Manuel Rivera-Ortiz is the President & Founder of The Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for International Photography, a non-profit international organization created for fostering social discourse in underrepresented communities throughout the world by encouraging emerging and established photographers working in developing nations to keep their lenses fixed on the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised.
Manuel Rivera-Ortiz was born in the barrio of Pozo Hondo, Guayama, Puerto Rico. The eldest of ten children of a poor, blue-collar sugarcane working family, he grew up in a corrugated tin shack with dirt floors and no running water. Rivera-Ortiz’s father worked in the sugar cane fields of Central Machete and Central Aguirre in the declining days of the Puerto Rican sugar industry. Following the Zafra or sugar-harvesting season, his father labored as a migrant farm worker in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.
Rivera-Ortiz is noted for his social documentary photography of people’s living conditions in less developed nations. Rivera-Ortiz’ work is collected at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, and most recently by The Nelson-Atkins Museum and its famed Hallmark Photographic Collection in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2012, his work on the lives of the poor was selected by Columbia University Joseph Pulitzer Graduate School of Journalism (where he received his Master of Science degree), among the “50 Great Stories” produced by alumni over the last century.
1. Tell us something about your business and how long you have been a professional photographer?
My career begins in the seemingly unlikeliest of places by modern standards — in poverty. Photojournalism partaken as a means of creating news stories about the lives and struggles of people is extremely important. My photojournalism harkens back to dirt floor shacks in southern Puerto Rico out of necessity; a necessity for me to begin to heal from the terrible things that come from having been so poor. I needed, and still arguably need, to understand what gives when you grow up this way; what are the long-term effects of such a life not only on the psyche of a people, but on society’s view of those people. Every time I have an exhibition I look for the signs around the room, the reactions. And then there are the questions that move me to my resolve, the ones about stealing souls and purported exploitation. I try to remain calm when I am faced with these, tells me we still have a long way to go to bridge that gap which is one of the reasons why I started my foundation. Since starting my career as a photographer a decade ago I have dedicated every waking hour to this cause. My family needs it, I need it, and the people in my photographs need it.
“Widow of the Mines,” Potosí, Bolivia, 2004
2. What equipment do you use?
I have not taken the digital plunge. I don’t find the texture and in-camera digitally controlled pixel correction palatable to my style of photography. In fact the only digital camera I use at the moment is inside my smartphone. I use a 13-year-old Nikon F5, and two old Nikkor lenses. The lenses I use are so old you can hear the dust as you move the dial this way and that. I prefer black & white photography and use mostly Illford. For color I prefer slide by whoever still makes it although I had a preference once upon a time for Kodak.
3. Where are you located?
Lately I live mostly on a plane. You know you’re spending too much time above the clouds when you start running into the same stewardess. On the ground I spend my time between New York City, Upstate NY, Zurich and Paris, France, when not in the field photographing in the developing world.
4. What type of photography do you like to create?
I am a photojournalist, a so-called Street Photographer. I also have inkling for landscape photography, although publically nobody knows I do this.
5. Price range of events?
My work is not for sale, it has never been. My events are free of charge to the public.
6. When did you notice you had a passion for photography?
I lived for a time with my grandparents. I remember during my one-to-one time with my grandmother how she used to cherish showing me the tattered pictures in her purse. These were a few family pictures that had become so important to her. In those days not everybody had access to a camera. So to have a picture was to immortalize a picture. At age 12, at a summer school for the children of migrant workers in Massachusetts, I took up this illusive camera device and started taking pictures of my migrant classmates. That’s when it all began.
“Side of the Road,” to Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2004
7. What is unique to what you do or what you offer?
The photography I do, for the sake of photography, is not itself unique as many people do it and do it well — thankfully. What is unique is that it is difficult or downright impossible for children who grow up the way I did to make a go of anything especially something so challenging and demanding as photography which costs too much and gives so little back in terms of financial reward. That said, I bring a very personal knowledge of the lives of the poor who find themselves in front of my lens to the field. My photography is not learned in the classroom, it was learned via stick and whip; via hunger, hurt, landfills where we went to find things other people threw away. When I am out doing my pictures I am not some Western photographer come to take pictures of these colorful people over there, I am still, inside, one of those people over there! The people in front of my lens can sense this immediately and let me in like we were long lost cousins, like family.
8. Most awkward moment during an event?
When I made to shake a woman’s hand in a Middle Eastern country where strange men and women do not touch one another even for handshaking. It was temporarily awkward, I was forgiven thirty seconds later and then tea was served and the husband handed me his coat as it got terribly cold there in the desert as the sun went down.
9. What is the scariest thing that ever happened during a shoot?
Bolivia! What a terrific people, what a challenging terrain! So much happened in Bolivia. Early in the trip driving south from La Paz I lost control of my Jeep nearly sliding off the narrow dirt Altiplano road down a precipice of around 19K feet. Another time I got stuck in a muddy river with the river cresting in the middle of nowhere. Not a car to be seen as far as the eye could see, just some random herds of Lamas. Another time I had dynamite thrown under my car during one of those random, widespread Bolivian protests by the native Quechua. I would love to go back. Maybe hire a driver next time around.
“For Ladies Only,” Bandra train station, Mumbai, India, 2010
10. Best advice that you’ve been given in your photography career?
In Athens, during Greek Independence celebration in 1999. The advice was not even from a photographer but from a friend. He told me not to be afraid of pointing my camera at people because as it turns out people don’t bite, not usually anyway. I guess I already knew this but had to be reminded. During that trip I got emboldened, the rest is now history.
11. Best advice that you could give someone else that is pursuing a photography career?
Trust yourself. There is a fine line between listening to others, taking advice, and changing yourself to meet someone else’s idea of who they think you are. By this I don’t mean be deaf to other’s comments, but that you have to trust yourself and your experiences. Also, no matter what happens, never allow the success of your work get ahead of you the person. When you lose humility, and trust me I see it and it’s not pretty, you lose purpose especially in reportage. That’s when you know you have to go do something else.
“Altiplano Slum,” Bolivia 2004
12. Best moment of your photography career?
Meeting a little boy in Kolkata, India, outside a respected restaurant. I saw him through the window standing outside looking in. He had no shoes. Reminded me of so many people in my life growing up on Pozo Hondo or Machete Central or Corazón in Puerto Rico. He reminded me of me barefoot hankering for understanding — hungry in the belly also so much of the time. I hadn’t eaten for over 17 hours by then so I was starved. As soon as the food arrived I asked the waiter to wrap it up and outside gave it to the boy. We became friends. I met his family living there by the Ganges River delta living under tarps and found objects. I hired him with his mother’s permission to translate for me. It was a great experience.
13. How many sessions/events do you do each year?
Enough that I don’t keep count anymore. I just move on to the next thing and try to meet deadlines as they come along. Funny thing is I don’t even read or watch any of these things anymore, perhaps to try to keep a clear mind about it all. I probably will not read this once it goes to press.
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