Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Arne Hodalič

Arne Hodalic

I can change my profession and whole life a few times a year - that's what I like about working as a photojournalist.
PHOTOJOURNALISM (Slovenia)

* Text and images originally published in Nikon Pro (spring, 2010).

About 800 Peruvian families eke out a living by harvesting salt in these saltpans in the Andes. Photojournalist Hodalič documented their lives for National Geographic France magazine.

These are some of the 3600 pools of the Salinas de Maras, in the Andes, which have been used to obtain salt for centuries.

You know you have a good story if you can't find it on the internet' says photojournalist Hodalič. He came across these saltpans about 50km from Cuzco in the Andes during a field trip in Peru with his photography students. He thought it would make a great assignment, but visiting in winter, the saltpans were laying dormant, so Hodalič planned to come back during the season so he could photograph the people of Maras harvesting salt as they have done for centuries. He successfully pitched the story to National Geographic France and returned with a journalist for two weeks.

The pans are fed by a brackish stream that springs from the mountains at 3200m and has been used to produce salt since before the Inca period. Being so far from the sea and so high in the mountains, salt was a very valuable commodity. The number of pools has increased during the last 25 years and now there are around 3600 pools owned by between 700 and 800 families, producing between 160 and 200 tonne of salt a year. The pools have been handed down through families for generations, but can also be bought or sold for €25 to €50. The sale of pools and the salt trade is managed by a cooperative, which pays the pool owners between €1 and €2 per bag and shares the overall profit.
The work is backbreaking and most families need their children to help in the saltpans, cultivate land and rear livestock to survive. The children work mainly in the afternoons and weekends, so it's no surprise that only a few finish primary school at 10 years of age – many have to stay until they are 12, 15 or even 17 to cover the curriculum.
The lives of the locals in Maras stands in stark contrast to the tourists who visit the saltpans. They are not allowed to enter (the often slippery) paths that separate the pans and are usually asked for money – something Hodalič was keen to avoid. Hoping to befriend the workers, Hodalič and the National Geographic journalist hired a translator, who advised them what supplies they would need and tipped them off as to what gifts would be welcomed. This was often fresh food and drinking water.
'When we offered them our food, they would always share their food with us in return and when you eat together you build a friendly relationship, which was very nice,' says Hodalič. It was a lucky coincidence that their visit coincided with the community's biggest annual celebration, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, so that they could witnessed five days of eating, cooking, singing, drinking and dancing. This gave Hodalič a unique view of the Maran people at work and play. As he explains, 'I am the classical photojournalist and try to really get into a story. I like taking time and getting to know the subject. This is what I love about working as a photojournalist – I can change professions and my life a few times a year. It's great, I wouldn't change it for anything in the world, because it gives me such great freedom.' Hodalič has been working as a photojournalist for two decades now and has covered assignments in Sudan, Russia, China and everywhere in between.

In 2007 he reached the pinnacle of his photojournalistic career: having a story published in the National Geographic America magazine. It was an assignment about an archaeological excavation in the Ljubljanica river in Slovenia, which turned out to be one of the richest freshwater sites ever found. He had approached one of the National Geographic editors at the photojournalism Festival Visa Pour L'Image in Perpignan in 2005 and it took two years to finish the project.
Now, he is the editor of photography for National Geographic Slovenia, teaches photography at the University of Ljubljana and has an assistant professorship at VIST in Ljubljana.
As his images show, Hodalič cares about the people he photographs and most of his projects have required a lot of social interaction. He has, for example, just come back from the DR Congo, where he documented the mine clearing work of the United Nations. Many of his trips are on an expenses-only basis. He has reported stories in Gaza, Afghanistan, worked in prisons and extensively covered the Balkan Wars. He is also involved in various fundraising projects and recently published a calendar, which has raised €30,000 to send children to the Paralympic Games.
Also for this reportage, he managed to organise some help for the people of Maras: he persuaded a Slovenian stock market company to sponsor his trip in return for a corporate calendar. From the $2000 raised, the local school bought two photocopying machines, which allows them to copy schoolbooks, which are far too expensive for local families.
'I can't say that I want to change the world,' he explains, 'because I think it's far too messed up for me to be able to change anything. But I do these projects, so that I can look at myself in the mirror each morning and know that at least I tried. That's why I do so much free work. Too much in fact! I drive a 20-year old car!'

The D3 Revelation

The pool owners work in the ice cold water and under the harsh mountain sun. After the water has evaporated, a white salt crust forms, which is lifted off the pan with great care, as any contamination with the soil lowers the quality of the salt.

'For me the camera was a revelation. It's a completely new machine and so much better. Working with the D3 and D700 at night during the festival and for indoor shoots, made me so happy! It was a great experience working under such low light at 3200 ISO. Before the D3 it used to be a waste of time to shoot at such high ISO, but now the photos turn out fine. With the D3 photography has changed, because it allows you to take photos in low light. About 80 or 90 per cent of my images are taken in difficult lighting situations, so the camera certainly has changed how I take photos.

'I still use flash all the time though, but now mainly during the day. It was great to take photos there, because it is so high up that the air is so thin, so you get great colours, but the light was so harsh, that I had to use flash during the day to open up the shadows. I tend to use it with a light yellow filter to imitate the colour of the sun, which means that you don't see the colour difference in the image later on.
'I have an SB-900 and two SB-800 as remote flashes for more elaborate lighting setups on location. For this assignment, I used the SB-900 on a cable. I never put it on the camera – that's my standard trick.'

Gallery

Guinea pigs are a staple food in the Andes and usually kept under the table in the kitchen, which doubles up as the living room.
The Roman Catholic community of salt workers celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15 August at a church, which only opens for these festivities once a year.
A procession makes its way through the village as part of the celebrations.

What's in the camera bag?

D3, D3X, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED, AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D, SB-900, SB-800, Filters for SB strobes, Gitzo GT2540LLVL tripod with Arca head, four spare batteries, some 40GB memory cards and a laptop

* The above text and images were originally published in Nikon Pro in spring, 2010.

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These are some of the 3600 pools of the Salinas de Maras, in the Andes, which have been used to obtain salt for centuries.
The pool owners work in the ice cold water and under the harsh mountain sun. After the water has evaporated, a white salt crust forms, which is lifted off the pan with great care, as any contamination with the soil lowers the quality of the salt.
Guinea pigs are a staple food in the Andes and usually kept under the table in the kitchen, which doubles up as the living room.
The Roman Catholic community of salt workers celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15 August at a church, which only opens for these festivities once a year.
A procession makes its way through the village as part of the celebrations.