Photographer Damarys Alvarez is a “Cuban American gal who sometimes vibes with pin up, leatherwear, and chokers. ‘Libre chica.'” In this special collaboration with independent designer Yeha Leung, Damarys photographed Yeha along with two Latina femme models to take the spotlight away from European beauty standards and celebrate “curves, sexiness, and female magic.” Click the slideshow above to preview the full collection of images.
“My homeland [of Cuba] has shown me how to step outside of my comfort zone as a photographer, and to use art to question the diaspora that still exists today.”
Tell us about your background and how you came into photography?
I was born in Miami to parents who are Cuban immigrants. Since the island has been in a time lapse for over 55 years, it was very easy to fall in love with the idea of the 50’s decade. Growing up in Miami, I began to learn photography in the hopes of being like the famous Bunny Yeager who shot all the most famous beach photographs of Bettie Page. I purchased my first medium format camera when I was 19 and eventually saved up for a beautiful 1955 tlr Rolleiflex. Soon after I was able to create pure magic in my home city. I continued my focus on photography and moved my practice to the New York art program of Parsons School of Design. There I grew more into my retro style, and became more familiar with shooting projects that felt close to home.
What inspired this collaboration with Yeha Leung?
I reached out to her through Tumblr because I have been a fan of her designs for years! I decided before graduating from Parsons that I wanted to team up with her to specifically feature Latinas of color. As we brainstormed, we shared models that we were considering, and we decided on Elle, a Miami Cubana and Jackyara, a Dominicana. At first I was very passionate about fashion, but seeing first hand how much alteration and retouching goes on behind the scenes in this industry, I felt very uncomfortable because often I feel that women who are in front of the camera don’t need to be photoshopped at all. This is why I appreciated the chemistry Bunny Yeager had with Bettie Page because what they created was pure, beautiful, and all made with film photography. I feel that magazines of the fashion world emphasize features so heavily focused on European beauty standards, and growing up in a household of female Latinas in a city like Miami, I realized that we all match another type of beauty: the Latina woman. I feel like there was such a conditioned influence to match a beauty like Marilyn Monroe. I feel that her image was very crucial, but also corruptive in setting the standard of female beauty. This collaboration with Yeha Leung was about curves, sexiness, and female magic. I set the light according to the color palette of her designs. I featured her in the shoot as well because I feel we are in a day and age where selfie culture has peaked curiosity on who the designer is themself, and often the designers model their own designs.
What other projects are you working on currently?
My Roots is a current project I am working on, which I feel will be a project that grounds my photographic practice. I mentioned how Miami was a main influence to my process, and being a first generation Cuban American, I always wondered about Cuba. My mother left as a child with my grandmother as airlift refugees to the United States in 1968. My father was a political exile who was sentenced out of the country as of 1980. Ever since the suffering and trauma that heavily exists in the Cuban immigrant community in Miami, many people just talk about the Cuba before 1959 and leave their stories at that. I am very confused as to what my heritage represented and I feel that today we are in a shift where it’s important to discuss the sacrifice of our immigrant roots. We all come from somewhere as Americans. I feel very lost to what American is. I went to Cuba for the first time last summer of 2016 and I spent 29 days there to meet my extended family for the first time. I went to two locations, first to Vertientes Camaguey where my father was born, and there I met my cousins, reunited with my Uncle, and saw first hand the original house where he was born and raised. I also witnessed the amount of poverty that exists outside the capital Habana and it feels as if it is very stuck in a 1940’s farmland. For the other half of my journey while I was in the island, I traveled to Habana to meet with my mother’s side of the family. There I saw the original house where my mom was born and raised. Cuba showed me many things that I could not understand while I was raised in Miami. The island may not have many things, but as long as you have family, faith, and hope then that’s all you need. I feel like America can strip heritage away as it gives an abundance of other cultures. I feel that as an artist, and a Latina, this experience of overcoming past generational trauma was the most important moment I had to face before making any other projects. In response to this I also create artist books and print on fabric. My homeland has shown me how to step outside of my comfort zone as a photographer, and to use art to question the diaspora that still exists today.
What is your mission as a creator?
I am still very passionate about fashion because it is what made me the artist I am today, but I am more focused now on connecting with Cuba since I have so much privilege as a woman in the United States. Having the liberty of Freedom of Speech makes such a difference, and also seeing that I can express anything with no fears has left me to push myself to go to Cuba more because I am in a fight to hold on to my roots, rather than letting it go. I think it’s important to know where any artist comes from. I feel as a photographer I can document what I see, and then come back to the states to expose and educate the current status of Cuba. I want to continue challenging myself to create work that is outside of the frame and beyond.
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