Hailing from Burgaw, North Carolina to Mexican parents, the once aspiring international diplomat, teen court defense attorney, and all-around high achieving Diego Camposeco turned down his undergrad acceptance letter to Harvard and instead opt to stay close to home where he would later attune his pull towards photography in relation to his community of Latin Americans who continue to shape the social, economic and cultural landscape in the south.
Photography work that set out to account the places and experiences of demographics in a truthful and objective manner often overlooked the impossibility of this task and the sure fact of the image maker’s subjectivity. Camposeco’s take on documentary photography gazes more inward than most but it is very much rooted in his connections with others. Particularly the Latin community not just in his home state but those adjacent in the American south. His photographs are not hurried, he is not interested in reporting for onlookers, it eschews observational distance and instead, leans on a poetic inflection to capturing the subtle magic in the everyday.
There is an insistent impetus to redefine and destabilize the limiting visual and social identity that hangs over these communities. Camposeco approaches his photography with a pan-Latin consciousness. Speaking with him and parsing through his work I’m reminded of South African self-described visual activist Zanele Muholi’s push to self-determine: "I always think to myself, if you don’t see images of your community, you have to create them. I can’t be dependent on other people to do it for us.’”, she remarked about her portraiture work of her LGBTQI community in her home nation. Camposeco‘s careful and sensitive portrayals are driven with a similar sensibility to create mirrors on one’s own terms and will. In doing, what surfaces is an honest vision of the future where diasporic Latinx members can be seen in their radiating multiplicity.
"i can't speak for the entire community, no artist can but my successes and failures can at least initiate a discussion on Latinx themes and issues rather than sweep them under the rug. That very act, in my eyes, is more important for my community's well being than any professional interest in being included firstly for my merits/intellect as an artist."
You are quite an impressive person. Do you know this?
I used to get this a lot when I was younger. I guess the bar gets raised higher and higher the older you get and people expect more from you. I know I'm doing well for an artist, but try explaining the career path of an artist to my parents [laughs].
What do your parents think about deviation from your previous trajectory as a math wiz ?
Well, I was never actually a math wiz. I was just good at it. When college came around and I told my parents I wanted to major in art, they were kind of surprised since they expected me to be a lawyer and told me to major in something more practical. I was adamant that I wanted to major in art though and they had an open mind. They just wanted me to get a degree which was a big deal since they never got one.
Can you remember an early memory of engaging with photography in a critical way?
The first time I was a given a camera was on my trip to Mexico City in 5th grade. It was a disposable Kodak camera with a flash and I distinctly remember photographing the big screen TV in the hotel meeting room because I wanted one. My chaperone immediately told me not to waste my exposures on "stuff like that" while I was in Mexico. I guess that experience taught me to go from photographing solely what I desired to becoming the next Manuel Álvarez Bravo (I kid).
I wasn't familiar with Álvarez Bravo's work. How did you discover his work? And why are you drawn to their work?
Manuel Álvarez Bravo is like the Walker Evans of Mexico. Oddly enough, I discovered his work before I even took my first photography class when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico during a holiday before undergrad. In the city there is a photography centre called the Álvarez Bravo Photography Centre (Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo) named after the photographer. It is there that I stumbled across his work in one of the photobooks in the library. Curiously, it's also there that I decided that I wanted to be an artist, so there's some serious energy emanating from that centre. While he's not my favourite Latin American photographer (that title currently goes to Guadalupe Ruiz), what I enjoy about his work is the way he dealt with his subjects. There is little stereotyping. There's also gender parity. He was very progressive for his time.
When did you begin to think of yourself in relation to photography as you do now?
I think creating work for and writing my honours thesis and exhibition was a turning point for me creatively. I was finally able to work on my own larger personal project rather than smaller assigned ones. For my thesis, I was working on a series of experimental films, as well as photographic prints, that would be exhibited together on the Latinx experience in North Carolina. What started out as solely a photography project morphed into an installation, and my ambitions grew. My next project would have to be a feature-length film I said to myself, and that's where I currently am right now in relation to photography.
Was it probable or inescapable that you'd work through and centralize your identity as Latinx in your creative/art work?
Oh for sure it's inescapable. I don't know if I could be an artist if I weren't Latinx. I feel like I'm filling a gap in the art world sometimes--that of the Latinx artist from the American South. But even then, I tried to subvert that by writing a screenplay about a Russian Jew as the protagonist. There are definitely Latinx elements in the screenplay still. The supporting character is Latino. Also, Latin American literature has a history of experimenting with its culture. For instance, Jorge Luis Borges had a fascination with Jewish culture and wrote a few stories with Jewish iconography at the center of them. Jorge Volpi is known for being a Latin American writer who writes books with hard science and without Latin Americans (not that they're diametrically opposed) as a way to push the literature away from the vestiges of magical realism.
Diego Camposeco, Gerardo’s Family, 2018
Its very interesting you say you might not be an artist if you weren't Latinx. You being a Latinx is not mutually exclusive to being an artist. Can you further this point?
Absolutely. I just honestly don't think I would have anything to say if I weren't Latinx in the American South. I am constantly curated in shows as the only Latinx photographer from the South for a reason. There aren't very many working in an art context. If I were in Texas or California, I could focus my energies elsewhere because the art field is more crowded in those places. Also, I feel like documentary art has a certain potential that originates from both the American and Global South. Combining the two signifiers by being Latinx in North Carolina feels like such a natural conceptual gesture in itself.
Do you think if you grew up in Mexico you'd still be art ?
If I grew up in Mexico City, I'd probably be so cool I wouldn't even recognize myself. I know the art scene there is amazing. But in all honesty, I'd probably find a way to do something artistic on the side. Everyone needs a creative outlet.
Why do you think there is then this other impetus to subvert by using something like the ostensibly Russian Jew protagonist?
I feel like I'm pushing the Latinx identity in a new direction. Even though my focus is the Latinx community in the American South, I've been thinking about my long term career lately. What does it mean to be Latinx in the long run? Or even what does it mean to look at the identity from the perspective of another somewhat marginalized identity?
Don’t you find it a little opportunistic to say you make work because there’s a gap to be filled or because you’re in N.C. and it’s not as ‘crowded’ in the art scene there, and that you get included as the only Latinx person in shows...do you find that it might be understood as a pursuit to gain your own social capital as opposed to what you are saying your intentions of visualization a community your a part of?
NC is my home. I was born here. I have roots here. Before I came on the scene, no Latinx local photographers were being included in shows because there were none. It is opportunistic in one sense, but I didn't ask my parents to emigrate to North Carolina and toil as farmworkers for several years just so I could take advantage of some demographic shifts in the state in the next couple of decades. Also, I don't even make a real living off of my art, not yet at least. Like I said before, I work as a translator and math tutor and have even considered dropping art altogether in the past. I love art, but because I have such high standards for it, I kind of despise making it. The reason I've stuck with it for so long is because I see it as a responsibility to my community to communicate their stories in a meaningful way. If I felt somebody could do a better job than me and I weren't needed, I'd gladly pass the baton. As younger generations rise, hopefully this will change.
Also, do you ever think it is tokenizing that you continue to be included in shows solely for the "Latin-ness" at the center of your work and the fact that you are Latinx , as opposed to being included firstly for your merits/intellect as an artist?
There's a difference between tokenization and representation. I feel like I'm being included in exhibitions as a sort of cultural ambassador for the Latinx community. Well, I can't speak for the entire community, no artist can, but my successes and failures can at least initiate a discussion on Latinx themes and issues rather than sweep them under the rug. That very act, in my eyes, is more important for my community's well being than any professional interest in being included firstly for my merits/intellect as an artist.
Diego Camposeco, Zulma, 2018
You tend to converge bits fiction along with happenstance with your documentary photography, what is the intention there? And why interfere with occurrences for potential images with fiction? What do you think that does?
I think it makes the images more interesting. I took a class on experimental Brazilian documentary cinema in college and learned that nothing in documentary photography, film, and video is inherently objective. Nanook of the North, which we all learn in our film classes, was mostly staged. Does it make the film worse? Not necessarily. It just means we should trust images less. Also, I work in the realm of documentary art. The art part gives me more leeway and allows me to treat everything as sort of a spectrum. Now I don't do anything drastic and go the Deana Lawson route and give a woman a baby that isn't hers or place objects that weren't in the background in the picture, partly because I'm lazy, but also because I respect some semblance of veracity.
Can you elaborate on this leeway you associate with 'documentary art' and what you mean when say; it allows you to treat things on a spectrum...and maybe how this might be different from other forms of documentary practices?
Walker Evans put it quite nicely in an interview in American Suburb X:
"Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, though it certainly can adopt that style."
I guess I should describe my work more as in the "documentary style," because documentary art can be kind of an oxymoron when you think about it. What I mean about the spectrum is basically there is a general notion of what documentary or truthful images are supposed to look like in diametric opposition to completely fictional images, but kind of like for one of the solutions to the sorites paradox, which arises from vague predicates, I take a consensual approach to documentary. I play with the image just enough for it to still be considered documentary.
You also tend have frames within the framing of your photos. Can you speak on this and why you think it reoccurs in your work?
It's a meta-reflexive technique that I internalized early on and have kept in my work ever since. I try to do it intentionally. In the same way that a postmodern writer references other texts, I like to reference other photographs or works of art in my work.
"I love art, but because I have such high standards for it, I kind of despise making it. The reason I've stuck with it for so long is because I see it as a responsibility to my community to communicate their stories in a meaningful way."
Do you ever worry/think about your images feeding into an archetypal or expected image of the Latinx body or visual culture through photography?
Sometimes I worry that individual images of mine might do that, but I'm also hoping that some of the conceptual gestures I employ come through as well. They're working on so many registers and are printed somewhat large usually that people get that something else is going on with the images.
Your colouring of your photographs are one it defining features. What do you think your penchant for colour choices does its relation to the demographic you want to highlight or in terms of how the images are read?
Well, the photographs are definitely about colour both literally and conceptually. Luckily, the demographic that I'm working with emphasizes an alternative colour palette than most U.S. Americans (or even Canadians) are used to seeing. It's here that I'm invoking a new reading of the American South. When you think of colour photography in the South, William Eggleston immediately comes to mind, but his way of rendering colour doesn't apply to the Latinx community.
Diego Camposeco, Sabrina, 2017
How does writing or scripting factor into your image making work? From the writing I read, you seem to be fairly thoughtful writer.
It makes me more ambitious with my photography. I have two photography projects that I'm currently trying to get funding for. One involves traveling to a distant land for a year, and the other involves making anthotypes, which are basically contact prints made through photosynthesis. Both projects would push my work conceptually, but I think writing gives me the distance necessary to go back to photography with fresh and eager eyes.
I enjoyed viewing First (World) Love; particularly what was being narrated over the image streams. Did you shoot all that footage? Can you share your thinking processes for bringing the seemingly disparate images together in conjunction with the text narrated?
Yeah, I shot it all myself over a summer in Favela da Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro's largest low-income informal urban area. I was actually living in the favela, which made gathering the footage easier. I had visited Rocinha the year before and I knew I wanted to make an experimental documentary about the place so I wrote up a couple of student grants and came back the next year. While I was there, I waffled between making a talking head documentary and a sensory ethnography, but neither worked out on the editing table once I was back at school. My advisor was growing impatient with me because it was the second semester and I had all this great footage but no real progress. I was reading a lot of Marxist literature at the time and I was going through a bout of unrequited love so inevitably it came to me that I should superimpose some sort of Marxist love letter narrative over the footage, and voilà, the structure to my film was born.
You've previously mentioned your motivation for recursiveness and now meta-reflexivity what do you think that does in relation to your pursuit for visualizing Latinx bodies/narratives?
It complicates the narrative or visualization. The way I see the Latinx population in the American South is like a giant brown cellular automaton competing with other cellular automata in terms of visual culture. Cellular automata are structures that exist on grids made up of colored cells. What's interesting about these structures is that they illustrate the mathematical nature of reality. They literally lay out the patterns to our existence and I try to find these little "glitches" in the matrix from time to time through art. How does this happen exactly? Well, it's hard to describe because it's different each time. For instance in one photograph, "Zulma," the altar to the right of the eponymous woman mimics "The Last Supper" painting right above her. In another photograph, "Gerardo II," the boy in the photograph hung an earlier photograph I took of him on his wall creating a truly recursive scene along with the pencil drawing on the wall that he made.
Frontis Image: From Gerardo series