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A clear end goal is a must for an artist, Benitez says. "Every photographer has to figure out where they want their work to end up. Is it a museum, a gallery? Is it the auction block? There's people that aim at getting published in a popular magazine. I know one guy who says he'd be happy to see his work on a bathroom wall. He's being facetious, of course. But whatever you want to do, if you don't have a goal in sight, how are you going to figure out how to get there?"
These days Benitez balances artist, educator and activist duties and hopes to become a voice to further discussion about photography as the field moves toward becoming an almost completely digital art form.
"My next big project is focusing on the cycling community of Houston. I'm a big cyclist now. With cycling, I see a social and cultural community that in some ways is underground. An important thing that has come up recently is the rights of cyclists, the protection of cyclists. If you as a cyclist are hit by a car, you're not protected at all. The driver will not get cited at all.
"It might seem to be a detour from other things I've worked on in the past, but cycling is really important to me, and I have to follow the advice that I give my kids: 'Your voice is going to be loudest when you speak about the things that you're most passionate about.' And I'm passionate about cycling. I'm still looking for social change and still taking the view that photography can change things. There's no law that would protect cyclists; that has to change."
With his cycling project, ongoing exhibitions, teaching and board work, Benitez is increasingly busy these days.
"In five years, I'll still be making photography, but one switch that I'm making and that [viewers are] feeling is that I really want to try to be more of a voice for what is happening in photography. I want to get people on board with what's happening now, with the technology.
"Of course, everyone who still shoots film is going to hate that, but photography has always been connected to technology. It has from the very beginning. We had to work with chemicals and paper at one point; now we work with digital technology. It's just about working with what you've got.
"If someone asked me, 'What would you rather be famous for? For your photography? Or for creating a better dialogue about photography?' It's an easy choice. I would really rather help people wrap their heads around what's going on with photography at that moment, no matter what that technology is."
jhon r. stronks
Choreographer/dancer jhon r. stronks knows that his work — which embraces radical black feminism and celebrates queerness — isn't for a mass audience. "I am not for everyone, and I don't want to be for everyone," he laughs. "I'm not trying to fit in; I'm not trying to be included. One of the things that I've been accused of is that I try to make people uncomfortable. I don't. But I also don't try to make people comfortable. I don't think, 'How can I make this easy to understand? How can I make sure this is nonthreatening?' I'm making art about what I'm going through, and sometimes that's not easy to understand."
A gay white male, stronks, who grew up in an African-American neighborhood where he had mostly female friends, is also often criticized for work that seems to come from a black female perspective.
"I don't get into that conversation," he says. "I'm interested in interaction. I'm interested in dialogue. I'm interested in community. I'm not interested in trying to explain myself. Who I grew up with, who loved me and who accepted me, all of that informs my work. I had the friends I had because of where I lived geographically.
"I ended up interacting with a series of women who were very clear with me about the difference between expression and exploitation. I put myself out there and say, 'This is who I am, this is where I'm from, this is who loved me. This is who taught me how to do this. This is who taught me how to do that.' There's no need to defend that."
Those childhood experiences translate both directly and indirectly to his work onstage. In June 2012, stronks and his former student Jasmine Hearn presented B.L.K. Gurls ~n~ W.H.T. Boiz: Singin' 'bout Gawd!, an evening-length program made up of solo and duet performances addressing spirituality and reconciliation.
Stronks's training includes earning an undergraduate degree in dance at California State University, Long Beach. (He started off as a music major but left that program after going through the vocal jury process. "It was excruciating. I went down the hall, walked in the dance department and asked, 'How do I become a dance major?'")
Over his career he has worked with Sue Sampson-Dalena, Winifred R. Harris and Keith Johnson. After a stint teaching at Spelman College and spending some time going back and forth between Texas and California, stronks eventually settled in Houston. Here he's worked with CORE Performance Company, Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and his own "there...in the sunlight" umbrella, and most recently he was hired on as facilities manager for The Barn.