Juan Giraldo, the photographer embracing the beauty of the mundane

Juan Giraldo, the photographer embracing the beauty of the mundane

Juan Giraldo

Documentary photographer

Juan Giraldo's photography offers a raw and and personal insight into the daily lives of the people that are often overlooked in the art world, especially people of color. Born in Colombia, but raised in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, his photography explores the lives of the working-class; their experiences closely mirroring his own. What makes his work so unique, is the close relationship he establishes with his subjects, often photographing them in their own homes. Juan describes how familiarising himself with the subject's personal anecdotes, allows him to "embrace the details, beauty, and drama of the mundane, which unfolds as [he] continues to photograph them". Having started photography when he stole a Vivitar camera at the age of 18, Juan is now living and working in the New York City metro area as a documentary photographer. Here to speak about his recent projects and his inspiration behind them, is an interview with the talented Juan Giraldo. 

Leslie (Fall) Chicago, IL

What is the purpose of your photography?

Thank you George for the wonderful introduction.

My photographs serve as/are important to me for many reasons but the two that are always present in my mind are:

1. To give light & recognition to people who are overlooked or othered when it comes to representation in the art world.

2. The importance of controlling/contributing to the narrative of people of color from within the community, (especially coming from a similar community).

Jalen, Calumet City, IL

What was your inspiration behind getting into photography?

My love of art (& animation, it’s how I learned english) especially painting; how, why & what captured my attention in the masters I was looking at – Goya, Daumier, Millet, Rembrandt, Courbet, Orozco, Rivera just to name a few. In particular the way Goya captured light in La Fragua/The Forge from circa 1817, the quality in which Daumier & Millet captured humility in their subjects - Third Class Carriage 1862 – The Gleaners & The Angelus both 1857-59. Rembrandt for his portraits, Courbet for me is almost like a documentary photographer before the term even existed, just look at A Burial at Ornans 1851 for example. Rivera and Orozco for their political murals and their representation in the art world before and after WWII. I would like to add that on a practical level I stole a camera (a Vivitar to be exact) from the department store I was working at when I was about 18/19 years old. I had no idea how to use the thing; I made a lot of awful work. I finally learned to use it after a basic camera class in junior college. I later went on to a four year school and began taking pictures like it was my job; I had this internal drive to just keep shooting. Around 2007 I began to photograph Parker Shoe Service on East 18th St. in Paterson not far from my neighborhood. After making pictures there for over a year I felt as if I had found my voice as a photographer/artist.

Mom (Thanksgiving Morning) Paterson, NJ

I am eager to find out more about your two long-term projects, Blue & Blue and East 17th St. What are you capturing and conveying in these?

Allegory, Dignity & Identity.

Tell me about Blue & Blue. 

I have spent most of my life in the shadow of New York City, in the midst of the declining industry and long forgotten silk mills of the Riverside section of Paterson, New Jersey. My photographs explore the lives of a people; their experiences closely mirroring my own. I was born in Manizales, Colombia and raised in Riverside, after my parents, brother, and I moved there in 1981. Paterson is a working class city, similar to other working class cities where my subjects live. I moved to Chicago in 2012 and began to photograph the Great Lakes Reload (GLR) on Chicago’s far southeast side. GLR is a 385,000 square foot warehouse that transports, stores and process various types of steel products: sheet, plate, bar, beam and tube products. Over time, GLR came to feel eerily familiar. The smell of diesel and cigarettes remind me of the loading dock I worked on in my youth; GLR’s dock workers share qualities with so many of my family members, former co-workers, and friends. Familiarizing myself with their personal anecdotes and experiences allowed me to embrace the details, beauty, and drama of the mundane, which unfolded as I continued to photograph them. A strong bond emerged which allowed me to photograph my subjects as I would my family. The evidence by the decor of these homes reveals their residents as people of Catholic faith, first generation immigrants, and blue-collar manual laborers. In their stories I see echoes of my past. Intimate spaces reveal the textures of a working life; a Gatorade bottle as a vase uncovers the beauty in the banality of domesticity. My portraits and still life photographs highlight objects of importance and their iconographic meaning in these settings, reflecting a reverence for my personal history and the lives of the people I photograph.

Lunch Time, Chicago, IL

And East 17th Street ?

I look at my parents through the lens as of an adult who is now older than they were when they first arrived in the United States. Growing up in Paterson’s (NJ) Riverside section; in the shadow of New York City and Paterson’s declining industry and long forgotten silk mills. My family and I are first generation immigrants. My parents never openly chased the American dream, but they instilled in their children the value of hard work and were grateful for the opportunities as they became available. My father, Ramiro Giraldo has now lived in United States longer than he did in our native Manizales, Colombia. In 2013, I began photographing my parents and the neighborhood I was raised in. After more than thirty years, I wanted to know what kept my parents in Paterson. Was it lack of opportunity or pride of place? Or perhaps, the way familiarity offers both embrace and a choke hold. What keeps us in any one place for any period of time? The physical space, the things we hold dear, community? And within these communities, the blocks we grew up on, how that shapes and binds us. Through my parents and their environment I look at the things that created our immigrant experience. Through photographs I want to give them what they couldn’t achieve like so many other immigrant generations before them. Yet they endure. My work is about them as much as it is for them. I honor them and their lives.

Dad After a Nap (Summer), Paterson, NJ

 Is there a particular narrative behind your pictures?

I think this goes back to the three nouns – allegory, identity & dignity and going from nouns to adjectives and how it applies to the narrative. How the work explores the personal interior spaces of working people, the textures of a working life and the banal indicators of domesticity, the drama of the mundane!

What’s the hardest part in your creative process?

Finding time between the paying jobs to work on the personal work. Money to finance them, which I think is a recurring theme for many photographers.

What do you think makes for a great picture?

Patience & empathy, I take the time to get to know the people who are in my pictures and listen to them. At times it’s over the course of a couple of years and we end up becoming friends (some of my subjects have come to call me family) at other times all I have is five minutes to work with someone and you learn to make the most of it.

Leslie (Spring), Chicago, IL

What was your favourite shoot to do over the last year?

That’s tough to say, I’m always thinking the last one & the next one are my favourite. But my top five would have to be (in no particular order) of friends and family: “Miriam Shaer, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, “Michelle Citron, Dodgeville, Wisconsin” “Alex & Her Daughter, New Windsor, NY”, “Paula & Natalia, Kenilworth, NJ & the week I spent back in April in Wilson, NC.

Pepe, Chicago, IL

What camera are you using at the moment?

I use two film cameras a Mamiya 7 (6x7 format) and a Toyo 45A field camera (4x5 format).

What’s your favourite kind of camera?

My Toyo 45A 4x5 field camera!

 Tank, Dalton, IL

Tank, Dalton, IL

To find out more about Juan Giraldo, check out his website and Ocotur

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