Puerto Rico is a small island in the northeast Caribbean Sea. As an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is neither a sovereign nation nor a U.S state. Because of Puerto Rico’s unique territory status over the past 500 years of colonization, it has always had a complicated national standing, which Puerto Rican photographers capture the complexity of in their work.
The complexity of the Puerto Rican identity, the chaos of politics, the hardships of the economic crisis, and the recent destructive power of Hurricane Maria have all greatly influenced the contemporary Puerto Rican landscape and lifestyle. Celebrations and contradictions are inseparable in daily scenes.
These women Puerto Rican photographers capture the lives of different Puerto Rican communities through their lenses. In their photographs, they discuss what it means to be Puerto Rican. What is it like to live in Puerto Rico — a place that is culturally Latin American, but politically a territory of the U.S?
The raw, intimate, and personal
Gabriella N. Báez is a talented artist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She is a queer documentary photographer who focuses on documenting intimate subjects. For instance, her father’s suicide post-Hurricane Maria, the queer community, sex work, and the relationship between sexuality, depression, and the body.
Project ‘Ojalá nos encontremos en el mal’ explores the psychological undercurrents of trauma that drive people to end their own lives after Hurricane Maria. House of Grace is a powerful documentation of a group of trans artists and creatives in Puerto Rico.
María José, a transdisciplinary artist and activist, founded House of Grace after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Amid natural disasters and the global pandemic, artists, dancers, performers, and writers in the house look after and support each other.
House of Grace builds a tight-knit community that embraces the queer and the trans communities with warmth and love. it is a safe haven that offers safety and affirmation.
Island Putxs is another interesting project that explores one of the world’s oldest and yet most stigmatized professions: sex work. Because of the declining economy in Puerto Rico, many women, queer, and non-binary people have chosen to make a living by selling their bodies.
Often, sex workers are marginalized, criminalized, and victimized by society. The project documents sex work, a now common phenomenon in Puerto Rico.
Identity construction and resilience
Adriana Parrilla is an artist based in Paris, France, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. She is a photojournalist and documentary photographer.
Her work explores diverse topics. In No MeLlames Trigueña; Soy Negra, she discusses the often systematically invisibilized Black identity and intends to understand the complexities of being Afro-Puerto Rican.
Víctor (ongoing) is her other project. It is also the name of a young man born with a rare genetic disorder called Sotos Syndrome.
People with this syndrome experience gigantism, blindness, intellectual and motor disabilities, hearing loss, and etc. The worst part is there are no aid programs to help young adults with disabilities in Puerto Rico. The questionable territory status of Puerto Rico does not help with the problems the state faces.
“From the outside with all these difficulties, the world of Víctor seems very limited and his future uncertain. But when you get to know him, you will be surprised by his resilience. Inside his mind, limitations do not exist, and the world is filled with colors, music, and lots of love.”
Adriana Parrilla, Víctor (ongoing).
According to Parrilla, this is a project that intends to increase public awareness of people with disabilities and break down discrimination against their communities.
Lessons from these Puerto Rican photographers
These Puerto Rican photographers show viewers their individual translations of the realities in Puerto Rico through powerful images. Be it poverty, climate crises, or an uncertain political territory status, Puerto Rico faces problems day in and day out.
Through the diverse topics that Rodriguez, Báez, and Parrilla have covered in their works, we see a multi-faceted Puerto Rico. We see people struggle amid the chaotic political environment, economic hardship, and the aftermath of natural disasters.
At the same time, we also see people who seek to construct their own identities and take control of their own fates by pursuing their dreams and passions.
Each person is a different life story. Together, they make a unique Puerto Rico. In these photographs, their moments are frozen — so simple, so raw, so genuine. This is what life is like in Puerto Rico though; it is not as great as what you see in those glamorous Instagram travel pics.
I think this is why Rodriguez, Báez, and Parrilla have done amazing jobs as documentary photographers because their images are so unfiltered and honest. Their photos carry such emotions and depths that we don’t see much on present-day’s social media posts. And just on that note, we should credit these female artists.