Rider’s Lens: Federico Cabrera
Federico Cabrera sets out on bikepacking trips through remote areas in South America carrying a small portable photography studio. His mission? To capture portraits of people and families who don’t have such a photo. And, as his project is named, “Their Only Portrait” becomes a priceless possession for many of the people he meets along the way.
Words and photos by Federico Cabrera
A few years ago I came upon the Burning House Project by Foster Huntington which asked the question, “If your house was on fire, what would you save first?” This resonated with me as I almost lost my house to a fire. When I asked myself that same question the things I would save, right after my dog, would be my printed photos and hard-disks full of photos. Later when I spent some time backpacking remote locations at South America, I found out some people don’t even have a single image of their own family. That’s when it clicked and I knew I would be able to make a small difference for some of the people I meet in my travels.
Furthermore, when I rode through “El Impenetrable”, one of Argentina’s most remote and wild areas, I realized there are many other ways we can make a difference to the local communities we visit… so since then, besides the photography gear, I also carry solar lights and water filters to give away to the families who need them most.
To make my portraits I mix natural light and flash to get the desired lighting. My photography gear has changed from when I started this project four years ago. Originally I carried a full frame DSLR (Nikon D700) with three fast prime lenses (24, 50, & 85mm) and a Studio Flash with a travel pack (Paul C. Buff Einstein & Vagabond Mini). Nowadays I still use the same printer (Canon Selphy) but I downgraded my photography gear to a small APS-C mirrorless camera with a fixed lens and leaf shutter (Fujifilm X100T) combined with two cheap off-camera flashes (YongNuo YN560IV). This allows more space to carry water filters and solar lights to donate.
I also carry an action camera, a 7” Tablet (with Lightroom mobile), two wireless triggers, two backup harddisks, a tripod, a softbox, a solar panel, two power banks (one with an AC outlet), paper and ink for 100+ portraits, three Fujifilm batteries, 12 AA batteries, several memory cards, filters, battery chargers and cables.
While I was bikepacking through Chaco (northern Argentina) I borrowed a bucket and a rope from Tito, a local guy I met, to get water from their community well. In this dry area, people collect rain water in wells during the rainy season and make it last for the rest of the year, so I wasn’t very surprised to find two frogs inside the bucket when I took water from the community well.
Tito lives with his wife in a small property and survives thanks to a small herd of animals and some gifts from the remaining forest (wild honey & fruits), as his ancestors had done for generations. The only life improvement is a small solar panel he was leasing that worked at random to power a few light bulbs.
I had to explain him three or four times that I decided to explore this area just for pleasure to make, print, and give away portraits to the people I met along the road. He was happy to pose with his wife and even called some neighbors for the photo. Before I was able to print the image, he reminded me that they live with just the essentials and life is very tough up there… and one more time I told him not to worry that the printed portrait was a free gift, just a small way to thank him for the water they gave me. They’re thrilled to see the image materialize and a few mate drinks later I said goodbye and continued my trip.
A couple of weeks later on my way back home, I returned to the area and I found Tito at the front of his house drinking mate. He immediately recognized me and invited me inside. I couldn’t be happier to see the small 4×6 print I gave him as the only decoration on his otherwise bare walls.
About Federico Cabrera
As a child I dreamt of exploring Africa as a National Geographic photographer, but I got a degree and celebrated a successful career in Foreign Trade instead. Five years ago I gave up a 15+ years career to follow my passion for photography, and I started commuting by bike to reduce my stress and to return to a simple/healthier way of living. Nowadays I live at the countryside and I make my living as a freelance photographer and a beekeeper. Support Fede’s project at GoFundMe, and follow his work and travels on Instagram @theironlyportrait or Facebook.