Photographer Interviews

Juan Giraldo’s “Blue & Blue” Explores Family, Work and the Immigrant Experience

January 31, 2017

By Dzana Tsomondo

Born in Manizales, Colombia, Juan Giraldo grew up in a working-class community in Paterson, New Jersey. His father was a housepainter, his mother a housekeeper. For his project “Blue & Blue,” Giraldo turned his lens on a similar community in a neighborhood of Chicago, where he now lives. His collection of still lifes and portraits is centered on the employees of Great Lakes Reload, a hub for steel transportation, warehousing and processing.

In one portrait, a young man leans against a rusty, low fence, a baseball cap in one hand, his faded polo shirt emblazoned with “RIP Granny.” He is tall and lanky, and the sun throws long shadows behind him into the thick grass. In another image, a little boy smiles from the window of his house, a can of soda perched on the sill. The forthright simplicity in Giraldo’s images belies his skill as a photographer, and perhaps more importantly, the way his own upbringing informs his work. There is no sentimentality in his photographs of break rooms, with their folding chairs and well-worn playing cards. They simply are. Quiet moments in humble homes, worn bibles and half-naked brown children could be maudlin—or worse—but there isn’t even a hint of that here. Perhaps some part of his deft touch can be attributed to the commonalities between Giraldo’s family and his subjects.

During a trip to Colombia in 2010, Giraldo spoke with his grandfather about the retiree’s experiences as a laborer in the U.S. The patriarch had been the family’s first émigré to the United States; he worked on an oilfield in Texas before clocking more than 30 years at a silk mill in Paterson. Those conversations inspired “Blue & Blue,” but in many ways the project was the culmination of ideas (about family, work, the immigrant experience) he had been nursing since he first started taking photographs.

© Juan Giraldo

“Gordo, Chicago, IL,” 2014, from Juan Giraldo’s series “Blue & Blue.” © Juan Giraldo

Giraldo’s photography career had humble beginnings; he sheepishly admits that he stole his first camera from a department store as a teenager, and it wasn’t until an Intro to Photography course in community college that he really had any idea what he was doing. When the time came to move to a four-year school, “My community college counselor asked me which I liked more on a scale of one to ten and photography won out over becoming an architect,” he says.

When he transferred to William Paterson University in New Jersey, his passion blossomed. “My trajectory was an untraditional one because I graduated from undergrad at 30, but I just got tired of working manual labor,” he says. “I was a carpenter and a housepainter for a while, I was a stock clerk, I was basically working dead-end retail jobs when I started going to community college part-time.”

Giraldo arrived at Columbia College Chicago in 2012 knowing he wanted to shoot in the sort of large-scale industrial plant that had employed his grandfather. “I contacted all these big places in and around Chicago, and most didn’t respond. If they did, they said it was too much of a liability,” he remembers. “But [operations managers] Joe and Chuck Marias from Great Lakes Reload welcomed me in, said, ‘Here is a hard hat, here is a safety vest and make sure you wear boots.’”

The first year Giraldo traveled to GLR to shoot once a week, cultivating relationships with the workers that began to intrigue him more than the massive factory floor. He wanted to move the project to more personal spaces and explore these people’s lives and families. Hoping to set his subjects at ease, he showed them his portraits of his own parents, and it worked: many of them invited him into their homes in Chicago, Calumet City and Dolton, Illinois, and in Hammond, Indiana.

© Juan Giraldo

“Roses, Chicago, IL,” 2013. © Juan Giraldo

Eight different families shared their lives with him over the course of the project. Sometimes he was asked to take photos at a family function and Giraldo would show up with a couple cameras, shooting digital for the family and film for “Blue & Blue.” He used an array of cameras—a Toyo 45A with 150 lens, 135 lens, 180 lens, and a 210 lens, a Mamiya 7 with a 65mm lens and a Canon 5D Mark II.

Giraldo relied primarily on natural light, but would light scenes if necessary. “I might come into a space one day with a portrait or still life I am interested in, and if I need to create my own light, use a strobe, why not? If I am trying to convey a certain message, I want to control things as much as possible,” he explains.

More than once, Giraldo mentions that he wanted to photograph these families in the same way he would his own. His self-published book, A View from Home, is in part a memoir. It combines the material from “Blue & Blue” with a previous project that depicts his childhood homes, emphasizing the connection between his experiences and those of his subjects.

“As someone who grew up in this kind of environment, I don’t want to make the cliché images that a lot of white photographers going to Gary, Indiana or Milwaukee and taking pictures of people of color are making,” Giraldo says. “There is a certain level of dignity that I want to bring out in my pictures. I know that other stuff, but I think it’s been done; it’s over.”

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