Walter Astrada was born in 1974 in Buenos Aires. At 13 years of age he was determined to become a photojournalist after viewing an exhibition of Argentine press photographers. By the time he was 21, he managed to land a staff job at the national newspaper, La Nacion.
However, Astrada yearned to travel so, three years into his career, he quit the newspaper and began working on a personal project on the theme of ‘Faith’, shooting in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Ever since then his life is best described as nomadic.
In September 1999 he joined Associated Press in Bolivia before continuing to work for the agency in Argentina. He then moved to AP’s Paraguay office for the next two years, covering Latin American events and the soccer World Cup that was staged in Japan and Korea in 2002. During this time he also pursued other personal projects such as a series in stark black and white images on transsexuals, some of the most marginalised of all Paraguayan citizens.
Unable to shake his wanderlust, Astrada spent 2003 freelancing in Buenos Aires and Madrid before taking up another post with the AP at the end of the year, this time in the Dominican Republic. From here he covered events throughout the Caribbean, but was particularly concerned with Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. He continued to document Haiti’s poverty and violence over the next two years. By 2005, he was freelancing again, this time picking up assignments from AFP and distributing his work through the New York-based agency, World Picture Network.
Since then he has mostly been based in Spain, although he has also spent time working out of
Uganda. Fortunately for Astrada, he has a partner whose work also requires a nomadic lifestyle. He has been married to his wife, Cristina, for three years and she works for non-government organisations specialising in women’s rights.
It’s this shared passion for human rights that led Walter Astrada to Guatemala to begin what has since grown into a long-term project on violence against women.
“I’m trying to balance being freelancer and shooting the stories that I think ought to be shot,” he explains. Astrada admits that he is often frustrated as a wire photographer by time constraints. His Femicide In Guatemala project took two months to shoot. The second half of the trip was financed with his 1500 euros prize money from World Press Photo.
“Nobody is going to send you [to Guatemala] for two months to work deeply on this kind of project.”
It is a subject that he admits is both a challenging and an unusual choice. “It’s more difficult to get access when you are a man. You need a lot of time to talk with them. You need to make them feel that you are there to show what’s happening to them. If you try to do that in two days, it’s not possible.”
The work’s recognition in the World Press Photo awards also led to his work being published and exhibited. Astrada has since broadened his focus to include projects on violence against women in the Democratic Congo and India. He continues to fund this work through paid assignments for the AFP and magazines, but has also successfully secured grants from Revela-Oleiros and Alexia Foundation in Spain and the USA.
In fact, grant applications have become an important part of Astrada’s working life and he has found that persistence pays. His successful application for the US$15,000 Alexia Foundation Grant was his fourth straight attempt to secure the prize. At the time of this interview he had just won the Swedish PGB (Photographers Giving Back) Award and was negotiating a donation of around $5000 to an organisation dedicated to helping victims of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Making A Change
While he admits that he is haunted by the violence he has witnessed, Walter Astrada is driven by the hope that his work will make things better and believes that the topics he has pursued are too important not to photograph.
“You cannot be shooting this kind of thing without it affecting you. The day that it doesn’t is the day I’ll have to change professions. On the other hand, I think it’s very important to show what is going on. This gives me a lot of energy to work.”
While he works with the standard wire photographer’s kit of two camera bodies with a telephoto and wide-angle zoom on each respectively, he favours prime lenses for his personal work and shoots with Nikon D700 D-SLR bodies. However, he points out that camera gear is not the most important thing he brings to an assignment. “When you are telling a story you need facts and you need information,” he points out. “The camera is just a tool.”