A Sable Man: in conversation with Roberto Dutesco

Meet the man behind the lens. Roberto Dutesco was at the Singapore Contemporary Art Show, where he exhibited some of his best photographs, including The Wild Horses of Sable Island.

By Rachel Tan


A young man approaches Roberto Dutesco tentatively, a question perched on his tongue that he repeats, somewhat nervously: “I’m a new photography student. Do you have any advice?”

Dutesco, without missing a beat, replies, “Study philosophy. And keep taking pictures. Devote time to mastering the craft. If I spent 3 years immersed in photography 24/7, you can too.” His words reveal a finesse that comes with years of patient and unconditional devotion to the art of photography.

The majestic photographs mounted on the walls are a credible testament to his wisdom and success. They are stunning images of sand dunes in California, the wild horses of Sable Island, and a night sky illuminated by orbiting halos of stars. Most of his works are shot in monotone, mostly black and white or a characteristic sepia tone. All of them, however, are shot on film, in various formats less obvious to the undiscerning eye. His career has been illustrious. His works has ranged from fashion giants Elle and Vogue, to prominent figures like Pierre Trudeau and the Dalai Lama, and most familiar of all, the Sable Horses. He is greatly revered in the world of photography, and rightly so. His photos are graceful and alluring, but without pomp or pageantry. They captivate at first glance, but remain indelible thereafter.

Roberto Dutesco for Elle (November 1989)

Dutesco shows me his photo book. It took him 15 years and 14 unsatisfactory attempts to finally produce this; it has an enigmatic charm and the glossy pages are filled with beautiful prose and poetry, coordinates and maps, emails to then Canadian prime minister, and a detailed recount of his journey to Sable Island. It is brimming with information and emotion so I thumb the pages slowly and carefully.

Leaf by Roberto Dutesco

He starts with a picture of a horizon in grayscale, unthinkably vast and uninhabited. It is almost unclear where the sky and the Earth meet. This is where he first landed on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1994, a miniscule Canadian island. He reveals that these horses are pit ponies, they traverse oceans only to be sent to underground coal mines for their remaining eternities. “They never see the sunlight again,” he tells me. I am directed to a page where Dutesco has written, “According to the latest data, more than five hundred ships have found their resting place in the sandbanks of Sable Island.” These 400 horses have perhaps descended from the litter of fortunate shipwrecks and subsequently found freedom anew here. He calls it destiny, and indeed, his words and photographs chime with truth and providence.

LOVE by Roberto Dutesco

We hold a long conversation, and he describes his intentions as “philosophical”. His project explores the idea of kinship and our relationship with the wilderness. There is a human-like quality to these horses, but in equal and opposite measures, there are fundamentally primal instincts in all of humanity. His titles – fury, tenderness, love, play – illuminate this concept. What we consider to be humanistic, definitive traits are perhaps universal in other life forms. I am awash with a sense of oneness and connectedness, and it is an apt reminder of the magic and wonder of coexistence in nature. In this way, Dutesco has created a powerful and unparalleled vision of the cadence and harmony of nature.

I ask a slew of questions; I can’t help myself. Dutesco is unfazed. He opens the book to a page and smiles, “Maybe this answers all your questions.”

He is right, there are far fewer answers than there are questions. Photography is one of many mediums used to express this potential and vastness. What Dutesco has immortalized in these pixels is an unadulterated sense of purity, wonder and time. All at once, space and time are stretched and condensed. These images are an infinite chasm of “what is future and what is past; what is hidden and what is lost beneath the dunes, ocean and time; of the horses and their stories they silently hold, each with its own lifespan and existence, each with its own measure of time.”

Play by Roberto Dutesco

Before I leave his exhibition, he takes me by surprise with a simple question, “What art do you make?” He waits expectantly for my reply, and what sounds like gibberish escapes my mouth in grand betrayal (I make a mental note to contemplate this when I get home). After all, what can you say to somehow who has been a photographer longer than you have been alive? Still, he listens earnestly. After some thought, he reminds me that the very essence of photography is the relationship between the subject of the photo and the photographer. If I am mindful and respectful of this relationship, my intentions will manifest in the photographs I take. It becomes apparent then, that I only wish to be half the photographer and writer that he is.

You can find his artwork here.