Photographer Nick Ballon is launching a book, website and exhibition documenting the troubled Bolivian airline Lloyd Aereo Boliviano.
Ezekiel 36:36 – named after LAB’s only operational plane – includes 35 beautifully shot and poignant images of the airline’s staff, its ageing fleet and crumbling headquarters manned by a single employee.
LAB is one of the oldest airlines in the world and used to be one of South America’s most successful, until privatisation in 1994 led to corruption, mismanagement and millions in unpaid taxes. The Bolivian Government ordered the airline to cease operations in 2007 and the company now faces more than 600 legal challenges.
Ballon spent six months documenting LAB along with writer and researcher Amaru Villaneuva and says he stumbled on the project by chance after seeing its headquarters at Cochabamba airport.
“I guessed it would be difficult to gain access due to the high security and formalities required to access airside facilities but I decided to just knock on the door. Before I knew it I was sitting in the boardroom having a meeting with the CEO, revealing how he would like the true story of LAB to be told to the world,” he explains.
With Bolivian relations, Ballon says he has always been interested in the perception of the country, “as I spend my time on the outside looking in.”
“The story of LAB is in many ways the story of the Bolivian people, caught between past glory and grandeur, and a promised future that never seems to arrive…[it] always felt like more than a documentary on a struggling airline to me.”
The self-published book is a sensitive and moving portrayal of the airline’s demise – in one image, a captain stands dressed for duty on the day of his resignation and in another, a makeshift canteen table at the headquarters sits empty on a dusty courtyard. But it also documents better days, with an insert of archived imagery capturing the LAB’s more successful years.
An accompanying website, labproject.co.uk, contains archive material, poems and texts about the airline and Ballon hopes he can continue to follow the company’s future development online: despite its bleak situation, LAB holds 21 hectares of land, international flight licenses, offices across Bolivia and abroad and two working planes.
The site also explains the airline’s beginnings and its fascinating history: LAB was founded after German residents donated an aircraft to the country to mark 100 years of Bolivian independence and in the 1930s, its fleet was used during the Chaco War – a three year dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay over a region believed to be rich in oil.
The company was awarded by then President Mamerto Urriolagoitia for its “patriotism and efficiency” in transporting weapons and wounded soldiers and in the decades that followed, it continued to expand: in 1978, LAB transported one million passengers and had offices In Panama, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Peru. Its heroic past make LAB’s demise all the more tragic and although it still exists as a company, it has lost its permit to fly.
“The idea to document the airline was born simply from my inquisitive nature to investigate something interesting that I saw, without knowing where it would take me or how poignant the story would later become. The book has come to an end, but my interest in LAB hasn’t, and I hope through the website, I can continue to document its future with help from staff,” he says.
Ezekiel 36:36 goes on sale on August 1 and is available to pre-order at labproject.co.uk. Ballon’s work will be on display at KK Outlet’s gallery from August 1-31. For info, visit kkoutlet.com/exhibitions
Photography and concept: Nick Ballon
Editor: Lu Bowan
Writer and Researcher: Amaru Villanueva Rance
Art Direction and Design: Studio Thomson
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