Atlantic Cities
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The Bus Voyeur of Buenos Aires

Girls staring pensively into space. Girls dreamily gazing out the window. Girls reading books, girls on their phones, girls listening to music and, yes, girls looking provocatively at the camera. All are the subjects of Torcuato González Agote’s voyeuristic portraits set on Buenos Aires buses, what he’s dubbed the Chicas Bondi series.

Bondi is slang for Buenos Aires buses, and the chicas of Agote’s fascination were captured "without pose and without permission," according to the project's tagline. The photographer kept himself anonymous for over a year while posting image after image on his website, generating a genuine air of mystique within the city's internet culture.

Agote, 29, who uses Hipstamatic to evoke the effects of an old-fashioned film camera, has a nostalgically romantic take on the grit of public transportation. "It's a bus. A passenger gets on, and people say or think things. I think the pictures allow people to react as they would if they could see these women as I do," he says.

But the series earned the enmity of feminist groups who accused him of digital harassment. One city government agency even led an investigation into the site, warning that it is an example of the digital challenge facing institutions charged with protecting people’s rights and privacy.

Chicas Bondi is just one asteroid in the universe of privacy-shattering social media, of course, which includes sites like Tube Crush, where users can share surreptitious shots of hot guys spotted on mass transit.

Agote's work can also be seen as part of an artistic tradition of exploring people in public spaces, according to Mario Carlón, an adjunct professor in communication sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. He draws parallels with Walker Evans’ famed New York Subway Portrait series. Another example is Honoré Daumier’s portrayal of train travellers in Third-Class Carriage.

Despite the controversy over Chicas Bondi, Agote continues to shoot on his iPhone without subjects' knowledge, but now he asks for permission to post the resulting pictures. He's also now identified himself on the series' site, though he still cultivates a mysterious profile, saying the abstraction of the artist is a key facet of the series. A condensed version of his recent interview with The Atlantic Cities is below:

What made you start the Chicas Bondi project?

The first impulse that led me to start the series of pictures was no more than mere experimentation and inspiration. Nothing very premeditated.

It was what I saw in those first pictures that motivated starting Chicas Bondi. There was something in them, the pictures and thus the girls, that I wasn’t seeing elsewhere. I saw freshness in the lack of pose, the candor of girls in an ordinary situation and lacking in pretentions. They were images that were in absolute contradiction with what the media and fashion reflect of women, and of what women show of themselves.

You've certainly captured an element of why public transportation is so interesting, maybe even beautiful.

With everything that is visual, in general, a figure is presented and there is a backdrop that gives that figure context. And in Chicas Bondi, there was an inversion of sorts. It’s a mundane backdrop that doesn’t lower the image of the woman. It’s the woman that gives the context to all the rest of the image. The girl modifies the context, and not the context the girl.

Individuality on Chicas Bondi is very ephemeral. It is a repeated series of many different people, because then the individualities are lost and that’s what reinforces the concept as a whole. It’s something I do in a repeated space in order to give it that guiding line. In reality, any other person could shift the concept to any other area, but also to any other being or object. I’ve focused on girls on buses, but it could be men in the port, or plants in pots on balconies.

You have been criticized from the perspective of privacy issues, and your pictures seem to reflect a tension in the concept of privacy in public space. What do you think?

Is anything that happens in public ever private? It’s not as if I’m taking the pictures from behind a post or hanging from a branch. The person I’m photographing sees me as much as I see her. She doesn’t know I’m taking a picture, but she’s acting conditioned by my presence, or by that of the other people who are around. It’s not like she’s unaware that she’s in a situation with other people. Which is why I don’t think it’s so questionable in that sense.

Will you continue the series?

I don’t know until where or how long. I continue to take buses and as long as I take buses I can keep taking pictures.

All images courtesy of Chicas Bondi.

Jordana Timerman is a freelance writer and an urban public policy researcher living in Buenos Aires. All posts »

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