Where does a project start for you?
That’s a hard one. My work is very energetic, I would find myself in a place – very often it’s home (Venezuela) – and what I often do, is shoot around an idea I have in mind, such as in my series Venezuelan Youth. In my work, I have a path I follow, but it’s very intuitive, for example, I find a place and I just get drawn to the people that I meet. I’m just walking around and I meet someone and I speak to someone, or someone sparks something in me, and that’s when I start photographing people.
Usually, a project starts when I see all the scans from my negatives, I have something in me that I want to say, especially when it’s from Venezuela, but I respond to the work itself when it’s as a whole. That’s when I know there’s something there when I see it together, and I see connections within the images. I give a little freedom to myself, I don’t put any restraints really in terms of what I should photograph and what I shouldn’t, it’s just what calls me. It’s always my intention of celebrating my home and celebrating my people.
Your visual works play the role of a window to your childhood memories, familial profiles, and Venezuelan communities in addition to the social and financial constructs of your home country. Which cultural philosophies do you endeavour to bring to life to the observers of your work?
I seek to celebrate our folklore, cuisine, and on a more personal level, the strength of the youth and the women, especially if we think about it in the context of the crisis that they face. Getting inspired by the urban and cultural richness of my exciting but also the chaotic home city of Caracas. But also exploring places where the Caribbean Sea is present, where you would see the fishermen, the kids helping their parents fish and admiring these traditions that they have. All these folklore and traditions which we carry, I want to celebrate in my work, that’s where I come from. When I was a kid, I would spend most of my time by the beach, so I would see the experiences of the fishermen, this family hood let’s say. Also, my personal roots, my family comes from Los Llanos in Guárico, (Venezuela) where my indigenous background comes in, but also I have an Italian background – I feel that’s beautiful. I find it amazing that my great-grandma was a Black indigenous woman, and then my mum met my dad, and my dad is a first-generation Italian since my grandparents came to Venezuela after the war.
Is there a shooting experience you can pinpoint as having changed your perspective on your approach to photography?
Nosotras and Venezuelan Youth have been really big projects which have influenced my work a lot. Especially Nosotras, I used to explore a lot via fashion when I was at university doing my bachelor's degree, so I always have had an interest in fashion. But I’ve never really experienced photography in a very personal way until I went home and I got my first medium format camera, and that’s when my project, Nosotras, started. I shot five rolls of film and I got back I just remember seeing this project, and I was filled with admiration, all these incredible women who I came across, in that time, I just remember thinking: this is what I want to do. I had left my home, at that time, it was 4 or 5 years prior, and I kept going back every year and I always felt like I had to do something about my country.
Nosotras had a huge impact on me because it was such a beautiful process of meeting these amazing, powerful women who I admire. And then also I could say Comadres, my first fashion documentary project that I did with my friend Daniela Benaim. It was my first time exploring my experiences as an immigrant in the UK, in a photographic narrative. I just remember thinking that was a time I could use fashion as a tool to communicate a social issue or a social or personal experience. Fashion is such an incredible tool to explore, surrealism, and more surrealistic narratives that can actually communicate these experiences even more.
Looking at your photographic series the concluding result is an unflinching encouragement from you to the observer to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Did pursuing a career in the photographic field afford you the opportunity to experience life from multiple viewpoints?
With photography, I’m sometimes an observer, but a lot of the time, I’m a collaborator and I’m also a part of the project. It has opened me to realities that I have never imagined, and my ideal now is that people really get to understand what the person in front of my camera is feeling, what I want to communicate and what they are experiencing. I feel like that’s really hard though. Everyone’s going to see it differently, a photograph is just a little glimpse of this person’s life, their experiences and also a glimpse of what I want to say. It can be read in so many different ways. You have to be really vulnerable, and really empathetic to be a photographer, especially when you're documenting what I do. For you to really understand what someone is going through, and if you really want to make a little attempt to show what they are experiencing, you have to, in a way, get in their shoes, and that’s what I’m hoping to do with my work.
In the aforementioned project, Nosotras, you document the lives of Venezuela’s women and describe them as the “collective, modest but real-life heroes” of your homeland. How did your own association with your country as a Venezuelan woman and its matriarchal heritage framework your approach to the women you selected to photograph and your depiction of them?
I work really intuitively, I was travelling across Venezuela and I would see these women, and I would be like ‘wow.’ I would get this really strong impression from them. In that specific time when I was photographing, it was really hard to even find a box of antibiotics, to find medicine for us. I remember my grandma needed medicine and we couldn’t find a full box of antibiotics, and my aunt went and did everything she could to find that with my mom. This is something that I have seen in front of my eyes and experienced too, there were times I couldn’t find medicines for myself even though we are considered a medium class and we have a lot more than a lot of the people who don’t have.
It was tricky, and that’s how the project got inspired, I would choose women who would remind me of the women I admire, who are my family, and also women who I didn’t personally know, but I knew they were working really hard. There’s a woman in one of the photographs standing with cooking pans around her at her restaurant, I remember we went to this really rural area of Venezuela, La Gran Sabana, it’s beautiful, and we went to have food at this place, and I remember seeing her by herself cooking for around twenty-five people, and at the same time taking care of her son. It was admirable to witness.
How do you believe your own lived experiences have influenced the realities you ambition to portray?
It has influenced a lot of what I focus on, my work mainly celebrates my roots. My experiences as an immigrant have informed my approach to my work both inside and outside of my home country. Because being an immigrant reminds me who I am, some people I think disconnect themselves from their homes, for their own reasons, even for protection. But for me, leaving really made me reconnect more with my roots and with my family, and where I come from. Being a Venezuelan immigrant has informed the way I do my work, what I focus on, what I explore, and what makes me photograph in the way I do. I’m so lucky that I’m able to go home and see my family, I have many friends who aren’t able to do that. To have the freedom and support of my family, to explore my roots, my culture, and my people, and to celebrate the people of Venezuela’s experiences as immigrants and Latinos, is really important.
In your work, the struggles and perseverance of Venezuelan youth-hood, womanhood, families and communities are introduced as vanguards and in conjunction with the visual work, you critique the country’s social and financial constructs. In your opinion, are written and visual mediums equally, powerfully informative and advocative?
Both separately are very powerful, and when you interweave both images and text it can give a more accurate message. Understanding an image really depends on the personal experiences of the observer. You could see a very descriptive photograph of the struggles in Venezuelan hospitals, where there are children dying, and the families are struggling to save their kids because there’s no food. Looking at it, an observer can possibly understand what’s happening there as the photograph carries very descriptive connotations. In other cases, I think with solely an image, it can be very hard to convey an accurate message without text.
Specifically, my work in Venezuela is political because the reason I started the project was because of the anger I felt towards the social and political crisis which my home country is experiencing. I’m not really exploring those subjects head-on, my interest is more in the experiences of the youth, I’m interested in their realities. They’re in a country where they don’t have any opportunities, and they don’t have a way to ‘get out’ really, they have to find ways to find food, help their families, feed themselves and have a future. That process of innocence to a really harsh maturity because of these realisations – that’s what I’m interested in. When you’re a teenager, you start to face a reality, of course, everyone in a different way, but what I’m exploring, especially with Venezuelan Youth, is that transition that they face.
What makes for a magnetic image?
That’s tricky. If you look at it from the technical side, light is very important, it depends on what lighting you use, and your goals for the image. But also, as I said before, it’s about having empathy for the people who you are going to photograph, if you’re doing a portrait, having empathy, and really connecting with a person, that’s what has worked for me. For a viewer to connect with the person in the photograph, and understand even a little bit of what they are going through, the photographer, has to have a level of empathy.
You were the first photographer to be commissioned for Malala Yousafzai’s Against All Odds initiative which documented the experiences of Carmen, a Venezuelan young girl who aspires to pursue a profession in the medical field, conclusively the photographs are ones which speak of visceral challenges and enduring hopes. Is this a lasting moral you hope to communicate?
Yes, Carmen represents this group of girls. She still is in a very tough situation, her family, economically and health-wise, are struggling a lot. I remember when I met her, she held this hope and excitement for life, if I was in her shoes, I don’t know how I would be ok, that’s what really inspired me to work with her. She held on and she still continues to do so even though she’s facing a really tough situation. That’s what I want to portray, Carmen holds on, she still has hope for her future and her family’s future. She wants to become a doctor to help her family in the future and that for me is admirable, that’s what I’m hoping to communicate. Even though there are girls like Carmen, she’s immersed in a really hard situation, she still has hope for her future and that’s what I hope for my country.