Interview by Jan Eric Hühn / Photographs by Chas Gerretsen / 10min
We met Chas when working on the third Episode of our mag. His series of behind-the-scenes images from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now felt like so much more than just a series of moments happening on set. It felt like the documentation of a war, a collection of emotional moments, which enabled us to see the film from a very unique perspective.
Chas was always driven by his desire to see the truth, to really know what it is like, and to distance himself from any personal or political perspective as much as he can. Starting his travels inspired by movies but in disbelief of what he saw, his life has been about experiencing the real world. Capturing it for others to see. Whether this might have been becoming a Cowboy or joining the front lines of a war.
When he then reached out to us and asked us if we might be interested in supporting his new book project about the many riots in Chile leading up to the military coup in 1973 there was no doubt that those images would be something special. And well, they are! His images document a time period of nearly two years, from January 1973 to September 74, showing what life was like in a democratically elected, socialist-led country. The US sanctions, which further increased after the government nationalized most of the American-owned copper mines in the country, had a massive impact on life in the country leaving many people with little to nothing.
In 2019 Chas posted a picture of that time on social media initiated by hearing the sad news of the death of his friend and fellow photojournalist Sylvian Julienne. It was an image of an overcrowded bus which to him captured the essence of the time they spent together in Chile. “It just was the first thing I saw when I arrived in Chile, people holding on to the outside of the Bus, wanting to get home.”
The feedback which followed these images was overwhelming. Thousands of people started to follow Chas in just a few days. Many people reached out to him and for the first time in their life, they were able to see what had happened in Chile back then. Adding visuals to the stories they had heard from their parents.
Chas: For the first time in my life, I really had the feeling that my pictures were appreciated. Reading those words - I got goosebumps. For the first time in my life, it felt like I had done something worthwhile.
Eric: That's such a heartwarming story to hear! But why did you decide to go to Chile in the first place? Did you already know about the riots or was it a coincidence?
Chas: I had never been to South America before. So I went to my partner at the time and told her that I wanted to go to a place where I had never been before and if she wanted to come with me. And well, she said yes.
Thinking about where I could maybe be taking pictures, our first destination was decided to be the Amazonas area. It was something new and totally different back then. I bought a ticket on an Italian passenger liner to Brazil but wound up in Buenos Aires on the first of January 1973.
I went to the news organizations, NBC, CBS, and all the others but the only one who said that they would use my work was Time Magazine - If I would go to Chile.
The only thing I knew of Chile at the time was that they had just voted in a leftist President. That was about it.
We went. Found a place to live. Learned that the exchange rate for the US dollar was outrageous. I mean, we could live a whole day on a dollar. Otherwise, we would never have been able to stay in Chile for six months.
Eric: How long after you arrived in Chile did the unrest begin? How was the atmosphere in the country?
Chas: They were actually going on for quite a while. But at first, besides maybe one or two examples, they were relatively benign. People from both the left and the right parties were throwing stones at each other, chasing each other. One second, one group was chasing that group. A second later: Everybody pretty much ran the opposite way again.
You can actually see that in the book: I'm standing in the same place. In one picture everybody runs to the left. Next picture: Everybody runs to the right. These were kind of running street battles you could say. Overall the officials allowed it to happen as long as no cars were set on fire, and no windows were broken. But when the El Teniente - the miners went on strike, It became serious: Windows were broken, and cars were set on fire. The military got involved. People were shot. Things changed.
Eric: How did you get in close to the subject in such a situation? You can't go in there and hope you don't get blown away, can you?
Chas: I think it was the very first riot I went to in Chile - even though I was an outsider, just photographing what was happening, I ran with the left. All of a sudden I was attacked by them. Hit over the head by a couple of men. Trying to pull my cameras off me. But three young men, in their early twenties I guess came screaming at them, saving my cameras which I clutched to my chest.
After that I tried not to run with anybody anymore. Completely staying outside. Maybe nothing ever happened again because people started recognizing me. I was tall and usually dressed all white.
Eric: So you kind of didn’t try to hide at all?
Chas: Yeah. If you take a look at the films of the time, you will often see me. Dressed all white. Taller than everybody else. Moving kind of weirdly with a whole bunch of cameras hanging around my neck. And also people in the street recognized me because these films were shown on television at the time. They called me the skinny Dutchman.
Eric: I can’t imagine what that must feel like. If I look at the images there are people right in front of your lens. Holding guns, shooting. Do you feel like you have a lower level of fear when it comes to those situations?
Chas: When I was in war zones I always knew that by going out there I might get killed. It was never so much a fear of getting killed though. More a fear of losing an arm or a leg. But during combat, any fear is gone. You simply don't have time.
The only thing that I remember, for example, is one time we were all down in a shallow hole. But my cameras were sticking out. And the only thing I was thinking about was my cameras. Hoping they don't get hit. 60 years later, reliving that memory, I still hope my cameras don't get hit. Never: “I hope I don't get hit.” I would describe the feeling as going to a rave and everybody's dancing, everybody's swinging their arms and doing crazy things. And you are the only one who goes:
Click. Click. Click.
But you won't participate. Maybe you want to scream - Also want to participate in the dancing, in the crowd but instead, as photographer you go:
And in Vietnam, I know half a dozen photographers who got killed. Shooting at the other side. Because they wanted to participate. I don't think it was animosity towards the other side. It was about belonging to a group. And being part of the group. You know, because you never are accepted, if you go click, click, click. You are the only one who's not participating. You don't belong to the crowd and that crowd is going to say: “What the f*** are you doing here?”
Eric: You said the riots started rather relaxed. But if I look at the images, you can see: It really escalated at some point.
Chas: It did, as the minor strike began. Suddenly Molotov cocktails were being thrown. It was no longer a youthful release. But it turned into a serious fight. All the groups, which were against the government, now joined forces. The right saw Allende as someone who had taken away their privileges, they were fighting to get them back. The left saw Allende as the hope for a better future. I tried to see both sides in the book which I've come up with now. The hardest part was to show both equally. And of course, it is not going to make either side happy. Some people will say you have too many pictures of Pinochet and the right. Others will say there are too many of the left.
All I can say is that I was an observer. People on both sides were nice to me. I wasn't bound to any magazine or newspaper. I was a Freelancer. I didn't have a point of view.
Eric: But I guess every picture has a perspective by its nature. You decide when to pull the trigger and where to go, and what to follow.
Chas: Absolutely. But I pull the trigger when the composition is right. I photograph very methodically. And in my opinion without bias. I have no point of view politically. The only point of view I have is to create, what is to me, a good picture. One which reaches you emotionally.
To me, the only way to do that in a picture or in a book, or in any form of life is to show contrast. If you show a crying kid, a little baby starving, that's horrible. But if a grown-up is standing behind it - smiling. It really hits home. There's this picture from a quite famous Dutch photographer. You see a couple of women with their arms thrown in the air and they may be in distress, or they're celebrating. You don’t know. Because you can’t see the body of the man who died right in front of them unless you put a text underneath it. You don't know what's really happening.
You can maybe say it's a great picture but to me, it's not a good photojournalistic picture. Because in a good picture, you have to understand the situation and you have to have contrast. It doesn't make any difference whether it’s a war or anything else. It can be a poor area as the background to multi-million dollar homes of the rich. Contrast. A girl smiling with a stone in her hand, ready to throw. And you can see that she's in a riot. Contrast and context. This was a picture I sent to the news agency back then and they said: “No smiling rioters!” She had a stone in her right and an ice cream in her left hand the riots in the back. It was an amazing image. But probably it did not sell their story.
Eric: Is that picture also in the book?
Chas: No. Sadly lots of pictures I took disappeared. I always shot black and white and colored film equally. I have about 8,000 pictures I took of which seven and a half thousand are black or white. So there must be around 7000 images that I can’t find anymore. Some pictures appeared on Getty or Reuters back then under different names. When I complained they disappeared but I never got them back. My pictures were used all over the world and often without credit. I don't mind that my pictures are shown. I would like to have credit and I'd like to get paid for sure, which back then I also needed to because I had to make a living. But right now for me, it's more important that these pictures go out so that people see what happened during that time. And that is because of the reaction of the Chilean people. How it made me feel.
This book is not about money. I have enough money to survive another, maybe 10 years. And I'm 80 years old. I don't think I'm making another 10 years. Also: I haven't been a photographer since 1989. So it's not for my career either. It's because I enjoy sharing things in the hope that people can learn from it or at least see another site. That has always been my motive, and it's still my motive.
Eric: That's a beautiful motive and a wonderful statement to end our conversation here. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this project with us!
Chas: Thank you for your platform.