What is the secret sauce in becoming a successful photographer? Is it luck, hardware, software, connections or personal projects? Yes, yes and absolutely. But also keep in mind that education and hard work play major roles in your success. And does the secret sauce guarantee success — unfortunately no.

But then again, there are very few guarantees in life. And the photography space is very competitive. Estevan Oriol comments:

At first do it as just a hobby make sure it’s what you want to do as a profession. There is a lot of competition out there now. Everyone has a camera and because of the digital era there is — no film cost, no processing charges, so a lot of expenses for budgets were cut.

And Susana Raab is very comfortable with both education and hard work.

The Interview

LBTL: Tell me about your “East Of The River” project?

Susan RaabSR: East of the River is a nascent project about this other side of Washington, DC. In many ways Washington, DC represents the stratification of society into haves and have nots, educated or entitled. In our four tiny quadrants you have some of the richest people in the nation living in close proximity but hidden away from the poorer parts of the city whose demographics rival notoriously impoverished Mississippi.

I’m just giving myself permission to wonder as I wander and see what I find. Using the view camera for the most part to make it a more involved process. There is nothing more to say about it yet. I’m usually halfway into a project before I even realize what it is about.

LBTL: What was your photographic “Aha!” moment? That moment when you knew photography would be a committed relationship?

SR: My eureka moment came while I was studying in grad school in English and I realized that academia for me had very little of the alchemy I would like to employ in my career. At the same time I read Howard Chapnick’s Truth Needs no Ally – about coming up in photojournalism from the 1940s to 1980s- and I realized that photojournalism could incorporate art, communication and social utility – it was this combination I was looking for and wanted to put into my life’s work.

I then started taking photo classes at a local community college to build my skill set, and through those experiences and support garnered myself the resolve I would need to begin pursuing this career.

LBTL: You are a seasoned Latina photographer. Your body of work has been exhibited in the Corcoran Museum of Art, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Madrid, the Pingyao Photo Festival and the Noorderlicht Fotofestival in the Netherlands. How did you become such an internationally exhibited photographer?

SR: I think my success has been due to hard-work, but that once indefatigable drive to succeed and to “be known” as it were, is just a
reflection of how little recognition and value I had in my family of origin growing up.

Susan RaabTherefore one of my coping mechanisms developed into this compulsion to have something to say and get it out there, to be heard by an audience that can actually recognize and mediate my work on it’s own without a preconceived idea of how Susana factors into the process.

So I spent a lot of time getting my work out there, submitting to calls, going to portfolio reviews, and for what it is worth – it was a very validating and healthy thing to do – rejections and all. Of course learning how to accept the defeats was also great for me. The thing is that everyone still needs content: museums, photofestivals, galleries – they will always need fresh content. You can provide that if they know the work is there and if you have something that resonates with the deciders.

LBTL: You received your MA in Visual Communications at Ohio University. Do you think that part of your success is because of your MA? Should aspiring Latina photographers also pursue their MA?

SR:I think that all of my success is due to me taking the time out to work on the MA.

susan raabTo be quite honest, I didn’t know that people chose a school to study with someone. My level of naivete up until this day can be stunning. The whole concept of mentorship was so beyond my experience that I never even thought about that. I chose Ohio for several reasons: it had a good reputation, it had funding, it was in middle America, and it would give me a sabbatical away from my Washington experience, which by this time I was referring to my career as that of “a waitress with a camera.”

I was done with the velvet ropes and illustrating bills through press conferences. I needed more . . . to articulate my voice, the aforementioned need, but I had not learned how to do it with my Washington resume. So that is why I chose Ohio, and yes, having the time and space to do the work that I went there in mind to make (my series Consumed) was instrumental to me in finding my voice and self-confidence as an artist/photographer.

It was an artist residency with boundaries. I am very grateful to my time there and the people of Southeast Ohio. It was in many ways a very nurturing experience.

LBTL: Natalie Franco explains that, “We need to create larger platforms that target Latinas in photography.” What are your thoughts about this “larger platform?”

SR: I’m not sure I am completely simpatico with what I perceive as a movement towards the Balkanization of all ethnic groups into city-states of affirmative action. I agree that women in photography are given less public space in general than our male counterparts. But to say that we need to create larger platforms to target Latinas in photography is a bit of a nebulous statement.

I would say that I myself now come from a privileged position where I have (limited) access to and knowledge of this fine art/documentary world – that exists – that it can become a container for your work – that you can monetize it and make some kind of living from it. Many people have no idea that this paradigm exists. But I also have to say is that I had no idea it existed either when I first got into it.

One does need to give access to everyone the tools to unleash creativity.

susan raabThat is a game changer and life saver. But I think people will find and make their own platforms and that all art should embrace some aspect of the struggle to produce it. Perhaps I am just more aware of it, but I am noticing a flood of Latino related art calls. I also think that as the Latino numbers become stronger and stronger that the hegemonic forces will begin to skew towards Latinos’ favor. That’s just the nature of culture: a constant struggle between hegemony and the underdog, we will always be negotiating that friction.

Do I think Latina’s need a leg up? I am not sure more than anyone else, and I as a child divorced from my Latina identity am very uncomfortable in even offering my opinion as valid in this line of questioning. It is simply something I can’t answer.

Call To Action

It makes little difference the hardware, software or even connections you have in the photography space. What is of great consequence is education — formal or informal. And most importantly your dedication to constant hard work.