Wandering with Claudia Camila Lopez 

Claudia C. Lopez (L) with Sarah Menzies (R), Afghanistan. Photo credit Whitney Conner Clapper
Claudia C. Lopez (L) with Sarah Menzies (R), Afghanistan. Photo credit Whitney Conner Clapper.

Born 1968 Bogotá, to a mother and father who were still children themselves, Claudia was sent to live with her grandparents. She grew up in a large, beautiful country home, with all kinds of animals roaming around, birds singing, plants flourishing. She had a large courtyard to play in, her bedroom windows looked directly upon the peaks of the Nevados. These mountains were her stage, her oasis. Once Claudia reached hiking age, her grandparents took her up, all the way. They brought along a large metal pot filled with whole chicken soup, a classic Colombian picnic. These hikes began early in the morning, and once summit was reached, they ate and came back down. Claudia’s aunt was also a devoted mountaineer, she played an instrumental role in teaching Claudia how to read terrain and navigate high altitude.

Claudia’s grandmother Susana, was your shining example of a traditional, dutiful, Catholic Colombian woman. Mother to eight children, two of whom passed away during childhood, and when La Violencia occurred, another two disappeared. By the time Claudia arrived, the remaining four siblings had already left home. This made Claudia the new and only child, her grandmother set forth to mold her into a proper Colombian girl. She taught her how to sew, to embroider, how to keep a beautiful home, proper skirt length, how to slaughter a chicken, and how to pluck its feathers. Claudia learned these skills all by the age of nine. Claudia went to church every Sunday with her grandmother Susana, she learned how to pray with a rosary. Catholicism created deep feelings of conflict, Claudia questioned everything and received no clear answers. She developed a strong sense of guilt, thinking herself to be a sinful little girl. Claudia did not understand why any of her behaviors would ever merit a visit to confessional, she wondered if anyone, even her grandmother knew why they believed in this faith.

Claudia’s Grandfather Don Vicente, on the other hand, was one of the most eccentric people Claudia has ever known. An entrepreneur long before the term came into fashion, Don Vicente operated several business out of the back of his home. He had a candle factory called La Vencedora, he roasted coffee, he sold milk, he bought and resold animal skins, he made Cuajada. He never learned to drive, he employed a chaffeur. As Susana brought Claudia to church every week, Don Vicente took Claudia to bull and cock-fighting events, places where women were not really allowed. He brought her to Tejo clubs, he gave Claudia her very own initialized leather carrying case. This, as Claudia describes it was, “the world of men”. She never questioned it, she never understood why girls and boys would do different things, and as far as Don Vicente was concerned, Claudia had no gender, she was simply his Claudia.

 Susana, Crossdresser, Bogota, Colombia. Photo Credit Claudia C. Lopez

Susana, Crossdresser, Bogotá, Colombia. Photo Credit Claudia C. Lopez.

From time to time, Claudia’s Mother came to visit. On one particular occasion, when Claudia was five years old, her mother gave her a present. It was a small handheld radio that connected with stations all over the world. Claudia listened intently as people spoke in foreign languages, enlightening her to the idea that the world was even larger than she had previously imagined. When Claudia was eight, her mother came to visit after returning home from a trip the Untied States. While there, she purchased a hand-held slide projector showing a sequencing of images, the story of The Bionic Woman. She gave this gift to Claudia. I used to get everything dark and project that thing over and over. I’ve sort of always had this fascination for looking through these things, getting into others worlds, seeing how other people live, seeing people who look very different, different colors. I’ve always had that curiosity.” Though Claudia and her mother have spent little time together, an undeniable connection remains. I guess that my Mom has always been the one somehow that puts things in front of me, that creates a change in my life and perspective. She encouraged me to write stories, she still has the very first story I wrote, she kept it. She just does something and it clicks.When Claudia was eleven, her mother gave her a camera, she been taking photos ever since. One of the very first photos that Claudia captured was an image of her grandfather making candles in his factory.

Claudia C. Lopez, Ouray, Colorado. Photo credit Isaac Savitz
Claudia C. Lopez, Ouray, Colorado. Photo credit Isaac Savitz.

By the age of fourteen, Claudia’s curiosities had intensified, leading her into the works of Immanuel Kant, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, and Ingmar Bergman. She was drawn towards things that she didn’t understand, and it was at this age when Claudia left for Bogotá to search for her Mother. After graduating high school, Claudia attended University in Bogotá, majoring in communications, and graduating with specialization in the use of media in education. Colombian civil war left the country in a state of turmoil, Claudia left for the United States with no intention to return. She traveled around the U.S. for a short period of time before taking off to Europe. Claudia wandered through France and Austria, where she met a Czech climber named Petr. The two fell in love and were married, in time moving back to Petr’s hometown of Ostrava. Claudia and Petr continued traveling and climbing, she became quite skilled. After approximately five years of marriage, Claudia and Petr separated. The two have remained best friends, both now live in the U.S, they sill travel and climb together, they also co-parent cats.

Claudia then moved to Atlanta, where she enrolled at The Portfolio Center, studying commercial photography and advertising. This education provided the backbone to Claudia’s future body of work. She acquired razor-sharp technical knowledge, while continuing to travel and climb. After a while It seemed as if Claudia was leading two completely separate lives. “Having this other parallel life of mountaineering and traveling, that was just my way to get away from photography. I was not disliking photography, I was just not liking how I was doing photography. Mountaineering was really exiting, going places and meeting people, and putting my life at risk. Having to deal with the puzzle of going up or not on the mountain, reading terrain, all of that became more challenging and engaging.”

Gyaltsen, Nyalam, Tibet. Photo credit Claudia C. Lopez
Gyaltsen, Nyalam, Tibet. Photo credit Claudia C. Lopez.

Claudia’s wanderings eventually took her to the Himalayas. “The Himalayas really poisoned my head, a lot changed. I was interested in the sherpas and the porters moving slowly up the mountain, I hadn’t really photographed people before. By being exposed to those big mountains, having to make different decisions, I realized that my life as a whole needed to change. The way that you climb in many other mountain ranges, there the approach is much longer. There is this kind of build up of anticipation, and that is very different. I’ve climbed in the Andes, some here in North America and in Europe, New Zealand, and it’s pretty much in a way instant gratification. There’s shorter time of anticipation, that building up to be in front of the mountain that you’re going to climb. There, you kind of have to work your way to base camp, no matter how fast you go, unless you go in a helicopter. You have to put your days in hiking up, getting to the place, that changed the whole perspective of climbing for me. While you’re trying to get to that place, you go through villages, you meet other mountaineers. When you go to the Himalayas there’s just nothing like it because of the scale. A little mountain will kill you just as hard as a big mountain, it’s not a matter of size. In the Himalayas it’s the approach, I think it really influenced a lot of my thinking in terms of my own life, about slowing down. Being exposed to the sherpa women, and the spirituality of that region. It really changed my views about myself. I don’t take anything for granted, or I hope I don’t. I try to enjoy, seeing everything that I go through under the light of importance.”

Tommy Wieringa, Homestead-Miami Speedway. Photo Credit Claudia C. Lopez
Tommy Wieringa, Homestead-Miami Speedway. Photo Credit Claudia C. Lopez.

Cut to her mid-thirties, Claudia had an early crisis, she needed to break away from old patterns. South Americans, in general, are massive auto racing fans, and in Colombia they are all about F1. Claudia gained access into auto pits and race tracks, she started working regularly for a couple of teams. She first shot IndyCar and various Open Wheel series, from there she started shooting F1. “I think that car racing was sort of the transition that helped me move into what I do now. I went from photographing commercial still life, taking three photos in a day, to photographing cars moving hundreds of kilometers an hour.“

Afghan Women's Cycling Team, Kabul. Photo credit Claudia C. Lopez.
Afghan Women’s Cycling Team, Kabul. Photo credit Claudia C. Lopez.

Since then, some truly remarkable opportunities have come across Claudia’s desk. Last year, she travelled to Kabul, with a non-profit organization called Mountain2Mountain. Initially, Claudia had been brought on to document the making of Afghan Cycles, a film about the first female Afghan cyclists as they ride to raise support, hoping one day to compete nationally, internationally, and ultimately realize their dream of going to the Olympics. These courageous teenagers view their efforts as neither political nor cultural rebellion, they simply want to ride for the love of the sport. Claudia began taking portraits, connecting with her subjects, creating a safe environment for them to be seen. “When you tell stories like these, when you share them with the world, that brings support from different countries and avenues. The idea is that these girls can really do what they want. It sounds like a very small thing but it has bigger repercussions, cultural repercussions, political and social. At the heart of it they are starting to shift the paradigm of what women can do, how women see themselves and their possibilities. It starts with a little thing and it has a ripple effect.” Claudia and her colleagues were in Afghanistan for three weeks, this was not her first time working in a conflict zone. “It was no shock for me to have to wear a hijab, it was not unfamiliar for me to feel repressed as a woman. What was really hard for me was to come to terms with being a photographer and not being able to take photos. As a female photographer, I’ve never felt so restricted. There are areas where you cannot pull out a camera, whether it’s a cell phone or a big camera with a big lens. You cannot take photos. Once I put my hijab on, I look like I’m Afghani. Some people might think this is an advantage, but the fact is that a man can see me, and think that I am from there, walking by myself alone with a camera, and I can get shot on the spot for disobeying the law. It’s just as simple as that. If I was blonde, if I looked like I was from somewhere else, I would have more chances to survive. I figured out the driver was going to behave as my husband. I would walk around with him at all times, I started calling him Honey, he would smile, he understood what I needed to do. It was not really possible to have those times alone, seeing the world by myself.” The subjects of Afghan Cycles are currently forming another team in a different province. They have full support from their families, most of whom were raised under Taliban rule. In Afghanistan, the constitution does not state specifically that women cannot ride bikes. Culture and tradition however, say they should not, and most are never taught.

Old town Kabul. Photo credit Claudia C. Lopez
Old town Kabul. Photo credit Claudia C. Lopez

VS: Looking at your photos, I get the feeling that you find beauty in friction? I see this in the faces of those you photograph. There’s weathering, there’s wrinkles, sun damage, these aren’t exactly air brushed beauty shots, but yet they’re very beautiful?

CCL: I wouldn’t necessarily call it friction, I think it’s more in contradiction and juxtaposition, and opposition and difference. It’s not intentional, but when I look back I’m always looking for what is different from me. I guess that’s the little explorer and curious kid in me? But I’m also looking for what is similar, because I guess I’m always looking for home.

VS: Do you think of yourself as a journalist? 

CCL: No, I put too much of myself in that work. I think journalists need to perhaps be a little bit more objective, which is something I do not believe in. I have a hard time jumping into something and taking random photos. I need to observe, and I need to interiorize my surroundings, and have a sense of place, rather than just pressing the shutter. I would make a horrendous photo-journalist, I take too much time, I delve into contemplation too much, and that’s not what photo-journalists need to do. 

Claudia and I sat facing each other, seated in her living room, drinking tea in neighboring armchairs. I looked around the room, her design aesthetic minimal; whites, off-whites, and soft beige, everything deliberately in its place. I looked into other rooms and noticed a sprawling collection of vintage camera equipment, some from the 1930’s, some even older, some from the 1960’s, all in working condition. Many came from Eastern Europe, some were given as gifts, each one unique in size and shape. Claudia commented, “They are really beautiful, aren’t they? They don’t make cameras that beautiful anymore. It’s a different kind of aesthetic, a different kind of beauty. There’s something about the weight and the heftiness of those cameras and the materials. Although I’m all for technology and progress, there’s something about this, something so tactile about old technology. Oh, they are beautiful. The design in those things is just great.” Other topics were discussed as well; Claudia shared stories from her past, trusting I would never repeat them. Her secrets are safe.

For the past four years, Claudia has called Boulder home, or perhaps more appropriately home base. After all, Claudia is as settled here as she is likely to be anywhere. Still attempting to find that ever-elusive balance between life and career, Claudia walks the line between commercial photographer and documentarian. “I’m a photographer, and I take photos for a living. That’s the basics, that’s the foundation. For fourteen years I worked in advertising, I was a product photographer, I created commercial images, I produced other people’s ideas, I had become more of a technician. I was an early adopter of digital, I have been since 2002. I‘m trying to get more into making books, and to telling stories. When I moved into this “documentarian” realm, photography took on different shapes and forms. I think Im starting to find a balance, intermixing commercial photography that allows me to pay rent and all these things, and the more personal photography that adds meaning to what I do.”

Two Women, Kabul. Photo Credit Claudia C. Lopez
Two Women, Kabul. Photo Credit Claudia C. Lopez.

Claudia joined the faculty at Red Rocks Community College in Denver, after a three-year teaching hiatus. She offers courses in portraiture and commercial still life photography. Claudia has also gone back to school, she is currently enrolled at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, pursuing a fine arts masters degree. “I’m preparing myself to have a lot of more things to say. I have a great appreciation for art, I think I understand some of it,  but I never considered what I do to be art, or my photography to be artistic. I never see my work from a fine art perspective. I see it from just telling a story.”

Continuing, “Photography is an exercise in problem solving, I’m interested in things that start and end, I can see the process, I like that putting together, building and rebuilding and destroying. Destroying is probably part of the thing that I like the most because it allows me to rebuild. I see all of these polarities in myself. I like things that are very logical, and things that are very random. I try to control a lot, but I also kind of enjoy when things go to hell, you know. When things go kind of disheveled, I think they put me into high gear, to think and to problem solve. There is order in chaos, an underlying logic and reason. I guess it makes me feel more alive. Things fit in a certain way, I enjoy bringing things back to some kind of order. I guess that ties together with me as a little kid always breaking things down to put them back together again. My grandparents didn’t appreciate that much, me taking the television or the radio apart, shuffling all of the pieces and then trying to figure out how to put them back. There were always several pieces left out, it just never worked out properly.”

It is an ongoing debate, whether or not events occur for specific reason, if fate in fact plays part in the course of our lives. I personally am on the fence, what I can say for sure is this: Claudia has gifted us with some seriously powerful imagery, stories we may not have otherwise known. Her photographs are evidence of what one can achieve when fears are faced, limitations annihilated. I am humbled by these gestures, I am inspired, my world view has increased. Thanks to Claudia’s example, I am now able to better embrace chaos, the unknown, I will not back away. In challenging myself to make sense of it all, I challenge myself to continue searching. See you next month, hearts & lightning bolts.

Claudia Camila Lopez

Cover Photo: Shaman, Pregnant working girl, Blind fortune teller. Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Photo Credit Claudia C. Lopez. www.claudialopezphotography.com

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