“The best way to understand a new country,” said photographer Javier Vanegas, “is to get inside a cemetery.”
Vanegas has spent a lot of time in cemeteries recently. He trekked over the globe to cemeteries in Buenos Aires, Lima, Berlin, Hiroshima and other cities in order to research his most recent project, a collection of over 100 photos of graves called Tempus fugit.
Vanegas, a native Colombian, has always been interested in photography and its ability to situate spectators in the moment. “That’s why I love photography,” he said. “For me it’s being right there. Most of the time, when I‘m on my phone, on social media, reading the news, my mind is everywhere. But when I meditate, and take pictures, I’m right there.”
While studying Visual Arts at Universidad de Los Andes, Vanegas found old photos of former students in the garbage, and was fascinated by the idea of who those students might have become. For his master’s thesis, he wanted to try out a project he had heard about: creating images from the ashes of cremated bodies – literally. He went to the director of a Bogotá cemetery to ask for help with the plan. “He told me I was crazy,” said Vanegas laughing. “He said he couldn’t help me with this thing, and I understood.” Instead, Vanegas started taking photos of pictures that were on graves. He was inspired by one fading photo he saw on a gravestone. “That picture was white. Absolutely white. The quality of the paper was very deteriorated, and that probably means the person printed it at home, which is probably why it faded away so fast.”
To express the image of the disappearing photos, Vanegas also included a video of his photos engulfed by smoke in the exhibit. “The practice of burying the dead is disappearing. Now people prefer to cremate. The idea of the body is now defined by smoke,” he affirms.
“It’s not about death,” he said. “It’s about life, about the present moment. And if you expand that idea of the present, I believe you can really live your life. And that’s difficult to do.”
Vanegas also photographed graves intertwined with trees, or “eaten by nature,” over the course of his travels. He doesn’t think anyone will want to buy those particular photographs, but the journey to obtain them means a lot to him.
Vanegas’s other photography projects also examine the human relationship with controversial themes. His project VIP used photos of “tart cards” selling sex to recreate famous paintings that were reviled for their sexual imagery. But, he says Tempus fugit is his favorite project. “I hope to still be doing this for many years,” he said.