Documenting human rights violations around the world sounds like a pretty sobering job. While most of us in the "first "world become irate at the mention of a Monday morning conference call, Colombian photographer Andy Vanegas Canosa (Andy VC) has spent the last ten years traveling to places where the working and living conditions are inhumane, at best. Andy VC's images, particularly his close-ups, suck you in - making you feel instantly connected to the people he photographs on an intensely human level. The experience is both unsettling and beautiful. Through his subjects' eyes, he manages to exhibit both human dignity and suffering, often simultaneously. 

A recent second place winner of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, Andy VC continues to capture images that speak to the joy, sufferings, and resilience of human beings. Yes, I am a little obsessed. Yes, I could go on and on about his work but it basically means nothing until you actually see his photos. The former lawyer and self-taught photographer spoke with us about the psychological effects of his work, his love for Afghanistan, and the importance of illuminating societal ills.

When did you discover your love for photography?

My family are lawyers and so I studied law and went to Spain. I was very disappointed with the legal environment. I was working for the private and public sector and I found it to be a really corrupt system. I was deeply sad by that. I always liked photography, since I was a child, but we didn’t have the money to buy a camera. I was always surrounded by social issues because I grew up in Colombia. Twenty years ago it was a very difficult country, similar to how Mexico is now. I grew up in this kind of environment and this had an impact on me. When I discovered photography, it gave me a really strong tool to raise awareness. I always wanted to be a photographer. I found photography to be a great way to escape this world and to really give something to people.

How does photography brings awareness in a way that writing about something or creating a video doesn’t?

There are many ways to raise awareness. Photography is very fast. You can see a photo and it can raise so many emotions. I think that’s the power of photography.

I try to give some presence to the people who have been forgotten. The impact of this well, I cannot measure this. The main goal is to raise awareness so that people can open their eyes. These problems are there and they need solutions.

After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard.

You said in another interview that, 'I love what I do and I would not be able to picture myself doing something different. However, everything in life has a price. It is a profession that affects your life in ways nobody could expect.' Can you talk a bit about what you meant by this?

I receive many messages where people say things like, ‘wow what a wonderful life. You travel the world and take photos.’ It is amazing and it’s why I love my job. But the price is that every time you cover these social issues, it leaves scars. It’s a psychological effort. After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard. Also, your family is worried about you and sometimes I’m sad that my mother is sad or my brother is sad. They understand, but it’s not easy seeing your family worried about these things. It has a big price emotionally and psychologically that you may not have in another job.

Traveling is also good and amazing but it’s very difficult. At least, this is my point of view. You have to learn how to be with yourself and know yourself and know loneliness. It is a process and it takes time. It’s amazing and beautiful but some people are afraid of freedom.

In Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful.

Your photos are so deeply intimate, how do you create a relationship of trust so that people are comfortable with you taking their photo?

This is a process as well, in terms of how to approach people. I find when I go to these conflict areas; people are very nice and friendly. They always invite you to sit and talk with them. I always talk to people if I can; sometimes I can’t so I just interact with my body. Sure. I believe in body language. If you show you are nervous or afraid, people can feel that. Sometimes people say no and you have to respect that even if you know it will be an amazing picture. If people say no, it’s no. I have found that Colombia is the most difficult place I have worked. Some people will kill for nothing. I was working in a poor area of Bogota and it was scary. Even in Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful. So friendly, so inviting. They like to ask a lot of questions. Where do you come from? Where have you been? What are you doing here? Most of them have never seen a camera in their life.

Have you ever taken a photo of someone who has never seen their image captured in that way? What is their reaction?

Some people are like, how is it possible that I am inside this box? [laughs]. Most people become more relaxed and enjoy the process. I never force people to take pictures or direct them on how to pose. I just take the photos naturally. There is a moment for everything. I like my work to be natural.

To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works.

Your photos are so authentic and feel so natural. Do you have a process?

I wouldn’t be able to answer this question 100%. I never studied photography and never took classes. If you want to be a photographer you can just start taking pictures. It’s a process you learn day by day.

For these photos, it’s a mix of risk. Sometimes you have to take risks. And you have to be social. To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss [laughs]. After the first kiss, things go much better. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works. You can take pictures with any camera.

Can you talk some more about taking risks in your work?

If you are working with gangsters, many of them don’t like to take pictures so these people are very difficult to work with. There is a risk in going to them and a risk in asking if you can take a photo. Sometimes you don’t ask because of the situation. I was in Afghanistan and covering drug users. I was under a bridge and 800 people were using drugs, mostly heroin. People got very angry and were yelling and throwing stones so we had to leave.

What made you interested in covering drug use in Afghanistan? That’s not something highly covered in the American media.

I used to work for the United Nations in the office on drugs and crimes and I got to know a lot about drugs there and I got very interested in the topic. There are many drugs that people don’t know about and many ways to take them -  it’s crazy, it’s a different world. It’s interesting how it can run a country. Corruption exists a lot of time because of drugs. In Afghanistan there are more than a million people consuming drugs, it’s a social problem. It requires social mechanisms to solve it. Many NGO's try to work with drug users. The UN is involved. There’s a huge debate about whether drugs should be legalized.

The photo you have of the man on heroin is whoa – it’s so powerful. How did you take that photo?

Well, the man was extremely high. We have the responsibility to cover these problems that people are facing. I can write you a paper on what it is like for people to do heroin but if you don’t see it, it’s not the same. I try to allow people to feel some of these emotions. He’s not only high, he’s suffering. Being addicted to heroin is one of the saddest things you can see. This guy was in a center for rehabilitation. He had come that day and he was really high and in a special room waiting for the effects to go away. It is a very powerful image. Every time I see this image, I am like, wow.

Can you talk a bit more about some countries you’ve been to? Is there a place you've traveled to you found  particularly eye-opening?

The dumps in Mae Sot. It’s a border town in Thailand, there is a Burmese refugee camp but then there are other people who are illegal immigrants who have crossed the border illegally. So they live in Thailand but they are not refugees so they live in a dump and it’s a community of almost 100 people. They live under some inhumane conditions, you cannot even imagine. They live amongst poisonous snakes, dead animals and they live in mountains of garbage, literally. Imagine when it rains, the smell is absolutely impossible. There are many children playing all around and eating food from the garbage. It’s very sad. You face realities you can’t even imagine. Then you come home and your brother is asking for an iPhone and you’re like, c’mon.

When you return home or to “first world” countries how do you deal with that mentality after you’ve witnessed some of these sufferings?

It’s very difficult. Some people don’t understand. First, because people don’t understand the situation and they don’t understand what I do. After those experiences you just don’t care too much about materialistic things. You lose friends also because people don’t understand you and you don’t understand them or you do - but you don’t want to be a part of those things.

You open your eyes. You see things that people don’t see. You come home and your friends are frustrated about small things and you think, you are so lucky that you have the life you have. You shouldn’t complain. You start to see things in a different way. You’re growing up and everyone grows up. Everyone changes friends…it can be difficult.

What do you love about why you do what you do?

I’m very lucky. I love traveling but I’m lucky because I have a passport that allows me to do that. I have a Spanish and a Colombian passport. If I didn’t have the Spanish passport, I might not be so lucky to travel like I do. Traveling can be very cheap. You can travel in a very cheap way. Many people don’t even know you can spend less money than being at home. Everyday is a new adventure. If you want to move, you move. It makes you more tolerable. When you travel, there is a community that doesn’t exist anywhere. Sometimes you might meet up again with some people you met in Latin America who are now in India and it’s unplanned.

I have a friend I met traveling who once told me “traveling restores your faith in humanity.”

Yes, of course. The thing I really love is meeting people. All around the world you meet great people with great projects and interesting ideas and different ways to see life. I really enjoy hearing these different points of views about life. This is the thing I love most.

 Interview by Jahan Mantin

Photo credits: Andy VC

Click here to view more of Andy's work and to purchase prints.

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