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Vice Blog

Photo Issue - Een interview met Christian Lombardi

Maak kennis met Christian Lombardi. Christian is een Franse fotograaf die voor het nieuwe Photo Issue zijn foto's deelde die hij maakte toen hij in de jungle van Bolivia meeliep met een militaire antidrugs brigade.

Today’s featured photographer is Christian Lombardi, who worked as Bolivian general Hugo Banzer’s personal photographer in the late 90s. That’s pretty impressive, considering he started out as a gravedigger in France. For this year’s Photo Issue, Lombardi shared the photos he took while embedded with Bolivia’s Mobile Police Unit for Rural Areas in the Chapare Province of Cochabamba.


VICE: Hi, Christian. How did you end up living in Bolivia? You’re not originally from there, right?
Christian: That’s right. I’m a second generation Italian born in Nice, France, and I ended up in Bolivia by chance. I worked as a volunteer in the French Air Force for two years and wound up in the nuclear testing site in Moruroa, first as a truck driver and then as fireman. When I finished working there, I had two months off and didn’t know where to go—I was split between Australia and South America. I flipped a coin and South America won. I went to the desert in the north of Chile, a place I decided I had to visit when I was tripping on opium a long time ago. I asked the owner of a hostel there what she thought of Bolivia, and she talked so much shit about it I decided I had to go there and see it for myself.

How was Bolivia once you actually got there?
I crossed into the Altiplano. It was incredibly bare, and the clouds were shockingly huge. Then I went to the cities, which all felt somewhat out of place. It seemed like a crazy country where everything was upside down and laws didn’t exist. It was total chaos, but the locals knew how to navigate masterfully. I had sex with beautiful women without even trying. It was paradise. I went back to France to get out of the army, and a year later I moved to Bolivia.

I read on your website you worked as a gravedigger in France at some point.
Yes, I did. I had to clean up corpses at the morgue, dig up old bodies from crypts, and so on. I would go to cafes and people would run the other way because I reeked of death. I learned something, and I even got it tattooed on my arm: “Requiem quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris” (“That dust thou art, and onto dust thou shalt return”). Dead people, poor or rich, looked all the same to me. The only difference was that some went in peace and some left frustrated. Most dead people look pissed off because of rigor mortis, but one day I was cleaning the body of this old woman and she had the biggest smile on her face, like her last thoughts were, “I’m going in peace and everyone else can go fuck off.” I started sobbing uncontrollably. Nobody asked me what was wrong, because in that business a lot of people break down at some point. After that day I knew what I wanted to do with my life: I want to die with a smile like that on my face.


How did you go from gravedigger to personal photographer of General Banzer in Bolivia during his 1997 presidential campaign?
One day I heard on the radio that they were looking for a photographer to work at the La Paz City Hall. I showed them my photos and got the job. Three months later, the MNR took the government by force. It was a coup. We spent three days behind barricades before our party surrendered. We had to leave and they beat the shit out of us. I was broke and desperate, so I tried to go back to an old job I had at a photo agency. The boss assured me that he had something better for me in store. He took me to his house, where we met this old man surrounded by a bunch of bodyguards. My boss told him, “General, let me introduce you to your new private photographer.” He looked at me and said, “Welcome to the team, son,” and left. I asked my boss who my “client” was and he replied with a huge smile: “That guy is General Banzer, he’ll be the next President of Bolivia.” I became his shadow and got to meet everyone around him. I learned how a former dictator could be loved by the people. It was strange to be totally broke and jobless one day and then the next, one of the three closest people to the president. Everybody treated me with respect and some may have even feared me.

Did you ever fear for your life when you were taking photos in the Chapare Jungle? I assume it was pretty dangerous.
Those were taken from 1997 to 2001. We were always on edge. I learned to eat with my left hand so I could use my right hand for my .45. We would work from 4 AM to 10 PM—sometimes without any food—through rain or shine, tear gas, people throwing rocks at us, booby traps, ambushes, bullets… It was exhausting.


What was the scariest thing that happened to you while working there?
One time we were returning from a regular patrol with eight guys when we ran into hundreds of cocaleros (coca growers) blocking the highway. It was fucking scary. I was there with my “gringo” face, and I almost shit my pants. The sergeant got out of our truck and walked right up to them. Who knows what he told them, but he came back and told me to cover my face (even though I had camo paint all over). I covered myself with my hat and we drove very, very slowly. If anyone had seen me and said “he’s from the DEA, let’s kill him!” that would have been the end. We got out of it and I smoked half a pack of cigarettes immediately.

Have you ever gone back?
I went back to the coca-growing region of El Chapare with President Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez. I stayed close to them at all times. Nowadays, every time I get hired for a job I state upfront that I will shoot anywhere except in that region.

What’s your favorite photo from that time?
There’s a photo I took of a kid sticking his finger up his nose. He’s looking at me like nothing is going on. I took that photo during a heated political rally. Evo Morales went to this tiny town in the Altiplano where no one had ever seen him except in political posters. This kid couldn’t care less that Evo was speaking. He didn’t give a fuck. He was like, “I’m just gonna pick my nose here, ten inches away from this foreign photographer.” That’s the right attitude for me.


Christians bijdrage 'Slecht Spul' in het Photo Issue kun je hier zien.