Documenting Latino life in the South

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by Eric Ginsburg

A photo from a Latino street festival in Winston-Salem
A photo from a Latino street festival in Winston-Salem

Dozens of people milled about in the room where Jose Galvez’s photography is on display, but none of them were looking at the images. Most of them stared at computer screens instead.

The photos on exhibit, part of the learning resource center inside the library at GTCC’s Jamestown campus, are initially unassuming. The setup is diffuse — no prominent sign declares the presence of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s classic street photography of Latinos in the Southeast, and the images adorn a sidewall and pillars towards the back of the study space.

Most of the photos hang over a designated laptop and study area, consisting of cubicles along a wall with pieces of laminated, bright-pink paper taped to desks that banning group work or moving the furniture. Sticker labels identifying the subject, date and location of each photo curl off the walls.

An artist’s statement describes the collection as “an overview of what life is like here, especially for working-class Latinos.” Two students sitting 20 feet away from the mission statement talked about the US-Mexico border, but it was only coincidental: They were engrossed in the specifics of a “Breaking Bad” plotline.

What at first seems like an afterthought exhibit, slapped up almost haphazardly, is actually quite fitting: The photos, like many of the people captured in them, are almost invisible, forgotten in plain sight.

Aqui Estamos: Here We Are is a beautiful study on Latino life in the state and region, evoking a feeling of precariousness and uncertainty. Some of the people stare out of the photos, projecting fortitude, while others appear apprehensive or indifferent. Rather than focusing on one facet of life, Galvez shows people as they play, worship, work and protest, intentionally encompassing more of the totality of Latino life here.

“The work that I do is not about immigrants or the immigrant community,” he said. “It is just about people here in the South/Southeast and what they’re doing and how they fit in.”

Jose Galvez (courtesy photo)
Jose Galvez (courtesy photo)

This is his life’s work — Galvez sees his work as creating a historical archive documenting Latino experience in the region, something that is enough to pay his bills and brings him to places like Rutgers, NJ, Elizabeth City and Jamestown for artist talks.

Many of the pictures were taken in Durham, where Galvez and his family have lived for the last decade, though others create a window into remote towns such as Jamesville, Chadbourn and West Jefferson. All of the photos were shot with black-and-white film, often capturing the Galvez family as they took meandering routes off main highways.

Galvez, a career photojournalist who worked for various publications including the Los Angeles Times, entered the industry with a shoeshine kit and the determination to hang around long enough to get hired. He went on to study journalism at the University of Arizona, becoming the first college graduate in his family.

After successfully finding the almost-hidden exhibit, walking between students felt awkward at first, but the discomfort of being the only one there for the art dissipated with the power of the images.

“There’s a lot of stillness in the images that you really need to get into it and study it and come up with your own interpretation of what’s going on,” Galvez said.

Some of the photos are coupled, including one of a man driving a converted school bus with a sweet-potato haul and a woman picking strawberries.

Another pairing gives a glimpse of children. In one, two boys on bicycles pose with a soccer ball under a sign for College Street in Dayton, Va. as a Mennonite dairy farmer passes by in the background on a tractor. In the adjacent photo, a girl gazes directly into the camera, her legs tucked under her as she sits in the mouth of a slide. The caption reads: “Cristina Sanchez, wearing her Brittney Spears T-shirt proudly, plays at McDonald’s. Durham, 2010.”

In a photo from a Latino Street festival in Winston-Salem — the only Triad image in the mix — the most interesting element may be a group of white attendees, staring down the camera and taking up considerably more space than a tightly clumped Latino family next to them.

Galvez took another masterfully composed shot from atop a truck where two brothers loaded Christmas trees, the land rolling like the sea into the distance. The brother in the foreground, the top few buttons on his flannel shirt undone, points to where a tree should be stacked.

In arguably the most powerful photo on display, four mothers at a church gathering in a Durham park look pensively at the camera. An almost sly expression on one child’s face is the only thing approaching a smile. The positioning of two strollers, the patterns on the long dresses, a stern woman carrying an infant in each arm, the nervous feet of a daughter and the darkness of the image conspire to make it nearly impossible to look away.SONY DSC