All images © Arturo Soto, and spreads © The Eriskay Connection, 2018
There are places that, in their own way, have a particular iconography associated with them, the kind of images and ideas that the place tends to bring up when we think about it. Often the actual experience of being there is undermined by these associations, which interpose themselves between us and the place itself. In photographing Panama city, Arturo Soto was obviously very aware of this effect and the kind of iconographic, as well as historical baggage that any place carries with it. His new publication, titled In the Heat, aims to show Panama as a place apart from the assumptions that we might have about it and from the iconography that we might expect. Questions of place and its representation are central to this work; emphasised by what – and where – Soto has chosen to photograph, his attention seemingly casual, but alert nonetheless to the tensions that shape the everyday.
To this end, he concentrates almost entirely on the built environment, the ordinary landscapes of contemporary Panama, rather than on any kind of ‘exotic’ locale; these are, in fact, the places that someone actually living in the city or even just visiting probably wouldn’t give a second glance to (assuming a visitor ever got to see them); even the eponymous canal is shown only once. But these ‘in-between’ places are important in their own way, and Soto’s attention to them is telling, precisely because of how deliberate he is in avoiding those aspects of the city that might be more immediately recognisable. There is nothing grand here either, or if there is, it’s only by way of underlining a contrast between the kind of extremes that the social landscape has always embodied. Indeed, that is Soto’s primary interest, the ways in which the dynamics of ‘place’ reveal the forces at work in society as a whole, communicated by what he photographs, and by the structure of the pictures themselves, which try to make the density of this urban environment legible in those terms.
At the same time, any country or city, even one (relatively) modest in scale, is so diverse, home to so many different histories and possibilities, that attempting to create a definitive view of it seems a fool’s errand. Soto is aware of this too, so the photographs he has made of Panama do not pretend to be definitive in that sense; instead they operate in a productive arena defined by the relation between his straight-forward, descriptive style of picture-making and the sense that his choice of subject matter is guided by the experiential encounter with the city as a place, or rather, as a succession of places. Each view is one more piece of the puzzle, understood in terms of how the history of the city continues to shape its present. Soto hints at this by sometimes including references to that history in the images, often as graffiti. Many of these are explicated in the accompanying essay, but even without needing to understand the various references, Soto’s pictures speak to the complexities of place on a day-to-day level, shown in terms of how people negotiate and interact with the spaces they inhabit.
In fact, people are fundamental to this work, though they are rarely seen. Almost everything in the pictures is the product of human intentions and actions, for good or for ill; Soto wants us to understand this, to see how the fabric of the city is a manifestation of those forces that would not necessarily be visible in any other way. It is this realisation that gives the pictures their critical edge. The work is by not didactic though, and neither is it immune to a certain fondness for the scruffy surfaces and air of dilapidation that predominates in the marginal areas he favours, away from the tourist hot-spots. With their meandering sense of discovery, what these pictures show is how the kind of every-day, experiential encounter we have with a place arises from the myriad of complex forces that have shaped it. In that respect, Soto has made a subtle and engaging work, as layered as the city itself.