Two hundred and ten. That’s the number of people who were murdered in London between January 1st, 2011 and December 31st, 2012. It’s also the number of photographs in Antonio Zazueta Olmos’ series, “The Landscape of Murder.” In his spare time the Mexican-born photographer visited each murder site, usually within a few days of each crime, and documented what he found. 79 pictures from that series made it into his new book by the same title. Far from being a sensationalist leer at violence and gangs, it’s a remarkably unique view of London, “an alternative portrait” says Olmos, of the city where he has lived for twenty years. He talked with R&K about “The Landscape of Murder” from his home in London.
Roads & Kingdoms: What were your first impressions of London when you moved there?
Antonio Zazueta Olmos: I moved to London the mid-90s. While living in Mexico City, I fell in love with a British woman who grew up in Nicaragua. I was happy in Mexico but struggling financially, where here in London I found it easy to get commissioned work. My first impression was that the sun never shines and that got me down a bit. But I felt every door was open to me in regards to editorial work. No one gave a shit where I was from in London, my portfolio was all that mattered. One of my first assignments was to do a portrait of Leonard Cohen in Oslo. I was sent to Africa by the BBC News Magazine; The Independent and The Observer gave me lots of portrait work. Soon, NGOs and magazines took a chance with me and started sending me abroad to do reportage work.
I want to be a storyteller more than a conflict photographer.
R&K: You’ve traveled a lot for work, sometimes covering conflict. How do you see your “The Landscape of Murder” project fit in your career? I’m amazed that you are still inspired by the city you’ve lived in for such a long time.
AZO: It’s a different direction for me. The world of photojournalism is changing. I think people like me have to look closer to home to make work that stands out. It’s easy to photograph the exotic, but much more difficult to shoot something you see everyday. I think the days of being paid to travel and work say in Iraq or Africa or the Middle East are changing. The idea that you can’t find a top notch photographer in Bangladesh to do a commission for you is really ludicrous. So to stay relevant I have to look closer to home. And I won’t do news coverage again, this I know. First I can’t do it financially, and even if I did, what would I be doing? I would be taking the same pictures as every other wannabe photojournalist… I want to be in situations where not a single other photographer is standing next to me. I want to be a storyteller more than a conflict photographer, and explore more meditative and contemplative ways of looking.
Memorial site for Samuel Guidera, Sydenham, London. Photo by Antonio Zazueta Olmos
R&K: I actually found out about your project because I lived two years in Dollis Hill and Willesden Green. And when I came across the photos you took there, it really touched me. These places were relatively quiet suburbs, but occasionally we would hear of violence or murders. In the end though, they were quite mundane London neighborhoods, and that seems an important aspect in your work…
AZO: Wow. Well thanks. I don’t know how my photos fly abroad but people in London really react to them. I think it makes them look at the city again. I sometimes say the subtitle of my work is “an alternative portrait of London.” I like working in non-tourist London… I learned more about London in the two years of the project than I did from 20 years of living here. People think they know London but they don’t.