Honest Stories

Photographs and words by Natasha Dangond
Interview via emails, May 2018

What's something that seeing the world through a camera has given you?

Seeing the world through a camera has given me a platform where authentic, meaningful, and honest exchange can exist. Not only is a camera  a tool for my own self-expression, but having the ability to share my outlook on the world is something I never take for granted. My camera gives me a space to be heard, and allows me to amplify my voice, and the voices of those in my communities. I’ve learned, and am still learning, how my camera can be instrumental in elevating and representing of People of Color in this industry. I am able to be fearless, and unapologetic about the way my world looks through my lens.

Using this tool has given me invaluable opportunities I never dreamed I would have, taken me to places I never thought I would see, and has connected me to people with life experiences that are worlds away from mine.

I am constantly listening, learning, unlearning, and growing as an artist who uses a camera to create stories. With each new experience I find myself in, I am able to explore topics that matter but are often difficult to talk about. Viewing the world through this medium allows me to truly sit with moments, to go back later and notice what I may have not seen at the time. Photography has taught me how to step out of my comfort zone, ask questions, slow down in my fast paced life.

This craft has taught me to live a more intentional, open-minded life, and has motivated me to inspire empathy in the world. To trust the process, to challenge conventional documentary methods and to spark a dialogue.

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In what ways does your family play a role in your art practice?

I think the reason I love portraiture so much is because I was always making photos of my family while growing up. They are the people I love the most, so naturally I was drawn to making pictures of them. I grew up in spaces where I was able to explore my artistic abilities without fear.

My parents never pursued artistic careers, but they have always pushed me to do what I want with my life.  I moved out to the Bay Area when I was only 17, and had no idea what I was in for - but my parents never tried to stop me, and only encouraged my independent spirit to venture out into the world. Their guidance has been a huge source of motivation for me- in any moments I doubted myself, they encouraged me. We are all so different from one another, with varying passions and perspectives - but uplifting each other has always remained a constant. I know that’s rare in a lot of families, so I really appreciate having that experience from a very young age.

It has always been complicated being a biracial woman of color- my parents immigrated here in their twenties from two drastically different countries - my mother is Indian and my father is Colombian. I started to use my camera to address these layers of complexity within my identity in the past few years of my life. These feelings of losing cultural traditions over time that were passed down to me, and wanting to better understand my family, led me to the start of a recent a photo project focused on the Indian side of my heritage.

Creating this work is also a way for me to preserve a part of my history that has slowly been slipping away due to time, distance, and colonization. This is definitely going to be a long term project, focused almost entirely around my family, and is the most personal body of work I have ever spent time on.

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How do you think telling stories through photography can bring about positive change?

Authenticity is key. Whether it’s photography, or whatever creative medium you choose - you need to be honest and true to yourself while creating. No one else can teach you how to tell your truth, except yourself. Honestly, a lot of the work I see lately, especially while scrolling through social media, is a lot of photographers creating watered down work that looks cool, and follows the trend of what kind of stylish image-making is “in” right now. It’s easy to see someone else’s work, especially if they have a big following or recognition, and think “I need to make work like that to be recognized too.” That defeats the purpose of visual storytelling, and that’s when you need to put yourself in check. I make a constant effort to emphasize the importance of interrogating my own voice and vision instead of emulating what i see..

I strive to work against that mentality, especially as someone who never went to art school, and focus on creating that I believe in, feel connected to, and is authentic to who I am. Positive change is made when intentional, vulnerable, and honest stories are shared. I can’t say I ever really go into my projects thinking “how am I going to change the world with these pictures?” For me it starts a lot smaller, and I need to really feel connected to what or who I’m photographing, and understand what exactly I am trying to say. When all of those puzzle pieces come together, that’s when I feel like my work might be impactful because it’s coming from an authentic place, which will hopefully translate through my work.

Photography is a tool that has the ability communicate in ways that words cannot, and touches on people’s deepest emotions and values. A camera has the power to uplift the narratives that often go untold, and inspire radical change. There is a lot of responsibility in the hands of whoever uses a camera in this way. I aim to inspire hope, initiate a dialogue, or cultivate connections through my work.

In my opinion, to use photography as a form of advocacy  is to speak and learn about social and political issues; to bring attention to injustices, aiding communities in their fight against societal inequities.  Collectively, photography and advocacy can symbiotically uplift the narratives and initiatives society has suppressed for centuries before us. I strongly feel that when visual stories are deeply grounded in values, they can communicate a vision, not just a picture of the realities we face.

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How does your photojournalistic eye overlap with work that comes from a very personal place?

I studied at City College of San Francisco for a few years, where I accidentally ended up  focusing in Photojournalism. I was spending a lot of my free time in the city documenting the Black Lives Matter protests instead of going to class, and surrounded myself with communities of changemakers.

My involvement in the photojournalism field led me to some incredible opportunities, and took me around the country to document a range of stories. The insight I gained from teachers, peers, and editors at newspapers I worked for really helped shape my eye for capturing stories - not just making pretty pictures - but finding ways to tell a story with just a few images. I was sent out on assignments every week, with only a limited amount of time to capture the essence of a story. That really pushed me to be much more intentional about my process, and to focus on specific moments instead of general ideas. Working this way taught me how to slow down, look at what’s going on around me and take in the environment - to listen and take the time to observe.

However, I feel there are a lot of problematic approaches in photojournalism that I was faced with- mainly issues of exploiting marginalized people through image making, and capitalizing off the lives of People of Color- with most newsrooms being predominantly run by males and people not of color. I do feel like changes are slowly being made, and there are more organizations making an effort to bring diversity into newsrooms, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Recognizing these problems was frustrating for me at times, and that was the point at which I made a shift in my creative process.

I would say my work now is much more personal- I have turned the camera on my own narrative, and am exploring and excavating my own sense of self. I needed to experience working in the field of photojournalism to get to where I am now, to realize I am a lot bigger than the traditional ideologies of documentary storytelling. It’s all a process of unlearning habits I have inherited from the documentary and photojournalism culture - and being able to do that for myself before opening myself up to others, or asking individuals to open up to me. I am in a place right now where I make a constant effort for my work to focus primarily on my own ancestral heritage and stories that led to where I am today. My work is a driving force for me to reclaim narratives that are so often washed away by colonization, and collaborate with other POC artists around these themes.

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What's something ongoing you're working on?

Most recently I have been collaborating with teens at Destiny Arts Center in North Oakland, where I have spent the past couple years doing work with a community of powerful young change-makers. The friendships that have been a byproduct of my involvement with the organization has been instrumental to my growth as an artist. Our projects focus on stories of connection to ancestral lineage, challenging heteronormative and euro-centric beauty standards, and dismantling oppressive systems rooted in the history of this country- through visual storytelling. I’ve learned so much from these teens, and it has shifted my creative process to a more social justice based foundation for my work. I really feel that the most beautiful and impactful work comes from collaborating with like minded individuals that I have cultivated trusting relationships with.

I am very protective of these projects and prioritize protecting the identities of the folx I create with, so I don’t post a lot of the collaborations I’ve done on my social media platforms. For me, creating isn’t about playing the game of how many likes it can get, but initiating a dialogue or inspiration for viewers to challenge their beliefs. The work I’m doing with the community of young people in Oakland is a sacred and beautiful journey that I am excited to continue diving deeper into.

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