with Carmen Figueroa 14F
Carmen Figueroa is a portrait photographer from Brooklyn, NY who believes we have powerful stories to tell. Part celebration and part institutional critique, her Division III project Fragments of Belonging recreates and reimagines her family, herself, and their stories to shape wholeness from fragments of images and memories. This collection of large-scale photographic works and video installation of her family in New York and Puerto Rico exhibited in the Hampshire Art Gallery in December 2018. In this interview, she reflects on using photography to regain authorship and agency of her own narrative, recapture knowledge both stolen and lost, and reclaim traditionally limiting spaces to create a world that she can belong in.
ON PUERTO RICO AND RECONNECTION
I went to Puerto Rico to document my family tree. But when I got there it was so different. I hadn’t been there in 10 years. It felt very fragile, especially after [Hurricane] Maria. I needed to figure out what my relationship was to Puerto Rico — not only my relationship to the people but also my relationship to the land. My roots are Puerto Rican but I wasn’t born there. So I was an outsider but also an insider at the same time.
When I was taking these pictures, I didn’t know what they were going to be like. I wanted them to talk about me being both an outsider and insider to this place, what it means for someone who is fourth generation Puerto Rican but also a first generation college student. How do I handle going to a place that is literally fighting to survive with this expensive camera? How do I document and show pictures of my family surviving and my people surviving? I come here to Puerto Rico and I’m very privileged, but I go back home to New York and it’s very different. What does it mean to be all of these things? So I did a lot of portraiture, to view my family but also view myself. I needed to ask questions through photography and also through identity.
My project was called “Fragments of Belonging” to speak to this idea that I belong in fragments to these different places, to these different people, to this history, and vice versa. I spent a lot of time with my great-grandmothers while I was there. One of my great-grandmothers is 95, she had ten kids of her own and raised three from her husband’s previous marriage. She’s been in Puerto Rico her whole life. Another great-grandmother raised three kids, came to New York, and then went back to Puerto Rico. So for me this meant that she called Puerto Rico home, and there was always something that brought her back. But her kids stayed in New York, and their kids, and then their kids, which is fourth generation right now. So people have stopped going back to Puerto Rico and stayed in New York.
I was expecting to learn so much from them when I went to Puerto Rico, but I didn’t get the full story. I knew that they were old and that there was a lot of trauma from the hurricane. My great-grandmother didn’t remember her brothers’ and sisters’ names. That’s something that is lost. That is something that I did not have. It wasn’t the full picture.
My great-grandmother who came to New York also had to leave things behind. Like language. Our relationship was different because of language. They’re talking too fast, and I’m trying to understand where my family comes from, but in reality I couldn’t. I couldn’t really get to everyone and get this information from them.
ON SEEING PHOTOGRAPHY THROUGH A NEW LENS
I see my camera and photography as a tool, but also something that is a part of me and the way that I see the world. They’re my lenses. Coming to Hampshire, I didn’t know how to talk about my experiences. So I used photography in a way that pushed me beyond looking to learning. My first year here, I took a class on HIV/AIDS and I photographed the process of how HIV infects our cells. It was something totally different from what I usually see, and I used it to learn. I used it as a tool, I used it as something that people wouldn’t usually see, and to help them learn visually.
I want to focus on people who are not really represented in media. People who don’t usually see themselves outside of the pictures they capture of themselves, and trying to get people out of that comfort zone and into a place where they are their raw self. So there’s a process of taking pictures of somebody else. And I think it’s about conversation. It’s about talking about things that people are usually silent for. I like it to be a collaboration rather than just taking the pictures. I don’t like to tell people what to do. I like to tell them you can take as much space as possible. To feel that this place is theirs.
ON RECLAIMING & RECREATING STORIES
I’ve seen so many typical pictures of white people taking pictures of their family. And it felt distant from me, it wasn’t what I wanted to feel like. So instead I looked at different photographers who were doing what I wanted to do, like LaToya Ruby Frazier. In her book, The Notion of Family, she takes pictures of her own family in their house, but she recreated scenes from their story with their participation.
And what does that tell you about stories? If I’m recreating, does it still tell you that it’s real? If I’m creating it, does that mean it’s not real, that it’s not in the moment? Before, photography used to only be about documenting, about telling what’s really there. But in reality, you’re not telling what’s really there, it’s your interpretation. So I like to do both. I like it to be real, I like it to be raw. The image could be created but the ideas and the symbols and the meaning of the picture is real. Real to a fact of people’s experiences, of how people do feel and how they want to and should feel.
And that’s what this project and this show is to me. Before this, we didn’t know how to move in this space, this institution. We didn’t know how any of these things worked. I’m first generation and my friends are first generation, and we’d never been here before and we didn’t know how things go. There was nobody I could ask, “How do you do this?” I didn’t know how to fill out a FAFSA, my mom didn’t know how to do it. None of us knew how to do it.
But now I’m here and this gallery is here. I was able to show that there are possibilities that are real, just like LaToya Ruby Frazier showed me. It is real that I am a photographer, a photographer that sees but also creates. Sees reality but also creates something, a world that I want to fit in. Seeing the reality of people of color and creating possibilities to take back a space that was taken from them. This was taken from me. My family had to adapt to live here. They had to leave things behind, to get rid of their native tongue to fit into places and spaces. And then to learn that we’re not good enough to be in these spaces.
This was all taken from me, and I wanted it back. And I went to Puerto Rico and I took it back. In whatever capacity and form that I could, with whatever information I could gather and with the support that I had, I took it back.
ON SHAKING UP THE GALLERY
I would go to museums and take pictures of modern art, and never feel I had any connection to it. You go to a museum, to a gallery, to gain knowledge, to take something away from it. But I would go and not see people who look like me, black and brown people, in these pieces. So what does it mean for this institution to hold up one kind of history but not another? What do we learn from that, what can we take away?
With my own gallery, I wanted to change that. I wanted to change the dynamics of what a gallery could look like. I strayed away from typical ways of setting it up. It wasn’t all straight pictures hanging next to each other, all in a line. They weren’t at eye level, they were at different parts of the wall. I didn’t frame my pictures because I thought that frames meant containment, and I didn’t want to contain anything that my pictures had. I wanted them to be free. I didn’t want a frame to constrict the ideas, the feelings, that I was talking about.
I wanted people to touch this paper, to touch this person in the picture. By the end of the gallery, it became more about literally touching my work, touching where these images were, where my name was, where Fragments of Belonging was. I physically touched them, my grandmother physically touched them, my mother physically touched them. And seeing them all up in the gallery made me feel like I did something way bigger than I thought that I did.
I don’t think that the work I’m doing will ever be done. There’s still more there, more that I can do, more that I can learn. Because I’m turning the camera on myself and it’s so personal. This project was really important for me as I got to know myself and get comfortable with myself. Now that I’m getting into places and spaces that can make me feel uncomfortable, it does not affect me because I know who I am and I know where I come from and I know how much it took me to get here. I think before I was waiting for someone to take this from me. I was waiting for someone to tell me that this wasn’t mine. And now that I’ve graduated, I realize that nobody can take this from me now. I know that what I’m doing is really important, that this is something that I’ve worked hard on, and nobody can take that from me.
ON THE OPENING NIGHT
I was so worried about how people were going to feel in this space. I wanted to be in control of how people walked in, how they saw my images, the order in which they saw them. I was so worried about it, thinking especially about my family. What if they didn’t understand? I was showing them all my work from over four and a half years. I wanted them to understand what I was trying to bring to the table. And I think they got it. My little brother was running around, saying “You know you got a picture of me in there? Do you know that?” He’s flipping, he’s saying “Carmen! You have my picture up here! You took this picture?” And that feeling of his excitement spread. I hadn’t shown anybody my pictures, my family was seeing it for the first time. I wanted it to be an experience. And my mom said “Oh my god, that picture is HUGE!” They’re in shock. Because yeah, if I could’ve printed it out bigger I would have.
And not only my family, but all the people who came to see it, got it. I think it’s because of the relationship that people had to me and seeing all that I had been through coming to Hampshire, being a part of Hampshire’s community, leaving home. To see my story. People related to that, to leaving home and coming to a new place with these stories. In conversations I had with people with, they told me “Carmen, I thought I was in my living room.” They see themselves in my pictures and they see the feeling I was talking about, and how they reflected it back to their own family. And that only could’ve happened to people who relate to where I come from. They’ve seen these pictures before, telling me “Wow, I’ve actually seen my grandmother watching novellas and we’re sitting there and we’re just chilling with these faces on.”
And I think people idolized my family when they came, asking me “That’s your grandmother? That’s her?” And that was really important to me. Making it feel like they’re celebrities. Because that’s what I wanted. I wanted people to see my family as the celebrities that they are, the important people that they are, and how much work they’ve done and put into things that are not tangible, that I can’t even hold. I am them and they are me.
When I put my pictures up, I said that my pictures were holding up the gallery. It wasn’t the walls, it was my pictures holding it up. I’m holding it up and I created it, for my family.
ON TURNING THE CAMERA ON YOURSELF
I had to do a talk at the gallery. I didn’t know what to say. And there was my family listening and that made me a little more scared, but while I’m standing I can see my self-portrait. It feels like it’s looking at me. In this picture, I’m in front of my great-grandmother’s house that she built a long time ago. I had this old picture of me and my cousin in front of that house when we were kids. Coming back to Puerto Rico ten years later, I recreated that image alone. Both these pictures were on the wall, right next to each other, and you can see the similarities between both of them but also the differences. There was this gap that I’d never really seen before, this transition that I’d never noticed. It showed me just how much Puerto Rico had changed me, how much Hampshire had changed me. The picture took me to extremes with myself, and changed the way I look at myself and talk to myself.
I had so much help from different sides: Karina Fernandez, the James Baldwin Scholars Program, my Division III committee, Ethics and the Common Good. My friends. Helping me deal with things, FaceTiming me, putting up my video, telling me I need a break, taking me away from my computer. And also helping me apply for and get different grants, like the Common Good Scholar Grant, that made it possible for me to go to Puerto Rico and come back to share this gallery and bring my work to its fullest potential. This was really important, having my vision be possible to its fullest potential. Because financially, having that not be something that’s taking over everything, it gives me the chance to be vulnerable in the way that I need to rather than having to be stressed about money and stressed about the things that I need.
So this is my community. These are the people I worked hard to find here. They supported me in their own way. They created an environment in this institution that felt like home. This is the community that we made.
And of course, my family. I did this for them. And for me. At first it was all about doing this for my family but then I realized that this was for me too. I worked my ass off to get here, but I also had so many different people in so many different places help me and nudge me. These people fought to be here in my life.
ON WHAT’S NEXT
I want my photography to speak to spectrums of people, spectrums of black and brown people. I think I’m at this point in my life where I can be vulnerable and still be okay. To show my experiences and still be okay. Sharing these experiences through photography, I’m learning how to be vulnerable for other people who are like me. I’m okay with doing that and I’m okay with putting myself in the forefront and fighting this battle for representation. We need representation of ourselves, of people we connect with, of people we love. So I want to get into teaching photography and supporting people, especially young people, in learning how to see themselves in the world.