It's been a very good year for photographer Chuy Benitez. He used part of his MasterMind Award cash prize to cover the cost of preparing and shipping photographs from his Cultura series to New York for the Bronx Documentary Center's "Miradas: Contemporary Mexican Photographers" exhibit. His work in that show, panoramic looks at life for Mexicans in the United States, earned him glowing reviews on The New York Times and The New Yorker Web sites.
"For the New York Times to see the documentary aspects of my work - because really, most people get stuck in the digital aspect, at the how I'm doing it rather than what I'm doing - to be recognized for that, that was a great moment," he says.
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Benitez was the only American in the show. "For me, having my work grouped in with documentary Mexican photographers was a really big honor. When I was making Houston Cultura I was reporting on the expanding Mexican identity in the United States from the frontlines. At the time I didn't think about Mexicans seeing that work so for Mexicans to be able to look at those images and say, 'Oh, this is how our relatives are living in another country. This is how it's different; this is how it's the same,' was a real eureka moment for me."
An El Paso native, Benitez calls himself a true borderlander ."I grew up literally walking a line. El Paso and Juarez are essentially the same city, there's just a line running through it. Not until I moved away from El Paso, did I realize how not American I am. I grew up in Mexican culture, I had a Mexican upbringing. So when I started to do the Cultura series, a lot of that was possible because I was so familiar with what Mexican identity was about. I knew it. I lived it. That's been a big step for me, that I was able to translate that experience into images." Those images he hopes, are accessible to people on both sides of the border.
Plans are in the works for Benitez's photographs to be published in four upcoming books, including two of his own (one celebrates his tenth year as a photographer). One of the projects features an illustrious list of artists. "All of the other photographers in [that book] quite literally are the photographers that I studied and looked at in grad school. To be grouped with them is such an honor." And a challenge, he notes.
"I've been trying to figure out what's next for [photography and for me.] How do I take what's already been done and take it forward. More than getting into a gallery or selling a lot of prints, it's been important to me to tell the story of photography, to end up becoming part of the story of photography. In a big way or a small way, I want to move the conversation forward."
That may include curating. "[If anybody's] looking for a curator for [a borderlands show]. I'm right here," he jokes. "Hey, if you need any help with that, here I am."
Our previous MasterMind winners:
MasterMind Award winners 2009 Patrick Medrano and Katy Anderson Hightower High School's Broadcast Academy Nova Arts Project
MasterMind Award winners 2010 Reginald Adams and the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston Opera Vista SoReal Cru
MasterMind Award winners 2011 Foodways Texas Catastrophic Theatre Nameless Sound
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MasterMind Award winners 2012 The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum Alex "Pr!mo" Luster The Pilot Light Restaurant Group
MasterMind Award winners 2013 Opera in the Heights Karen Stokes Dance Stark Naked Theatre
MasterMind Award winner 2014 Chuy Benitez jhon r. stronks Apollo Chamber Players