Claudia Lopez Likes a Puzzle

[Shaman, Pregnant Working Girl, Blind Fortune Teller. Colombia. Photo Credit: Claudia Lopez]

Claudia and I sat in her living room, facing each other and drinking tea in neighboring armchairs. I looked around. Her aesthetic appeared rich yet minimal: whites, off-whites, soft beige; everything deliberately in place. I saw a sprawling collection of vintage camera equipment, some from the 1960s, some from the 1930s, and some even older still. Many came from Eastern Europe, some were given as gifts, each one unique in size and shape, all in working condition.

Born in Bogotá, 1968, to parents who were still children themselves, Claudia was raised by her grandparents, in their picturesque mountain home. This place was a wonderland for young Claudia, where verdant vegetation bloomed, wild animals roamed, and exotic birds supplied serenade while she played games of her own devising. And just beyond the courtyard where Claudia played, her bedroom windows gazed upon 8,000-foot peaks of Los Nevados. These mountains became Claudia’s self-described “stage,” her oasis.

Claudia’s grandmother Susana, a dutiful Catholic woman, was determined to turn Claudia into a proper Colombian girl. She taught her everything she knew about homemaking: from sewing, embroidery, and etiquette, to chicken slaughtering. Before taking Claudia in, Susana had eight children of her own; two died tragically in early age and another two vanished in La Violencia

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

On the other hand, Claudia’s Grandfather Don Vicente was quite an eccentric card. An entrepreneur (long before that was a thing), Don Vicente ran several business out of his home. He was a candlemaker, a coffee roaster, a milkman, a distributor of animal skins. And since he never learned to drive, Don Vicente had his own chaffeur. As Susana brought Claudia to church every week, Don Vicente took her to bull and cock fights—places where women weren’t allowed. As far as Don Vicente was concerned, Claudia had no gender. She was simply his Claudia.

On occasion, Claudia’s mother came to visit, and she often arrived bearing gifts. When Claudia was five, she brought a small handheld radio, which connected to stations all over the world. Hearing foreign language spoken for the first time showed Claudia how vast the world truly is. When Claudia was eight, she gave her a hand-held slide projector that played the story of The Bionic Woman. 

“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.”

When Claudia was eleven, her mother gave her a camera, and she’s been taking photos ever since. One of the very first photos Claudia captured was an image of her grandfather Don Vicente making candles in his factory.

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

With age, Claudia’s interest in what she didn’t understand only intensified. In her teens, she discovered the works of Kant, Foucault, Habermas, and Bergman. After high school, Claudia attended University in Bogotá, and then fleeing her civil-war-torn home, she left Colombia for the United States with no intention to return. After traveling the U.S. for a period of time, Claudia found her way to France and Austria, where she met a Czech climber named Petr. The two fell in love, married, and together climbed mountains all over the world. Claudia’s wanderings eventually drew her to the Himalayas, where she learned to move slowly and view everything under a light of importance.

“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.” 

In her mid-thirties, Claudia gained access to car tracks, and began shooting IndyCar, Open Wheel, and F1 races. In 2013, she travelled to Kabul, with a non-profit organization called Mountain2Mountain. She’d been hired 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. When commenting on her work in Afghanistan, Claudia said this:

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

“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.”


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 airbrushed beauty shots yet they’re very beautiful.

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

CL: 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?

CL: No, I put too much 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 photojournalist. I take too much time. I delve into contemplation too much and that’s not what photojournalists need to do. 

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

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.

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.


To view Claudia’s portfolio, visit claudialopezphotography.com/

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