Photographer Interview: Cristobal Guerra

Photographer Interview: Cristobal Guerra

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

Where are you from and where do you live/work now?
I grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My mother’s from Colombia and my dad from Loiza, PR. I lived in PR all my life until I moved to NYC in 2008. I’ve been living and dreaming in Brooklyn ever since.

What was your first experience with photography and when did you decide it was a medium that you wanted to engage with artistically?
I don’t remember a specific first experience, but I do remember an obsession with visual messages. Like going to the movies with my dad really young and not really understanding english yet, ignoring the subtitles, making up stories in my head. As a teen I would always have a camera handy. Later on I went to film school in NY and focused on screenwriting, working from word to screen gave me some perspective on the uniquely different values of both mediums. Some time after that I felt the need to engage more aggressively with visual mediums and photography just felt natural and something i’ve been comfortable with for a while.

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

You’re a photographer who works in various photographic forms: film, digital, instant, gifs, video… can you explain what attracts you to each one?
I feel its somewhat like having different tools to “freeze time”… jajaja. It also changes the whole experience for you because the delivery of the end result takes different kinds of work and is scrutinized differently. With film there’s lots of waiting (in the context of this internet-everything-now world) , each roll of film is like a timeline and in the process itself there’s opportunity to challenge your eye in ways that wouldn’t happen with digital; in which you have intense shutter speeds, equipment and a type of workflow that accentuates results rather than process.

Instant photography is one of those things were Im just awed every time the print pops out and want to shrink myself to get inside the camera and see how it all happens!! So there’s a bit of a fetish aspect with it, It also feels more intimate cause the subject can see the image almost immediately and a decision gets made on who gets to keep it. It’s a good consensual exchange, fast, cheaper than film and the desaturation is so cuuuute.

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

Gifs are like the neon Times Square signs of the internet, they’re just so direct and particular to our times, you scroll through them and in a few frames you’re either laughing out loud or going “thats cute”. I’ve created gifs with the hope that folks who are watching them think the latter.

Video is a medium I’m still very intimidated by. I’m taking my time in trying out ways to play with it and how I could effectively transmit a message that still speaks to my reality. I recently made a piece titled FARIFO in which I strung together images of my childhood (captured by my father) and superimposed homophobic words that were common slang in Puerto Rico. The video was still attached to a text that grounded it in some context and it was one of my first attempts at bridging together two mediums I’ve always been in conversation with.

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

What do you do when you’re not photographing?
I’m either working my daytime gigs or trying to decide if it should be a “lazy day off” or a “productive day off”. Self care struggles in NYC are definitely a thing.

Tell us about the most beautiful thing you’ve recently laid your eyes on.
I just moved to a new apartment and in the span of 9 hours I went from having this furnished room to an empty space with a window looking out. I felt so many ways about it and it’s one of those trigger moments in which you can reflect on yourself and your life… A beautiful moment if you ask me!

Did you photograph it/them?
I took a picture with my phone. It’s not a good one. But I just wanted to remember that feeling.

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

What’s your secret to photographing such vibrant nightlife and parties?
The secret’s in loving it! Photographing nightlife wasn’t on my radar because there weren’t really any spaces that I had found in NY where I could see myself enjoying the work or relating to my subjects in any way. When I started frequenting the Azucar! parties (a monthly QTPOC Latin dance party in Brooklyn) I fell in love with the nostalgia and energy for life I felt in the space, and like where else was I gonna find myself drunk with cute queers going off to Selena remixes?!! I knew the lovely organizers and offered to shoot one of the parties; that was definitely a jump-off point for future collaborations.

I also became involved with Papi Juice and since then we’ve grown together and collaborated with many wonderful artists in the community. Just recently we had a huge BK pride party with Princess Nokia, Maluca and Zuzuka Poderosa. I couldn’t believe I was sharing space with artists I had been admiring years before. It was an amazing night.

Documenting the parties has been a great experience, there’s so much beauty to stumble upon when you’re navigating a space that celebrates queer bodies in ways that bring together so many folks from different experiences and the beautiful looks and personalities that come along with that. Those saturday nights have become this hot and sweaty pocket in time where we all come together to some amazing beats and without worries that would plague us in other nightlife spaces that are not intentionally centering QTPOC folks. It personally feels very rewarding to have a hand in organizing, documenting and promoting the amazingness and value of those spaces.

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

Who’s the most challenging person you’ve ever tried to photograph?
I would have to say shooting close relatives is somewhat difficult. Capturing emotional moments, photographing my mother, father, sister for example brings up so many emotional barriers. Photographing someone that is so close to you and means so much to you is an exercise in making sure the image is a fair representation of that emotional exchange.

Like when I was younger and learning my way around a camera I photographed my mother crying over my grandmother’s grave. She didn’t mind but I felt so guilty about stealing that personal moment for myself and whatever “artistic” value I wanted to attach to it. Since then I’ve always tried to be very mindful about my connection to the subject. These are nuances that definitely show through in a finished image and being dismissive of that could result in loosing some integrity in your work.

It’s also challenging to establish those boundaries when shooting nightlife spaces with a giant invasive flash! I always try to smile/talk to whoever it is I’m taking a photo of, and appreciate when I’m challenged otherwise because the whole point is for people to have fun and not feel like throwing cell phones at me, paparazzi style.

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

Are there any photographers whose work you can’t live without?
It’s so hard to keep up with names! It must be the internet and falling down a tumblr K hole and seeing too much beautiful work and not processing it correctly! I love different art in different mediums. I love Kehinde Wiley’s work, that beauty , those colors. Nan Goldin comes to mind with all those powerful, simple shots of intense emotional landscapes. Francisco Oller was a Puerto Rican artist whose paintings were so complex in vividness and tone. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels were always a source of visual inspiration for me, as well as Mayra Febres Sirena Selena Vestida de Pena, a wonderful novel by an amazing Boricua woman.

There’s also so many talented folks in the community that I know and have worked with. Like Antwan Duncan, Mojuicy, D’Hana Perry, Christy Road etc… There’s so much out there to learn from and be inspired by and its accessible in ways that allow it to be independently sustainable and increase the visibility of narratives and experiences that challenge the ways we enjoy and consume art. We gotta think about the future and where all this is going right?!

Copyright Cristobal Guerra

What are three things that sustain your art practice?
Discipline. Humility. Perseverance.

It’s so hard to do art in NYC. It teaches you some harsh lessons on self-discipline , time-management and overall attitude. It’s easy to be bogged down by the challenges of living in such an expensive city which for me has been somewhat offset by the access I have to a great community of folks that support me as a creator as well as a commitment to keeping steady day jobs, working hard to make the money I need and always trying to stay grounded to the realities of creating art in a capitalist society.

See more work by Cristobal Guerra (check out his landscapes!), follow him on Instagram @criswar and Tumblr via Farifo.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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