A giant crucifix on an Argentinian beach – Andreas Billman’s best photograph

<span>1.5% (28/12/2021) by Andreas Billman</span><span>Photograph: Andreas Billman</span>
1.5% (28/12/2021) by Andreas BillmanPhotograph: Andreas Billman

I took this in December 2021 on the outskirts of Miramar, a coastal town in Argentina. I didn’t know it then but the photograph marked the beginning of my book, Dead Cow Rising. It’s a conceptual documentary project that charts Argentina’s rapidly rising inflation rates in images from a journey through Vaca Muerta, which means Dead Cow in English. It’s a desolate but oil-rich region covering an area approximately the size of Belgium.

My mother is Argentine and my father is Swedish; having spent most of my life in the UK, I wanted to reconnect with my roots and create my own portrait of Argentina, uncovering its everyday realities. Miramar is where I spent all my Christmases growing up. It’s a happy-go-lucky beach town, five hours’ drive from Buenos Aires. I was visiting family and this photo was taken during the purgatory days between Christmas and New Year. I rented a bike from the same shop I hired from when I was seven, and cycled to the sand dunes. As I walked down to the beach, this arrangement naturally fell into place. The donkeys, the car, the people looking up at Christ: there’s a balance that draws the eye to the scale of the crucifix – that’s what makes this picture good.

Many people are surprised by the scale of the statue – and someone once asked me if it was a real person up there – but for anyone from Argentina, it’s commonplace. Religion is deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. It was not my intention to allude to the statue as a symbol of death or rebirth – I’ll leave that to the viewer to interpret. It’s just showing part of the everyday in Argentina.

A few days after taking this photo, I asked to borrow my uncle’s car to drive into the depths of Vaca Muerta. He asked, “Why? There’s nothing down there, it’s desolate.” But that was exactly why I wanted to go. My photography is all about arrangement, composition and creating intrigue; taking unlikely or ordinary places and elevating them into something beautiful. That’s why I chose an area that’s undocumented and usually classed as unremarkable.

Vaca Muerta is actually deeply complex region. It’s one of the largest shale oil and gas reserves in the world, but the local community suffers from the country’s wider economic turmoil. Each picture in my book is titled with the inflation rate. The first one was taken in December 2021, which I set as a baseline of zero per cent. By the last photograph, taken in February 2023, inflation reached 111%. At the time of writing it has reached 289%. To put that into perspective, when I took the photo of the crucifix, a litre of milk cost around 90 pesos. By the end of the project it cost 236 pesos. Now it costs 1,276.

My work blurs the lines between conceptual and documentary photography because it’s talking about a real problem that affects real people, but I’m trying to show an alternative way of visualising it. Inflation is a constant, unforgiving reality of life in Argentina. Even in a quiet moment, it’s always creeping up.

People in the UK were worried when annual inflation rose to 6%. That was happening monthly in Argentina. Wages are constantly changing but do they keep up? No. Can people save money? No. So what would they rather do? They’d rather live in the present, and they do that in the best way they know. When they can, they spend their money on good meat and drinks, they host asados (barbecues) and have a good time with their friends and family.

Inflation affects every aspect of their lives and forces them to continually adapt and persevere. I’m trying to capture a glimpse of this difficult but hopeful reality where, as inflation rises by the day, so does the people’s resilience.

• Dead Cow Rising is published by Artphilein Editions.
• View more work here

Andreas Billman’s CV

Born: Chicago, US, 1992
Trained: London College of Communication
Influences: Mark Power, Facundo de Zuviría, Lewis Baltz
High point: “When everything falls into place within the frame”
Low point: “All the shots that got away”
Top tip: “If in doubt, switch to a prime lens and let your legs do the work of framing and zoom”