Vanessa Ahlsborn originally started collecting knives as simple keepsakes—but found them slightly scary. So while she was traveling around Colombia in 2010, she decided to start photographing the people who she bought them from. The more she traveled and learned about how different cultures used them, her perception of them changed.
“When I first started, I was intimidated by knives and machetes through movies and documentaries and the news,” she said. “When many people—myself included—think of machetes you also think of violence. But I realized there were people using large knives simply for as tools.”
She decided to name the series “The Machete Project” partly in response to this shift.
“The word machete evokes in many people an idea of violence and of using it as a weapon so I’m kind of playing with that idea,” she said. “I then want to show the faces behind the knives and show how they are a valuable tool.”
Depending on the country she visits, Ahlsborn meets potential subjects for the most part by chance. When traveling around areas that are a bit more complicated, such as Afghanistan, she usually works with a fixer or translator who help her meet people and explain her goals: that she’s looking to both buy their knives and also take their portraits. She said working in this way, much like the way she prefers to travel, opens up a lot of possibility rather than working on a fixed schedule.
“The interesting thing is when you find someone who uses a knife in a way you didn’t expect, like the elephant manicure,” she said. “I had no clue you would use a huge blade like that to cut nails of an elephant; those are situations you can’t control.”
Ahlsborn also makes an effort to purchase the knives from the people she photographs. She brings along her work as a way of introducing what her intent is, and she said that rarely has she been turned down either for a portrait or to buy the knife.
So far she has traveled to 16 countries but said she still has a long list of places she would like to see including northern Sweden, Greenland, and the Amazon.
“I like the idea of going somewhere and having it turn into a great adventure.”