Given the massively upsetting and institutionalized racism, sexism, and the whole lot of other -isms that have been perpetuated by the repulsive policies and rhetoric of our current presidential cabinet, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented uprising of social protest and activism. While some people choose to march in the streets with signs alongside other pissed off people, photographer and artist Thalia Gochez prefers to use her photography as a form of activism.
Gochez, who grew up in Los Angeles with Salvadorian immigrant parents, never felt represented or valued in society—it was always either her body type wasn’t good enough, her eyebrows weren’t good enough, her skin color wasn’t good enough, or her culture wasn’t good enough. Institutional misrepresentation of her community has been a persistent theme throughout her life—as a teenager, she found there was a notable lack of diversity in her high school curriculum, and as an adult in the art world, she realizes the underrepresentation of womxn that look like her. Over the last year, Gochez has worked to create a platform for womxn of color to represent themselves the way they want to be represented. Her photographs—beautiful and genuine portraits of womxn taken in the communities that match their identity and undeniable brown essence—deconstruct and reframe marginalized histories, offering platforms of conversation and agency of self-representation.
While Gochez only started taking photos regularly a couple years ago, after picking up her father’s old camera, her practice, which includes getting to know her subjects on a truly personal level, styling the shoot, and then creating the image, speaks to her deep understanding of the potential of photography to address identity and community. She highlights the different ways of telling stories visually, drawing out womxn’s experiences in a narrative way. Her photos talk about a culture and history that has been silenced for a long time, and in light of rapid gentrification, is now in danger of being erased.
For Gochez, photography is not only a way to activate community, but ultimately is a practice of resiliency, and a matter of working and negotiating visual representation within a system of oppression. I spoke with Thalia about how she sees her work as community building, the pursuit of identity, and ultimately the preservation of culture.
Tell me about your upbringing.
I come from love. I was raised by a magical Salvadorian papa and extraordinary Mexican mama who did their best with what resources they had. I am so deeply moved by the strength and courage that has come before me that has paved the way. Although my parents had to assimilate to whiteness which conditioned me to think, feel, look, and act a certain way, my culture was always represented within my household. Some of my most cherished memories are my mama moving so passionately in the kitchen blasting her cumbias. I still feel the burning in my chest from the chiles on the comal. My dad died when I was 15, but I still talk to him every day. Losing a parent so young was an extremely traumatic experience that I am still healing from every day. He was the best dad that wanted the best for his family, a true legend. When I was 12 years old, he decided to move the family to La Canada Flintridge, a predominantly white upper-class neighborhood, with blue ribbon schools. I could name all the brown girls with my hand. It was an interesting transition for the whole family.
What was that transition like?
My experience wasn’t represented. There was very little space for my brown narrative. I had to assimilate to whiteness quickly for survival. Although I only lived there for a few years, I am constantly having to decolonize my mind and how I feel and view my body. However, I will say my transition was a lot easier than my other three siblings. Since I am light-skinned and somewhat of an outgoing person, plus made the transition at a younger age, I was able to find a group of freaks that I vibed with. But I always felt like an outsider. I knew I was cut from a different fabric; like a visitor; I never felt fully connected. However, I am grateful to have found and still be nurtured by a few meaningful friendships that hold and held me throughout those grieving dark confusing transitional years. I found sanctuary with the stoner troublemakers, they were sad about something, just like me. I don’t know dude, I’ve always been someone that is extremely independent, and warrior-like, so once I hit 18, I got the fuck out of there. I moved to San Francisco. I’ve always felt like my brownness wasn’t fully understood. It’s something I constantly highlight and provide space for even in my life now. It’s a very big part of my art and how I view the world. It’s my lived experience.
It’s refreshing to hear how much you take pride in your culture.
It’s just what I know. It’s not something that I’ve learned. It’s inside me. It’s in my veins. it’s what I grew up around and it just naturally flows through me. However, I live in a world where that narrative tries to be silenced beyond my living room. I choose to live in my truth now, I can’t deny my roots, they can’t be silenced anymore. I am brown and down.
How were you initially introduced to photography?
I’ve always been a creative person but didn’t have the resources growing up to really explore that. As I got older, I realized how I would deal with an extreme tragedy like losing my dad, or going through intense fucked up break-ups, or losing close friends was through creativity as an outlet. Whether it was making clothes or Jewelry or picking up the camera, I’ve always said it’s like cheap therapy. As far as photography goes, my dad had a Pentax. We were cleaning out the garage one day and found it. Finding my dad’s belongings is always an intensely moving experience for me, like finding gold. I had no idea how to use it or load the film but wanted to keep it with me and hold it close because it was my father’s. I’m so inspired by old photographs of my mom. I have like a billion and always post them on my Instagram. My dad took a lot of the photographs. I made this realization the other dad but he essentially was a photographer. I never thought about the person behind the photo. I feel like the reason I do this now is to connect more with him.
You started the same way he did. You just picked up a camera and started taking photos of those close to you.
Yeah, exactly. And the photos ended up turning out ok.
Something I really admire about your work is that you use Latinx people and womxn of color as the models for your photographs. I feel like representation is so important to you.
Yeah, visual representation is essentially my whole mission. But more importantly for girls that look like me because I’ve never felt represented or valued in society. It’s important for me to stop looking outside for validation and create that cultural pride within my community. That’s something I never want to lose. It’s so real to me. Every time I do a photo shoot – it’s very intentional. It’s not a situation where they pay me and I’m just taking their portrait. I actually have incredibly moving conversations with these people, and we sit down and talk and we heal. We don’t even intend it to be that way, but it’s just the way I hold space I guess people feel comfortable enough to express things to me. It’s a really beautiful thing. Every time I finish a shoot, I feel really drained, but in the most beautiful way because I feel like I just released something that was inside me and received something magical in return. A sacred exchange.
When you can create a connection between you and the person you’re shooting, much deeper than just some surface level relationship, that’s a really special and rare thing.
At this point, it’s vital for me and it’s vital for us. There needs to be that sense of community and connection because of everything that’s going on right now. There needs to be this sense of unity and wholeness within us. If we don’t have this, a lot of people will just run themselves into traffic; it will kill us. I’ve always said that my art is a form of activism. It’s really cool that some people go out and protest, that’s great, I just choose to do something different, and this what I choose to do. I’m constantly reminding myself of this, especially when those internal demons creep up and are like, “Oh you’re not good enough,” or “What are you trying to do?” That learned societal toxic type of shit that creeps up on you. But I have to remind myself that this isn’t about me. It’s about building community within my culture, this is about sisterhood, this is about visual representation for brown and black womxn and men, and identifying womxn and identifying men. This is so much more than just getting a paycheck.
I want to talk about community more because it’s such a big through line that can be traced in your work. What does community mean to you and how do you see your work as community building?
A lot of my locations are the streets. I know that I’m a transplant of the Bay Area and I honor that, but I’ve been able to make insanely beautiful connections with womxn that are born and raised in San Francisco and Oakland. They welcome me and I’m able to build with them. How I relate to these womxn of color is that we’ve all been taught what we have isn’t good enough, our culture isn’t good enough, our hair isn’t good enough, our English isn’t good enough, the curve of our bodies isn’t good enough, etc. All of these things we’re constantly having to deflect; all these voices that aren’t ours. This is why I choose to shoot womxn of color in their communities and in their neighborhoods; it’s to mirror back the beauty within them so they can see what they have is beautiful and desirable, and it’s actually what White America wants, and what they want to see in magazine, but on a White womxn.
Yeah, it’s unbelievable how seeing yourself through someone else’s lens can bring out things in yourself that you either weren’t aware of or didn’t think were beautiful.
I think that’s the power of community. This year has been very transformative for me; creatively and just as a womxn. The more I get to know myself the better my art gets; it’s such a cool thing. The parallel is just so clear. I owe a lot of my growth to mi gente. We need community to see ourselves sometimes. There are times when we’re in our bodies and in our minds and there are voices that aren’t us. I label it like this — “that’s whiteness talking stfu” or “that’s some machismo shit girl pipe down.” Sometimes we attach to these voices and identify with them but fuck that. That’s why so many people especially womxn of color are battling a lot of insecurities and gunk. I really try to hold space to unlearn this stuff. That’s the beauty of community, that sometimes you just need something outside of yourself to help you sort of pull you out of the storm. That’s the legacy I want my work to leave behind.
I want to go back really quickly to when we were talking about how women of color have always been told that they’re not enough, yet ultimately the characteristics of women of color are what White America wants, but just seen on a White woman. And I feel like recently in mainstream fashion, you really see Latin culture, iconography, and fashion becoming trendy for people that aren’t a part of that community. What’s your take on that?
Honestly, I try so hard to…dang, you just saying that question just gave me chills. I had a bodily response to that shit because it cuts so deep. It’s just not fair and not cool. At this point, I feel like people of color shouldn’t have to explain to white folks why that isn’t cool. We shouldn’t be doing all this labor. We shouldn’t have to tell you why you shouldn’t wear a Virgen de Guadalupe jacket for your little fashion blog. You look stupid. Anybody that knows what’s up knows how ridiculous that is. To be honest with you, this has been going on for centuries, this isn’t anything new; we’re just seeing it in a different way. To me, how I try and explain it to someone that doesn’t understand is like this, until black and brown womxn aren’t stereotyped in a certain way or criminalized, demonized, marginalized you can’t wear cornrows, white girl! Until they reach equality and those braids don’t equate to those stereotypes and connotations, you can’t fuckin’ do it. Like damn give us something, y’all have the whole world on your side. I literally was raised by society to think that looking like Becky was the only ideal of beauty.
When it comes to my culture, what I do now, because before I would get in fights, I’m now realizing that it’s just more fuel to create art by me for me and mi gente my brown folks. However, It is frustrating and I know I’m going to reach moments where I’m going to be taken advantage of or exploited because I’m a woman of color and because I’m in a white, male-dominated field, but that just makes me take it back down to the core of why I do what I do. It’s for me and it’s for us.
Having lived in the Bay Area for some time now, you’ve seen massive change in neighborhoods that you shoot your photos in—the Mission, Oakland, etc. Tell me about the change you’ve seen and what that means for your community.
First I want to say that I don’t claim the Mission, I don’t claim any hood over here, I don’t claim that I know that pain. I’m very much a transplant and a visitor; I’ve just found sanctuary in these areas, especially being a woman of color—specifically Mexican-Salvadorian. I found sanctuary in these barrios, in those hoods, and they were always places that were comforting to me. I would go down to the mercado and I felt like I would be talking to my mom or dad at the corner store or at the taqueria. Having said that what I think is going down is absolutely disgusting. They’re building a neighborhood completely catered to one demographic and it’s so painfully visible that I don’t know how folks, especially white folks, sleep at night. I don’t know how they can just walk around, drinking their six-dollar coffee, knowing there is a woman who holds three different jobs, who migrated from Mexico, and now who’s apartment got mysteriously burned down. Do you know how many stories I’ve heard about buildings just being mysteriously burned down by some random fire? There’s no real evidence of who or what started it. I’m telling you right now, they want to kill us off. This isn’t some conspiracy theory, this is real and this is dangerous. It’s a really serious thing. It’s dangerous. I see it as a cultural smudging; they’re trying to smudge out this community of people because a lot of the businesses that are there are completely catered to specifically white male bachelors. Oddly there are a lot of weird lifestyle stores that are beckoning you in to buy this $60 ceramic mug from Thailand. It’s so weird to me because there are all these stores that are selling culturally-specific items, but for an outrageous price and then calling it new.
The main thing that I want to say is that I have seen the ramifications of gentrification with real people, people I call dear friends. There is an extreme amount of emotional stress on these young kids- that’s why I have such a strong emotional response. I mean I can name five people off the top of my head right now that are struggling with the sense of identity and home. That’s a lot of change for someone to adjust so quickly to. I’m not reading about these people’s stories in my inbox via a news article; I’m experiencing it with them. It’s important to put money back into the community, back into the mission. Galeria de La Raza, Precita Eyes, Accion Latina, Mission Skate, and Mission Girls are just a few really important non-profits that are doing amazing work right now!
When you’re shooting portraits of these women in their element, how do you bring out their personality? What do you think makes that perfect portrait?
It’s important that they feel comfortable not only in their body but in their environment. I like to shoot my subjects amongst communities that match their identity. What makes the perfect portrait is the genuine intention to mirror the beauty that is already within them. We are enough. We are beautiful. Our essence can never be duplicated. This is the energy that we are vibing on and it happens to be captured on film.
For more from Thalia Gochez follow her on Instagram: @thaliagochez.