The endearing photography work of Javier Alvarez
By Camilo Salas
On a recent Saturday afternoon the Chilean photographer Javier Alvarez, who is 34 years old, holds a BFA in Photography, and has done several freelance editorial works in Chile and Brazil, was explaining to me the details behind one of his photo series on Latino food delivery workers during the pandemic and how difficult was to work with the uncertainties the novel coronavirus brought, especially when you are photographing your subjects inside their houses.
“At that time I went covered from head to toe, like a Beastie Boy, all covered in PPE, mask, everything. His family and siblings were there” Javier told me.
The result is a series of photos that were selected by the photography festival Photoville and showcased in Brooklyn for more than a month. That same work was also picked up by En Foco, a cultural organization of BIPOC photographers, and it’s currently being exposed at the Wall Works gallery in The Bronx. The series shows how bike delivery immigrants became the first necessity in New York City as people began to die, restaurants closed, supermarkets were full and streets got empty. In one touching image, you can see how the daughter of a delivery person leaves a note of support on the fridge, while his dad is in the streets working 8 to 10 hours a day, being exposed to the risk of bringing the virus back home.
As we spoke about his beginnings in photography and how his work has been awarded by Aperture Foundation, Visura, and Reminders Photography Stronghold, among others, Javier opened up about what brought him to the U.S. and how hard is to make a name for yourself in the creative industries of New York.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your first approach to photography?
I started with word of mouth. "My nephew, my friend takes photos, he can take a couple of photos" and I made some money. I did marriages and events. Very amateur.
But did you already have your camera?
I had my camera. My mom had bought with great effort an analog Pentax MZ 50 with a horrible 35-80 lens, but it was my little camera, and I did everything with it. I studied without a digital camera and learned everything with film because of lack of access.
Digital cameras already existed
But I studied analog because I didn't have money to buy a digital one, but sometimes I asked my classmates for a camera. But my approach to work, to see it as a career, started much later, I think that in 2014, or 2015, very recently I began to have a more serious, structured vision of how to make a living from what I was doing, take it seriously in the sense of having a devotion to not getting involved in other projects, other things that had nothing to do with mine. At some point, I also had to sacrifice leaving economic stability to be able to focus solely on photography and it was a process that took me... more or less finishing my degree in 2010, there was a moment when I said 'I don't want to work in anything else that is not related to photography', even if it is carrying irons, even if it is putting light bulbs, as an assistant, as a wedding photographer, working in the press, whatever, but something that involves photography.
Now I look back and realize that the decisions and development of my career also have a lot to do with my origins and my social status. I do not come from a wealthy family. I don't come from an environment where art was available all the time. I don't have those royalties or a couple of tricks beforehand. So it was hard for me to start working in photography because I had to start from scratch making contacts. And like all those experiences of obstinacy that I had at the beginning, learning how to insist, I think it is merely because I like doing this and it has to do with leaving at some point putting things aside, and saying 'I'm just going to do my thing'. Unless it's related to work or things I like about my work.
Regarding the work that is exhibited in Photoville, how do you create a series? Is the format very important to you?
I think that I begin to think about the power of stories before making them. First, there has to be a story, there has to be something to tell. Then comes the visual part, is there any appeal behind it? Is there any way this is going to turn into photos? Is it worth doing it in photos? Why does it have to be in photos? And then comes the narrative and there are personal decisions. One can use certain resources to be able to reach a certain audience and then certain ways to be able to tell the story. And in particular this one, I think my perception and my ideas around the subject did not matter much. I believed that the less interference I could do, the faster I would work to get the message out, which was "well, this is what's happening, these are the people." In that sense, I think that at least for me it works quite well to move between styles, from the most journalistic ways of being able to tell a story, which is more rigorous, and other more experimental ways of how to approach these documentaries and tell the same story, which does not necessarily have to do with the facts, but perhaps to document someone's feelings, since it can be something a little more abstract because it undoubtedly has documentary value. And in that sense, you have to suddenly think of projects that can last for years of coming and going, or getting into or reopening things that maybe they had kept for years and doing it in a short time, or doing a report in a couple of weeks. Many times they are small factors that later will justify the way the project ends up being seen.
In this case, a series works because there are many stages. Each photo in a series has to be like writing in prose, telling you something different to be able to put together the idea. If this were a longer topic, we should talk about a series of photos and be able to make a chapter.
What have you found in the United States?
More opportunities. More chances. It sounds very cliché, very Titanic, but it's real. More opportunities to be able to develop a variety of ways of exploring my work. And other things, privileges, privileges of accessing certain tastes that have to do with being young and living in an incredibly fast and cosmopolitan city at 30 or 40 years old. But not everything shines. It is also understanding how the social protection system works here, being alone, making friends at 30 is very difficult and to have to deal with a super tough mentality. Even though New York I feel is one of the best places to live in America.
Yes, because L.A... I dont like it.
No, neither do I. (laughs)
Besides, here you can meet your idols. In other words, you have direct contact with people you follow.
Yeah, it's super real. I think it has to do with expectations. Expectations change the parameters a bit . Some things make you realize that you can achieve very easily because you are there. It's like ;Oh, this is where things come from, I'm here, I can do it.; Later you realize that there are certain things that I will never really achieve because I am not from here either.
There is a dichotomy…
Yes, that's why you have to be sure of where you are and what you want. Not to get lost, to maintain your identity, to live it, to be there like "Ok, I permeate here, a little there". But I am this, this is my role. This is me. You demand yourself to protect yourself because the gringo is also super individualistic.
Besides, it happens to me that it is not necessary to be the most successful.
In this country, there are so many people, so many talents that it is not necessary to be the best, the most recognized.
No, the hunger goes elsewhere. It has to do with something else.
What do you think it is?
I believe that the gringo dreams of fulfilling himself personally. He dreams of resting. He wants to rest. On the other hand, we don't, we want to exploit ourselves.