Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB) was once the pride of Bolivia, a symbol of modernization, technological progress, and international glamour for the landlocked Andean nation. Founded in 1925 by German émigrés, LAB is among the oldest operating airlines in the world–though operating might be too charitable a term, as its license to fly was revoked in 2007, its Boeing fleet grounded.
It seems that the “Condor of the Andes” has had its wings permanently clipped. Though it retains a workforce of 200, the airline lies in near ruin, with only a military contract on which to scrape by. It’s a tragic fall from once soaring heights, one that is poignantly documented by British-Bolivian photographer Nick Ballon in his series, Ezekiel 36:36.
Ballon depicts the musty interiors, spent machinery, and ceremonial upkeep of the airline’s dilapidated headquarters at Cochabamba airport. The images feature in a new book that collects six months of the photographer’s onsite work. In that time, the project shifted considerably in tone: “My story of LAB was originally intended to be an upbeat story of an airline once a flag carrier for the nation, reviving its former days of glory,” Ballon tells Co.Design. “They had just secured some crucial investment to get their aging fleet back up in the air, and I was there to document this. The opposite actually happened–I ended up photographing its demise.”
It’s a tale of biblical tragedy, as the title of the series implies. It alludes both to LAB’s last working aircraft and the bible verse that heralds the divine rebuilding of ruined places. For Ballon, it suited the state in which he found LAB, a company with a storied past that was and is “waiting for a miracle.”
Though attempts have been repeatedly made to save LAB, nothing has availed. Still, its workers carry on optimistic that the airline, which is so tied to the country’s identity, will not be allowed to go under. Its employees, as well as many other Bolivians, maintain what Ballon calls a “quasi-religious faith” in a resurrection that, he adds, “to most outsiders would appear to be a lost cause.”
The photography is tinged with a quiet dignity. It evokes a sense of coping with the irreconcilability of past and present. In one portrait, a pilot stares listlessly at the floor, caught between a limbo of duty and inactivity. In another, a maintenance worker reclines in a lounge chair, his back to a row of plane turbines as he gazes toward a sunlit window. Perhaps the most powerful image, a dead bird nestled on a bright blue seat in an rusting airplane cabin, should be read as an omen.
But, as Ballon insists, “the airline isn’t dead yet.” He explains: “I wanted to extend this sense of hope in the pictures. The story of LAB is in many ways the story of Bolivia and its people, resigned to look back at a past of glory and grandeur and perpetually looking to a future which never seems to arrive.”