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Work every angle

Work every angle

© Cris Toala Olivares

February 2017

Dutch-Ecuadorian photographer Cris Toala Olivares is one of the new breed of young photographers carving out an eclectic career. He is fascinated by natural phenomena and engineered natural wonders, which he documents from helicopters and with drones as well as from the ground. His comprehensive work on volcanic eruptions, the Wadden Sea and Amsterdam’s canal belt speak to the beauty of working every angle. But as Cris explains to CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim, to reach new heights you need to be business-savvy first...

“My freedom gives me power,” Cris explains. “I come from a country where I was living on the street. I saw people dying on the street. And I’m lucky that my mother was living here [in the Netherlands] and so I came here to study. For me, it was a second chance. A lot of people when they come to a country, which is richer than where you have been living, lose their head because there are too many beautiful things around. But I was just focusing. In Ecuador, I could not even dream because I didn’t see the possibility to escape from the miserable life. But when I was here, I saw this small hole to escape. And it would be stupid to follow the masses. I make my own hole. I follow my rules.”

© Cris Toala Olivares / National Geographic Netherlands
© Cris Toala Olivares / National Geographic Netherlands

A father, his son and dog in front of a window on a house boat in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Broaden your audience

Cris’ drive is apparent the moment we start talking. He arrives with a portfolio box, his laptop, and a brand new copy of his book ‘The Amsterdam Canals’ which we unwrap together. “For me, what I’ve seen when talking to photo editors is that they are quite old school. That’s the reason why I always bring a portfolio box with me. Also I see you like to feel the paper. You like to see the photographs big like this, not on a screen. They are simple, small details but they touch the photo editor or the person who is going to write the story.”

Cris’ way of working embodies the adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. “I don’t go for one thing; I go for many things. You have to be, in one word, an octopus,” he explains. To maximise his work’s reach, Cris sells limited editions of his prints, collaborates with graffiti artists, gives lectures, has photographs printed on dresses, and is currently working on two new books – one on the Wadden Sea (in the south-eastern part of the North Sea) and one on volcanoes. He also ensures to post regularly on his lively Instagram account which now enjoys almost 24,000 followers.

© Google Maps
© Google Maps

In 2009, UNESCO added the Wadden Sea to its World Heritage Site as “the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world.” Cris Toala Olivares is currently photographing the stretch of sea from helicopters and with drones for his upcoming book on the manmade wonder.

To photograph in the sky and on the ground Cris uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF35mm lens whenever he can, using an EF300mm to film and occasionally the EF135mm f/2. Cris explains that his aptitude for aerial photography has tripled his day rate in the past five years and that he often gains client requests for a one-off image in his signature geometrical style. “In the photography market nowadays, it is important to have your own signature. To earn a decent living as a photographer, it helps to see yourself as a label and then use your signature to brand yourself. ”

Even though Cris proudly carves his own path, he has enormous respect for two mentors who have passed on their invaluable knowledge to him. Cris had the honour of learning about light from Mr. Jan Six van Hillegom, the owner of one of the largest collections of Rembrandt’s in the world. And for understanding the ins and outs of aerial photography, Cris was guided by the master himself. “It was one person who taught me - George Steinmetz an American photographer specialised in aerial photography. I first assisted him here [in the Netherlands] for this reportage on the rising sea level. We became very good friends and he passed on his knowledge to me. It’s the same as what Mr. Six did. He knows a lot and, in our conversations together, he has taught me Rembrandt’s knowledge on light from centuries ago. Not bad!”

© Cris Toala Olivares
© Cris Toala Olivares

“Hiking is probably the best way to experience the scenery in Iceland,” says Cris Toala Olivares. Landmannalaugar is the northern end of the Laugavegur hiking trail and a popular destination for tourists in Iceland.

Learning from locals

Although Cris is business-minded, he prefers to think with his heart and his desire to photograph how people live with their environment has a deeper purpose. “I go to these places also to give a voice to people, the journalistic way. What everybody believes: we need to give a voice to people. That’s the reason why I went to Fogo [a volcano in Cape Verde] and didn’t go to Hawaii. I remember people living and sleeping in the crater because it was warm. It’s not only about the stories of the people but I think we can learn from these local people. Because if something happens with us here, we start crying ‘Oh, my laptop!’ or whatever but look to these people – they give an example. They just take what they need. And to live, you don’t need too much.”

Although it’s not unusual for Cris to find new contacts ‘on the road’, his assistants often first scope new locations for potential subjects. Upon arrival, Cris stays with locals for weeks and often months at a time to understand locals’ way of living. On the Italian island of Stromboli for example people live in respectful harmony with its erratic volcano. Cris’ coverage of the island earned him a National Geographic cover... but it also lent him a silent victory and a timeless lesson. “I stayed there for one year; I was part of this island. There was this fisherman who was very difficult to catch. One day, he said ‘Cris, come with me. Non parlare.’ ['Don’t speak']. I said OK and for hours was with this man in the boat. Before he threw the net, he took water and blessed the net. That means respect to the sea. He told me he just catches what he needs and what he doesn’t need he throws back,” Cris reveals.

© Cris Toala Olivares / National Geographic Italy
© Cris Toala Olivares / National Geographic Italy

Gaetano (62) throwing water on the fish net as a symbol of respect towards nature. He is one of the 10 fishermen from Stromboli, Italy seen in background.

One of Cris’ most well-known images is of a man swinging towards an exploding Mount Tungurahua in Baňos, Ecuador. The swing was originally built by one man for his personal viewing pleasure but, thanks to Cris’ striking photograph, the spot quickly became a must-snap tourist mark and in turn became the local man’s livelihood. “This is Mr. Carlos, who made this [tree]house only to check the volcano. He had a very big passion but his wife started to say I’m going because you don’t make money watching the volcanoes. But I took this photo and I sent it to Reuters. Then I took a plastic bottle and cut a hole, gave it to Mr. Carlos and said: ask one buck for the swing as an entrance fee. Now, this man became very famous. When I met him, his knee was not well and with the money he collected he could operate on his knee, his wife works there and all his kids can go to school. From one picture! Now everybody who goes to Ecuador, goes to this place. Thanks to what? For a picture! When I walk in this village you see this photo everywhere and it’s so nice. You have to believe in pictures and what you can achieve with pictures.”

© Cris Toala Olivares / National Geographic Italy
© Cris Toala Olivares / National Geographic Italy

A boy sits in a swing at the tree house called La casa del arbol in Baños, as the Tungurahua volcano erupts on February 1, 2014. The Tungurahua volcano, which has been in an eruption process since 1999, erupted on February 1, sending 13 kilometres of ash and pyroclastic material into the atmosphere.

Biografia: Cris Toala Olivares

Cris Toala  Olivares

Dutch-Ecuadorian photographer Cris Toala Olivares was born in 1982 in Manta, Ecuador and later followed an education in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Cris is an independent photographer who covers stories globally as well as domestically in Europe. His work has been published in major newspapers, magazines and news agencies including: National Geographic, GEO, der Spiegel, Reuters and The Associated Press. He is the author of the photo book ‘The Amsterdam Canals.’


Snowy Amsterdam.