GIVING POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Sol Aramendi is an absolute force. Community smarts, a big heart and bloody hardwork makes her THE instigator for photography and inquiry among the immigrants living in New York city. Project Luz, an organization she founded, delivers photography workshops. Most are conducted with residents of Queens — the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.
The workshops function as cultural orientation and serve to empower immigrants who might be hesitant to explore beyond their new neighborhoods. Aramendi helps them out of their shell, onto the subway and into the boroughs. Photography is an excuse to engage with the world.
Aramendi’s moved toward teaching photography workshops after taking inspiring courses herself with Sergio Larrain (2004) and Adriana Lestido in Argentina. Aramendi also campaigns to promote breastfeeding among immigrant women, facilitates community discussion groups about domestic abuse, and provides a space for children with autism to scratch records. She is developing an App for day laborers to report workplace employer abuses.
I am fascinated by Aramendi’s emphasis on the social aesthetic above and beyond any image aesthetic, and so it was great to catch Aramendi between her many commitments and pose a few questions about her background, motivations and relationships.
Scroll down for our Q&A
Project Luz workshops in the field.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): How did you get to be here in New York teaching photography and roaming the streets with cameras?
Sol Aramendi (SA): I moved from my hometown in Argentina to Rosario to Buenos Aires where I studied furniture design, film school. Later I trained and worked as an architect. At that time I was interested in black and white photography and sign dup for workshops taught by Adriana Lestido. There was a shanty town in Buenos Aires and I was interested in the many people who lived off garbage — sourcing, salvaging, reselling, recycling.
Simultaneously, I was taking people around the city to photograph architecture. I had a photo-lab in my house and taught from home. This was 1999. There was a financial crisis. Another one! I’d been working as an architect for 10 years and I felt I wanted something different.
I had a continued relationship with one family who survived from working with garbage. I traveled with them on the train to the dumps. It was called tram blanco – the ghost train — because most people never even saw it or knew it existed. It was invisible. Worse still, the operators charged more money than a regular ticket … just to go to work with garbage.
PP: It sounds like you relocated to New York relatively recently?
SA: Yes, and I knew I wanted to continue the work. It had to be for the local community. I wrote to all the museums — MoMA, Queens Museum, and so on — asking for free tours in Spanish for immigrants.
Queens Museum immediately called me back. They had just received a half-a-million dollar grant for community engagement. The museum was empty. It was a huge building, but immigrants using the park thought it was abandoned.
We did a class. On the final day and closing presentation of my course, there were 100 people. Afterward, the Queens Museum gave me the position of that person I had been asking for! I began guiding tours in Spanish at the weekends.
PP: Since, you’ve also been contracted by MoMA, also.
SA: MoMA has 20 community partners. I am one of them. It’s only 30 hours a year, but you can get a lot done in that time. Our project—inspired by Carrie Mae Weems—is about family.
PP: What do you do in your workshops?
SA: I bring people to the museum. We look at images. We make images. Color, black and white, then film, now digital. I’ve learnt how to engage the community, about how to listen; that is the most important thing. I was teaching them basic things but always relating it to art. Everyone can have an opinion about art.
Various workshops from down the years. Sol has been involved in programs for everything from street photography, to studio portraiture, to lighting, to post production to classes on theory and photo history.
PP: What’s your approach?
SA: We learn through art but mostly we’re getting to know the city. The photography is an excuse!
Immigrants come here and they live in an imaginary space. They want to come here, but they don’t “arrive” here. They are in limbo. Through storytelling, I help them to imagine a more *real* place and being. I want them to feel a belonging to the city and to the spaces.
I had a woman who had lived here for 8 years but she did not know Manhattan. Migrants travel all this way, across borders, and then they are paralyzed in the place that they are. They don’t know more than 10 blocks around. Little by little they discover their own potential. After our MoMA visit, one student asked “Do we have another VIP tour, this week?”
People change themselves. We open a door and from there, they walk themselves. Many of them live subject to stereotypes. Understandably, some of them are embarrassed but they can know their community and space by describing it.
PP: What is the outcome of your workshops?
SA: We make publications in both Spanish and English. One for each workshop series. We’ve made 25 publications.
SA: The format is set, so it is just a case of inputting the photographs and text we create. It’s newsprint. Together, we pick the subject of the publication and always relate it to immigration and place. We made one with union workers, one with day laborers, we encouraged a conversation between those two groups.
We made a newspaper with the New York Public Library. Some publications are in Mandarin. I encourage participants to distribute. We print many and I give participants a lot to share at public events.
Aramendi (center) with children from one of her ‘Through the Lens’ workshops pose for a group photo.
PP: You seem to share everything you make?
SA: I do a lot of portrait projects. If there’s a community event, I set-up an outside studio, make portraits, upload them on Flickr. People can download for free.
Christmas portrait studio (top); “Spooky Halloween” portraits studio (bottom).
SA: Project Luz teaches classes on social media and encourage immigrants to use it to communicate. They make virtual “tour guides” for their families back home. So when we visit a place, we’re thinking how to describe it visually and later publish online.
PP: These are all immediate benefits for participants. What is the secondary audience for their photographs? Here in NYC or further afield?
SA: I made an installation inside an old bank vault which included 300 portraits of migrants at work. It was about money and security and labor. After seeing those pictures people said they realized just how many jobs around them are completed by migrants — bus driver, delivery, everything we eat and drink — from morning to night, it goes through immigrant hands.
Portraits made by Sol and her team during a Migrant Day Open House.
PP: What are the main issues that immigrants face?
SA: Access. I do a lot of work for people to go to a museum, but that work can end at the front desk … because of the way staff look at them. It can be enough to make them stop. After they cross that barrier — it is a lot, but really nothing — they realize they can do a lot of other things.
We talk about society, domestic violence, and I also teach them about the law of what they can photograph. I tell them to photograph at all the train stops. I tell them they can photograph the police. We cannot take pictures in the school. But everything else we can do. We look at the lawsuit between Philip Lorca DiCorcia and the Hasidic Jewish man who objected to his image being made on the street.
I ask students always to discuss and to defend photos or issues. Maybe they can later do the same at their work-place. Maybe they can tell their boss, “No, I only have to work 8 hours, not 12.” I let them know that it is okay to have healthy doubt and to question.
Sol has led workshops for printmaking for women.
PP: What are immigrants’ relationship with law enforcement in Queens like?
SA: This is their city – they’re living, working and contributing so they can use the public transport, public spaces, art spaces. But it’s not always so easy. For example, the park around the Queens Museum is frequently used by migrants for celebrations such as Cinquo de Mayo. Two years ago, the police started doing raids. May 2nd, 3rd, 4th; they started in Queens, so on the 5th people didn’t come out. We all know where the immigrants live.
Immigrants are convenient for the economy but they are also required to keep quiet — to stand in the corner and to look down. No.
PP: How many of your students are legally documented?
SA: I don’t ask. It is not my preoccupation. But I would guess 80%. There’s 12 million undocumented immigrants in America so there are many in New York.
A lot of the students work as photographers at the weekends photographing the community events. There’s many events and parties. One group from Project Luz created another group called Latinos En Foco so they’re getting together and learning more lighting. They’re students teaching new students.
PP: Latino communities have a lot of events. Does photography play a ritual role?
SA: They’re taking photographs all the time. It used to be you only had a photographed mad once a year in the main house, with the man with the donkey. So there is clothing and performance in photography that is very ritualistic. Photography gives the ability to communicate it immediately with the family back in the home country.
PP: Is photography ever a threat for undocumented individuals?
SA: We talk about it the first day. I go with them the first time they go out in Corona. People on the street think you’re from Immigration, but we talk about how ICE works. ICE is not going out on the street to take your photo; they know where you are.
Images from a weekend of Migrant Camera workshops at the 2014 Open Engagement conference at Queens Museum, NY.
PP: Can you measure the benefits of Project Luz’s workshops?
SA: It’s difficult. How many of them are empowered? What is empowerment? For sure, they know more about photography. Can talk about themselves and express their opinion? This, for me, it is the most important thing. I can agree or not, but at least they are expressing themselves.
PP: I’m presuming Project Luz serves people from all Central and South American countries as they are all present in Queens?
SA: In Queens, it is mostly Mexican and Columbian. Some Ecuadorian and other nationalities less.
PP: How did this all begin?
SA: I started the social practice program that Tom Finkelpearl (former Queens Museum director) did with Greg Sholette. I know I wanted to do something that gave frame to Project Luz. I am one of five social practice artists in residence and I teach on Saturdays. I have a partnership projects with United Photo Industries in Brooklyn, and with Prerana Reddy at the Queens Museum.
Photographs from Sol Aramendi’s portrait project promoting positive images of immigrant women breastfeeding.
PP: What did you think of the Open Engagement (2014) conference. What do you think of the art and social practice ecosystem?
SA: I worry about diversity, that Social Practice is too white.
Community arts have been going on since the sixties and now we’ve white students coming to the communities with credentials and think they know [how to construct a project]. There has been this debate. But not everything is like that. I understand that everyone was talking about diversity. It is a preoccupation. I would like it to be more diverse.
I worry because some artists go to immigrant communities and they use them. Tokenism. It can seem like it collaboration but it is not. There were several projects that came to Queens that proposed to make portraits of immigrants, and of “the American Dream.” Several … so that makes me nervous.
Images from Project Luz’s “Seeing With Light” workshop at El Barrio, NY.
PP: Is a long term project necessarily a better project?
SA: In my experience, things take a long time. You make mistakes and it takes a long time to get to know a community. Are we listening? This is the question I ask of myself all the time. Are they doing what I want or are they doing freely what they want? For me, long duration is good. Create leadership and then let the community go; let it build its owns groups and make their own mistakes.
It’s tricky to judge using time as criteria; results depend on the project, the teacher, the conversations, the student. Two months could be good. Two years is very good.
I worked for just two weeks in Turkey on a project and it worked. I didn’t speak the language but I could communicate.
In 2012, a workshop led by Sol visited the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA and later made images of their own based upon ideas of identity, costume and image circulation.
PP: You’re working on a new App. It sounds like true political and activist art.
SA: From a day of discussions with day laborers and NY NICE, one student suggested making an App to report issues in the building trade. NICE was also working on a App for wage theft. My role is pedagogical. I create the questions.
PP: So that employers can’t take advantage of non-documented workers?
SA: Yes. The App includes messaging, a fact-checked and filtered ‘Hall of Shame’ of bad contractors. We presented it to 11 organizations with day laborers to secure feedback as we developed it.
This App is to inform laborers and to ostracize disreputable employers. The fines are low for wage theft, so it happens often. Instead of paying $7/hour, some contractors pay $4. A laborer says they’ll complain, the employer threatens to report them. There’s also a lot of agencies that don’t pay immigrants. A business that has an immigrant worker already saves hugely on their [taxes, insurance] costs.
We have funding and it is in the development stages.
© Sol Aramendi. Meyolotzin Mexica, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Welcome to my hood, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Dancing with myself, 2011.
In her own work Sol constructs elaborate sets to write one page visual allegories.
PP: Which photographers are relevant? Which do you show your students?
SA: Latin American photographers. Sometimes we are embarrassed of our heritage, so I introduce photographers to make them proud. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gabriele Stabile, Miguel Rio Branco from Brazil, Adriana Lestido, from Mexico, came and gave a lecture in Spanish.
Students also have to find photographers. I ask them to research five names and bring them in. We look at contemporary photographers such as Hank Willis Thomas. We’re going to look at Carrie Mae Weems and talk about Latin American culture around the kitchen table as Weems did with her series Kitchen Table.
PP: Paula Luttringer?
SA: I admired Slaughterhouse greatly.
PP: The first project of Luttringer’s I discovered was Wailing of the Walls.
SA: Allesandro Sanguenetti. I always share her work with students. And Esteban Pastorino Diaz who made the longest exposure. Literally! The longest physical negative. Over 30 meters. He makes landscapes look like models. He’s fascinating.
Alejandro Chaskielberg from Argentina, too.
The first exhibition I worked on was ABC DF — a huge exhibition of Mexican photographers.
Daniela Rossell did Ricas y Famosas / Rich and Famous (1994-2002) which I thought was showy and tacky.
SA: I was a student of Lestido. She goes into projects 100% and with her heart. I learnt a lot from her about teaching. As a photographer, I admire Francesca Woodman’s life and work.
PP: And which organisations you admire? That may or may not include those working in photography or the arts.
SA: Organizations that DO something! For example El Puente in south Williamsburg, Immigrants Movement International (IMI) and Tania Bruguera’s projects. I like projects that don’t necessary rely on a strict idea and allow flexibility. It is a mistake to intervene in a community with your own “final” idea. Process is vital — it is important to be able to change through dialogue and engagement. The result almost doesn’t matter; the process is where connections are made.
I look to political groups such as Tucumán Arde, which was a group of previously mainstream artists in the north of Argentina who jointly denounced the Argentine’s military action. Never again has something so radical happened in Argentina.
You have to CHANGE something. You have to DO something that is useful. Life is short so better use time working on something that’s of use.
PP: Is photo central?
SA: It has been, but I am not sure it always will be.
PP: Wendy Ewald says it does none any favors if you give someone the ability to make a bad photograph. You can’t just dump cameras in the hands of people. You empower people by teaching them about photography and enabling them to make a good photograph.
SA: The goal of my work is not to make a good photo. If they can realize a good photo that is good, but the goal is for them to have access, social mobility and they can make their own decisions and they can take leadership.
PP: Long may you continue. Thanks Sol
SA: Thank you , Pete.