Osley Pérez: Examining Social Structure through Photography, Part 1

Osley Pérez was born in Pinar Del Rio a province in the western end of Cuba and his inclination toward the visual arts was greatly influenced by his mother who took family pictures with an old medium format Russian film camera to record the family’s memories. He studied plastic arts for a short time and then went to the university to study architecture. This was the time when photography began to occupy an important place in his life. He came to the United States five years ago and enjoys decorating the interior spaces in the homes of friends and living in a wonderful city with a tropical climate!

In 2013, he was the X Vario City Challenge winner from Miami. He also won second place in LFI’s Me and My Leica X Photo Contest in 2014, which he discusses in part one of our interview below.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: At the beginning, photography was just a hobby but as I got into it, the results were more interesting than I could have imagined. Then I began studying photography on my own and started to improve my skills with the camera. I photographed everything, even more incredible events like hurricanes in Cuba, as well as more familiar subjects.

Maybe, at first I was just an enthusiast but now I think I have become a full-time photographer. Being an artist, expressing my feelings and the reality of contemporary society are what I want to do with my photography.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography?

A: I graduated from university as an architect. The photography was spontaneous. I didn’t have any mentor, just learned by studying art books, going to art exhibitions, and talking with some friends who studied art history.

Q: What inspired you to enter the Me and My Leica X competition?

A: Contests are a great opportunity offered by Leica for new photographers who want to show their art and the daily experiences captured by their cameras. I am a big follower of the new movement around Leica featuring photographers in blogs, contests, etc. The Me & My Leica X photo contest gave me the opportunity to compete with my portfolio and have it reviewed by prestigious Leica judges!

Q: What was the theme of the photo series you entered into the competition? Can you provide some background information or what you were trying to capture?

A: The series is called “Social Structure” and reveals the fusing of different social strata in a small neighborhood. When you are on the streets, framing and timing are key aspects. You have to find a theme that communicates specific information, and you also need to be able to capture the overall reality with authenticity and truth. Although street photography requires focusing on situations as they unfold it’s helpful to know your location and have a general concept before you start shooting.

Q: How did you get to know this location, what, in an operational sense, do you mean by being part of the scenario, and how did you develop the concept for this project?

A: The series takes place in Wynwood. This is a place in Miami that has grown from a neighborhood of vacant warehouses to one of artists’ studios, galleries, and hipster shops. Nowadays it’s a hub for artists and entrepreneurs here in South Florida. Wyndwood is also the place where you can find one of the largest collections of outdoor murals anywhere. In a cosmopolitan city like Miami, what happens in this neighborhood is part of everyday reality. The characters that I show in my images are really commonplace in any city but sometimes they are so routine and our lives are so hectic that they become invisible to most people. I have get to know the characters that comprise and enrich my images because I think about them and I try to show them as they are, without any stigma and revealing their functionality in our society, their almost anonymous contributions. I try to show their reality, the atmosphere in which they operate, and their everyday experiences. I show them as I see them.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Leica is one of the best manufacturers of cameras and photographic equipment in the world. The Leica trademark is well known for quality materials, quality lenses and excellence of design. Also, its products are compact, modular, and seamlessly compatible, so the choice was obvious.

Q: What features of the Leica X Vario do you find especially useful for your kind of work?

A: The X Vario is perfect in its simplicity. Add lightness and a great lens, and it’s a pleasure to feel such a perfect instrument (for video and still photography) that fits so comfortably in your hands. I love the fast and precise autofocus and face detection, which are great for demanding street photography situations!

Q: Can you tell us more about this image, the setting, and the artwork on the wall behind the subjects that looks more professionally executed than typical graffiti? Also while their smiles may be shy and tentative there is also something assertive in their posture, body language and the very fact that they’re putting themselves out there. Do you agree, and how did you approach them to take their picture?

A: It was taken during Art Basel Miami, an international art event that takes place annually. The Wynwood walls are part of what makes up the outdoor venue. This event brings a great movement of people and art lovers to Miami and people walk on the streets and galleries more than usual. Several people take advantage of the occasion to promote their religious beliefs in the streets where hundreds of people parade from gallery to gallery. Undoubtedly, I tried to reinforce the concept that behind a shy smile on their faces is the firmness of their actions associated with rooted beliefs. Religion is a controversial issue, and my intention is merely to show the people behind the stigmas of society in which they are framed. This portrait has as a graffiti background certainly executed by professionals. This emphasized their verticality and body language while I framed the hands and faces.

Q: The image labeled “Every man is a reflection of his wall,” is quite fascinating and engaging on its own. Do you think that it is the artist that should elucidate the meaning and context of an image or is that something that takes place in the mind of the viewer and really isn’t under the artist’s total control?

A: A photograph can have many interpretations, but all must revolve around the central idea you want to express. Otherwise, we must recognize that it lacks intention and the ability to convey the scene in a way that presents the message you wanted to transmit. This photograph captivates me by its simplicity and its conceptual elements. The subject of the image has a certain similarity to the wall behind him and this makes me think of the possibility that everyone can fly, give free rein to their imagination and creativity, achieve goals, draw walls, create barriers or just dominate them. At the same time, I name my photos with conceptual titles, ironic and sometimes poetic. I’m really curious about the conceptualist artists behind their images, so this is my way of showing more about myself to those who observe my images and also a way to create new concepts in people’s minds.

Q: One example of a title that is effective in guiding the viewer’s perception is “Forbidden,” an obvious reference to the bright red apple at the curb that seems both physically and existentially beyond the reach of the homeless person lying on the sidewalk nearby. May we have your thoughts on this?

A: Certainly, the situation reminds me of the biblical theme about the forbidden fruit, but mostly as a conceptual element. The apple represents what this person needs. It is the food that is not within his reach. But, would this casual fruit solve his problems? He is not only turning his back on his shortcomings, but also rejecting the possibility of a change, a change that comes by chance. I believe that homeless people need to feel needed and important in society, and useful spaces must be provided. I know it may sound a bit depressing or sententious, but it’s more than that; it’s the reality of life. Conformism and passivity cannot be ways of facing life, all the while being mindful of the fact that a large percentage of them are victims of extreme situations that lead them to their present state.

Q: “Back In Time” is another powerful image that features what looks like a poster for old-fashioned gangster movies in the background. What do you think this image communicates to viewers? Can you also tell us where and how you shot this fascinating picture?

A: It is an image that can have many readings. Today’s society is plagued by violence. Human’s phagocytes combat the bad guys by trying to protect the corpus of society from this infection. The fictional weapon in his hands speaks to the dynamics of action. The man is shown with a large white cross on his chest, which would seem to evoke his beliefs, and yet it highlights the contradictory dilemma, peace-faith-violence. Another meaning: how much are we influenced by movie icons and media in general? It turned out to be very interesting when I asked this guy if I could take a photo of him. He looked back at the background and the barbed wire fence above, then rapidly and somewhat unconsciously he adopted this gangster position.

Q: The images in this portfolio certainly encompass a wide variety of social strata including a police officer, a homeless person, religious people, etc. Was this your intended method of presenting your theme of “Social Structure” or do these images express other underlying ways these disparate subjects relate to one other or express your view of the society in which they live?

A: Today’s society is really varied and complex in its structure. Showing its heterogeneity through its different members was my particular way of understanding it. The theme of the series was not fully conceived ahead of time (it’s sometimes difficult to foresee what you’re going to encounter on the street) but it was born afterward when I sat down to take a look at the photographs I had taken during the first day of Miami Art Basel. I immediately perceived the wide variety of life that was concentrated in such a small area, at that moment, I knew I had to keep on going and go out the next day and the following one. Without a doubt, my photographs show the wide variety of personalities that caught my eye and not the ones we usually think of when we describe the members of a society. My main interest was in capturing the various strata of society, social or individual actions and the dissimilar characters that make up Wyndwood. “Social Structure” encompasses everything from the homeless to a businessman, interacting and evolving there day by day in the same place. The immediacy of today’s society, the speed of events and the time when an action is frozen in time are some of the factors I had in mind when making this series.

Thank you for your time, Osley!

– Leica Internet Team

See more of Osley’s work on his website and Facebook.

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