“It’s like a love letter to New York,” says 22-year-old Stephen Velastegui, referring to his latest zine, Amores aparte pero siempre juntos — a collection of portraits of friends and family, and snapshots from blurry nights in New York’s underground clubs. For Velastegui, these photographs — of sweaty dancers, impulsive tattoos, transit cards and an empty pack of Marlboro reds — immortalise important memories and emotions from a transitory period in his coming-of-age. “As someone who wants to memorialise everything, and who is so emotionally invested in everything that they do, photography is a productive way for me to put timestamps on my experiences,” he explains.
The project began two years ago, when Velastegui’s family decided to relocate from their home in Ridgewood, Queens, to the more residential area of Long Island. “Imagine what an idealised America looks like — that’s Long Island,” explains the 22-year-old photographer, “it’s totally different from where I grew up, and the life I had made for myself. I thought, ‘What am I going to do to hold on to what I have?’”.
Velastegui, who was then finishing the second year of his degree in Photography and Related Media at the Fashion Institute of Technology, made the decision to stay in Queens. The zine, first published two months ago and now available in a new, revised edition, is a document of the following two years he spent away from his family, “figuring out what type of person I am, and how my experiences inform that”.
“It was a kids size top, but she wore it as a baby-tee to a techno party in a Chinese restaurant. I had to take a photo, because it was such an iconic night”
Every photograph in the zine has a significance to this period; whether it’s an experience he shared with the person in it, or a moment that informs the way he considers things now. One of Velastegui’s most memorable nights — “probably the hottest and most packed places that I’ve been in” — was a party in a downtown Manhattan chinese restaurant.
“It’s very secretive, kind of like a ‘you got to know to know’ type place”. He spent that whole day leading up to it looking for an outfit to wear with his friend, Jasmine. Eventually, they stumbled across a street vendor in Chinatown, selling a hot-pink top that read ‘New York City Princess’. “It was a kids size top, but she wore it as a baby-tee to a techno party in a Chinese restaurant. Everybody was going up to her the whole night saying how cute she looked in the in it. I had to take a photo, because it was such an iconic night.”
Photographers such as Nan Goldin and Ren Hang inspire Velastegui, particularly in the way they approach intimacy through unconventionally sexy images. “I wanted to make photos that were sexy or had some sort of sex appeal to them, without making them objectifying,” he explains. “It’s not so much a shock factor, but more about not having the inhibition to hold back”. Velastegui also looks to the work of Davide Sorrenti, and his honest depictions of New York which he feels are “sort of lost, because everything is commodified now”. “That wave is something that I try to keep alive in my work, but the more that I transition into fashion photography, the more I’m finding different ways to kind of nod at my documentary practices and make stuff that feels more sexy without being apologetic about it.”
Around the same time he was making these images, Velastegui came across a necklace in a jewelry store: a split pendant with an inscription that became the title of his project, Amores aparte pero siempre juntos — ‘Lovers apart but always together’. “That really clicked for me. The love of family will never separate regardless of time, distance, or living conditions,” he says. “It’s always gonna be the number one foundation to my life. Nothing is going to top that.”