As a shy kid, photography presented itself to Juan Ortiz-Arenas as a way of interacting with the world more deeply. Working with the medium was more than a means of creative expression; it was a way for him to build relationships with people, understand the lives of others and navigate unfamiliar environments. “Through photography, I constantly push myself out of my comfort zone and force myself to interact,” he explains. “I have always liked the idea of the camera as a sort of access key; access to people, places and more importantly to experiences that allow you to challenge ideas you might have about yourself and the world around you.”
Now, having moved to London only a couple of years ago, Juan uses photography in much the same way as he always has: to better understand his new city and the people who inhabit it. It’s an approach brimming with curiosity and attentiveness that naturally lends itself to the narrative documentary style he’s drawn to. Indeed, Juan’s fascination with photography’s ability to frame and share stories is the driving force behind his practice. “I think what attracts me to photography is the versatility of the medium, its undeniable power as a storytelling device and the way it simultaneously reveals and hides aspects of the subject and the photographer,” he explains. “I believe photography always carries with it a certain element of mystery, and the medium is very generous in the sense that it allows you (as a viewer) to fill in those apparent gaps with your personal collection of ideas and assumptions.”
Juan’s most recent series, Buckets at The Ducketts, is an intimate and unconventional documentation of the Ball Out 3×3 basketball tournament at Ducketts Common. The project actually began life as an antidote to a creative slump he’d found himself in at the time. “I was going through a bit of a funk creatively,” he tells us, “so I decided that a good way to get back on track was to shoot something I love.” Having grown up playing and watching basketball, and with the Ducketts Common courts just a couple of miles from his flat, bringing the two together just made sense.
There’s a palpable stillness to the images in this series; a quality that is perhaps unexpected for a documentation centred on a sport with speed and energy at its core. Seemingly unfazed by the motion of play and the jostle of colliding bodies, Juan and his camera remain steady and contemplative, pulling away from action shots and focussing in on the individuals who gather in this space and the relationships between them.
Emphasising the court’s role as a place for fostering community, Juan is just as intrigued by the playmakers on the court as it is by the onlookers hovering at its fringes. His attention remains, almost unflinchingly, on the life happening around the games rather than the games themselves. “Basketball is still miles away in terms of popularity when compared to sports like football, cricket or rugby, but it is slowly growing,” he explains. “I believe it is especially important within the context of inner-city dynamics because the courts become a place where people of different ages and backgrounds come to socialise. Having played on many occasions on this court myself I was always fascinated by what goes on around the games and this was my opportunity to explore and share that curiosity.”