Interview with Photographer Walter Astrada

Alexia Foundation: Why are you a photographer?

Walter Astrada: It all began when I was very young. When I was 13, I went to a photo exhibition of the Cross-Andes Photographer Association. While looking at the photos, some of them made me feel something, so I said, “If someone can make me feel something with a photo, I want to do the same.” I decided to be a photographer, although it didn’t happen until I was 19, when I left high school.

Alexia Foundation: Do you remember what those photos were about?

Walter Astrada: It was 1987. This was the year that Argentina had a military rebellion, an attempt at a coup by a group called the “Carapintadas” [Painted faces]. I had participated in protests, with my parents, to protest against it. I remembered being in the plaza, and then I saw the photos of the situation.

Alexia Foundation: What made you start working on the theme of violence against women?

Walter Astrada: I have have always worked on projects that address human rights issues and exclusively violence. One day I was reading the newspaper and I saw an article about Doctors without Borders, which was working in Liberia helping women who had been raped during the civil war.

I thought, ” I can do a project about Liberia, about the women who have been raped.” But in that same newspaper, there was an article about a woman who had been killed in Spain. So, I said, instead of going to Liberia, I will do the project here in Spain, where I live.

I began to read a ton. I received a lots of information about the rights of women and I ended up with a table full of papers and reports. It was all divided into zones in different parts of the world. So, it occurred to me that I could choose distinct countries with distinct economic situations, cultures, religions and so forth, and in this way, tell the stories of the lives of women on a global level.

VARANASI, INDIA – NOVEMBER 28, 2009: Utma’s burnt feet are seen as she rests on a bed inside the burn unit. She arrived at the hospital with severe burns to 100% of her body as a result of being doused in kerosene and lit on fire – the penalty for her family’s inability to pay the additional dowry demanded by her in-laws. The hospital cannot be named to protect the people who allowed me access to the burn unit. Walter Astrada/Alexia Foundation

Alexia Foundation: Have you finished the project?

Walter Astrada: Truthfully, I could keep doing it until I die, because there is violence in every country. But, after nearly six years of work on this theme, I think that with the four countries that I have – Guatemala, India, Congo and Norway – I can show what I wanted to from the beginning, that violence against women does not respect any power, religion, or social class. That violence against women does not have anything to do with the wealth of the country nor whether it is first world or third world.

Alexia Foundation: You have said that the large media organizations do not want to publish your work. You said this when you finished in Guatemala. Is this still the case?

Walter Astrada: Unfortunately, yes. There are some exceptions, but very few. I think that not enough has been published given the importance of the issue.

Alexia Foundation: How do you keep working when no one wants to publish your work?

Walter Astrada: I am not dying to publish photos in the media, because, in many cases, I think the many media organizations don’t publish reportages that are important and they publish light themes to not stress the advertisers.

I present my work through exhibitions and lectures because I think this is a good way for people to see the work. I give numerous lectures and hammer away at this all the time. I give an average of 2 lectures a month.

As well, for example, with “Undesired” it is easier, because people can see it from their homes.

And, there are festivals, for multimedia, for the press, whatever they may be, and they have asked us to project “Undesired” many times.

I think that there are a ton of media outlets “alternative” to the large media. Obviously, I think that it would be great to publish in the large outlets as well, but this is not something that really discourages me.

ROTHAK, INDIA – NOVEMBER 2, 2009: A woman cares for Namita, 18 years old, inside a protection home in Rothak. Namita was taken from her home in West Bengal to be sold as a wife in Haryana. She is pregnant as a result of being raped by her trafficker and suffers mental problems. The home provides physical protection but offers few other resources to women who are traumatized on many levels – physical, mental, emotional and psychological – by their experiences. Walter Astrada/Alexia Foundation

Alexia Foundation: How did you learn about the issue of selective sex abortion in India?

Walter Astrada: When I was preparing my application for Alexia, I decided I was going to do Asia. I began to research all of the problems women there faced, and the problem which affected them most that that of selective sex abortion. There are nearly 100 million fewer women in all of Asia because of it. There is a great deal of violence of different types against women. And, moreover, Asia has the two countries with the largest populations in the world, China and India.

Together, the two countries have more than a third of the world population, and both have the problem of selective sex abortion. I decided to work in India for 2 reasons. Firstly, because the issue has to do with religion. Secondly, because within 20 years, India is going to surpass China in population. Therefore, I thought that I had to document the issue of selective abortion of girls and I had to do it in India.

As well, India is one of the places in which women really suffer violence at every age, until they are little old ladies, as is the case for the widows. It is awful.

Alexia Foundation: What was the moment most difficult in India and how did you address it?

Walter Astrada: This issue is very difficult because no one talks about it, although everyone knows it exists. In Guatemala or in Congo, the violence is much more visible because there are women who are assassinated in the streets, there are multitudes of women who have been raped. This can be seen. But, in India, although as well there is physical abuse, the pressure on women to have a boy is much more psychological than physical.

Looking at the photos, some of them made me feel something, so I said, “If someone can make me feel something with a photo, I want to do the same.”

It is very difficult to photograph something that isn’t seen.

As well, it is illegal, so no one wants to openly say that they have had an abortion. It is very difficult to find women or families that have already admitted that they have had an abortion. Further, being a man made it a little more difficult, for example, to take photos while a mother is giving birth, because normally men do not enter the delivery room. Actually, men never enter delivery rooms.

But, I had a very good fixer who was a journalist. As well, he had a friend who was a surgeon who helped me speak with the director of a hospital that allowed us to be there. Then, we had to ask permission from the families who were waiting outside in order to enter the delivery. Then, we had to ask permission from the mothers in order to actually take the photos.

Once inside, we explained that we didn’t need their faces, only the babies. And then, as well, we wanted to document the reactions of families when they received the girl or boy.

It was a question of asking permission all of the time. Truthfully, it was very difficult. The people knew that what they were doing was bad, but they did it, whether it be because of pressure from the families or from society in generally. But, once we explained what we were doing, that we wanted to increase awareness on the issue, the majority of the people understood.

It was difficult. Overwhelmingly, I think it was difficult, truthfully, because I was a man. If I had been a women, it would have been much easier to enter the delivery room, certainly.

JAGRAON, INDIA – JANUARY 12, 2010: The patient’s sister-in-law is clearly disappointed after checking the sex of a newborn baby in a hospital in Jagraon. As the mother already has two daughters, everyone was hoping this pregnancy would deliver the desired son. Walter Astrada/Alexia Foundation

Alexia Foundation: Do you think things will change in India?

Walter Astrada: Unfortunately, no, in short time. The government is doing as much as it can. They are enacting a ton of laws all the time. But the problem is a cultural one. The only way to change it is through education, so that people begin to see that it is bad to have an abortion if the fetus is a girl. But it is going to take a lot of time for this to happen. In the 2001 census, there were 32 million fewer women in India. In the 2011 census, there were 36 million fewer women. Thus, in 10 years, here are 4 million fewer women than were 10 years earlier.

The serious problem that of this is that over the course of years, you have eliminated a part of society. These people no longer exist. They are not there.

In Guatemala, the murder of women, you can stop the violence perhaps in 10 years. How? You can begin to punish the people who kill the women. I don’t think it will happen, but hopefully it will. Rapes in the Congo, these are not going to stop either because they continue now, worse than ever. But, theoretically, they could stop.

The problem with selective sex abortion is that you can stop the practice of selective sex abortion, but there will still be three or four generations which are unbalanced between men and women. Even if you stopped the abortions now, you are not going to see results for 20, 30 or 40 years, until you recuperate the feminine population. The problem is that it is not stopped – it continues. And, furthermore, it is serious because of the issue that it brings. Because of the lack of women in India, the men who want to wed are trafficking women from other countries or other regions of India.

So, the problem is affecting not only India, but also the bordering countries and other states within India that didn’t have this problem before. Why? Because they have 36 million fewer women.

The grave problem that India has is that you can’t replace something that doesn’t exist. In the Congo, you can stop more rapes. In Guatemala, you can stop more murders. But in India, you can’t replace the women who don’t exist.

So, I think that it is super difficult for this to change so quickly because you have many lost generations. I’m sorry to be so negative, but that’s what the numbers show and what I felt when I was documenting the problem.

Alexia Foundation: What was the most satisfying moment or a moment you are never going to forget?

Walter Astrada: It was six months from the time I began to take photos to the point when I finished. I was always thinking that I was missing things because of the complexity of the issue. I even asked Alexia Foundation for a month extension to turn in my material. But, at one point, I stopped and I looked over all the material and I said, “I think that I have something sufficiently complete for what this project is.”

Let’s say it was this. This was when I really realized that I had enough to stop searching for things I supposedly lacked because with what I had I could tell the story well.

HARYANA, INDIA – OCTOBER 2, 2009: Suman, 19 years old, eats on the floor while her husband sits above on the charpoy in the village of Madina, (Haryana). Born and raised in Assam, Suman was forcibly brought to Madina by a trafficker and sold to her husband for 40,000 rupees (US$ 842) at the age of 17. Some 20 years after the onset of sex-selective abortion, young men in India now face a shortage of eligible brides and are prepared to take desperate measures. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in trafficking of women from other regions of India or from countries such as Bangladesh or Nepal. Walter Astrada/Alexia Foundation

Alexia Foundation: What image is the most important to you out of all of the images you took in India?

Walter Astrada: I don’t think that there is a single image that captures everything. I think this work is a perfect example of where many images of different things are necessary to tell the whole story.

But, there are three or four photos that I do like. The one of the burnt feet. I think that this part, showing only the feet, tells the whole story in a more subtle way, while still being a very strong photo, that, in truth, when you see it, makes you think.

After that, the photo of the girl who was trafficked who is eating with her husband, and he is eating on a bed and she is eating on the bed.

Then, the other image is inside a shelter for women. There are three women against a wall, the two almost seated, the third below the others.

As well, the photo which was used as the splash image of “Undesired.” Then, there is the photo of the aunt, which is also in the video, at the moment when she received the newborn girl and is smiling and upon seeing the baby, she does not smile anymore.

I think that these images, truly, these five, six images tell the story of India quite well, but I think that one needs the others to tell the whole story.

Alexia Foundation: What do you look for in an image when you are taking photos or editing?

Walter Astrada: That when someone who has not been there, feels exactly the same thing that I felt when I took the photo. Or that they can see and feel what I was seeing and feeling when I took it. That is what I am trying to do.

Giving a hug to her husband whom she was divorcing, Anne Grethe Solberg said, “See you soon.” “No you won’t,” he answered, pulling out a hidden gun and shooting her in the hip and chest. Face down in the gravel outside the house, she thought, “I must breath carefully, with my stomach, so he does not see that I am still alive.” A neighbor called the police. Ms. Solberg lost an arm and limps from the hip damage. Walter Astrada for Getty Editorial Grant

Alexia Foundation: What are you working on now?

Walter Astrada: In March, I finished the project in Norway. I did it with the Getty Editorial grant. It was to finish the project on violence. At the same time, with a group of five photographers, I did a project about multiple sclerosis in Europe. We were working in 12 countries.

In the case of the project about violence, I would like to make a book. As well, I am trying to see if I should do a general multimedia project with the four countries. On the other side, as well, we are trying to produce some material with the project we did on multiple sclerosis.

Alexia Foundation: What did winning the Alexia Foundation grant mean to you?

Walter Astrada: It gave me the ability to continue working on a project in which I had already put a lot of effort and the ability to travel to India to do this part of the project which seemed to me very important.

Since we produced a multimedia piece, it gave me the ability to work in a new language, because I had not done multimedia before. And this now allows me to be able to make a multimedia project from our work on multiple sclerosis.

It was my entry into a new way of working. It allowed my work to be better known. It gave me the ability to show my work more. We had an exhibition in Perpignan. I think that it has given me a ton professionally. It was a huge professional boost.

And, of course, it gave me the ability to work on the project I was working on. That, in the times we are in, that someone gives you money to be able to do a project that you want to do is great.

Walter’s latest work on violence against women was recently featured in the New York Times Lens blog. His work in the Congo can be seen in Burn Magazine. His work in Guatemala is available on his website See Walter’s final project, “Violence against women in India” for the Alexia Foundation on our website. This interview is also available in Spanish You can see more of the interviews the Alexia Foundation has conducted with its photographers here.

5 thoughts on “Interview with Photographer Walter Astrada

  1. Pingback: Entrevista con fotógrafo Walter Astrada | Alexia Foundation : News

  2. Walter’s work on violence against women (VAW)has depth and breadth, and deserves to be seen by the widest audience possibly to dispels myths around VAW and to encourage discussion. We’ve been promoting his work through the Australian Human Rights Centre in Sydney, and I would like to say that he is also such a pleasant person to deal with. Keep up your great work, Walter. And thank you Alexia Foundation for funding this important project.

    • Diane, it is fantastic that you are able to utilize Walter’s work to help people understand the issue of Domestic Violence. Photojournalism affecting change is why we fund the projects we do and it is great to hear it in action. Thank you for helping get people to see the work and for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Pingback: Photographer Updates: Palu, Berg, Ferdous, Capozziello, Eich, Sinclair, Bleasdale, Lynch & Astrada | Alexia Foundation : News

  4. This is so heartwarming. To think that the privileged go by life not taking the time to think about the atrocities and people suffering around the world.

    These photographers sacrifice allot to open the eyes of the public. Keep up the great work, you will be remembered for you great work in spreading awareness and opening the eyes of the masses.