sense of physical presence, closer to the movement of the apparatus, to the presence of a witness and specifically to the manipulation of time. Duration plays a fundamental role in establishing the dimensions of the theme. The sounds of the places or the absence of such sounds plays a fundamental role in the atmospheres that I’m trying to convey and generate in the project.

When you gave an interview to the Northern Journal, you said, “In a way, the real subject of the video project does not exist…It’s an invisible phantom.” Can you elaborate on that? What is the real subject?
The subject I am portraying is the human who lived with the presence of the bison. That way of life is poorly understood by Eurocentric cultures. That was what I was interested in discovering or portraying. I followed the path of the bison because it represents the way First Nations people lived. All the vacant spaces left around the bison are the spaces left by earlier lives – lives lived within the cultural shock generated by contact with Europe – and the near-extermination of the bison. The creation of reserves for the native people of the Americas were really the extermination of a spirit that generated a sense of life.

With the westernisation of North America a philosophy of life was destroyed – a loss which we have not been able to fully understand yet. This is why I like to think about this video as a portrait of an invisible human being, a portrait of a philosophy of life inherent to the creative and cultural spirit of a human being that disappeared many years ago. The presence of reserves for human and animal species is only one of its forms of annihilation. This is the central objective of the project.

All photos courtesy of the artist. Keep up with this year’s Aimia | AGO Photography Prize on Twitter and Facebook.