Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Portraying Panama

Europeans tend to have only smidgens of information about Panama; to call it knowledge would be going too far.


Sean Sheehan


Arturo Soto’s photographs are not intended to impart new facts but offer a fresh perspective on somewhere that, not knowing any better, might be thought of as strangely different.

There is the canal, of course, and Marks and Spencer retail Panama hats in the summer but these are for the British trying to look coolly sophisticated in Italy or Greece.

The Panama Papers revealed that the super wealthy evade paying tax by concealing their filthy lucre in the country; like the US invasion of Panama at the end of 1989, it confirmed something that was already well known – in this case the US’s spurious excuses for violently interfering in other countries.

What Arturo Soto wants us to know is that Panama is not the tourist brochures’ exotic destination.

Holiday-makers from neighbouring countries are attracted by the advertising but Soto deglamourizes the tourist industry’s portrayal by photographing what is prosaically familiar: ugly conglomerations of overhead electric cables; shabby buildings, air-conditioning units on exterior walls; graffiti; unkempt public spaces; urban detritus.

Perhaps, given the pallor and tone of the images, he succeeds only too well.

If his photos, wrapped in unremitting shades of grey, have an aura it is a Central American equivalent to the sombre desolation evoked in the opening lines of The waste land.

The photographs bespeak silence — empty spaces, an absence of people – and the only faces to be seen are ones crudely painted on tenement walls or one of General Manuel Noriega stencilled on the fuel door of a car. There is little by way of inconspicuous detail to reveal sparks of contingency and, as Walter Benjamin said of Eugène Atget’s photographs, what we see is the removal of the makeup from reality.

“In the heat” is a beautifully produced book and its title references Panama’s humid climate – only to muffle it by black-and-white photographs and a deadpan emphasis on the quotidian. Metaphorically, the title refers to Soto’s two-year residency in Panama and alludes, as he says, ‘to a state of tension that describes my bittersweet stay in a place I felt at odds with.’ The result is more bitter than sweet.

Using black-and-white film is part of Soto’s un-beautifying project – elsewhere he has used colour, as in his Circling the square London series – but now and again beauty beats the odds and defiantly insists on making visible its presence. The book’s best composed photograph shows waste ground behind an apartment block, except it is not wasted but home to a profusion of vegetation and two trees, branches severely cut back, reasserting their right to exist. They are one of the few signs of healthy life in Soto’s depressing portrayal of Panama.

“In the heat” by Arturo Soto is published by Eriskay connection  (Photos provided by the publisher)

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