Costa Rica, Pura Vida. This phrase (often used when greeting someone in Costa Rica), translated into pure life or an expression of utter well-being, immediately makes a strong statement about this ‘rich coast’ country. The happiness index, which identifies the level of satisfaction of residents living in a given country, ranks Costa Rica amongst the top countries in the world, portraying it as a so-called wonderland and one of the happiest places to live on earth. We had the chance to find out what life really is about in Costa Rica while interviewing Toh Gouttenoire, a French photographer who settled in this country and started a family a few years back. Why and how Costa Rica influenced him the way it did is only a small part of the following interview.
First of all, could you tell us something about yourself and your relationship to Costa Rica? Do you come from Costa Rica or did you move there? Your name suggests that you are not Spanish.
As you correctly guess, I’m not a native Costa Rican – Neither am I from Latin America; I was born in France. I first heard of Costa Rica a little more than ten years ago; the brother of a friend was living in a small beach town in this country. After my cinematographic studies, I wanted to travel and I headed there in 2000. I then traveled through Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and stopped a few months in Guatemala. From there I rushed to chiapas in order to shoot the Marcha Zapatista (known as „el Sub“ comandante Marcos). I urgently had to get back to France, where I stayed a few months before getting bored of Europe again. I flew back to Guatemala with my current wife and opened a restaurant on the south pacific cost, close to El Salvador. Three years later we bought a van and headed south without any goals, just traveling. After something like six months on the road (through the same country) we entered Costa Rica. I fell in love with Tamarindo bay and the local and expat community. We’ve been living there since.
Costa Rica is said to be the place with the happiest people in the world. What do you think about this? Do you agree with it?
Well, that’s a difficult thing to measure. But, I will say that the people look happier than what I know of Europe and the States, and as for me, just saying that this is the country I choose to live in, build my house and mainly to have my daughter born in (she now has both nationalities) says everything.
You state that you’re a photographer. Is it difficult to earn a living as a photographer in such a country?
I’m not sure it is easy in any country of the world to earn a living as a photographer and I have no vantage point from which to compare the difficulties. But what I can say is that the recent crisis made things more difficult, I was shooting a lot of architecture and real estate photography; that part of my revenue went very low in 2009. I had to re-market my services and the property management took a big part of that loss; making me contract for house shooting. Wedding photography also suffered from that crisis because most of my customers are from the US and Canada coming down to Costa Rica for a tropical wedding. The press (magazine and newspaper) had tough times, too, with the loss of advertising, I saw a few publications that totally disappeared last year.
Anyway this year looks better… So I can earn a living from my photography and add videography, but as everywhere I guess it’s stressful and you never know if you’ll have a contract in the next months. But I won’t complain, it’s one of the best jobs in the world, honestly.
One thing is for sure: you have good light at your disposal during work, as the sun is the best source of light for photographers. How does the climate in Costa Rica suit your needs?
For sure the light here can be really good, but I’ll define it more like powerfully—strong and moving really quickly. Basically we have two seasons, rainy (people in tourism call it the „Green season“) and dry, I have to be precise and state that I’m talking about the pacific coast where I’m living and mainly working. The Caribbean has a different climate. So the green season has a lot of clouds, mist, and rain with a violent sun behind, so we have a beautiful diffuse light, slightly colored at the end of the afternoon; or those clouds can give the opposite effect with some really dramatic storm light with a direct sun passing black clouds, giving intense contrast. The summer (dry season) is a constant blue sky with a punishing hard sun half of the day, but beautiful mornings and sunsets. The main inconvenience is that all year long the sun is setting from 5:15 to 6:15, and lowering in the sky really quickly. The perfect Blue hour (perfect for a real estate shot) just stays for 10 to 15 minutes, so you have to be ready. I sometime miss those long European evenings that have twilight for 2 hours.
Since the European Union was established, there have been increasingly more debates on politics in Europe. The situation is similar in the United States. What is the situation in a place such as Costa Rica? Is anyone preoccupied with politics at all?
Well, Costa Rica just passed through a presidential election campaign, and they elected their first female president, so there was a lot of talk about national politics, but honestly as a non-voting resident, I just stayed on the surface of the talks; I’m more interested in local activism.
Where did you learn about the Week of Life project and what do you think about it?
I learned about it through a post on reddit.com, I browsed the website and quickly found the concept really interesting. Not long after that I registered and made my first week.
It is, as a viewer, a great way to travel through time and space; giving me the possibility to spend one week in the life of a Tcheque photographer, a Chinese student or a designer in Samoa. From my computer screen in Costa Rica I have all these people sharing their life, their everyday life, in a beautiful way. I love it.
As a photographer or participant to the project, it gave me a subject to concentrate on for a full week, to express one day in nine images, a morning in three photos. that’s an interesting challenge, it is also, as a human being, a good way to reflect on what my life is, what am I doing with it, how am I spending my days… my time… my life.
What would you say about awareness in your country – newspapers, magazines and information in general? What do the media focus on?
Costa Rica is a small country, so the local magazines offer a rather small output. One magazine is quite interesting, there is also, in my opinion, one interesting newspaper, doing a good job on national news, la Nacion (www.nacion.com). Sadly a lot of people here are buying cheap (in every way) tabloids full of sensational stories, graphic photographs and almost naked „models“. I get most of my news on the internet.
What would you say about Costa Rica to attract the attention of people who would like to visit this country and know nothing about it?
The classic thing would be to say that the country constitutionally abolished its army permanently in 1949, it has had 60 years of uninterrupted democracy. Maybe more important to people wanting to visit the country—Costa Rica is ranked 3rd in the world, and 1st among the Americas, in terms of the 2010 Environmental Performance Index, it plans to be the first carbon neutral country by 2021, and According to the New Economics Foundation, Costa Rica ranks first in the Happy Planet Index. It is the „greenest“ country in the world. That says a lot about it. Another important stat is that while the country has only about 0.25% of the world’s landmass, it contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Around 25% of the country’s land area is in protected national parks and protected areas, the largest percentage of protected areas in the world. Everything is not perfect here of course, but it is the best I have found around the world.