Interview: Genesis Báez

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

Genesis Báez was born in Massachusetts, USA and has spent her life shifting between Puerto Rico and New England. Currently based in Boston, Genesis continues to photograph throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. She received a BFA with honors form the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2012 where she studied photography and its history. She is the recent recipient of the Civil Society Fellowship, and has participated in numerous exhibitions and publications. Lately she has balanced her time between photographing, teaching, curating and working for various arts and educational institutions in Boston.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and how you became a photographer.

Genesis Báez: A meaningful relationship with photography began at a very early age for me, and it felt intrinsically tied to my relationship to Puerto Rico. My parents left Puerto Rico for New England, US in the late 1980s, and one of my only connections to this island were the photographs tucked under my mothers bed like well-kept secrets. These images were powerful objects, with much assigned to them. They represented other worlds and other lives that I felt an unspoken relationship to. These images were like clues. They felt like a map of my history, a history that I felt displaced from while living in diaspora. This map aided me as I fumbled to construct a sense of belonging and identity.

Later on, I ended up spending a lot of time between Puerto Rico and New England during my youth. This perpetual movement felt difficult, there was a constant sense of longing and displacement, but the camera quickly began to feel like a tool that helped me relate to places. It was a tool that helped me find my way. Remembering the power of my mother's photographs, I purchased my first camera as a pre-teen, a disposable camera from the American drugstore (a Walgreens?) in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Before returning to Massachusetts, I meticulously photographed everything from my bed to the stove to my grandmother's closet and the vastness of the ocean, as if it'd otherwise disappear. I quickly built an archive of images that comforted me within the longing and displacement inherent in diaspora.

In 2008, I began to study photography and its history at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and have continued to photograph in Puerto Rico and throughout the United States ever since.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: How autobiographical is your project "Otra Vida, Otra Vez"? How did the project evolve?

GB: Similar to the images of my youth, these images were made in Puerto Rico on my return visits. Although my process and reasons for making these images are rooted in a personal interest for this place, the narratives that the images weave transcend the limitations of my personal experience.  I never quite know where my world ends and the outside world begin. I think it's important to acknowledge the tenuous line between individual and collective histories and trauma.

Although I don't aim to describe my personal story and don't aim to solely describe Puerto Rico and its complex colonial relationship to the US, the images cannot help but contain them both. The realities of Puerto Rico's long colonial history and its deep implications in the lives of people sneak up in my work in surprising ways - very bright, almost oppressive light, eggs teeter-tottering on the edge of tables, an eagle shaped mirror embedded with a non-functioning clock. This history leaks into the intimate minutia of the everyday.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

Furthermore, when I return to Boston and edit, print and shuffle these images around, the images quickly transcend my personal narrative and the many other narratives I have assigned to them. In this process, I quickly learn how images, objects or gestures can lose or gain meaning in unexpected, powerful ways depending on the cultural context in which they are being read. The work began to spark larger conversations about identity, place, history and power. These ideas have guided me as I have photographed in other parts of the world, more recently throughout the United States and in Spain.

Lately, I have been developing a project titled "Reclamation" where I am burying and later digging up exposed and developed photographic negatives of Puerto Rican landscapes in the ground where they were made. Many of the negatives were images originally shot for "Otra Vida, Otra Vez." In this work, I am interested in exploring the fragility of images and memory, using erasure (which is so inherent to diaspora and colonialism) as a mark-making tool. These images are presented with text, which describes what the image used to be of, but does not match up with what you are viewing. This disconnect interests me. This project has sparked an interest in making more performative, time based work. This fall I will participate in an artist residency where I will continue to explore ideas I discovered while making photographs for "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" with video, sound, performance and sculpture.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: The project includes a wide range of subjects photographed –what criteria do you have for establishing what to include as you edit in such an "open" body of work? What are the threads that you see uniting the work?

GB: While making work, I try to separate photographing and analyzing. They feel like separate processes to me, and when I catch myself analyzing too much while making photographs, I end up limiting experimentation and blocking out exciting possibilities. With that said, I give myself certain parameters, such as photographing within a certain geographic location, or only using specific tools. I then try to work freely within those parameters, photographing from an intuitive place.

Important understandings are born wile editing and printing. In this process I pick up on certain motifs that I [often subconsciously] photograph. I pick up on patterns. Some of those include water, borders, transitional/interstitial spaces such as doorways and cars, or certain colors, particularly turquoise and reds/corals. I then keep these patterns in mind on the back burner, and let them very loosely guide me throughout a project.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: In our emails, we talked a little about color and light, and the particularities of both in Latin America. Talk with us about the importance of color and light in your work and the qualities you see it having.

GB: Color and light are a language. They help communicate emotions and sensations. The light in Puerto Rico is like no other that I have seen. It is so bright, so heavy, and although beautiful, it is often oppressive. Bits of color often act as clues. For example, the warm turquoise blue in the shirt of one of the women photographed happens to be the same warm blue of the Caribbean Sea, pictured separately. Within a body of work, the colors can guide us, helping us make important connections between disparate subjects that we may not have otherwise noticed.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: How much does environmental context determine your photography? Do you shoot much differently in Boston than in Puerto Rico, for example?

GB: When I photograph in Puerto Rico, there is more of a sense of urgency then when I photograph anywhere else in the world. My days there are always counted, and my relationship to time there feels different, like water slipping through my fingers. Restlessness runs through me. Hence, I photograph a lot in a short amount of time, as opposed to my slower more meditative approach to making that I experience in the States. In addition, on the island, I am limited to moving around in a vehicle. Where I photograph, there is no public transportation, and towns are not designed for pedestrians, but for cars. Therefore I am confined to photographing and re-photographing within very specific limitations. I definitely feel less of a freedom there in terms of how I move through space. In Boston, on the other hand, I walk and bike across different parts of the city. Those images inherently feel different.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: The portraits here are intimate, while the photographs of spaces – such as the airport or the blue ladder – are frequently colder, frontal, distanced. Any comment on how you relate subject and space in your work?

GB: This push and pull between intimacy and distance mimics a push and pull familiar to living in diaspora; this certain push and pull of being both insider and outsider. It is important for me to not only describe what a place, or lack thereof, looks like, but to describe how it feels (I think I explore this more intentionally in my project "Reclamation"). The colder images of spaces could speak to a disconnect to physical places, while the portraits and objects lead us to feel that in the midst of perpetual displacement, of not only lacking a homeland, but a nation, one is led to find comfort and a sense of belonging within relationships to other people.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: Do you have specific relationships with the work of other photographers, past or present, in your project?

GB: There is a long list of people whose work has deeply influenced mine, and for that I am forever grateful. However, when thinking about the photographs made in "Otra Vida, Otra Vez," I think it's important to bring up Jack Delano's extensive archive of photographs from the island. He was an American photographer who photographed for the Farm Security Administration around the US mainland and in Puerto Rico, but eventually ended up settling in PR. You can view some of his work on the Library of Congress site or in his book Puerto Rico Mío. He was an outsider, somewhat like myself, who used photography to discuss the unfolding realities of modernism, industrialization and US neo-colonialism on the island during the mid-20th century. We both photograph/ed the same place, repeatedly, obsessively, over an extended amount of time. He passed away in the late 90s, but twenty or so years after his death, I feel that my work continues to have an important conversation with his. Although made for different reasons, our photographs ultimately speak to the endurance of this island.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about Yoav Horesh's work, who was actually a former professor of mine at MassArt. I can really relate to how he uses the camera to navigate through spaces of trauma, and the way that he describes the thin line between history, the present and the potential future. Lately I have also been thinking a lot about the work of Irina Rovozky, Rose Marie Cromwell and Groana Melendez - to name a few; they are empowering artists whose work I can directly relate to either conceptually, aesthetically, or both.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: One of my goals with fototazo is to promote photography made in Latin America. What other photographers from or working in Puerto Rico would you recommend to readers?

GBVíctor Vázquez, a conceptual artist and photographer comes to mind.

The website linked to here is a great database and resource listing many Puerto Rican artists and photographers working on the island.

Within the diaspora, Elle Perez is great. Born and raised in New York, she also returned to Puerto Rico to make very powerful images.

Anabel Vazquez-Rodriguez, originally from Puerto Rico, is a Boston based artist currently working across mediums, but has a background in photography and has worked on many photography projects.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez

f: Anything else you'd like to add?

GB: Ultimately, I think one of the most important things I have learned while making pictures is how gracefully and quickly the personal can become universal.  The potential for one to see a part of oneself in an image made by another is indeed a powerful thing. Photography, when used as a tool to understand ourselves, can ultimately allow us to understand each other. Thank you for allowing me the space to share my work with a broader audience - fototazo is a truly important resource.

f: Thank you, Genesis, and thank you for your time with us.

From the series "Otra Vida, Otra Vez" © Genesis Báez