An Interview with Photographer Sonja San Martin

I thought it was about time to publish an interview –I’d been sitting on for almost two years.

Sonja San Martin is a rising Chilean photographer. Her works have been published in magazines such as Rocinante, El Sur, Colegio Médico de Chile (Medical Journal of Chile), Hatuey, and her photography has made the cover of PROhumana. In 2007, she exhibited a series called “Cucao: Luces y Colores de Chiloé” centering on Cucao (50 km. southeast of Castro, Chile) –at the Marta Colvin hall (Universidad de Bío-Bío) in Chillán, Chile. In 2006, she did camera and photography work for Yiri Culture’s documentary “Le Pont de la Joie” as a French/Chilean cross cultural exercise and analysis, where sixth grader artwork from both countries were exchanged. In that same year, she travelled to France to do a documentary as part of the same project. She has also offered introduction to photography and journalism workshops in Castro and Chillán.

San Martin studied at the Universidad de Serena in 2001, and later with the Taller de Fotografía de Reportage in the Escuela Portafolio in 2003. Sonja San Martin obtained a college (instituto profesional) degree in Audio Visual Communications from DUOC in 2004.


Maurice Cepeda-Gonzalo Millán Tribute, 2007


I met Sonja San Martin through a mutual journalist friend, Rodolfo Hlousek, in 2006, when I was asked to perform for a tribute to the Chilean poet Gonzalo Millán. From the moments I’ve spent with San Martin and based on her work, she strikes me as a bright, talented artist, one that’s excited about life, and one that sees life via a different and sincere perspective; San Martin speaks her mind, when others might not want to rock the boat. For instance, she does not sugarcoat her disdain of the Chillán poetry scene (if not most of its participants), which might be odd considering she covered Chillán’s 2007 Tribute to Gonzalo Millán, but I gather this simply attests to Millán’s posthumous charisma. (The photograph contained herein, was taken by San Martin during that very same tribute.)

In my interview below, San Martin talks about her imputus for taking photos. Interestingly, she says that this stems from a desire to catalogue, create, and self-heal, rather than from a drive to express herself –although one could argue that all action is self-expression. The interview initially starts with a bit on her social life, artistic start, whether her work is art, her modus operandi, instinct vs. technique, if she keeps abreast with current photography trends, and her web presence. San Martin also mentions her soft-drug use as a young person, her latter struggles with depression and panic attacks, and how photography has helped her overcome these obstacles.

Considering that I rarely see San Martin in person, she consented to being interviewed during an IM conversation on July 18, 2007. Then later in December 2007, she encouraged self-publication of said interview on this very same blog. Below is my own translation of the colloquial Chilean Spanish. I’ve tried to remain as literal as possible, unless incomprehensible in English or where typical North American idioms fit. My comments are in square brackets, “[]”. These are sometimes used to clarify or complete ideas that may not be logical or obvious to the native English speaker.


Apple Bacardi & Social Life
Maurice: Hi.
Sonja: Hi.
Maurice: How did you sleep? [I did ask “How”, not “Where”]
Sonja: I slept at a friend’s house. I dropped her off and stayed over.
Sonja: I’m now at another friend’s house.
Sonja: Having a car changed my life in Concepción [allowing me to frequently visit friends].
Maurice: Were you out partying yesterday?
Sonja: I went to a bar last night.
Sonja: I went out to a bar called Alemendra. It’s one of the best bars in Concepión, at the moment.
Sonja: It’s awesome.
Sonja: I only drank an apple Bacardi. [that is, one glass]
Maurice: Are you from Chillán originally?
Sonja: Yes
Sonja: … at heart [and literally]

Sonja’s Start
Maurice: When did you start to develop film?
Maurice: Did you take photos previously?
Sonja: I first went from Chillán to Valparaíso when I was about 18 years old. It was there when I started to get the itch to travel, together with a desire to track, archive, and create images, but this was just a desire — considering that I didn’t have a camera, yet.
Sonja: In Valparaíso and later San Pedro de Atacama, I fixated on the fact that I didn’t own a camera. But knowing I would soon acquire one eased my burning desire.
Sonja: Then, I started to heal.
Maurice: Did you suffer from depression?
Sonja: Yes, I’d been very depressed for years with panic attacks. This resulted in a “caída al caldero” (literally, “fall into the cauldron”). I abused some soft drugs when young and I paid the price. I no longer [even] smoke dope.

I’m not Sure My Work is Art
[It was at this point that I referred to Sonja’s work as art.]
Sonja: Mmm.
Sonja: I’m not sure if what I do is art.
Sonja: I photograph because I discovered it made me feel good about myself,
Sonja: and as I started to work my desire to live returned. I didn’t want to live, until I found photography. I was very messed up.
Maurice: So is photography self-therapeutic for you?
Maurice: Catharsis?
Sonja: Yes,
Sonja: but this wasn’t planned. I’d been messed up for years until I decided to install a dark room in my apartment, and locked myself in with the darkness of my conscience. I believe this resulted in a sort of psycho-magical ACT [Sonja’s capitalisation] because I started to feel better.
Sonja: This allowed me to confront my fears.
Sonja: Because photo-developing necessitates complete darkness, I lost my fear of the dark –little by little.
Sonja: Later on, I learned that I worked best alone; Developing is a solitary process, after all.
Sonja: I really learned discipline, and rigor.
Sonja: That’s what my work is.
Sonja: And that’s why I don’t know if it’s art.
Sonja: My work was a lifesaver.
Maurice: I remember that when I used to box, the ring forced you to face your fears such as … am I going to get hit, is it going to hurt, would I hurt my [friend stepping in as an] opponent?
Sonja: What a great example.

Modus Operandi
Maurice: When Rodolfo introduced us, I found you elusive. Since then, I’ve found you anything but that.
Sonja: No, not at all.
Sonja: I didn’t mean to be evasive. It’s just that I was working, and when I work I mentally isolate myself from those around me and submerge myself into the subject matter. Afterwards, I need a moment to reintegrate myself.
Sonja: We spoke during that moment.
Sonja: I was still thinking about my work.
Sonja: This always happens to me.
Maurice: [Is] This is an artistic technique and [that] poses a social integration problem.[?]
Sonja: Yes.

Sonja: But for me it’s more than just technique, because when I take photographs I become inspired and passionate which naturally leads to isolation.
Sonja: And of course after making love, one should rest. [I should have asked her to elaborate, but resisted.]

Artistic Instinct vs. Technique
Maurice: Is your work instinctual?
Sonja: Absolutely.
Maurice: Did you study art, be it painting, drawing, etc?
Sonja: Yes, I studied photography,
Sonja: not painting, nor drawing.
Sonja: I don’t know how to paint.
Maurice: I remember that –for me– the study of technique was [sometimes] a barrier to expression.
Sonja: Mmmm, that’s a big topic.
Sonja: I’ve formed my opinion on the matter.
Sonja: I believe that technique is only necessary to the point where you incorporate it completely, to later “forget it”.
Sonja: It sounds strange, but nonetheless you should
Sonja: know it all to later shove it [San Martin mentions an anatomical part]
Sonja: and do as your heart dictates.

Keeping Abreast with Fashionable Art
Maurice: Do you keep up to date with other arts and artists, national or international?
Sonja: I don’t proactively keep up to snuff with fashionable photography. Still –for one reason or another– new pictures [Sonja says “pages”] and artists come to my attention.

Maurice: You told me that you have a webpage.
Sonja: I haven’t paid for it yet.
Sonja: The webpage is ready, though. I just have to pay on Monday.
Maurice: Does it have a domain name?
Sonja: [which eventually became]
Maurice: Great!

Maurice: We’re going to cut this interview short …
Sonja: We can continue when you want.
Maurice: Agreed.
Maurice: Ciao … take care.
Sonja: You too.

We never did perform a second interview, what with San Martin’s odd hours, increasingly busier work schedule, and her travelling.

You can see Sonja San Martin’s portfolio and read her blog both accessible from her official domain, or and respectively.

Maurice Cepeda

References[18]=i-17-1bd6fe6c4a2c89f8336409902f9fd47e [dead-link now ]

All rights reserved on the interview, that is the written text. All rights reserved on the photograph, too, which was photographed by Sonja San Martin and given gratis to Maurice Cepeda (whom holds the rights). By reading this article, the reader forgoes any accountability of the writer. The reading of this article implies acceptance of the above stipulations. All brands mentioned are properties of their respective owners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s