The European myth that arose of El Dorado, as a lost city of gold waiting for discovery by an adventurous conqueror, encapsulates the Europeans' endless thirst for gold and their unerring drive to exploit these new lands for their monetary value.
The South American myth of El Dorado, on the other hand, reveals the true nature of the territory and the people who lived there. For them, El Dorado was never a place, but a ruler so rich that he allegedly covered himself in gold from head to toe each morning and washed it off in a sacred lake each evening.
Dr Jago Cooper, Curator of the Americas at the British Museum
I have a list of photography project ideas in my mind. It’s always there with me, and from time to time I go there and pick one out. Doing a project on El Dorado has been on that list for quite a few years now. Like every teenager in France, I had to read and dissect and analyse and read and read again Voltaire’s Candide for my exams. And it always stuck, for a number of reasons. The main one was the philosopher’s humour-tinged, satirical, fast-paced writing. And the other was the chapters on Candide’s voyage to South America, more specifically to the fantastical land of El Dorado. I thought this was a fitting subject considering the world’s current social and political climate.
The words “El Dorado” have come to mean so many different things for so many different people in various parts of the world. They’re used in British newspaper articles like a generic catchphrase, “Britain is no El Dorado for asylum seekers”, whereas South American people have a completely different take on it.
Trying to photograph this dichotomy was never going to be an easy task. So I didn’t. Rather, I decided to take an outsider stance on the whole matter, put down my camera, and gather information, visual and written, like a meticulous hoarder. The various accounts I received from people around the world are testimonies to this divisive vision. People from South America talked about legends and conquistadors and the negative impacts of history, people from France took a more philosophical standpoint on the matter, people from the United Kingdom often referenced films and popular culture, but gold was always the common denominator.
I deliberately drew the world map with no borders, however. I didn’t want the viewer to focus on what El Dorado lies in which country, but rather focus on the quantity of places called El Dorado and the clusters the various numbers create. Not surprisingly, they are nearly all located in North and South America. A divide can, again, be drawn up here: North is synonymous with gold digging, as many gold mining towns were named El Dorado, and South with the legend, the myth of El Dorado “The Golden One”.
I wasn’t expecting such various accounts upon the mention of those two words. I wasn’t expecting everyone around me to be so enthusiastic about such a subject. Maybe it isn’t best to just cultivate our own personal gardens as Candide put it, maybe we should treat the whole world as one big back yard and lovingly tend to it. As my nan used to say, you can bury a lot of troubles by digging in the dirt.