FLR: With all the movement in flamenco, capturing perfect images must be difficult, but we see many energetic photographs in ¡Olé! Flamenco! After taking so many shots, what do you look for in a finished photo that tells you it’s the right one for inclusion in a book?
GA: My goal for doing the book was to show the diversity of flamenco artists. I focused on each performer and tried to convey his or her personality and how they convey this to an audience. Some were exuberant, others lyrical, dramatic or funny. I’ve taken Oscar Wilde’s advice: "Be yourself, everybody else is taken." And I like sharing this thought with children.
FLR: On your Web site, you talk about getting to know the subjects in your photography very well and how you photograph, listen, and sometimes live with them. How did you build your relationships with Santa Fe’s Janira Cordova, her family and Next Generation in preparation for ¡Olé! flamenco?
GA: I first went to see Maria Benitez who founded the Youth Group of the Institute for Spanish Arts and Flamenco’s Next Generation here in Santa Fe. She was gracious and allowed me to observe the dancers. I watched and then began to photograph the rehearsals and performances. Janira Cordova was the youngest and I concentrated on her because she fit into the age range of the young readers of the book. Her parents were very supportive of the project. Santa Fe is a small city and the flamenco performers and enthusiasts know each other. In a short time we met and I went to their parties and homes. We’ve become friends over the two years it took to do the book.
FLR: The ¡Gracias! section at the end of ¡Olé! includes those from a wide variety of places. Did you do any traveling in preparation for this book, apart from your initial long-ago visit to the south of France? If so, where did you go, and how did each country contribute to your flamenco knowledge base?
GA: I’ve always been interested in flamenco. I studied the flamenco guitar when I was living in New York. When we moved out to Santa Fe I even took flamenco dance lessons. But being a freelance photographer and traveling about the world, I was never able to spend enough time practicing either art. On my first trip to Spain I went to do a picture story about the work of the young priests and French nuns in the villages and slums of Malaga. I went with my wife and our first 3-month-old daughter. It’s amazing how traveling with a baby opens up doors. Years later my older son was working in London with his two daughters. The 10-year-old took one of my books to her school. The teacher invited me to come visit their school. After the visit I told my son I wanted to go to Seville to begin research for the book. He suggested I take Natalie, the 10-year-old. I did and we had a ball. At the late night flamenco shows she often fell asleep on my shoulder.
FLR: Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of your forthcoming book is your discussion of the history of flamenco and its roots in the music and dance of the Roma people ("Gypsies"), and how the blend of cultures that existed in Andalucía at the time influenced its development. How are relations between the Roma and the locals today in Andalucía, and is there still a distinct Roma presence in that area?
GA: The Roma people that I met were introduced to me by friends in Seville and Granada. With those introductions I was able to get to know the Fernandez family. They were sympathetic to the book project. They have a strong identity and maintain their traditions. They keep their children close to the family and don’t want them to mix too much with outsiders. They speak their own dialect. I was not there long enough to get to know more about their lives. That would have taken more time than I had.
FLR: Speaking of multiculturalism, could you elaborate a bit on why flamenco seems to appeal to all ages and backgrounds, and what sets it apart from other forms of song and dance?
GA: I think people are attracted to the art of flamenco because like any art form it is a means of expressing yourself. The deeper you go the better you can reach out to others. Maraquilla, a dancer and teacher in Granada, told me of the performance of a virtuoso guitarist that came to perform. At the end of the concert no one applauded. When I asked her why, she answered, "Because he didn’t say anything."
FLR: Now that you write your own books as well as illustrate them, how do you come up with ideas for subjects? Also, do you begin with the text or the photographs?
GA: My books are the result of my curiosity. Something attracts me and I want to know more about it. Who does it? How is it done? Why do they do it? Slowly a book forms in my mind: the beginning, the middle and the end. The book becomes the means of reaching out to kids and sharing my discoveries. I begin by taking pictures. I try to find a child about the age of the reader and photograph the story through his or her eyes. It’s a visual trip. Then I sit down to layout and design the book. The sequences of the photographs tell the story. The words come last. What the pictures can’t show, feelings, temperature, sounds, music, the words that accompany the images do it.
FLR: Please share a little with us about your work process. Do you take pictures constantly and gradually decide what will work for a new book, and then go back for formal consent? When children are involved, do you need parental consent before taking the first picture?
GA: Most of the time I begin my books by talking to the people I’d like to photograph. When I ask if they would like to be in a children’s book most people are very open to the idea. I tell them what I’m curious about. Then they let me into their lives and I begin to see their reality. I try never to impose an idea on them. If they feel uncomfortable with a situation I may suggest, we don’t do it. I find that being comfortable and respectful with the people in my books produces better photographs. Soon the camera seems to disappear and we go through the motions of whatever they are doing with a genuine good feeling. Of course when I photograph children I ask for the consent of the parents.
FLR: Have you ever had difficulty with people refusing to be photographed, perhaps losing a book or having to start anew due to a featured person withdrawing their consent?
GA: My favorite experience about photographing people happened in a small village in Yucatan, Mexico. I was walking down a street and saw a huge ox tied to a wagon. A man was filling the wagon with dried corn stalks. I asked him if I could photograph his ox. He said brusquely, "No!" So I continued on my way down the street. But I was thinking, "I wonder why he said no?" So I turned around and went back to him and asked him why he objected to my taking a picture of his ox. He was a bit flustered and he said, "All right, take the picture." So I took the picture of the ox. Then I asked if he would stand next to the ox so I could include him in the picture. As I took the picture I noticed his wife standing by the door. So I asked if she would like to stand with her husband. She did and I took their picture. Meanwhile the kids were at the door and I asked them to join their parents. By then I had this huge family in front of my camera. And all because I asked, "Why?" I’ve never had a problem with someone changing their mind about appearing in a children’s book.
FLR: Do you like to keep up with the latest digital technologies, or do you prefer using film?
GA: I’m still using film. I’m aware of some of the advantages of working digitally. But I’m pretty busy producing books to take time out to learn the new technology. I’m not too happy sitting in front of a computer all day. I’d rather be out photographing. The local lab does my color processing. I’ve always done my black and white processing and printing in my darkroom.
FLR: Do you think photography, as opposed to other media, looks dated more quickly by changing clothes fashions, car models, etc.? Does this affect in any way your choice of subjects? With more contemporary settings, do you ever find this frustrating?
GA: I don’t quite understand this question. Because photography is of the moment – that is its value. I’ve done historic subjects with photographs and recreated a period in history. In some way it makes it more alive. Just like the movies. I like to think that what I have to share with my books today will be just as valid to young readers in the future.
FLR: What other photo-essay works would you recommend for young readers?
GA: I think that photo-essays bring young readers to distant places in the world and introduce them to other children and their cultures. The photographs are my way of sharing my adventures with kids here in this country. I may not speak the language or understand what is being told to me, but a smile can go a long way to understanding.
FLR: Do you have any suggestions for librarians on how to encourage the appreciation of arts and humanities, such as flamenco, at a time when public institutions are experiencing financial cutbacks?
GA: Picasso said it very nicely, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." So ask kids to write, draw, sing, dance, or play each in their own way. We are all blessed with talents. But we aren’t aware of them until we sit down or stand up and just do it, each in our own way.
FLR: On a lighter, more personal note, you mention in ¡Olé! that you studied flamenco guitar at one time. Do you still play from time to time? Have you ever tried flamenco dancing?
GA: As I mentioned earlier, yes, I did try to play flamenco guitar and took flamenco dance lessons, but my work and travels kept me from practicing. So I gave them up. The guitar is still in the studio. But now I spend time dancing tango. It’s slower.
FLR: What is your current topic of interest, perhaps for a future book?
GA: I’ve a long list of books I’d like to do. There’s the Birdmen of Papantla, in Mexico. These are the five men that climb up a sixty-foot pole. One man stands on top of the pole playing a flute and a drum while he dances on a tiny platform. The other four men tie themselves to a rope wound around the pole. At a signal they lean back and drop into space. As the rope unwinds they "fly" upside down in ever widening circles until they reach the ground where they flip up and hit the ground running. I’m also interested in where the Spanish language is spoken. There is such a variety of countries, cultures and races that do speak Spanish. I think it would be very interesting. At the moment I’m working on a book about the garden that is part of a local school here. Classes are held there, and lunches can be eaten there. After school it becomes a community garden. The kids plant, raise and harvest crops, which they later cook and eat. That’s a local project. The school is 10 minutes away from my studio. I’d like to do a book on drums, which is the heart of the music of various people. I’d like to do a book on the magic of masks. And the list goes on…
Browse our list of titles written by George Ancona.