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For more than two decades, photographer Ruben Natal-San Miguel has experienced waves of personal and family trauma, and channeled them into thoughtful portraits and landscapes. In 2001, after living in NYC for almost a decade, but rarely making a photograph, he survived the September 11 attacks – he was getting out of the 1 train, approaching the south tower just after the first plane hit. Shortly after, with a new perspective on life, he began photographing nearly every inch of New York City and its outer boroughs on a mission to preserve and celebrate the city’s vibrant culture, much of which was getting pushed out as a result of gentrification, and to connect with strangers. He had a similar response to Hurricane Maria, which nearly destroyed his hometown in Puerto Rico (where his mother currently lives), and set to photograph what remained, focusing on the electric colors shining hope within despair.
This past January, while photographing near his apartment in Harlem, the photographer was attacked and beaten by two men wearing MAGA hats shouting homophobic slurs. A true fighter, he was back on the streets as soon as his wounds had healed, making pictures of his community.
Natal-San Miguel’s new book Harlem, published by Kris Graves Projects in April 2019, focuses on the neighborhood the photographer has called home for over 20 years. It’s a slice of his larger, still ongoing multi-borough series (currently on view at the Center For Photography at Woodstock) celebrating the people and fading details of what makes New York City wonderful. Despite their context of gentrification, his portraits are fun, full of life, and, like his images of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath, surprisingly optimistic, and bring forth a deep sense of human connection.
Ruben and I emailed about his latest book and his inspiring multi-decade trajectory. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Hyperallergic: Your new book with Kris Graves Projects focuses on Harlem but fits into your larger decade-plus series on NYC. Why was Harlem the focus for your first book?
Ruben Natal-San Miguel: The idea came from Kris Graves right after my hate crime assault happen in January. I never planned to have a book anytime soon. The offer came while I was just out of the hospital and recovering. I would work for one hour and rest for two in bed, with laptop and hard drives as bedmates ’til it got done. I have not stopped working since then, even through five dental surgeries, a cancer scare, and healing from the assault.
H: Do you see yourself publishing other neighborhood or borough-specific books later on?
RNM: My plan is to have a book from every single borough of NYC, which I have been photographing actively for the last 16 years. I wanted to separate Harlem from Manhattan, and since I started to photograph right after moving to Harlem, it was the most obvious choice.
A book for every single borough with Manhattan and Harlem as separate [books], Brooklyn and Coney Island as separates too, and the Bronx and Orchard Beach as well. I will have photographs in every borough museum. That’s my plan and ultimate goal.
H: There’s a history of photographers making “problematic” documentary work in communities — work that has been perceived as objectifying. Knowing your work, I get the sense that it’s the opposite. That there’s more collaboration, fun, and genuine empathy.
RNM: I do not invade, and avoid playing the “White Boy trying to save the day.’’ I find and like to photograph people in their own environment, where they are most comfortable and going about their day and life. I always ask for permission, and the end result is a photograph celebrating the subject for something that caught my eye about them, whether it’s makeup, tattoo, a hairdo, their sense of style, their profession, uniform, their car, their home, their pet or just simply the way they hold and smoke a cigarette. I get their contact information and always give them a large file of the image which, I encourage to print it and will happily sign for them or will just make them a photo print. We all stay in touch.
H: The cover of your book — the woman with the curlers, smoking a cigarette — is possibly my favorite that you’ve ever made, and seems to resonate with so many people. Why do you think so many people respond to it?
RNM: The “Glamour Break Diva” was taken a decade ago this coming September. I think that the image has a very clear storytelling captured. Even the detail of the bent cigarette taken out of her jeans tells the story. There is something very relatable, modern, old school, and classic about the image and think represents the past, current, present and future of Harlem as keeps getting gentrified by the minute, there will always be a young girl carrying this tradition and look.
H: Like the image of the woman in curlers, another favorite photo of yours is the image of the grieving man in Central Park who lost his wife in 9/11. I get a little choked up whenever I think about it, and your story of meeting him happenstance in the park. Can you share any similar stories about one of your Harlem portraits?
RNM: I guess one would be the one titled “Gun.” I wanted it in the book because it represents a former gang member who has reformed his life and now works as a priest for anti-gangs and gun violence. Most of my subjects have truly compelling stories of redemption and lots of resilience.
H: Much of your work is related to trauma. You survived 9/11 and took photos of NYC as a middle finger to it all. Your family was directly devastated in Hurricane Maria, and most recently, the awful hate crime you experienced earlier this year has fueled some new pictures. Yet the work itself is positive, celebratory, and the colors are almost always bold and electric.
RNM: Yes, my photography work is celebratory and uplifting. When I go out to photograph I try to find human connection, and do it with joy and empathy because I need my subjects as much as they needed me. This is why the vast majority of my portraits have such a strong and vital human connection. Humanity is very important to me. While I encounter them often, I never photograph homelessness, people who are strung out on drugs, shot, or even murdered. I have seen it all but, will never bring that home with me. I like to find what is truly genuine, uplifting, and has a true sense of a community. The photography series of Puerto Rico before and after hurricane Maria was extremely painful to create. My family was deeply affected and my mother was never the same. It is very hard for me to talk and show the work, but I know that there was some dark beauty created from it all. I believe in turning something beautiful and empathetic out of something dark and ugly.
H: It sounds like photography has helped you process much of this pain.
RNM: The camera has been the best healing vehicle for all the trauma experienced during most of my life post-9/11. Living alone in a city of almost nine million people, it’s important for me to find human connection, which is precisely why I love to photograph strangers, to engage with them and have a moment of human connection. There are a lot of people just like me out there who have been rejected by their families, lonely, ignored by society. Those are the people who I tend to connect with the most. I was totally abandoned by my family after my hate crime attack back in January. Now, more than ever, it is imperative for me to continue the quest of that moment of humanity. It gives me hope, redemption, and humanity.
H: For a long time, I knew you as, and your reputation was mostly, “Ruben the curator, collector, and supporter of photographers.” But now you’re more widely known for your own photography. When did you first begin thinking of yourself more as a photographer?
RNM: That minute when I moved to Harlem right after surviving 9/11 and realized that I needed to capture the scene that I kept seeing on my way home from work, but as a collector could not find those images in the marketplace. I always make the work to please myself first, but also felt the urgency of being documented.
H: You’ve had a lot of amazing success recently with your own work — from online press to group exhibitions, landing your work in major collections like The Museum of the City of New York, your solo exhibition at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, to your book with Kris Graves. What advice do you have for photographers navigating the often complex world of “how to get myself out there?”
RNM: I am not the norm for this business. I still don’t even have a website, nor business card. What I do better than most is work non-stop, 24/7, more than anyone I know. Discipline is a must. I read a lot, watch tons of documentaries, and make it my business to know every photographer and what they do. More than anything, I try to engage with art beyond just photography. I see photography more as a tool to communicate more than anything else. I still do not know how to use Photoshop and don’t care if ever learn it. I love and like pure imagery just as I encounter it. I am a product of well-disciplined social media skills, good marketing, PR and promotion, good personality and business skills, the continuous search and hunger for something new, unique and different but, with that very familiar and relatable touch that makes the work sell and be recognized.
Harlem by Ruben Natal-San Miguel (Kris Graves Projects, April 2019) is available from the publisher for $40.
Making the Invisible Visible: Ruben Natal-San Miguel is up through June 16 at the Center for Photography at Woodstock.