Rubén has always been an artist at heart. His mother, a photographer herself, taught him the value and influence of powerful and meaningful imagery from an early age. He didn't immediately follow the same path himself, but instead went to S.C.A.D. for 3D animation. He spent ten years in game animation and design before a chance purchase of a second-hand camera while traveling in Africa would pull him back down the rabbit hole of photography. Today, he travels the world, documenting what he sees and looking for every opportunity to give a voice to those who need to be heard. I sat down with him recently for a phone interview to talk about his journey.
You have a background as a 3D animator. Something that you did for ten years before photography. Tell me about that transition.
3D animation and game design was something that I’d wanted to do since I was a small child. I went to an art university and started working in the field, and I loved it at first. After a few years, I didn’t really play that many video games anymore, and I didn't identify with that world any longer. I grew out of it, and I grew out of that dream. I also wasn’t keen on working in front of a screen for many many hours a week, and I was also making games that I honestly wouldn't even want my children to play because of the violence.
Around year 7 or 8 of that career, I did some traveling. I bought a second-hand camera while I was in Kenya, started taking pictures and I was hooked!
I read a lot, studied photography books and took lots of photos in my free time, and then in year 9 of doing 3D animation, I started to transition into shooting full time.
I went to Myanmar with my photography mentor to learn. I fell in love with that place! I was supposed to only be there for a month, and I stayed for two and a half years! Ha! I quickly started getting photo jobs there. Back then, there weren’t too many people living in that area that were professional photographers. I got jobs with newspapers and magazines just by being in the right place at the right time. It really started my career.
How would you say the experience as an animator has influenced your work and art now?
Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint or describe specific things that I see in my work now from my days animating. I do think that it helped me in the transition into photography. Animation is all about poses, about timing, and silhouettes. It’s similar to photography in many ways. I trained my eye for over a decade in studying movement and poses. It allowed me to anticipate movement in photography and became very second nature to bring that to photography. My background contributed to my understanding of composition also.
Did you find it challenging going from working on a screen to working with people or did that come pretty naturally?
Actually, the second half of my time as an animator, I managed a team and was directing people then, so I was somewhat used to it. Obviously, there was a lot more time in front of a computer then and more tedious work, but directing now is different. I’m very personally driven by my photo projects, and it’s not as tedious as animation. To see a final result in 3D animation, you have to spend a lot, a lot, a lot of time before you’re able to see something real. It takes a long time, and you’re often working with up to 150 people. With photography, it’s much more instantaneous. Working and collaborating with people is something that I’ve always loved to do, and I tried to as an animator as much as I could, but now, with photography, it’s an everyday thing.
You’re quoted in saying that you are inspired by the opportunity to tell someone else’s story. What do you personally feel is the importance for us to see, tell, and share one another’s stories?
Photography is such a universal language. Engaging photographs have the power to make people feel something, no matter what language you speak or what country you’re from. It has the power to speak to everyone, and there are many many people out there that, unfortunately, don’t have a voice. They don’t have a medium to be heard. I find it important to be able to use photography as a megaphone to allow people’s voices to be heard. You can channel or create a link to someone’s cause. Through photography and narrative storytelling, one is capable of bringing more people to a person or cause’s voice.
When you’re traveling and finding and capturing these stories, have you come up against any cultural barriers?
I mean, of course. Every country and every culture has their own perception of a white man with a camera and how they perceive and think about that, right? So, it’s very important when you go into the field to first research as best you can. The last thing you’d want to do is disrespect or scare someone or do something that would be against their culture. You have to find the most respectful way to work as a photographer.
In many countries, people can get aggressive if you just take your camera and point it at them, but in other countries, like Myanmar, for example, it’s such a joy to photograph there. People not only don’t mind but have a naturality in front of the camera that doesn’t feel forced or posed.
Being mindful of all of this is one reason that I use small cameras. I don’t use big cameras and lenses. I work with a very small full-frame camera. It fits in my jacket pocket. I don’t want to feel or be intrusive. I don’t even want to be noticeable.
I think that it would be safe to call you a documentary photographer; however, in your Solar Portraits project, each portrait has to be specifically created and posed.
Can you go into how you decide to craft those individual stories?
I don't really label myself as a documentary photographer, or any kind specifically. I just see myself as a photographer — an artist. I am interested in telling real stories, but I want to tell them in a non-conventional documentary fashion with a creative approach. As far as the Solar Portraits, I think that it starts with listening to each person’s story, and from there, I start getting ideas of how to tell their story. I have them take me to their home or where they work and eventually get an image in my head that I want to create with them. Once I have that, I start thinking about where to place the solar lights to best accentuate them and their story. I’ve been doing this project for three and a half years, and at this point [using the solar lights is] almost a technique. It took a lot of trial and error, but it eventually gave me a kind of visual language to the project.
The next hopeful step in the Solar Lights project is to create a large-scale installation.
What projects do you have coming up?
I’ve been working with the musician, Residenté the last two or three years. He’s from Puerto Rico and is very big in Latin America. He’s also an activist and very socially driven. After doing a genealogy test he traveled to many countries, making music for a project called Musical DNA. (You can look it up on Netflix under Residenté.) I traveled with him and documented a lot of it which is being turned into a photography book. It focuses on the ties and similarities of different people around the world. It’s been a very long-term project, and we’re currently designing the book. It should be released in the next six months or so.
What’s a fun or interesting fact that most people don’t know about you?
Ha! That’s a good one!
I’m addicted to spicy food and carry habanero chili everywhere with me so that I can always make my food spicy.
Rubén seems to always be on the move but you can follow along with him and his journeys on Instagram: @rubensalgadoescudero