A winged giant in the city of rage
In El rey pájaro, Sofía López Mañan documents the life of the Andean condor in Buenos Aires. Although it is revered by the peoples of the Andean mountain range, in Argentina, it is threatened by hunting with lead bullets and the use of toxic agrochemicals for predator control. López Mañan’s eye captures the intense connection of this species with the territory it presides over and with the communities that honor its mythical presence.
By Alonso Almenara
Last year a pair of condors in isolation had a chick at the Buenos Aires Zoo. It is practically a miracle: animals that live outside their natural habitat do not usually have offspring due to stress. At this zoo, fortunately, things are done differently. In 1991, the Andean Condor Conservation Program (PCCA) was created here, which is dedicated to the monitoring and study of these birds, the rescue and rehabilitation of wild specimens, and the rearing of chicks in human isolation, which are then reintroduced into their natural environments.
Sofía López Mañan began working with this organization seven years ago. “It’s crazy to see the condor, this giant being with a wingspan of two meters fifty, living in the Ecoparque, in the heart of the Federal Capital,” she observes. Before devoting himself to photography, he studied Fine Arts and worked for many years doing performance art. “At that time, I recorded what I was doing with my father’s old camera. It wasn’t a professional device: photography didn’t interest me much”.
She discovered the path of the image as her passion for ecology grew. Today, she aspires to create stories that intensify the connection of communities with their territories. She believes that being immersed in a natural environment is a learning experience that helps people behave more responsibly towards the environment.
That led her to connect with the PCCA. After five years of fieldwork, she decided it was time to tell the story of the life of the condors of Buenos Aires in the project El rey pájaro. The series tells of the strange beauty of this species – at once cunning and elegant – and of its symbolic resonance in the communities that consider it a magical being. “In the region’s legends, the condor is in charge of transporting souls and raising men’s prayers to heaven,” says Sofía.
But these sacred birds are an endangered species in Argentina. They face dangers such as toxic bait, lead poisoning, and open dumps. Sofía comments that the disappearance of the condor would significantly impact the ecosystem: “The condor is the bird that, thanks to its tough beak, opens the hides of large animals, allowing other scavenger species to access food. That means that by protecting it, one indirectly protects many other species”.
That is why he defines El rey pájaro as a project that combines “the latest advances in conservation, ancestral wisdom, and the Andean cosmovision to prevent the extinction of an emblematic species.”
“I went to La Rioja, and everything was full of clouds when I arrived. One day I was going along a U-shaped cliff, which was all white. But the sky began to open in three seconds, and the condors appeared. They were flying by in the silence of this little cloud, and you could hear all the details of the sound of the flight. It is like a surround sound. In these situations, you say to yourself: I’m not perceiving, I’m not photographing, I’m immersed in a world.”
How did you get involved with condor conservation work?
I have been collaborating with the Program for seven years. I travel with them. I participate in the reinsertion of birds that have no flight experience. I am in the hatching ceremonies of chicks. I appreciate that they work not only on the biological side of conservation but also the cosmovision. They understand the symbolic importance of the condor for many Andean communities. That is why they promote an approach to nature centered on recognition. They do not talk about care but honoring and respecting other living beings.
That is why, for me, El Rey Pájaro is not only a photographic project: it is a life project. Doing fieldwork awakened a side of me that I didn’t know: I began to study naturalism, and it opened up a biological path that I’m still very interested in. But there is also the emotional side. That of bonding, of inspiring. It is beautiful when these feelings are generated in a community, and they begin to incorporate this bug they didn’t realize before, and now it is a condor. You carry the message, and people start to name it, look at it, and recognize it. It is an experience that makes you more present and connected to your territory and identity.
Do you think photography is essential for conservation?
It’s a bitch to live in the age of communication. One of the challenges conservation groups have today is needing more contact. I’m passionate about helping a conservation project inspire more people. And also to help them receive more funding, which will always be necessary.
Is it very different between photographing humans and photographing animals?
With humans, you have to be able to project security because that security relaxes people. For non-humans, you are not necessary. They will never give you what you want. So it’s about adapting to the fact that things don’t happen as you want them to. You can go eighty days in the bush without any condor showing up. You may have to stay for hours and hours in the same place, and nothing happens. Either they turn their backs on you, or they don’t leave the nest.
For me, the beauty of being there is enough. Let the show happen when it has to happen. It’s beautiful that there’s no control. You just have to be ready to be surprised. I had the most incredible emotions in these situations. For example, I went to La Rioja for this project, and when I arrived, everything was full of clouds. It rained every day I was there. Still, I was going for walks. And one day, I was going along a U-shaped cliff: it was all white when I entered. But the sky started to open in three seconds, and the condors appeared. They were flying by in the silence of this little cloud, and you could hear all the details of the sound of the flight. It is like a surround sound. In these situations, you say to yourself: I’m not perceiving, I’m not photographing, I’m immersed in a world.
You mentioned the issue of waiting in the work of wildlife photographers. Can that waiting be frustrating?
Waiting is complicated if you need to learn how to be with yourself. If it’s hard for you to be with yourself and spend eight hours sitting on a rock with a mate and a book waiting for something to happen, you’ll get frustrated if it doesn’t happen. But that has nothing to do with wildlife. Feeling that you are wasting your time is a strictly human problem.
How serious is the situation of the condor in Argentina?
The Condor Conservation Program is a 30-year-old project which mainly deals with condor breeding in isolation. I have witnessed that these birds are rescued in terrible health conditions. Most of them are affected by lead bullets, banned in Argentina, but are still used in hunting. If one kills an animal in the forest and the condor comes down to eat it, it also eats the lead, a slow poison. Added to this is the danger of using toxic agrochemicals, often sold in the villages without traceability, such as ‘Matayuyo’ or ‘Matapuma.’ When a farmer wants to get rid of a puma that eats his sheep, he uses these products with glyphosate, which is consumed by all kinds of animals and starts wreaking havoc.
That’s why the cultural part of this project is so important. Before each release, the community where the condor was found holds a ceremony. And each tradition is different because they are occasions in which each community expresses its own identity. The idea is that people feel connected communally and with non-human beings inhabiting that territory.
This work is one of the inspirations for E-CO/23], the new edition of our meeting of photographic collectives, which this year will have as its thematic axes: Ecologies, Territories, and Communities.
Through this call, we are interested in gathering stories of sustainable development, community movements, and ways of inhabiting the land in the community to achieve new narratives built from the plurality of collective creation.
Each selected project will receive support of 5,000 euros for its production. The tasks can be presented by existing collectives or by groups of people working in collaboration for this project in an interdisciplinary way.
The selected groups will participate in a collective process of production and reflection that will be accompanied by pedagogical support with specialists in the themes.
Once the production stage is completed, the project results will be presented in one or more exhibitions that may rotate and on the digital platforms of Fundación VIST, the AECID, and the participating Spanish Cultural Centers or the institutions they designate. The aim is to consolidate networks for creating and circulating visual narratives in Ibero-America.