Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was given a magical camera. She took it everywhere and every time she looked through the viewfinder, the world inside the little box would become full of love and beauty. Colors seemed to burst out of the frame and her friends and family would laugh and jump with happiness. Sometimes, people who were very shy would suddenly dance and move for her camera as though they were the only people in the world. One day, after a long day of taking so many magical photos, Jennifer dropped her camera into the ocean. It filled with water and salt and sand. Jennifer held her beloved camera into her hands. Had it lost all of its powers? She asked, her eyes full of tears. As the last drops of the ocean escaped the little black box, Jennifer dried her tears and looked around. The world was still singing, the beauty was still there. She suddenly realized that the power to see it was hers all along. (Text by Laure de Vaugelas)
ALOUD: Jennifer, when and how did you passion for photography begin?
JENNIFER ESPERANZA: My Mother put a camera in my hands when I was 8 years old and said ‘I love family photographs but I don’t like cameras, you take the pictures’. I just took it as my job to document my family. I studied photography in college with a very wonderful teacher. The main thing he taught me was to just go into your inner world and find your inner vision through your work. Maybe 6 years after I got my first SLR, the light meter stopped working. It was really dramatic and I decided I would just use my eyes to see as a camera. When I came to New Mexico, I found a Nikon SLR at a garage sale for $25. It was magical. It wasn’t a gift from my mother this time, it was from the Universe. I never stopped thinking about photography after that.
ALOUD: I know that spirituality is a big part of your life. Can you tell us how this influences your work?
JENNIFER: I have felt connected to the Divine since I was a child, always. The birth of my children and caring for them as they grow, being their mother is part of my spiritual life. I deeply love the ocean and all water. I met my spiritual teacher, Amma about 16 years ago. I went to Kerala, India in 2004 to be with her and when I was there, the Asian tsunami happened. I was at her Ashram when 54 villagers died just outside the Ashram walls. The 17,000 of us at the Ashram were evacuated and lived in a relief camp that Amma set up for us. A few days later there was a mass cremation for the villagers who had died and I was one of the few westerners who witnessed and photographed it. I made one of my most well known images that evening of a woman grieving for her 2 children who were taken from her arms by the ocean. We didn’t have a lot of power where we were set up at camp and my camera batteries were low, I had been photographing all day. My intuition was telling me to stop photographing and wait for the cremation but I was so traumatized, I just kept taking photographs and the moment the bodies were caught on fire, my battery was dead, completely dead. I felt like I had failed, that I didn’t get the shots at first. then I understood that I was working with others & someone else would get those shots. It was a huge ego death and changed me forever. I surrendered to the moment and I sat in the sand with everyone else and watched the bodies burn and I cried and prayed. Along with the birth of my children this was one of the most powerful moments of my life. It was a very profound lesson for me. Sometimes it is important just to bear witness. My camera brings me close to life but it can separate me too. The other lesson was to always listen to the voice within because our intuition is what guides us. At that moment, my life as a photographer and my spiritual life merged together.
ALOUD: Your book “Tears of Venus” focuses on women and the idea of the goddess. What inspires you so much about women?
JENNIFER: When I was 13 years old, I was raped. My whole life, I have tried to regain the grace, power and softness of my feminine self. I had to rebuild myself from what was taken. It took years to undo the violence and anger and to come into the freedom of self-expression and beauty but once I had faced it for myself, I found that I had a gift to help other women see themselves in a way they had never seen before. I was able to make pictures that were powerful yet sensual, trying to recapture the essence and complexity of the feminine.
ALOUD: One thing that I find very interesting about your work is that it is quite difficult to differentiate what is personal and what is professional. Whether you know the people very well like your children or you are getting paid to photograph a portrait, all your photos share the same feeling of intimacy with your subject.
JENNIFER: For 12 years, I was the staff photographer for an arts and culture magazine called THE magazine. I was doing between 2 and 6 portraits a month which gave me a lot of practice in communicating with people and taking visual clues from their surroundings. There is a process I go through. It can be very fast like my portrait of Jane Goodall, she gave me 2 clicks of the camera but she was there for me, she was really present. Sometimes, it might take 45 minutes or 2 hours. Whatever it takes to shake someone out of themselves. I can push someone a little bit, or surprise them, make them laugh, listen to their stories, have tea with them. I have to be present and caring. With those intentions, the person is able to trust me and we can do this together.
ALOUD: It can be very intimidating to be in front of a camera. It’s hard to feel like you are in control.
JENNIFER: There is a song, ‘I’ll be your mirror’ by the Velvet Underground that Nico sings. That’s how I feel. I want to reflect. I want them to feel that they are safe, that I will not hurt them with my camera. All of us are sensual beings and when we drop the veils and let go of that criticism, everybody looks beautiful in some way. There is something about everybody that is beautiful.
ALOUD: The way you describe it is really generous. I think we are overly hard on ourselves and very critical. What you are doing is precious and I am sure that the women remember it as much more than just photos.
JENNIFER: That’s what they say to me, it’s an experience to work with me.Women often see their beauty in a different way after we work together. An interesting thing is happening in my life, professionally and personally. I am starting to photograph more men again. There is a lovely coming back to photographing some beautiful and powerful men. Kind men, accomplished men, sexy handsome men too. All of a sudden, these male angels are showing up in my life. Ultimately, there should be a balance of the male and female.
ALOUD: What would make you say ‘no’ to an offer?
JENNIFER: Most people who want to hire me really know my style and my ethics so it’s generally fine. I would never take a job to do any kind of paparazzi work, even if it paid a lot of money. I like to make photos not take them. I have spent a long time looking at tabloids, fashion and life style magazines because I am always interested in the different forms that culture takes. I seriously see myself as a propagandist for love and compassion and I know that to get my message across, the images have to be appealing and have to compete with mainstream photography.I want my images to communicate and to reach all traits of people who see the world differently than I do. I want there to be a space for dialogue with people.
ALOUD: You have used your camera and photography as a vehicle for your own journey, your healing and understanding of the world. Do you think you can conceive of a time when you won’t need your camera anymore?
JENNIFER: No, I hope I die with it in my hands (laughs). I have a tattoo on my right arm of the two eyes with the teardrops by Man Ray. I’m a voyeur. I feel like I almost eat the world up or drink it in with my eyes. When I was a little girl, I always felt that I had a mission in life. I didn’t know it would take the form of photography but I would play office and my work was to write ‘love’ and ‘peace’ over and over again. I feel it is my mission to create and transmit love. To manifest something positive helps shift the balance. There is no other way, I wouldn’t be myself.
To see more of Jennifer’s work, you can follow her facebook fan page where she posts new photos every day. You can follow her on twitter. Her book Tears of Venus is available through Blurb. To see thousands of her photos at once, visit Flickr, her website, or this blog.
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