I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Ramon Nuez from Latinos Behind the Lens. It was amazing reminder of why I do my work. I wish this site was around ‘back in the day.’
Photographer Groana Melendez Discusses “Ni Aquí Ni Allá” & Her Education
It was wonderful interviewing Groana. I am Dominican. So it makes me proud to see a fellow-Dominican artist like Groana, excel.
What I am most interested in these days is formal photography education. And whether an aspiring photographer should or should not pursue a Bachelors of Fine Arts or a Masters of Fine Arts. And I am happy that Groana spent some time discussing her academic decisions.
LBTL: Over the past few years you have been working on a series — titled “Ni Aquí Ni Allá” (Neither Here, Nor There). As I flipped through the images. I not only felt connected to the images but I felt connected the individuals.
Why is this series so important you?
GM: As a kid growing up in NYC watching American television, my biggest concern was fitting in. I went through a phase where I subconsciously denied my otherness – my Dominicaness. I remember thinking that I’d be okay if I never returned to the island again. After my grandmother (who resided in the Dominican Republic) passed away, I felt a sense of guilt for not spending more time with her, and for not getting to know her or our history.
I realized I didn’t know much of who I was or where I came from.
I decided to begin a cataloguing of my family members and creating a family tree of sorts. Photography became the mediator in reconnecting with my family. This series has helped me document my family history despite family secrets, and it has helped me discover who I am.
GM: Moving between both cultures has made me a participant and observer. I am Dominican and American, an insider and an outsider. I have taken the benefits of a Western canon of photography and my privilege as an insider to allow me access into my subjects’ world.
The fact that the images were taken during moments of “leisure” where the subjects feel at ease, where we connected with each other and no one appears destitute is the insider in me… the style and detached manner I took them in is as an outsider.
Photographing as an American in the Dominican Republic has given me the ability to just be seen as “a silly American”. “Why is she photographing you in your bata [pajamas]“? “O, yo ni se. E’ Americana, a ellos les gusta eso” (She’s American, they like that kind of stuff). As a Dominican, I’m able to show our lives from our point of view.
LBTL: You graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Photography from Syracuse University. Do you think that part of being a successful photographer is having a solid educational background in photography?
GM: I wouldn’t say an education in photography specifically is the key to being a successful photographer, but with so many photographers out there, having a solid educational background in photography can only improve and solidify one’s techniques, vision, and skills.
You have to know the history and know how to talk about your work. We all have this dream of being ‘discovered’, but when you’re passionate about what you’re doing, having a solid educational background can only help you on this journey.
LBTL: Latina photographers are a minority within the industry. And Elizabeth Ferrer explains,“Study the history. Know who came before you, what they achieved, and how the history of photography has developed.”
What can you offer as advice to those aspiring Latina photographers?
GM: I couldn’t say it more eloquently than, Elizabeth Ferrer did. Something I constantly have to remind myself of, and which a talk byDon Gregorio Antón reminded me of, is to make work for yourself and not for others. You have to love it and be passionate about it and not consume yourself with other people’s tastes.
Also, go to openings and meet new people. This is a huge challenge for me, since I think of myself as very shy, but the best moments of my career have been through openings I’ve attended and the friends I’ve made through them. Surrounding myself with a community of artists keeps inspiration constantly flowing.
Also, at the moment we’re definitely the minority, so don’t keep your work to yourself. Show your work to anyone who has even a remote interest in art. But don’t forget where your critic is coming from… I’ve flat out had people tell me they don’t care and why should they care about my work.
Maybe that person was just having a bad day, maybe they really didn’t care, but in the end I used that feedback to start a conversation about my work.
LBTL: You have been teaching since 2005. As an instructor what are the 3 most valuable pieces of information you want your students to walk away with?
GM: Your story is important. Not everyone will vibe with your work, but don’t let that stop you. Use criticism to inspire you and not dissuade you.
Don’t give up. Doing this kind of work is a labor of love and it can be a rollercoaster ride (there can be lots of downs) but in the end the payoffs of following what you’re passionate about far out weigh the struggle.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Try to shoot every week, daily if you can. Give yourself little assignments, and don’t take these too seriously. As cliché as this sounds, practice does make perfect. One of the biggest mistakes I made in the past was not shooting because I didn’t have the ‘perfect idea’.
This led to me feeling paralyzed, and when I finally did shoot I was so hard on myself, and so ridden with anxiety that I didn’t get anything accomplished. Now I shoot weekly, and I’ve found myself to have a lot more confidence in my craft.
Call To Action
So should you pursue photography higher education. From the interviews I have done the answer is YES. But it’s not necessary.
But I say go and get your BFA or MFA or even a certificate. I think that the main rationale to pursuing formal education has little to do with the “piece of paper.” But more to do with the work, networking and surrounding yourself with like minded people.