Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I am an Ecuadorian-American photographer who weaves personal and collective narratives using the language of symbolism, dreams, and oral stories.
I often live in places that inspire me but also challenge me: small communities in wide and wild nature seem to be where I gravitate to the most—from the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Andes and, currently, to northern New Mexico.
I started as a fine artist, focusing on performance art, and on anything that was absurd yet transcendental. I am passionate about ancient philosophies and how basic principles stay in the collective psyche. While my photography investigates life, identity, and minority issues, I am also interested in leaving space for the mystery of the moment when it arises.
Beginning. Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? The first picture you took? Tell us a story about your beginning.
I think most of us used a camera at some point in our childhood or teen years. My response is not so much about the first use (which was not very memorable) but more about when I actually connected with the camera, which was in my mid-20s.
I had finished school in NYC and was coming back to Ecuador to visit but really because I didn’t have a (life) plan: I needed to return home to reset. I started volunteering at an elderly hospice and I got a film camera so that I could photograph while I commuted to the hospice (I was determined to try photography: I went through my entire college program without photographing). My brother told me that the city was too dangerous and that not only would my camera be stolen, I’d actually get hurt (he was dramatic and I was naïve: there was some truth in what he said).
So for weeks I would take my camera to the hospice and not use it, until, one day, I decided to ask permission of one of the people that I was helping the most; she was graceful and she gave me a smile, immediately hiding behind her papier-mâché mask. That was my first candid image and when I saw that moment through the viewfinder, I knew this was the beginning of a long love affair.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
2018 marks a decade since I started photographing in the Andes and the Ecuadorian Amazon. I showed this work earlier this year in NYC and it served as a personal rite of passage. I decided that for my next project I wanted to go back to my roots in performance, video, and painting in combination with photography. Coincidently, I moved to the Southwest and as I spend time here, the project literally flashes in front of my eyes: it is hard to describe, but it involves some combination of primordial states, nature, and body politics.
Borrowing. Tell us a little about your artistic lineage. Who are the artists and/or works that influence you? Who or what inspires you and why?
First and foremost was my grandmother. When I moved to NYC in 2001, I lived on my own for a year, and the following year I lived with my aunt and grandmother. One of my earliest personal projects was with them, entitled “Bliss Street.” I loved spending time with my grandmother and learning from her wisdom; she passed at age 106 and, until her last breath, she was lucid, radical, and compassionate. I admire those qualities.
In college, my influences included Vito Acconci, Linda Montano, John Cage, the Fluxus movement, Ana Mendieta, and Chogyam Trungpa: all artists who push their own boundaries and whose journeys inspired me deeply. Later influences include photographers Graciela Iturbide, Martin Chambi, Carrie Mae Weems, Gilles Peress, Don Anton, Claudia Andujar, Rotimi Fade-Kayode, Jungjin Lee, and Cristina Garcia Rodero.
I love Tarrah Krajnak’s work. I enjoy the way she reexamines the history of modern photography. I love her use of the body to erase, create, interpret, review, reimagine, and shape new ideas.
Every day I am more and more inspired by the younger generation of photographers from south to north, east to west. Their new ways of seeing are inspiring, and I watch them discovering themselves, too. I am especially drawn to photographers who allow their vulnerability to show (either directly or indirectly) in their work: they are paving the way for more originality, authenticity, and truth.
Between. Discuss the relationship between you and your subjects (whether people, objects, land). What is the nature of your relationship with the things you photograph or film?
I am a slow photographer and my stories really allow me to be who I am and to do what I love the most: to be present, to become involved in places, communities, tribes, and situations that resonate in ways that don’t need description. The people I photograph get to know me as much as I get to know them; in this way photography reminds me how to live life and when to check in with myself. Is this a good image because it tells a story? Is it a good image because it took me hours to get here? Is it a good image because I love the people who are in the photo? Is it a good image because I cannot explain it? My work is rooted in collaboration with the people and the land. If I don’t need to ask permission of the people—because they have already given me a yes—I still ask permission of the rocks, trees, and rivers. It only makes sense to ask.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
Probably my physical safety: I have been harassed several times, from the Amazon to Naples. It doesn’t matter the context—it is still not easy to be a woman with a camera, capturing the hard truths: so, big ups to all the women out here doing the amazing work of documenting life in all its rawness.
On an intellectual level, I find that there is increasing awareness of social inequalities—inequalities of gender, race, creed, but the beast of inequality is a hard monster to fight and the fight is far from over.
Beauty. What are some of the joys of being a woman who photographs?
Since I wrote about burden, it only makes sense to write about beauty.
I love being a woman who photographs: I love the intimacy that I can have with my subjects, my own vulnerability and openness as I photograph. I also very much enjoy the fire that is sparked in conversation. In what I do, I see women who feel heard and therefore inspired to pursue their dreams and visions. That really is priceless.
Better. How do you work towards continuous improvement, on honing your craft?
I often tell my students that while it is important to know the craft, it is even more important to know why they want to tell the stories they want to tell, and how they can tell stories in ways that are unique to them.
After I finished “Other Stories”—I often used my mother as a model in those days—I used my mother for yet another image. I was very proud of it, so I printed it and brought it to her, telling her that I wanted to develop “Other Stories II.” She told me firmly: “Karen, I think you are repeating yourself, why don’t you go out and find a new project?!” It was shocking but deeply therapeutic and I have embraced the idea of setting out with clear intentions when I pursue new work. In a world saturated by images, I want to be mindful that what I am sharing with the world is relevant and critical.
I think it is important to share work with people whose opinions you trust, especially when the work is still in process. And I find that I am always honing my work when I test my comfort zones; what camera am I using now? Why? Where am I going next? Why? How is that picture different from one that I did years ago? Am I saying something new? Do I need to say anything? (That one is usually a firm yes!)
Business. Can you talk a bit about the business versus the art of photography?
I am not passionate about this question, but I do find it necessary to tap into this aspect of our livelihood and share how we do it.
Before taking on business, I ask myself how much do I need/want this business? The answer to that question changes. When I started photography, I was mainly working for magazines; I developed photo essays, pitched them to magazines, and that was my living. It was an arduous task: often I felt that pitching was all that I was doing for weeks, but it did balance out, eventually…
Later, as I started doing more fine art photography and personal work, my routine changed and therefore my relation to the business changed.
Now, I teach photography as my basic living, and that works for me as I can devote more of my mental space to my personal projects. I love working for magazines, but if I do that all the time, it is impossible for me to complete personal work.
I sell the most images at festivals and exhibitions that involve a lot of people. I think there is something about collective inspiration that makes individuals more open to buying a print.
Bonus. What question do you wish I’d asked but didn’t? Pose it: then answer it.
Do you have a comfort food, activity or ritual you do after a demanding photo-shoot or weeks out in the field?
Yes, I go straight to the beach by myself for a day or two—no phone—with just a book or a notepad, and I eat something with double chocolate or coconut.