Over two-thirds of the planet is covered in water, yet it is the parts we know well that hold our attention in some kind of primal way. The photography project The River, The Ocean, The Sea is about the Rio Grande, the Atlantic Ocean and the Andaman Sea, respectively, or at least the parts that photographers Nick Tauro Jr., Fábio Miguel Roque and Hean Kuan Ong know well. Up close, they start to look alike (the waters, not the photographers), but they are thousands of miles from each other in very different environments. In 90 photographs, three photographers compare their stories.
The River, The Ocean, The Sea manifests as both a book and an exhibit. The latter opens this weekend at the Open Space Visitor Center in a display that Tauro says, “meanders like the river.” While it is expected that similar exhibits will be mounted internationally, we in Albuquerque benefit from being the first to see this work firsthand. Weekly Alibi sat down with Nick Tauro Jr. to talk about how this intercontinental collaborative project came together, what the photographs tell us about the places they are from and why he makes photography books in the digital age. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: What is it about the Rio Grande that is so compelling?
Nick Tauro Jr.: I approached this project with no agenda other than the parameters of the project, which was always to explore the water source closest, in my case the Rio Grande. I had never shot in that environment before. I’m not a nature photographer or a landscape photographer. For me, it was challenging just to apply my own aesthetic to an environment I wasn’t at all familiar with. I’ve hiked through the Bosque and along the acequias, but to approach it artistically was a huge leap for me. Just the fact that it’s why there are people here in the first place. It’s always been of upmost importance to life here; at the same time, it’s almost like this wild environment that snakes through the city that grew up around it. I find that really interesting. It’s never been developed for whatever reason. I don’t know if that is a combination of environmental protection or a lack of economic exploitation.
It’s because the river is not navigable.
It’s not even to the point where there are restaurants or bars along there. You get into the Bosque, and you could get lost in there very easily. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between the city life that we lead and that environment.
The other two waters are with two other photographers. They are…?
Fábio Miguel Roque in Portugal. He lives on the Atlantic Coast. And Hean Kuan Ong. He lives in Malaysia, in Penang. That is on the Andaman Sea. Out of the three, what’s really interesting is Fabio’s environment is very undeveloped, very wild. There is a severity to the Atlantic Coast. Throw that against the overgrown thickets of the Bosque and then Hean’s photos, where he lives is actually a developed port city. We didn’t see each other’s photos until after the project was done. His photos are the only ones with a pronounced human presence—I mean people in the photos, or boats or buildings. As you get closer into the details, when things aren’t wide, the work looks very similar. It’s pretty interesting the common ground between the three of us and then the complete differences between us three.
What can photography show us about these conditions?
We’re dealing with water and what that means to human life, but we never came at it with an environmental angle or agenda. Clearly, it is a precious resource, but from a photographic standpoint, it becomes more of an exercise in a shared vision. There are some of my photos where I came across human presence along the river, and it is clear that we have inflicted some sort of, at the very least, presence.
We’ve treated the river poorly?
In some cases. There are a few of my photos where I look at them now and I’m like—it’s very dark and there are signs of a lack of environmental care. I don’t want to say abuse, but there is either litter, or fencing, or trees that have been stripped or the jetty jacks. Each of us have shown images that are similar. There’s litter on the Atlantic Coast. There is litter on the sea. But it was never like “We must document this to prevent it.” It’s a much more artistic collaboration. I wouldn’t show these and say this is evidence of man’s destructive nature, but if you look at the photos, you could probably glean that from them without it being our agenda.
How did this collaboration come together?
We’re all members of the Latent Image Collective which is a group of 12 photographers. Aside from one other member here in Albuquerque and one member in New Jersey, everyone else is in another country. The idea was to form a group where we could collaborate across borders and across time zones. This particular project is a perfect manifestation of what the focus of the group was. It was actually Fabio who reached out to me. The guy is so prolific. He is constantly working on projects. He said, “We need to do a project together,” so he and I started kicking around the idea and we settled on the water. Originally, we were going to collaborate with a third member who was in Italy on the Mediterranean Sea, but for whatever reason he wasn’t able, so Hean stepped up and took his spot.
It’s really a testament to the whole idea that started the group in the first place which was that working alone as a photographer, you feel isolated. I was feeling isolated working in Albuquerque and disconnected from a larger world community. The collective really satisfies a lot of that creative connection and cultural exchange. To me, it’s really cool that I can be working on a project with two guys that are thousands of miles away, yet not only come together and see that the work has so much connection, but that I can share this work with my local community. The hope is that these guys will do the same thing.
This work will be shown in Portugal and Malaysia?
We’re in the planning stages of making that happen.
Why make tangible photography books?
You can stare at your phone all day and just sift through your Instagram feed. The images may be fantastic photographs, but they don’t have any permanence. You like it and you move on. Often, really great work gets lost in that deluge. It’s just the nature of digital life. For me personally, printing books particularly is a way to bring more permanence to my photos, but also it is an ideal format to share work. If someone grabs a book, they are focused on that and spend their personal time with it. They look at it at their own pace. Then they can put it on a shelf. Maybe they grab it again in five years or maybe it’s sitting on the coffee table and they look at once a week, but to me that is more of an engagement than swipe, swipe, swipe, swipe.