Giles Price has pushed the boundaries of traditional landscape photography through the aerial perspective he uses. His latest project, documenting the development of the 2016 summer Olympic Games in Rio, will give us the best seats in the house.
Giles Price’s work is compelling not only because of its beauty or the fascination it creates – it has the power to shake people out of their narrow-mindedness and make us see things from a wider and higher perspective. He is well known for producing photo stories and portrait series all around the world, including for clients such as The New York Times and The Telegraph magazines. One could describe his work as conceptual documentary photography.
“It’s about telling stories about the world and time I live in that I feel need to be told,” Price says as we discuss what it is about his work that brings him joy. “If you’ve captured something with an authentic and honest approach, it will hold up.” This is exactly what we need today – people with the motivation and skills to create things that make us question what is all too often taken for granted about the world around us. Yes, many photographers try to photograph the world in new and different ways, but for Price, it’s about what “simply holds true.”
The aerial perspective offers a whole new form of social documentary. How were you initially drawn to this?
“I was drawn to aerial landscapes because I wanted to make a project documenting the construction of the London 2012 Olympics. The IOC and LOCOG [the UK-based company that organised the games] had put in place some very draconian laws restricting people from being able to photograph the construction. They built a 12km blue fence around the site and regularly stopped people who were trying to take pictures. In 2009, I realised the airspace over the building site was free to fly over. I found a local company who needed some aerial imagery of a new factory and that paid for me to fly over the site and start documenting it, which I then did every six months.”
“I liked the vertical satellite/Google Earth view, as this gave it a surveillance feel, as well as some visually interesting abstract imagery. The reportage aspect of this abstracted view became very interesting to explore. This was before drones and, unless you had military government satellites, you couldn’t look at one place in real time – Google can’t do it – yet. After a few flights I realised I needed to add the human aspect and document the workforce who were hidden away in this other world that I could see from the air. LOCOG and the main arts boards were not interested in what I was doing, so I approached the construction firms and asked them if I could take portraits of their workers. Luckily, they all agreed and I got access to shoot. Visually, I wanted to capture the workers in the locations that I had shot from the air – this made for some interesting diptychs of the two views.”
“The final image I made was of the midway construction point of the opening ceremony in the Olympic stadium. This was on the last day, before a no-fly zone was put in place six weeks before the Games. It was a guerrilla-style piece of work from start to finish, which made it all the more enjoyable. The finished project, E20 12 Under Construction, is a social document of the largest urban regeneration in London for 150 years and part of the cultural legacy of the 2012 Olympics.”
You have been documenting the development of the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Summer Olympics since 2014. The Games are an event with the potential to encourage growth in the country, but in reality it also includes challenges, such as social tensions and environmental problems. How do you think the Games have affected and will continue to affect the city and the people?
“The Maracanã was shot for The New York Times Magazine for their World Cup issue. While I was there, I started to document the transformation of the city during the build-up to their Olympics. The difference I’ve found with this project, compared with the London 2012 Olympics, has been the socioeconomic aspect – the visual difference of society is far more pronounced than in London.”
“When I went back in 2015, there was antipathy towards the Games from most people I met in Rio. I think that’s partly because these are the first Olympics to ever be held in South America. The Brazilians have a few Olympians, but it’s really a football nation, so they didn’t seem to have much affinity with the Games themselves. I think some of the infrastructure being put in place will help local people, but vast amounts of money will be spent on things that will not benefit many.”
“Now you have political problems, zika virus and corruption allegations extending into some of the construction projects. The Olympics are a case-by-case thing – sometimes they work on all levels and sometimes they don’t, and it’s the legacy of what is built and how it’s used that signifies whether it’s been a long-term success.”
You visited Rio three times during a 39-month. Looking back, how has it influenced you, personally and professionally? Any moment you will never forget?
“The first time I went to Rio I wanted to fly over Rocinha favela, which is one of the largest in South America. It has a big gang problem – the gangs are heavily armed with military-grade assault rifles and rocket launchers. They have also successfully shot down police helicopters, so when I asked if I could get a picture over it, I was told there was no way. In the end I found a former police pilot who would fly me. It made for an unnerving flight, which bought home those aspects of Rio’s social problems both visually and physically.”
“The Rio project has only been released from the air. This has been for many reasons, but what has resulted is a social documentary with a modern feel. This has presented a very interesting process for telling more in-depth and nuanced stories in a visually different way.”
If we widen our perspective we can all play a part in shaping our world. Price inspires us to seek new perspectives, no matter how tricky the process involved, and his work has become a reminder that the things we do and the choices we make will, eventually, leave a trace.
Words by Anna Åhrén
Photography by GILES PRICE