Through portraiture, José Ibarra Rizo explores his past as an immigrant, focusing his camera on those who share his experience and using commonality and empathy to undermine the idea of “otherness”.

Photographer José Ibarra Rizo immigrated to the United States as a child and the experience continues to mark his journey through the arts. The desire to feel connected and at home is a profoundly human experience and one that Ibarra Rizo is still coming to terms with. Through his work, he wonders what it means to be an American and what is gained and what is lost when moving from one place to another.

Justin Herfst: Your award-winning photograph is beautiful and saturated with emotion. How did it come about?

José Ibarra Rizo: James and Bre are a talented couple who are passionate about fashion and photography. James is a photographer who lives in Florida but is originally from Atlanta. I had the privilege of working with him previously, and we had talked about doing some photos of both of them the next time he made his way up to Atlanta to visit family. James had suggested meeting at this park that I had never been to before, and as soon as I saw it, I knew it would be a special place to photograph both of them.

Atlanta is often referred to as the ‘city in the forest’ and it’s common to find these beautiful places with lakes and rivers running through them. James and Bre have such a powerful presence and energy to them and it was important for me to document how beautifully they occupied this space and time. The weather was not in our favor on this rainy summer day but the overcast sky created soft lighting that helped set the tone.

Bre and James Forever, 2021 © Jose Ibarra Rizo

JH: How did you find the photograph connected to yourself and to the rest of your work?

JIR: Creating work that honestly represents life is something that I constantly strive for. This photograph does that for me, and I couldn’t be happier with what this beautiful couple and I made.

JH: What does the process of making an image look like for you? Do you search for your subject matter or do you work with an idea already in mind?

JIR: Making an image usually starts with exploring an idea that I already have in mind. I’m obsessive about my ideas, but I try to be fluid and responsive to the special moments that take your work in a new direction. Sometimes, images present themselves to you at unexpected moments and it becomes a matter of being ready to take that opportunity.

JH: Can you tell us about your background in photography and why portraiture specifically has interested you?

JIR: Photography is a new endeavor for me. I started exploring this lens-based medium in early 2018 and haven’t looked back. My background is in drawing and painting, and since then I’ve always been interested in portraiture and the human figure. Portraits in particular have a way of telling stories that I find very compelling. Everything I learned in drawing and painting has informed my understanding of lighting and composition and having that knowledge before picking up a camera was an advantage for me.

JH: You’ve mentioned that immigrating from Mexico to the United States at a young age would have a lasting impact on your art. What is your story of coming to the United States?

JIR: My mother and I crossed the Mexican American border in 1999 as undocumented immigrants to join my father, who was living and working in Georgia. When I think about my life, I think about it in terms of before and after that life-changing experience. This complete cultural shift shaped the way that I view the world. We were fortunate enough to receive our permanent residency status a few years after arriving. Not many have the same fortune, so I don’t take this opportunity for granted.

JH: How has this story informed your art?

JIR: Through my work, I’m constantly exploring the theme of identity. My experience as an immigrant has left me with questions such as: What does it mean to be American? What does an American look like? I’m constantly thinking about what is sacrificed and gained when migrating to a new country. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how others, who share a similar experience, cope with these questions. Most importantly, my story has helped me understand my role as a storyteller and artist.

JH: From your perspective, have you been able to answer these questions?

JIR: I haven’t been able to put my finger on what it means to be American. My work is my way of working through these questions and as I grow older and see and experience new things, the definition changes for me.

JH: How do you think a photograph can contribute to the conversation around immigration and identity?

JIR: Many of the conversations about immigration revolve around this idea of otherness, and that’s where the problem lies. Art and photography can help us see the humanity in others, and I think that’s the first step in finding meaningful and humane solutions to the problems we face today.

JH: Are there artists or writers you’ve found particularly inspiring as you create this work?

JIR: Too many to name, but the one photographer I keep going back to is Deana Lawson. Her work is powerful. She collaborates with her subjects to create images that leave you in awe.

JH: What is your ambition as an artist and what are you currently working on?

JIR: My ultimate goal is to get to a place where my art can sustain my livelihood. That’s freedom for me, a place where I can create free of restrictions or budgets. That’s everyone’s goal I suppose. But I’m keeping myself grounded and focusing on my work. I’m currently building multiple projects in both photography and painting. Ultimately, the goal of my work is to tell stories about the complex human experience that we all share.

This work was selected as a winner of LensCulture’s Black & White Photography Awards 2021. See all of this year’s winners.