In Artist Spotlight, we occasionally ask photographers to tell us in their own words about their work and how they challenge themselves. Today’s Spotlight is by Pablo Benavente.
– “These people come here to take our jobs, man.”
That’s what the guy on the street said to my coworker. Perhaps he thought that I was just another Latino that didn’t speak English, or perhaps he didn’t care.
Like many of you, I started in photography by taking photos of monuments, the zoo, parades, and sometimes friends and family. I shot using different styles, settings, reflections, sunsets, moon rises, filters, etc. As I learned and practiced, I started getting offers to do professional gigs like weddings, events which I still do. But inevitably, when you’ve tried many things, there’s a point at which you ask yourself: “Now what?”
– “So Pablo, how would you describe the food of your country?”
– “I would say it’s similar to Mexican food, based on corn, but not as spicy”
– A third guy jumps in the conversation: “I think people come to this country because they want to eat real food, American food.”
I realized that in order to be taken seriously as an artist and a photographer, one of the things that I had to do was to create a body of work, to create projects. Having taken photos of different subjects and styles, I realized that I was most attracted to portraits and street photography; photos of people. The only problem with that was that at the same time I was discovering that I am an introvert, which made it a bit difficult to relate to people and to socialize. When I was doing street photography, I used a 135mm lens or longer, even 300mm in order to keep my distance. I was afraid that people would get mad at me for taking their photo.
So I challenged myself. I decided that my project had to be portraits. I also wanted for my project to have a meaning, to be a contribution somehow to society. When I was a kid back in Nicaragua, one of my school assignments was to do a presentation about different countries. I went to the American embassy to get information, and they gave me a brochure with a title I still remember: “A Nation of Immigrants.” I kept the brochure for many years because I was really impressed with the meaning of it, but it never crossed my mind that one day I would be a citizen of this country.
– Me: “My favorite opera singers are Carlo Bergonzi and Joan Sutherland.”
– Friend: “How come you know so much about opera? Do you have music CDs in your country?”
So one day, I decided to switch lenses. Instead of my beloved 135mm, I went out with a 20mm. I realized that to take photos now, I had to be really close to people and usually start a conversation. It was surprisingly less difficult than I originally thought. I’d decided that my project was going to be about immigration. I wanted to show a face of immigration that is not making news these days. Like the brochure told me, this is a nation of immigrants; we contribute to this country’s economy with our work; we contribute to society with our culture. Just think about how many restaurants of foreign food you have visited in a city like D.C.
That’s how “I’mmigrant” was born. I take portraits of immigrants and ask them to tell me about themselves and their interests, and anything else they want to express. Sometimes I post some information about immigration, and some of my experiences as an immigrant in this country. The project is still getting off the ground, but so far it has been a fascinating journey. I have been talking to a few interested venues and hope to display the project soon.