By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
When photographer Chuy Benitez first came to Houston some nine years ago, he was focusing on capturing panoramic documentary images of the Hispanic community. He's still working in the panoramic documentary format, but his focus on Latino culture has changed. "In the last five years, I stopped calling myself a Chicano photographer and started saying I'm an American photographer. I've gotten away from looking at just life in the Hispanic community and started looking at what life is in the Houston community."
Why the shift? For one thing, Benitez began participating in national exhibits and groups that had little or nothing to do with ethnicity. Seeing work by other photographers, talking to organizers and fans across the country, he realized he didn't want to make his work about just one group of people to the exclusion of everyone else.
"I have to give a lot of credit to an organization out of New York, En Foco," Benitez says. "That organization gives multicultural photographers a platform, a network. It's helped me to see that, yeah, I might be the only minority in a room or in a community, but I have to get beyond that. You have to be able to say that your work is important on a flat-out whole community level. You have to think about making work that appeals to everybody and that isn't going to be exclusive. En Foco taught me how to make work that can reach everybody. The strongest work is work that anybody from any culture can relate to."
Benitez says the change hasn't been easy. "That was kind of scary, moving away from the 'Chicano photographer' label. In hindsight, I can look at other photographers and see that they've changed directions many times, but it was seriously scary for me to acknowledge that maybe I was doing something else. I was afraid to go out a limb and say, 'I'm changing; I'm different now than I used to be.' "
Originally from El Paso, Benitez grew up in a large family that had a photography business specializing in weddings and quinceañeras. ("I still shoot a couple of weddings a year for friends," he laughs.) He started college at Notre Dame as an engineering major, but that was short-lived. He took a photography class, found a photography teacher who also happened to be from El Paso, and his days as an engineering major were over. At the time, digital photography was just becoming the norm. Since he had lots of experience working with digital images in his family's business, he was ahead of the curve. After graduating from Notre Dame, he came to the University of Houston to study for a master's degree in digital media.
After completing his master's in 2008, Benitez began working on his own projects independently and took a job teaching photography at St. John's School. He became an HCP board member and joined the Society for Photographic Education, becoming a board member there as well. (SPE membership is made up almost exclusively of college teachers; Benitez is one of the few high school teachers to participate.)
Benitez continues to work in a panoramic, documentary style. "I try to capture the scene in one image. That's one reason for the long format. Instead of five or six images to show an event, I want to summarize it. Yeah, I can show different moments in different shots, but I want to be able to capture every scene in one image. That's the challenge.
"The longer image hopefully helps you understand the scene a little better. In life, we're not just looking at one thing. We see lots of things all at the same time. You might focus on one part of the scene in front of you, but it's still all there. That's how I understand things; I'm really trying to understand a scene as a whole."
Two things are crucial for an artist, Benitez says: a supportive community and a clear end goal. He joined HCP soon after arriving in town and found a community of supportive, talented photographers. "The worst thing you can do is try to do it all by yourself," he says. "You need a community. I've only been successful because I've had a community around me."
According to him, the type of community you surround yourself with is also important. "It's crucial to have input from people who know more than you, people who are more experienced." The ability to use the Internet to further one's knowledge and practical skills, to network and sell work, has had a tremendous impact on photography, he tells us. Tremendous good and tremendous bad. Translation: Just because your 500 Facebook friends tell you that your work is great doesn't mean that it is.
"It takes a lot of encouragement to be any kind of artist. The educator in me says it's okay to get that sort of encouragement [from Facebook friends] because it takes a lot of motivation to keep going. At the same time, there's real value in getting honest feedback from experienced professionals, from people that know more than you do. For me, a lot of the Facebook support I get is more about 'Hey, you're working; that's great' than it is just 'Hey, your work is great.' That's encouraging to me; that's supportive."