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Joana Toro is the independent documentary photographer we hope to be

Joana Toro is a documentary photographer whose work shows the ways in which communities neglected in the larger discourse of photography find their way into the canon.

Historically photography has played a role in undermining the stories and histories of Black and Indigenous People of color (BIPOC). Toro’s photographic practice recognizes the ways in which representation is important.

While considering the ethics of photography we take a look into projects Toro created like, Hello I am Kitty, Nasa: Ancient Warriors, and TransLATINAS Collaborative Portraits.

Toro is currently based in New York but is a Colombian native. Much of the work explores the intersecting identities of individuals across borders. As well as centering the experiences of immigrants in America, and LGBTQ individuals.

Joana Toro Documentary photographer
Joana Toro documentary photographer

Jade Rodgers: How did you get started in photography?

Joana Toro: As a self-taught photographer from Colombia, I work with issues surrounding immigration, identity, and social justice. In 2000 I had some semesters or studies in graphic design, but I didn’t finish my career in college.

Through graphic design, I saw something in photography, and that became my first approach to the camera. Then for other reasons as well I didn’t finish my career.

I had to continue doing other things to make a living, but photography was always with me. That’s why I began to work in newspapers and magazines in Columbia for about 10 years and then made my way to the US. 

It’s not the same state of mind when you’re in your 20s or 30s. Even when you’re in your 40s, my photography also represents that experience. It was integral to change many things in my approach to social issues.

While I was in Colombia my approach was in social issues, but here in the US working as a photographer my curiosity was in a different state. My needs changed so I began freelancing, but I work more in long-term jobs now.

Joana Toro on breaking the stereotypes to open doors for opportunities

JR: Did you find that to be a challenging transition, and how difficult was is it to find work?

JT: Yes, I think the most challenging aspect is breaking the stereotypes that sometimes Latino immigrants have in reality. Sometimes we have a beautiful way to express ourselves. No matter what kind of immigrant you are, you have to break some stereotypes and I think, for me, it was challenging to break some of those in order to have opportunities.

“Everyone also wants to be a photographer nowadays which also makes it complicated. Self-taught photographer, immigrant or not, our societies like to divide.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

I question where these stereotypes are coming from? Being a person of color, of course, has challenges in this society, no matter if you are a photographer, or architect, or whatever the case may be.

Colombia is always on top of mind

JR: Absolutely, it is at its core systemic. It can be really difficult sometimes, and regardless of occupation, you will go through the same challenges as a person just trying to get their foot in the door.

You’ll make work that you believe is important or valid. Though I was particularly struck by the way that you are telling these stories of underrepresented people.

It’s done in such a way that it doesn’t feel clinical. Which is important and you’re coming from a place of understanding. When I looked at your work “Colombia on my Mind”, which I would love to hear you talk about, the way you describe that body of work.

Being that this is your home and a reflection of that. Also, how you let the viewer make their own choices about what to feel when they look at the work. 

colombia photographer
Colombia on My Mind by Joana Toro

JT: Yes, Colombia is on my mind. I can say that of my own work in Colombia when I was on staff as a newspaper and magazine photographer, I had to go to many places.

Meet a lot of people and see different perspectives not only in the city. Also in the countryside and so on. That opportunity gave me a better understanding of my country.

I decided to make a series of pictures that never went out in the media, for many reasons. I wanted to describe my country and how I feel in my heart. The situation in every picture is different. Although in some way they are together, not the composition, but the color, and the feeling of each picture.

I decided that I would give the viewer the discretion of interpretation because as a photographer, my main interest is what people feel when they see my work. 

Joana Toro relies on universal feelings as a form a communication through photography

JT: When people see my pictures I am not the person to tell them what to feel. Every person is of an independent mind, and I just felt that. Sometimes Columbia is in a state of waiting, or understanding and we are always waiting for the best, but in the meanwhile, this is a situation of wonder.

“The wonder is surrounded by beauty, horror, and poetry. Every person feels something different when they approach an image and I think the only thing that I can share with the viewer is what Columbia is for me.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

Also, sometimes when you feel an emotion that can be felt anywhere regardless of place. For example, I say sadness, and sadness is a universal feeling. 

The work image to image is not related by time, some pictures are in 2012, 2010, 2009, 2000, and some are digital others are film. In this way, I see these images as a series of feelings, and about being Colombian. Sometimes your feelings are personal.

So I decided that the viewer will have control over interpretation, or what they feel. Sometimes you understand it, sometimes you feel it, or sometimes you don’t see anything that’s completely valid.

Colombia  Joana Toro
Colombia on My Mind by Joana Toro

JR: Absolutely, and for me, the work struck me in the little moments between images. For example, the two children playing with the egg. Something that I never did personally but you just feel that moment.

You know it’s probably filled with joy, and then you’re transitioning to images, like the individual on the street. Who is strutting confidently through this crowd of people with this amazing outfit on? I think you did a really incredible job of playing with time and emotions as we move through the work.

Colombia on My Mind by Joana Toro

JT: Even if you’ve never gone to Colombia, you do even need to know where it is on the map, or whatever. You can feel something from the image and that’s what’s important to me.

“The only reason I create photographs is to make the viewer feel something. At least something negative or positive. Nowadays, we are surrounded by so many spectacular images.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

Creating photographs that reveal and captivate

JR: For sure, and thinking about the history of photography and the violence that has been inflicted on people of color. I would love to hear your thoughts about creating these works about indigenous people and underrepresented people. How do you go about showing that work, or if you’ve ever shown that work, in institutions that historically keep us out of the conversation?

JT: One of the main reasons I began to freelance is this necessity that I feel I have to dig deeper into the issues that I see in daily life. For example, indigenous struggles, fighting for their land, I go, take photographs and come back the next day there is another situation.

An issue is documented but the news is no longer news once it is documented. I find it very important to me to make work about these groups of people. Also, this is why I decided to finish my career as a staff photographer.

“I became independent.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

Also, I like to create works that have something to say, in some form or another, from my perspective. I want to try to add to the conversation of the news which is always happening so fast. 

Stories that maybe there is no news coverage at all because everyone knows that these communities exist. At least that these people are struggling, but I like to imagine that my work can create new conversations about these communities and their problems that we don’t see every day in the news.

This is something that I want to believe is my purpose, to add to the conversation. Some of this for me is very obvious, and I think for many people, but maybe for the media, it is not so obvious. As part of our crisis as societies, I find that photographing underrepresented communities is very important. It’s very much a necessity for me to go there. 

Joana Toro believes indigenous communities have a voice

JT: Also, it’s not because they don’t have a strong voice to talk about their problems, no, that isn’t the problem. These people are very strong and can speak for themselves. I feel a kind of attraction to these communities and their actions. It is also motivation for me.

I admire the community, its goals, and it’s something I want to know more about. I am so interested in understanding that strong mentality. Also, sometimes you see a headline that something is happening with immigration or the LGBT communities or Latino immigrants or whatever.

The media’s approach is to feed more stereotypes and make assumptions. I always approach these topics with an open mind and see how amazing these people are and understand why. So that’s why I love to create this type of work. It is an opportunity to make new conversations about these communities.

Nasa Ancient Warriors
Nasa: Ancient Warriors by Joana Toro

JR: How does the work get translated? Once you finish a body of work, say like NASA Ancient Warriors

JT: The NASA indigenous group is incredibly strong. Columbia is so big and they have been challenging to preserve their land. They are in a part of my country where we have a lot of mountains.

The land is very important for communication, and also a lot of fields of coca, and other stuff, right. So they have been fighting in that territory since practically the beginning of Colombia’s formation. I’m talking centuries ago, this is not something new.

That’s why I say that they are ancient warriors because they were in that challenging position for so long. As far as photographing them they are very open to outside people, like me, I approached them and documented their fight and the survival of their traditions. I was just lucky, and I also had a good relationship with them.

“It’s work that takes time because you have to build the confidence to go there.” 

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer
Nasa Ancient Warriors
Nasa: Ancient Warriors by Joana Toro

As well as getting permission, their community expands, and we can see how they have to deal with things like the narcotics war. Things that have been my country for 60 decades or more.

The narcotics war is fairly new, but always this community has been facing the challenge to preserve their traditions, and they have been successfully doing it no matter what. I am sure that so many people have been talking about them, not only in photography, also in writings, and they always come to the same conclusion.

A thank you note to the NASA community

JT: The NASA people are so strong and they don’t need help, they just need the government to take seriously their demands of protecting their lands. The interest of that land is superior to the government. Nowadays, we have Mexican cartels in play and it further complicates the situation.

As for them is just to label change of the always they are in a very important part of the land. They are in a strategic place on that land, and they are strong enough to not just disappear without a fight. I decided to make these images as a kind of thank you note. 

This hard spirit that these people have, is not only the NASA people, I think a lot of indigenous people around the world have this fire inside now. Therefore, you have to be respectful. These people have said, our land is not for taking, and we have to protect our people. Preserving the land to give to the new generation, is not a new innovation, they have been doing it for centuries.

JR:  That’s really beautiful. It does, listening to you talk about it, feel like you’re paying homage to the people. I found that really interesting because when I first viewed the work, I personally did not know this history.

So for me, when I look at other bodies of work that you’ve created, not only am I learning and expanding my own visual culture, I’m learning about a specific group of people’s culture. In relation to the ways, photography is taught in an academic setting we don’t get imagery like this often.

So when I look at your work, I’m seeing the way you use photography and feel connected to this mode of working.  You’ve blended creativity and activism into your work effortlessly. I’m really thankful that you shared that with me. 

Hello, I am Kitty is a photographic reflection of identity and immigration in the United States

JR: I was also drawn to Hello Kitty, as a critique of immigration in the US and the way you describe it as a journal to find your new identity. I’m curious about that work too if you could talk about it.

JT: Yes, Hello I am Kitty is the first project I created in the US. Regarding my personal experience as a Latina immigrant, I came here as an international student of English, I had to learn the language.

When I came to America, I came with no family and needed fresh air and that was my expectation of course. Although reality gave me what I like to say the punch or feeling of being punched. When I began to work in Times Square I tried to work in other spaces without success. My English was not the best in 2011 and 2012. Since I preferred to work independently I found that working as Hello Kitty might be very easy, but then I realized that it was very difficult. 

For many years I had seen myself in a number of ways, but I began to understand this country in a peculiar way. The people who work in Times Square are mostly immigrants from Latin America and Africa. While working in the street, you are in a situation where you’re figuring out new modes of survival.

“When you go to any country around the world, you have to begin from zero in some way, because you are new to that place you don’t know the codes, the language.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer
Hello I am Kitty
Hello I am Kitty by Joana Toro

Globally we are poor-phobic… Immigrants are not the issue

JT: In many cases, you are not a rich person. So you have to face how to make a living along the way. It’s kind of exciting, but also difficult and challenging and gives you a lot of happiness and sadness. Working on the Square gave me that and deeply. Mostly the story of that work found me and I was not prepared for them. But it took me time to understand that I was there not only to work but also to share with my camera what was going on there.

“Soon I began to see that as an immigrant you have complex identities.” 

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer
Hello I am Kitty Joana Toro
Hello I am Kitty by Joana Toro

Hello, I am Kitty is a reflection, because I think my old identity and the new one, made my perception of myself this new bigger one. I realized when you travel, you are the same person, but you have more experiences, and you are more diverse and more open. When I began to find myself in this job, I found it super difficult because the symbolism of the mask gives you a new identity anyway. Right?

If it’s Halloween and you put a mask on, you are that character. Though you are still you underneath. I began to see that not only in the pictures that I take but also in the meaning of immigration in the US. How we do not see immigrants as who they are, and how they look at themselves in society. I was invisible, and I began to realize, okay, what is this across the reality of undocumented peoples?

Representation MATTERS for Joana Toro

JT: What if I begin to play with that symbolism? After years, I began to see that I was talking about something very deep about immigration in the US and how the Latina and Latino are seen.

How we begin to use words that are not related to the real complexities of the situation. How can I explain this? Taking the time to understand, and this is my interpretation.

Maybe it’s not the best one but personally, sometimes society uses words to describe situations of the world. Immigrants or immigration is a word that is criminalized to say. I think the problem is not the immigrants, the problem is that they are poor. So we as a society are allergic to the poor.

“There is a problem around poor-phobia, not immigration.”

– Joana Toro
Hello I am Kitty by Joana Toro

So when we say that someone is illegal…A human being is not illegal. So the daily use of something makes it normal. But if you analyze the root of that it is much more complicated. It’s easy to say the problem is the immigrants, because when you close your eyes to see a person walking with a kid, and you see a Mexican or Latino, or people from Africa or wherever.

They come here to make homes no matter what part of the world we are talking about. Since we are in the US, we’re talking about this country but that is not to say that the US is eviler than the rest of the world. No, I mean to say that it is a global problem. I think the problem is not the immigrants, it is that they are poor.

The economical factors…

JR: The importance that we put on class is in my opinion a major factor. Which often stops people from recognizing or understanding what you’re saying. 

JT: Immigration is a very complicated issue because it covers many sides. There are monetary, economical, and patriotic factors at play. Immigration has many layers to it. My understanding is that many countries often don’t know what to do. There is so much complicated stuff happening.

“The idea of this work is to create questions more than answers.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

Also, we don’t have the answers. I think as a society, we are struggling to find a better way to do what is best for everyone. It’s important that these kinds of pictures or voices, and there are many voices around the world talking about immigration. It’s important that they have a space, so people begin to see it from a new perspective. 

It allows people the opportunity to say, you know what, maybe next time I say this, or  I’ll listen, avoid this, or just simply have respect for others. More importantly, we need to question and reflect on where we are as individuals.

Reflection is always a good way to understand the problem. Nowadays, it’s complicated because we have so many factors, but I think people are talking little by little about issues that we don’t want to. This work is just a contribution to make another question about immigration, globalization, and all that. 

immigration documentary photography
Hello I am Kitty by Joana Toro

Shifting focus…

JR: What other aspects of photography are you most focused on presently? 

JT: Nowadays in my practice, I have been working with Latino immigration not only with Hello I am Kitty but also with LGBTQ Latino communities in Queens and around Europe because it’s what I live. It’s easy in some ways but very difficult in others and these stories take time. I am doing this because it’s part of my life and what I am facing sometimes.

“For many people of color, immigrants, and Latinos, what they have to face in this society is nasty stuff. It can be beautiful as well.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

It is what it is, we are in our society that is in a divide. Sometimes in your daily life, you can feel it. The best way to manage that is to go out with your camera and feel it and make it part of your work. Also, I like to work within the realms of the African diaspora, in Colombia, I focus my efforts on Colombia. My work while in the United States is centered around Latino immigration.

Joana Toro speaks about her TransLATINAS Collaborative Portraits

JR: What ways are the Trans Latina portraits you’ve created a collaboration? How was the process of creating that body of work?

translatina joana toro
TransLATINAS Collaborative Portraits by Joana Toro

“It’s a collaborative project because the ladies who are in the photographs decide how they want to be represented in the picture.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

JT: Some women decided that they would like to be naked or generally to be in different situations. They decide what picture they want to be shown and we have a conversation about it. I am just a bridge between them and the picture that they want to have. The idea of this is just to show the community, these beautiful sisters exist in and are a part of.

Nayra Lee Berrios transgender woman from Puerto Rico lives her fantasy of becoming a mermaid on the beaches of Conny Island in Brooklyn on July 19, 2021

I love that feeling and intimacy and I want to know more. We are women and this world struggling with the complicated aspects of patriarchy. I think about what happens when someone is born into a different body. There is a lot of work that a person has to do to feel like themselves in their own skin. I think about how, for myself, it was so easy.

I was just born and that was it. In the trans community, they have an extra challenge, and how they feel femininity is very deep. The main idea of the project is to make them feel as they are. In this way, it was a collaborative project because I listened to what they wanted.

JR: That’s a very validating experience I would assume. You can definitely see that these women are so confident when they’re photographing with you.

I really love that as a way of working because there is a strain sometimes between, especially in the industry, more so in fashion. Where the model and the photographer, there’s a power dynamic at play. Although here you’re relinquishing that power and giving it back to the women in these images.

TransLATINAS Collaborative Portraits by Joana Toro

JT: That’s a cool way to see it. Also, my relationships with these women have been growing for years. Which is also an ingredient that makes the pictures. It’s not only for the picture, and I don’t see you anymore. It is because I see them in other situations during the years.

“These portraits are just parentheses in their personal lives and also in mine.”

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

So you can feel a kind of intimacy because we met many times before the portraits.

A snippet from TransLATINAS Collaborative Portraits by Joana Toro

lesly herrera joana toro
Lesly Herrera at Brooklyn beach is posing for a portrait taken by Joana Toro on 7/29/2020 in New York City.

She tells of her childhood in Mexico. At the age of 12, she began to take hormones in secret to transform her body. At 17, she left home to live in Mexico City where she had a difficult time.

Lesly then decided to migrate to the USA to escape a life of sexual harassment, police abuse, and a disapproving family atmosphere. According to the Translatina Coalition report, many Trans Latinx migrate to the USA in search of better social and economic opportunities.

Many leave because they fear for their lives or are unable to make a living in their country of birth. Ninety-nine percent of the participants in this study reported having better opportunities in the USA than in their country of origin. Today Lesly is a co-founder of the first Trans-owned co-op and an independent worker.

Joana Toro speaks to the next generation, of young documentary photographers

JR: I love that you’re building those relationships outside of the photos. That’s a very beautiful model of image making. Do you have any advice for young photographers starting out who want to make documentary work?

JT: That’s a difficult question. I can recommend passion and patience. It is easy when you are young. Documentary work takes a lot of time. Sometimes it won’t feel like the right moment but then you have to wait. Maybe you succeed, but then maybe receive rejection now and again.

It takes a lot of patience with a story but also you must have the passion to not give up. It can be very difficult. When you are knocking on doors, and no one answers. Also, as a freelance photographer, we send emails constantly and oftentimes do not receive a response.

“You have to keep going and follow your beliefs. Understand why you are doing this, and follow that passion strongly.” 

– Joana Toro, Documentary Photographer

Some days you wake up with strength, and other days you may not. You have to be passionate about that as well, you’ll have to manage yourself, the story, and all the things life will throw at you. You have to be so personal, not only with others but also with yourself. If you want money, maybe this is not the best way. Find what works for you. 

JR: Patience and passion. Absolutely. What projects are you working on? Or do you hope to create in the future? 

JT: Yes, I am working in the African diaspora. I began to feel a curiosity about the African diaspora and the importance of that heritage in my country.

Trying to find a way to go deeper into that amazing and huge heritage Africa gave us as a country. I am also working on an issue that I am not sure what to call it yet.

I tried to go to a place in Colombia that is an important place not only for historic issues but also a place for Black people who have a heritage from Africa. How do these people in this town see themselves and preserve their culture?

JR: I look forward to seeing this intersection of identities and culture through your perspective. Thank you so much.