By: Sarah Lehr
At 10 years old, José Galvez walked into the offices of the Arizona Daily Star for the first time. Galvez was a shoeshine boy, and one of the reporters had requested his services. As a nod to this memory, Galvez entitled the presentation that he delivered at Kenyon on Sept. 25, “Shine.”
After that first day at the Arizona Daily Star, Galvez developed a fascination with journalism. When he told his high school guidance counselor about his desire to become a journalist, the counselor suggested he look for work in a print shop. “He thought I should do something more blue collar, something more suited to my ethnicity,” said Galvez, a Mexican-American who was born in Arizona.
After college, the Los Angeles Times hired Galvez as a photojournalist. “I walked around the barrios taking photos and then had to fight to get them into the paper,” Galvez remembered. “‘Mexicans don’t read our paper,’ they always said.”
Soon Galvez began photographing Latino life across the United States. For him, capturing these often-overlooked faces is not a temporary project, but rather a lifelong dedication.
“I’m not a helicopter journalist,” he said, referring to journalists who report on a topic for a short time and, as a result, never develop an in-depth understanding of what they are covering. “I’ve been doing this for my whole life and I’m going to keep doing it.”
Even Galvez’s materials have held constant over the years. He uses a camera that is over 50 years old and another that is around 30 years old. Galvez prefers using film cameras because he likes waiting to see how his shot turned out.
“I just love the uncertainty, the magic [and] the surprise,” he said.
Galvez’s photos are not in color, either. He said of black and white photos: “You really have to get into the image. You really have to think about the story, as opposed to being influenced by colors. You are not just going, ‘Wow, look at those reds. Look at those yellows.’”
The photos that Galvez showed at Kenyon had a powerful simplicity to them. The focus was on the subjects, and the subjects were almost always people.
“My work is not about immigration,” he said. “It’s about people who are here [in the U.S.], whether they be Mexican-American like me or Puerto Ricans or Cubans. … I don’t ask [subjects], ‘are you an immigrant?’”
In fact, Galvez does not ask his subjects much at all. He will ask permission to take a photo, and he might ask for their age or their place of birth. The effect is that each image stands alone. No backstory factors in.
“I don’t want a picture to need too much explanation. I want the picture to work really quickly with the viewer,” he said.
When Galvez spoke at Kenyon, he elaborated on the context of only a few of his pieces. In one case, he described being at a gay pride parade near his home in South Carolina. He saw two Latino men in wigs, ball gowns and high heels who were part of the parade. Immediately, he knew he had to take their photo.
“What I wanted to say with that image was that we [Latinos] are everyone. We’re students, we’re workers, we’re professionals, we’re out there in the tobacco fields [and] we’re gay guys dressed up as beauty queens on the back of a pickup truck,” he said.