Photography and storytelling go well together. Of course, we know an image can speak for itself, but sometimes a few words can go a long way to providing additional context. Projects like Humans of New York and the Everyday Series are evidence of this connection. People want to move beyond the surface and understand the lives of others from a more nuanced perspective. This is precisely what Ada López did when she set out to showcase the lives of Puerto Ricans in her new book Así Somos | Who We Are. The result, which was more than ten years in the making, is an unbiased, striking collection of photographs that emphasize the diversity and cultural richness of the Puerto Rican community. We spoke with Ada to learn more about the process behind such an ambitious project.
David: Can you describe the initial concept behind the book and how it developed over time?
Ada: This book came out of a desire to show another side of who we are as Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and the diaspora. I knew the photographs needed to be not only be engaging but cause us to reflect on our core values and generate conversations. I also wanted them to engage the society as a whole to show the world our humanity. So I enlisted the support of Mark Joseph, a top photographer that I had met while working on an educational project for the Chicago Public Schools.
Así Somos | Who We Are is a bilingual photographic essay inspired by the need for a visual representation of everyday life. The moments captured invite us to identify with the core values of the Puerto Rican people that underscore the images. It invites us to ponder on the cultural richness, the diversity and complexity of the Puerto Rican people and its diaspora. In the back of the book, the viewer will also find a creative non-fiction narrative for each photograph which contextualizes the image in a social historical perspective.
I believe these images are powerful because they support a belief in ourselves which is essential if we are to have hope and contribute to our communities and Puerto Rico. For example, when Puerto Ricans came to Chicago they organized civic clubs and gathered as extended families in churches and community centers to celebrate traditions, usually accompanied by food, and music. This compensated for the racism and bad publicity which we confronted. Today, we have more ways to tell our stories and this book is yet another example.
Joseph Acaba at NASA. © Mark Joseph and Ada Nivia Lopez
David: How did you pick the subjects included in the book?
Ada: Originally, the idea was to show the Puerto Rican community in Chicago only, but after hearing from friends across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, I decided to travel to those communities; and through hundreds of conversations and interviews, the narratives led us to the photo subjects. This was important to me because I did not want to be the one to decide what was important. I wanted it to be “our book.” Creating the collection of images became an organic process that took on its own momentum.
Couple celebrates 50 year Anniversary. © Mark Joseph and Ada Nivia Lopez
David: Why was it important to share a fuller, richer story of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans here in the United States?
Ada: The story of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans is woven together in a seamless garment. That becomes the true story of our people/our culture. Our identity has been shaped by the opportunities and the hardships that have caused us to travel back and forth…between Puerto Rico and the US mainland.
Today, with cultures being so fluid it is important to know and understand our values and why they are important to us and the world. To know our story makes it possible to appreciate our beauty, understand our strengths, improve our lives, contribute the communities and give back to Puerto Rico our homeland all while enlisting the support of men and women of good conscious. The Island and its diaspora need each other.
Sugarcane Worker. © Mark Joseph and Ada Nivia Lopez
David: You traveled to 38 cities for the photographs in this book. Were there any unexpected stops or surprising moments along the way?
Ada: This is a journey of the unexpected and that's what made the image moments momentous. We allowed ourselves the freedom have conversations and understand what mattered to each person. We wanted to view them as they truly wanted us to view them: integrated to their story and without preconceived notions of what they should be.
Community gathering in Maui, Hawaii. © Mark Joseph and Ada Nivia Lopez
David: The photographs have been exhibited in Puerto Rico and throughout the United States. Are there any future plans for the book?
Ada: The photographs have been exhibited in Old San Juan at the Museo de Las Americas with 20,000 attendees and the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Chicago. We intend to bring the exhibit, along with the book, to every place in the U.S. that has a substantial Puerto Rican population.
Photographs by Mark Joseph. Courtesy of Ada López and Mark Joseph.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 22 January 2016.