Spotlight: Camila Falquez

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Off the back of photographing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for TIME, the Spanish-Mexican-Colombian photographer discusses her practice

“NYC, you give me hope. This is our love letter to New York, that in its resilience creates new spaces for us to exist and for the music to play,” writes Camila Falquez in an Instagram caption for a recent photoshoot with Vogue Spain. Although only a glimpse into the photographer’s innermost thoughts, the text neatly encapsulates her commitment to constructing spaces designed to celebrate diversity, evoking what postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha called the ‘third space’, where our unique identities are seen as hybrids: products of the shared experience of a community and cultural representation constructs.

Whether talking on social media platforms, across the streets of New York, or through Zoom, Falquez, and by extension her work, embodies the carnivalesque. When shooting, she strives to nurture this performative spirit. “I am the audience, the camera is barely there. It’s like a theatre performance, and I invite everyone to enter that space,” she explains, with fittingly dramatic hand movements. Falquez speaks over a video call from a rented apartment in Puerto Rico. Usually based in New York, the Spanish-Mexican-Colombian artist travelled to the Caribbean island for some well-earned rest, after what can only be described as a jam-packed year.

For Time Magazine x Person of the Year: Mrs. Vice President Elect Kamala Harris.

“We still use the same definition of beauty that was conceived in the Renaissance. Most of the power and the opportunities are for white people from the gender binary”

While the majority of us spent 2020 indoors, barely motivated to make it outside for our prescribed daily exercise, Falquez remained busy. She was photographing then President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris for Time magazine, and accomplishing a childhood dream by modelling the 50 looks of choreographer Merce Cunningham for The New York Times. She also welcomed the “quietness, the silence, the clearance and the sense of space” afforded by 2020, as well as the absence of call sheets, and her typically busy international flight schedule. And, from the cocoon of New York City, she was able to produce her most provocative, colourful and powerful personal work to date, Being in History.

Photographed over the course of a year, the series depicts queer friends and acquaintances, and Black and brown bodies that usually fall outside of traditional expectations of gender or beauty. The models are nude but for a few playful props – think bouffant wigs and billowing scarves – all shot against a white background. The resulting series comprises over 30 portraits, with the subjects styled and sculpted into shapes that hark back to historical paintings of aristocratic figures. After the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the world, Falquez decided she couldn’t wait to find a publisher, and released the photos herself. “I thought, ‘This is going to move a lot of people. This will help the person I’m marching next to’,” she recalls.

The photographer scoured Manhattan in search of walls that could be used to exhibit the photographs. “Placing people that no one has seen in those places raises a lot of questions,” she explains. “It’s almost like you’re stepping into a place that is only meant for one type of person.” The trouble with beauty, she says, is that despite societal shifts, our definitions of it haven’t changed. “Beauty, power and goodness have all been philosophically related since Plato. We still use the same definition of beauty that was conceived in the Renaissance. Most of the power and the opportunities are for white people from the gender binary.” 

Artemis Duff from BEING.
Jari Jones and Corey Daniella Kempster from BEING.

The photographs cut through that, delving into parts of our identity that she believes have been overseen by arbitrary, homogeneous norms. As a Latina woman who has experienced, “being an immigrant [her] whole life”, Falquez is acutely aware that, “It has taken a lot of struggling to be able to have a life that I can enjoy. The system isn’t really designed for people like me.” In fact, having spent the last 15 years reconnecting with her identity, she came to the realisation that having multiple nationalities “hurts sometimes, even though it’s beautiful”. She continues: “People who come from displaced families and immigrant upbringings end up suppressing parts of where they come from to survive and to belong in a new environment.”

Falquez’s work goes a long way in bringing these marginalised aspects of an identity into the limelight, giving rise to Bhabha’s ‘third space’, where different, new and unrecognised ideas of representation can be formed. “The dark side is only there because we have put it there. Whenever you integrate whatever you put in the dark, it’s not dark anymore.” She speaks at length about the concept of darkness, stressing that it’s something she has considered before. “When someone puts a subject in the margin, they’re othering themselves from that person. I like to remove that difference and to erase the otherness. To me, they’re fully integrated into the definition of human beauty.”

This attraction to diverse communities played an important role in Falquez’s decision to make the City that Never Sleeps her home. “There are so many beautiful people in New York. The people I encounter make me feel enamoured constantly,” she gushes. It’s the city’s inhabitants who are a source of inspiration and provide fertile ground for her work. “Sometimes I’m overwhelmed. The woman that sells you incense is a beautiful old lady, the young teens, the kids, the trans women in my neighbourhood who walk around like they’re on a catwalk…” she trails off, lost in a memory.

Aria and Pam for Vogue Spain: Hope.
Vineeta Maruri for Vogue Spain: Hope.

It’s clear that regardless of who’s sitting in front of the camera, for Falquez the joy of photographing lies in the transformative potential of the image. “If I have that access to shoot Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I should do it for something way bigger than myself. I’m just a little door. I do have certain privileges and so I like walking in,” she says, mimicking the action of opening one.

Opening doors, broadening perceptions and amplifying under-represented voices provide room for us to question dominant cultural paradigms and create a space where hybridisation can be celebrated. As Falquez reiterates: “I don’t want to be the owner of these photos. Once I place them into the world they should go on and do their thing, because it’s not about me at all. I just plant little seeds and see what that does. What’s beautiful is that they grow without me.” It’s the point at which her seeds yield fruits – the third space – where newness can flourish, that is most exciting.

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.