© Emilio Banuelos, 2010; www.embafoto.com

Traveling In The Shadow Of The Country

To date I have only interviewed a handful of Latino photographers. But Emilio Banuelos is an interesting soul — nearly fearless in his conviction in exploring communities. I based my assessment on his photographic work in San Jose. This is where Emilio spent time photographing gang members.

This is a rather impressive project. But a hazardous one — I am sure. And that is what separates the documentary photographer from the photographer — isn’t it? An acceptance of fear. Not the absence of it. This acceptance combined with adrenalin allows the documentarian to confront unsafe situations and capture the raw emotions of the moment.

The Interview

As a documentary photographer do you focus on Mexican or Latino interests? Or do you focus more on general interests?

EB: I carry a camera with me everyday. I photograph the worlds I am a part of, interested in or curious about. I lived in San Francisco during the lead up to the war so I photographed life and protest on the city streets. Before that, I noticed that gang presence in San Jose was escalating, I photographed the downtown area looking at the police and gang members, each choosing an allegiance to their beliefs, battling to hold turf in the city’s downtown area.

And years ago, I lived in Missouri where I spent time photographing rodeo cowboys living in the Midwest.

From 2009 until 2012, my wife and I left San Francisco to live in a small village in Jalisco, Mexico. We took our cameras, darkrooms, a few books, and dedicated our time to making images. My latest work Pomp and Circumstance is a look at what I have learned about my family’s culture after years visiting and living there.

Do you think that your Mexican identity influences your photography and how you educate others?

EB: I was born and raised in the United States; the first in my family. My mother, and my brother’s influence my approach to learning and teaching workshops. I am sure my Mexican identity influences me as much as my American education, environment and lifestyle.

Because I speak Spanish, and I am Mexican, I can open myself to anyone who speaks the language and hopefully introduce them to others. I try to do the same on the US side of the border; to use photography as a language everyone can understand. When I photograph as well as teach, my interest is in the multiplicity and layers in life, the people, and the relationship between all of us.

What was the thought process of producing a documentary on the religious rituals of Mexico?

EB: I am interested in the tenuous relationships that both provide community and segregate us. The ideas shared by your gang, church, political party become permission for you to be your role. The leader of the church has his ring kissed, as does the leader of the gang, the police, and the politician; these unspoken, fragile, relationships are universal.

Explain to me the birth of Black Boots Ink and what keeps it going today?

EB: Black Boots Ink was created in 2005 by Elena Carrasco and myself to serve an international audience by publishing photography, essays and poetry both online and in print as a multi-voice, visual narrative about the rituals of life in the pursuit of happiness. We conduct national and international projects to introduce individual artists and collaborate on the creation of gallery exhibitions, public art installations and publications.

BBI also conducts youth and adult, project-based workshops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Guadalajara, Mexico. That is what keeps it going, making work, making it accessible, teaching photography, working with artists.

Finish this sentence for me: “If Emilio Banuelos never won one single award for his documentary work, he would…”

EB: …. photograph as a way of being in life.

Call To Action

In your photographic expedition are you focused on capturing the emotions, of the moment? Of those that stand before you and allow you to capture their various mental states of – anger, anguish, awe, contempt, despair, gratitude or happiness. It’s those common biological reactions that arrest the viewer. And allows them to connect – intensely – with The Moment, you have captured.