This is the first time I have spoken about photography as the foundation for my assemblage practice. In photos, I capture the content composition and form the narratives of all my artworks. Most of the photos I take are candid snapshots focusing on the actions or relationships among la personas in that instant.
With Who I Am, Quiénes Somos (2023), my Open Call commission, I intended to discover motifs universal to the Dominican diaspora, juxtaposing locations that are distinct from one another and where I traveled.
Santo Domingo, otherwise known as La Capital to my fellow Dominicanos, is the only location within the diaspora that I have no ties to whatsoever. I can only go off the information I have from my peers, family, and research.
The sunlight had filtered through my window two hours before I left the apartment I was staying at. With no destination in mind, I let whatever sights and sounds I’d encounter direct me. As I followed the pavement, my eyes caught a group of viejos seated at a table. Their eyes focused on their game board, hands holding their chins, watching. Feet tapping the pebbles beneath them.
“Espera, yo pensando baboso!”
“Y cuál es el resultado?”
They may say to each other.
Observing the game evoked memories of my experiences in the United States. Those related to the game Capicua 25, which is essential to almost any gathering. Once I had taken in the scene, I started taking photographs, knowing they would represent the capital.
In the following days, I would venture out to a barrio named Gualay, also known as La Ciudad de Dios. Back home in Washington Heights, mi abuela would often watch Super Canal, a channel that airs from República Dominicana. Often showing a teleférico in Santo Domingo. Little did I realize until afterward that it is located in Gualay.
My arrival in Gualay saw me pushing against a tide of locals on their morning commutes. All trying to hail un moto or una guagua por trabajo while I got on the cable car.
As I took photos, I was able to explore several elements. The angle at which I was photographing the buildings was in three-point perspective, due to the construction of the barrio on hills with steep inclines. In a couple photos, the pattern of the homes stacked on each other distorted the scale. Vegetation emerging through the homes created a unique texture. Organic and inorganic materials met, making different lines and marks collide in the photo.
My origins are in Santiago, in the north of the RD. Unlike Santo Domingo, this city and its surrounding areas are what define my experience in the country. On my father’s side of the family, we would go up Pico Diego Sabana Iglesia, where the car wheels made “clattering” sounds on gravel or dirt roads as we headed to our destination. Likewise, on my mother’s side, we’d go to La Vega or Monte Cristi to see relatives. I recall these times in el campo, surrounded by forest that sometimes felt like a solid wall of green flora. This proximity to el campo led me to represent this landscape as my home region.
I chose roadside vendors who I’d see on trips there.
I found it interesting how overlooked this relationship was. In these areas, my family engages with them in a way that comes off as friendly rather than rooted in business.
“Hola Dona! Como estas, quieres lo usual?”
This is the start to a quick 5-to-10-minute conversation, the type of interaction I hoped to capture.
I took this photo of a coconut vendor near Rio Acapulco, close to La Vega. The gaze of a vendor towards the camera strikes me, seizing my attention. He sits in the center of the composition, making him the focal point. His red shirt is complementary to the green vegetation behind him, giving significant emphasis to his presence and resulting in a relationship that fit the narrative I was going for.
Home. My most anticipated photograph for this series. The location where I became who I am. To many others, Washington Heights is the foundation of our Dominican heritage in the United States, where many of us were introduced to Dominican culture through daily life. It was imperative to include one of the iconic motifs in our hood: the Coco Helado cart.
Coco Helado carts selling coquitos are one of the first places we engage with someone outside of our relatives. Vendors wait at parks or outside of schools, knowing kids will ask their parents to buy a flavor.
I departed from my home studio a few hours before sunset, intending to stroll up St. Nicholas Avenue, surveying the streets for a vendor. I expected one to come into my gaze soon, given their prevalence in the barrio. Past 181st Street there was a street fair. I passed an array of businesses and stands as I walked from 181st to 184th—and then, there it was.
The photo depicts the cart off-center in the middle of the street with an older man working it. The focal point is on the patrons awaiting their dessert. A family of three: A father, ina pink sweater, jeans that sagged below his waistline, and a cap. A daughter, who appeared to be no more than 10 years old in a black puffer jacket. An abuela, dressed in a light blue jean jacket and dark blue denim jeans.
The interaction takes place between the daughter and the vendor. The padre y abuela both behind and aside them as the gaze is on them. The vendor’s arms reach downward to the girl to pass the coquito and retrieve the money. The girl’s go upwards to pass the money and retrieve the dessert.
“De nada, tiene un bueno dia.”
Behind the focal point are several attendees of the fair, present amongst the scenery. Other stands and businesses, such as un joyeria y supermerado, also appear. Even further are several apartments and a road that leads to 193rd Street. I decided to address the scale of the barrio through a one-point perspective. Exaggerating the scale of the buildings and the length of the neighborhood in a nod to the significance the barrio holds for me and many others.
I ended up collaging both images to form the final assemblage.
The first suburb to appear in the project. Unlike the three previous images, I was drawn to subject matter for two snapshots. Yonkers lacks a concentrated Dominican neighborhood, and isn’t accessible via public transit, so I relied on relatives who currently live there for my visit. I had attained them from a family barbecue held in the backyard of a home.
The second photo captures a method of cooking, a traditional way of using cinder blocks, wood, and fire. The cuisine is a sancocho. I still remember the aroma of meat as it escaped from the metal lid. It struck me since the setting suited a description of the American dream. The choice to maintain this tradition from the island creates a great contrast to the other motifs in the images.
Lawrence, Massachusetts. Upon my arrival in mi tia’s car, an old steel mill came into frame as I crossed the Merrimack River. Once an industrial town with a high European population, Lawrence has transformed to become the first majority Latino city in Massachusetts, due to the presence of Dominican residents. The last time I was there was back in 2006, and the differences I noticed made it feel like the city had taken on an identity of its own. Signs like “Caribe Express” and “Xiomaras salons” appeared. Restaurants that took me back to the Heights were almost everywhere. Vaka and Pollo Tipico are standouts. But most surprisingly, murals that celebrated us as a people were present. For a town in New England, it became clear that ese sitio ta pegao.
For this last image, I decided to focus on a scene in one of my primos’ current barbershop. The door rings as customers continue to come and go. Seeing new faces for varying amounts of time.
“Y ese zapato no ta Real hermano!, adonde tu coje esa vaina.”
“En una mercado cerca de aqui, porque, tu quieres?”
“NOOOO, tu ta loco yo no quiero comprar!”
“Sientate primo, sientate, quiere una cerveza?”
My last photo would be from a first-person perspective, I decided. This time, the perspective allows the viewer to feel what it was like for me to be standing there. My hand depicts my hand holding a beer. In the center of the image is a caballero getting a haircut from his barber—a relationship whose importance often goes unspoken for men. I made a point of creating enough space for the mirrors to be included in the photo, as they would be something I’d explore in my assemblage.
This concludes the photography behind Who I Am, Quiénes Somos. From the beginning of my research in La Capital of the Républica Dominicana to its end in Lawrence in the Northeast United States. Looking back, the emphasis on claiming spaces as our own had already begun to emerge in the photos, as well as valuing the community we share.
It’s not the differences among the locations, and what was there before, that dictate who we are.
It’s when we choose to practice our culture in our own way, regardless of where we are and what stigmas may exist, that traditions are kept alive and allowed to be passed on to the next generation.
It’s when we choose to engage with others in a multitude of meaningful ways. Accepting others for who they are in their experiences can create a community.
It’s the actions of the community that affirm us as a people that transform these places into ours.
To have community means to have love and pride for where you come from and in who you are.
I’ll leave you with this question, “Who are you, where are you from?”
All photos © Bryan Fernandez.