We first met photographer Chuy Benitez some five years ago when he was participating in a "Race & Class" group show at Project Row Houses with an exhibit of his mural-like panoramic images. After graduating with a degree in photography from Notre Dame in 2005, he came to study digital media at the University of Houston's MFA program, graduating there in 2008. We kept up with his career over the years, and named him Best Photographer in the Houston Press Best of awards in 2011.
Initially Benitez called himself a Chicano documentary photographer and most of his subject matter was centered on Latino culture, as with his "Race & Class" exhibit. As he's grown over the years, exhibiting around the country and participating in shows and organizations that have little to do with ethnicity, he's more recently began calling himself an American photographer. "I'm holding on to that a lot more. I'm showing more of America. My work went from being about a certain group of people to being about people in general," he tells us.
He also calls himself a people-watcher photographer. "If you're the kind of person who likes to sit back and watch people in crowds, you'll like my work. It gives you that opportunity to do that."
What he does: Ask Benitez for a job description and you'll get a long, convoluted list of titles and duties. He's a photographer. He's a teacher. He's an arts advocate. "I teach photography at St. John's [high school]. I am also on the board of directors for the Houston Center for Photography. I'm the publications chair there. I'm also the multicultural caucus chair for the Society for Photographic Education, which is a national organization of photography teachers mostly at the university level."
Those are his official duties. He also has a few unofficial jobs. "I'm trying to become more of a liaison for the Houston photography community, telling photographers from other parts of the country about FotoFest and the Houston Center for Photography, encouraging them to come here to exhibit."
Why he likes it: "I can go back to my childhood and remember seeing things. I remember more so what things looked like, than what was said about them. I can't even remember talking until I was in middle school; I can't remember anything I said but I can definitely remember lots of things I saw."
Benitez says he enjoys challenging himself and the art form. "I've been pushing the panoramic form for ten years now and I'm still having fun with it. It hasn't gotten to the place where I'm repeating myself or don't feel like I have something new to say."
What inspires him: "Photography requires an experience. You can completely manufacture that experience or you can go find it. I always joke that photographers have to have an interesting life. You can't just sit around in your studio. I don't have a studio; I don't need one. I'm out, experiencing the world, that's inspiring."
If not this, then what: "It's a short list of things I coulda/woulda been doing besides being a photographer. I teach getting addicted to taking pictures. I'm pretty addicted; it's pretty ingrained in me. If I did something else, it would probably have something to do with music. My dad is a musician and I got a real love of music from him. So maybe I'd work in music production."
If not here, then where: "Choosing Houston as the place to develop my photographic career was a good choice, not only in terms of content, but also on an organizational level. There's a good mix of artists and organizations here. I can certainly say that Houston is one of the most welcoming communities for an artist in the country. But if I wasn't here, I would be in New York. That's the logical next step. New York has one of the longest histories of photography and has really accepted it as a form of communication, of discussion."
What's next: Benitez is exhibiting both locally and nationally. He's participating in the "Flying Solo" exhibit currently at Art League Houston where he has three images from an impromptu shoot during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York on display.
He's working on a project that revisits the panoramic history of Houston. "I'm looking at panoramic photography of Houston going back to the 1920s, almost 100 years. The aim is to go back and re-photograph the same spots as these images from the '20s and '50s and '80s. I want to show how these areas look now but I also want to pay homage to those past panoramic photographers and put myself in that lineage somewhere, if I can."
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He's also developing an idea for a book of his work. "I've been able to contribute to several different books but I would really like to put a lot of my work together, of everything I've done so far."
And he's got plans for projects after that. "Somewhere ten years down the road, I want to photograph some of the biggest gatherings of people in the world. Time Square on New Year's, the Super Bowl, going to Mecca for pilgrimage or Easter Sunday at the Vatican. Or even 100,000 people at a rave. How do you do that? How do you capture that size and mass in an image? I've seen some people do it, but I wonder if I could do better."
More Creatives for 2012 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page).
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