Erika Morillo is a NYC based photographer whose series Umbral was awarded 5th place in the 2018 V2 Awards.
In the following interview Erika shares advice about conceptualizing projects, publishing work and being guided by your personal interests and questions about life.
Molly Menschel: Can you tell us about your series, Umbral, that won a Documentary Family Award?
Erika Morillo: This series, Umbral, emerged from the need to process my experience as a single mother. I began photographing my son at home, as a way to document our lives and to become more present in this new reality I was facing. I photographed him obsessively and started to pay attention to the interplay of light and shadows in the images, and how they felt representative of my feelings about motherhood.
I noticed that I gravitated towards mirrors and self-portraits in this work and also that in many of these images my son appeared with his eyes closed as if suspended. These observations helped me to understand what I wanted to say with this project. Umbral talks about the beauty and terror of parenting and my son’s childhood mirroring mine.
Some of the themes represented in your work are family, inner-city life and identity. How did these specific themes become the focus of your photography? How does a person go about finding themes to explore within their own personal work?
In my experience, photography comes from a need to metabolize a certain feeling, to find a visual representation of an emotion. I gravitated towards making work about family because there was so much of my family history I had to come to terms with or at least understand. Making work about it gave me some agency over my own history. The challenging part of identifying these themes or creating images related to your personal history is finding what your angle is in subjects so broad like family or identity. My biggest challenge has been to understand that just because something is emotionally relevant and meaningful to me does not make it meaningful by default to the viewer. I’ve found it particularly helpful to share my work with other artists whose criteria I trust, and have in-depth conversations about what it is doing for the viewer.
Your work has been shared in an impressive amount of publications. How did you first get your photography out into the world? What advice can you give to photographers who have a body of work they would like to share but don’t know where to begin?
I felt that I turned a corner in my work when I started to take photography classes at the International Center of Photography (ICP). In these classes, I learned to look at the work as a whole rather than individual images. Through in-depth critiques, I identified what was working and what other elements I had to part with. At first, this was very discouraging because I didn’t know what I wanted to express about my motherhood. I kept taking classes, looking at other work and spending time with photobooks. This helped me broaden my vision of what was possible and how to put together a project. Once I had a set of images I felt content with, I started to write about the work and my intentions behind it. 20 images and one solid paragraph was my aim. I spent a good part of 2017 submitting Umbral to as many open calls and opportunities I could find. I got a lot of rejections, but some doors opened which encouraged me to keep going and refining the project.
My main advice would be to be patient with the work and keep experimenting with your image-making until it feels right. Get yourself in spaces where you can be exposed to the critique and feedback of other artists. I also found it helpful to start a database of artists’ grants and opportunities available, and every time I applied to one was an invitation to understand my project a bit better.
The series you submitted to the DFA’s is also a book. How long did you work on this project and how did you know when you were ready to publish it in book form? Is Umbral a project that you still continue to work on even after it’s published? How do you know when a project is complete?
This body of work took place in a span of 10 years. I stopped making images for it when my son became reluctant to being photographed as he grew older. This helped me understand that this work is about childhood rather than an ongoing documentation of my motherhood. I had self-published a photobook the previous year and really liked the experience of looking at the work in book form. I had also started working at the ICP Library and fell in love with what was possible in photobooks. I worked on the book for two years until every element felt right. I intended to find the right balance between the content and form. I ended up making the book small and encased in an envelope, to convey the feeling of intimacy of reading a letter. The photobook includes 13 images and a poem I wrote to my son. Umbral is my letter to him.
In terms of publishing and completing a project, I like to remain open to revisit my work even after it’s been published. There can be many iterations of a single body of work. When continuing or revisiting a project, the interesting question is: why I’m I still compelled to work on it?
The photos in your Umbral series are poignant and memorable, raising questions within the viewer. Although the photos stand alone without explanation, there is intention and meaning behind them as you explore topics that are personal to you. Can photographs shot without intention carry the same kind of visual strength? Does having an artist’s statement make you a stronger shooter?
The images I enjoy making always have a disorienting element to them, a playfulness that makes you look twice. But these photographs are hard to make and few and far between. I think an image is stronger when it can be open to interpretation, but this is a very personal stance. I find that even in straight-up documentary work, an image can become stronger by paying attention to light and gesture. A subject sitting in shadows versus under harsh light can imbue an image with a completely different meaning. I feel the artist’s statement is a powerful tool that can help convey your intentions, but just like the images, it can be more compelling when it raises questions in the viewer. Also, writing about your work can make your practice and image-making more intentional.
You make beautiful, intimate photos of your son and also photos of strangers that feel intimate as well. Does your draw to photograph the people close to you and people you don’t know come from the same place within you? Do you approach both kinds of subjects in the same way?
I am the most comfortable when I photograph people, strangers or not. I think my desire to photograph people comes from a need to connect with others.
As a child, I spent a lot of time by myself. My brothers were much older than me and my mom was a single mother who spent a lot of her time working. I always yearned for closeness with others, to be let into someone’s personal space. I think that made me a bit of a voyeur; I am curious about people and enjoy trying to find intimate moments that happen in a public space. My approach is the same both at home and when photographing strangers, I like to get really close and find a gesture and light that moves me.
With your Coney Island project, can you talk about your experience of photographing strangers? What is your approach to this kind of photography? What advice can you give to documentary family photographers who are interested in street photography but have not photographed outside their own family or commercial clients?
Photographing Coney Island for me is an act of pure pleasure and being in the moment. I put my headphones on and spend several hours walking the shore from Coney Island to Brighton Beach and back. I rarely speak to the people I photograph but like to get really close. I take the photo quickly and keep walking; I try not to disrupt the moment and most of the time they don’t notice that I am photographing them.
Coney Island is a great place to take portraits, but since it’s usually so crowded, I also really enjoy playing with different interactions or scenes happening in one single frame. What I like about making this work is that it connects me to a sense of joy and the reason why I photograph in the first place, which is to enter someone else’s world. My advice to those interested in street photography is to only photograph what they find interesting or drawn to. Sergio Larraín said it best in his letter to his nephew Sebastian Donoso, an aspiring photographer: Go for a walk, and never force yourself to take photos, as the poetry will be lost and the life it contains will be frozen. It’s like forcing love or friendship, it’s impossible.
You explore the same themes with photography, writing and performance. Which of these came first for you? How are they connected, or do they exist separately as different forms of expression?
I started with writing and later on began to take photographs. Image and text are always in dialog in my work; most of my projects are laced with some form of writing. During an artist residency, I collaborated with an artist who exposed me to performance. In the performance, we were addressing the same subjects as in my other work –family and memory– but channeling them through the body. It felt very cathartic and less cerebral; a translation of image into movement. Sometimes I struggle with understanding what kind of photographer I am, or how other disciplines like writing inform my photography. But I want to remain open to other forms of expression and resist the urge to label myself or my work because this can be limiting. I really enjoy work that lives in the convergence of different disciplines.
How would you suggest photographers expand their voice while also staying true to their vision? For example, on your Instagram page there is a reoccurring theme of reflections and mirrors. Some photographers are drawn to shadows, some see the world in wide angle and others are drawn to details. How do you keep a consistent voice, continue to visually explore the things that interest you and still make new pictures?
I think this is a struggle because I do ask myself, am I being repetitive with my images? My gravitating towards mirrors and doing self-portraits is compulsive; I am just curious about reflections and gesture. But I try not to over-analyze what I am photographing because it kills the joy in it for me. I photograph and then, in hindsight, see the connections. It is always afterwards that I understand what I am trying to say.
As someone who won a Series award, what advice would you give to photographers who are thinking about submitting a Series for the first time?
My main advice would be to be patient with the work and experiment until it feels right. It is important to let things sit for a while to help clarify your intentions and see what connecting threads you find in your images. What comes out of that process can direct your writing and statement about the project and help you find the right angle.