Elemental Energy

Rafael Rojas sorts through the earth’s kinetic frenzy to create structured, graphic images that connect the viewer to the scene and to nature as a whole

In this unique, energetic image of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, you can see Rafael Rojas’ penchant for transforming scenery into dramatic and emotional photographs. The Matterhorn is one of the most photographed mountains in the world. This award-winning photo easily stands out from all the others.

Rafael Rojas is a high-energy guy, which comes through in everything he does. He’s brimming with a passion for spending time in nature, which ultimately led to photographing it. This isn’t approached casually. He’s driven to deliver the beauty and diversity of nature to an increasingly urbanized humanity.

A glowing aurora shimmers above the Lofoten Islands in Norway.

Based in Switzerland, the Spanish-born Rojas doesn’t identify as a Swiss photographer or even a European photographer. He photographs the natural world, all around the world; travel is in his blood.

“Travel is an essential part of my life,” Rojas says. “Well before I became a photographer, I was already a traveler, and well before I could travel, I dreamt as a child, looking at faraway places on a dog-eared atlas. I guess it is related to a big curiosity and wonder I feel about the world we live in, and an intense will to discover what lies at the other side of that hill or bend.”

Though he’s quite the traveler, it’s not because Rojas is unhappy with what nature provides near his home. He loves photographing pedestrian subjects as much as icons—maybe even more.

“As much as I like visiting iconic places,” he says, “more and more, I enjoy visiting anonymous natural and wild places, which become a creative playground to find my own personal photographs—places where photographic opportunities are not easy or straightforward, they do not jump out. A forest is a clear example of that, since I can be three meters from another photographer and come away with a totally unique photograph. The Arctic is similar; ice changes every time, weather is dynamic, water moves. Photographic possibilities are not clear when I first arrive. These are places where I need to spend some time, relax and enjoy, wander around, connect, sit down—and then photograph—places I need to listen to before I have something to say.”

Rojas won’t settle for making the same photographs time and again, nor will he simply document a beautiful scene. A clear voice is essential, and his voice is strong and loud, simple and clear, and mirrored in his technique.

Rojas won’t settle for making the same photographs time and again, nor will he simply document a beautiful scene. A clear voice is essential, and his voice is strong and loud, simple and clear, and mirrored in his technique.

“It is way too easy to create a ‘nice’ photograph,” Rojas says, “but way more difficult to create a personal one. So more and more, I like to get rid of technical wow effects like ultra-wide-angle lenses, heavy postprocessing, gimmick effects and nice subjects under nice light alone. I want to say something in my photography and concentrate on connecting with the place without hurry, finding the place’s voice and feeling. Of course, then I try to look for that collision of personal vision, plus subject, plus light. But I know that the first component is the most important one, the one that has to be there all the time. The other two are bonuses.”

Rojas uses the panorama format frequently. He says, “The format is so strong that it is easy to fall into the pitfall of conferring too much power to the format alone, where it is easy to hide a mediocre composition or simplification. Rotating webcams could create a panorama, but only a photographer can create a good panoramic photograph.”

Rojas’ quest is to remind us, the first generation of humans totally detached from the natural world, about the necessity of our connection to the earth. “For millions of years we lived as another species,” Rojas says, “grounded to our natural environment. Cities have become the new ecosystem for us, an artificially created one where, from one day to the next, we have eliminated ancestral experiences so basic to our natural history. That has created a void, which we have tried to fill with equally artificial tools or goodies—like money, career, success, commercial malls and technology. That urban world and those goodies keep us busy, and alienated in most cases, and it is virtually impossible for us to remember what happened to that natural world our ancestors enjoyed. So when we come with the idea of protecting it, how are people going to react? It is difficult to realize the need to protect something you do not know exists—even more so when that would compromise your ‘real’ source of happiness: those same goodies that we created. How do you trade the car for a bike to protect a polar bear you only see on TV? Why change oil for sustainable sources of energy when the coast of Alaska is far from most of us?”

Wherever he may find them, Rojas is drawn to particular subjects, the basic elements that form the foundation of everything. It’s variety in these elements that drives him to the ends of the earth: mountains and deserts and forests, water and wind and earth.

“There are certain convictions that might model the way I photograph,” he explains. “I like color, variety, getting out of my comfort zone and experimenting with new situations, techniques and subjects. I have always enjoyed diversity. Maybe that is why I would never specialize on photographing just the mountains or the woods or the desert alone. I feel the magic of the mountains even stronger when I have been in the ocean a bit before, or that I can connect better with the forest when I have experienced the desert.”

Rojas’ goal isn’t to find the grandest, most unique, most iconic location in the most exotic parts of the world. It’s more about stirring a transcendent connection to nature wherever he may be. His mission, after all, is greater than photography.

Rojas’ goal isn’t to find the grandest, most unique, most iconic location in the most exotic parts of the world. It’s more about stirring a transcendent connection to nature wherever he may be. His mission, after all, is greater than photography.

“By protecting wilderness,” Rojas says, “we protect ourselves first of all. In the end, all the environmental causes focus on our well-being. Unless we make the planet explode from the core, nature will never perish, and where mountains exist today, deserts will appear or tropical forests will grow. When we talk about protecting the environment, we talk about conserving our home, improving our quality of life, becoming happier and healthier and living in a more balanced way. If we do not do things properly, our chance will pass and our species will decline. Give the earth some billions of years, and it will recover as if we had never been here.

“I tend to be optimistic,” he continues, “and, in fact, as nature photographers, we must be optimistic. Our photographs and videos can bring to cities a piece of what is out there, to reconnect people with what was once part of us. But that is the tip of the iceberg. A good photographer, an artist photographer, will bring not only a piece of nature to the people, but an emotive, touching and personal view of it, and that is where the real power of photography is—conveying emotions, speaking a universal language to touch the sensitive fiber of people, making them dream with nature and realize there is no need to look for magic or fantasy in Tolkien or Harry Potter books, but just go for a walk during a misty day to the local forest.”

Adds Rojas, “The world we dream of, that paradise, is right here, and by ignoring it, we destroy it. That is where I see the role of photography—it shows others the treasures we have, it moves people and touches the emotions, it speaks an international language.”

Rojas originally was trained as a geological engineer, and this abstract image shows his ongoing appreciation for the rock core that makes up the foundation of nature.

Trained as a geological engineer, Rojas left his job to pursue nature photography full time, but the love of rocks that led to his earlier career still shapes his life.

“Looking at rocks,” he says, “I tend to think about what has happened to them for millions of years, when they formed, when they were sculpted by the wind, rain and ice. I have realized I am particularly obsessed with geology, the northern oceans and the forests. Any place strong in any of these components will draw me magnetically. I like photographing the sea, since it never stops and reveals itself as an almost living organism. I even tend to feel the trees ‘growing’ as I photograph the forest. I like to see myself being part of that active, never-stopping world. We are all part of a macro-living organism, our planet, and in the end, looking for that flow or energy beneath everything around us makes me feel like I am discovering the soul of the matter. It also helps me connect better with the surroundings at an emotional level, something which normally leads to a higher emotional load in my photographic work.”

That planetary energy that turns mountains into boulders is reflected throughout Rojas’ portfolio. He’s almost better defined as an elemental photographer rather than a landscape photographer, drawn as he is to the earth’s energy that manifests in mountain winds blowing snow from a peak, tides pushing jagged shards of ice into kinetic sculptures, even the slow progress of water and wind carving stone.

“I love the energy of those conditions,” he says. “It is like feeling the energy of nature, like feeling alive in a way. I see our planet as a living organism, where everything is in constant movement, change and adaptation. Movement, flow, energy, time—all these things are something that explicitly or implicitly I tend to consider while seeing the world and when photographing it. In practical terms, that energy or flow appears in my photographs in different ways—extreme and energetic weather conditions, transient and quickly moving light bathing the landscape, inclusion of contrasts or edges like the edge between night and day, good weather and bad weather, land and sea, the inclusion of visual tension and subjects that tell a story about time or action in the landscape, like an erratic boulder looking toward a valley sculpted by ancient glaciers.

“I always feel a mixture of excitement and satisfaction when I strip down an image to the most basic structure,” Rojas continues. “I realize that is when the concept really finds its voice, when I find that I am saying a phrase with my photograph and not a paragraph. It is also because basic, simple—but not simplistic—and well-structured compositions need a lot of input from the photographer, and thus those resulting photographs are normally more bound to the photographer than to the subject they reflect.

Finding chaos is easy; finding structure takes a lot of effort, personal effort, on the part of the photographer. That is something I always strive for—putting my stamp on the photograph—and that purity of structure is part of it. Simplicity of forms, purity of structure and strong compositional ingredients are something I always strive for in all my photographs.

“As I say to my students,” adds Rojas, “if you cannot draw with a few pencil strokes the basic structure of a photograph, chances are you failed in transmitting the message you were after. The photographs I like the most are those where a full abstraction of the visual design has been made, where the play and interaction of tones, colors, shapes and textures is so strong that it almost becomes the subject over the subject matter. It is only then when the visual language can be used to transmit something that goes beyond the tag, identifying the subject matter.”

See more of Rafael Rojas‘ photography at www.rafaelrojasphoto.com.