November 23, 2017

Meet the #NewOriginals: Sabrina Santiago’s Street Spirit

Article Submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn.

Throughout her life, photographer Sabrina Santiago has loved to read. As she tells Polaroid Originals, her love of photography grew out the visuals she created in her mind that accompanied the books and magazines she read growing up. Her first foray into photography was at 13 with DSLR camera. But after an introductory darkroom class at university, analog photography became her medium of choice. Sabrina came into Ryan McGinley’s orbit through his ongoing Yearbook project, a series of nudes captures in his studio with monochromatic background colors. Recalling that Sabrina was herself a photographer, McGinley recommended her for the #NewOriginals project.

“I appreciate the concentration that analog photography requires, I like that I can’t look down at a screen to see exactly what it is that I’m doing,” she notes. “There’s more room for experimentation and mistakes. While it’s a mix of anxiety and excitement for the 24 to 48-hour period once I drop off a roll of film, I don’t think I could ever live without that feeling.

But even before this assignment, Sabrina was something of a Polaroid veteran. For years she has used an old Polaroid camera—obtained from her grandfather—to capture memorable personal moments with friends. While Sabrina has a collection of around 800 of these Polaroid photographs, this project marks the first time she intentionally produced an entire series on Polaroid stock.

“I never used a Polaroid camera for my own personal work, but more for moments that I loved,” she explains. “I lived in an Australia for a year, and everyone knew me for carrying around this big, bulky Polaroid camera.”

Britney #35mm

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Taking a photograph during the day is, as Sabrina tells it, very much about capturing the various colors and aspects of light. To effectively do this, she avoids flash with other camera formats and does the same with her Polaroid OneStep 2.

Whatever the camera, Sabrina’s approach is consistent: portraits of people, whether friends or strangers, who she finds herself drawn to, often taken on the streets of New York City. This approach carries over into her Polaroid Originals series. She says she wanted to capture a number of different faces and fashions, as well as people at different stages of their lives, to convey the variety and complexity of life.

“I’m obsessed with faces and the casting of people, and I definitely want to get that point across in my work,” she explains. “I’ve always been drawn to fashion, but necessarily in a typical fashion photography way. I’m really interested in subcultures and getting into people who have a fashion about them.”

This interest recently found output in her series on the culture of Flatbush, Brooklyn. In Flatbush, Sabrina transmits the importance of hair in the Afro-Caribbean community as a marker of its culture and identity, as well as the vibrant colors that can be found in the area’s everyday street fashion.

“I’m drawn to street portraits but also photojournalism, so in my own photography I want to bridge that gap,” she explains. “I love people, and if I’m walking down the street I’m just staring at people and imagining how I would want to see them.”

Elle #35mm

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Sabrina recalls how this impulse found its way into the first Polaroid photo she shot for the project. One day, while walking through Tompkin Square Park in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood, Sabrina came across an older woman named Marga, who she estimates is probably in her 70’s. Amazed by Marga’s red hair, as well as matching bright red lipstick and nail polish, Sabrina scribbled her information on the back of a receipt and handed it to the woman, who ended up being from Germany, saying that she would love to photograph her. After this initial reaction, the two set up a formal shoot, with Marga’s son making sure nothing was getting lost in translation between German and English.

“When I was photographing her, we had such a moment that I thought, ‘I just saw her at the park and now I’m having this interaction’,” she remembers. “And she said, ‘People don’t tell an older woman they’re beautiful enough anymore’, and that made me think a lot about beauty, progression, and age, and it’s amazing thing to be able to go up to someone and making them feel beautiful.”

Without photography, Sabrina is very cognizant that she might never have had this type of interaction. This, for her, is one of the beautiful things about photography, particularly street portraits, where the photographer has to approach a person and strike up a conversation to do the work. In one photo, she takes a portrait of a young woman holding a baby she had recently given birth to. In another, she pairs two young women with similar frizzy hair textures but vastly different colors—one black, the other a pink-hued blonde. Despite the difference is hair and skin color, the two woman have a twin-like quality about them, which she captures in a dreamy fashion.

“They’re so interesting together and they’ve never met!” she remarks. “I was like, ‘Ah, casting is fun’ and they were like, ‘We should be friends,’ so that was cool, too.”

Ultimately, Sabrina took about 40 Polaroid photographs for the #NewOriginals. It was, as she recalls, a bit of a challenge since typically she doesn’t work in the square format that Polaroid has made so iconic.

“But, I wanted to challenge my eye,” she explains. “I wanted to see a lot of different faces in a format I don’t usually create my work on; which was so fun because I was sharing these moments with people I had just met or found on the street.”

An old favorite of Alma and Maya #35mm

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Whether for private consumption or an online or print publication, she says it’s important for young photographers to make images for themselves, and not worry about who will see them.

“I like to think of photography as magic,” she muses. “You can think of an idea, a shape, a color, a face and translate those ideas into images and make them.”

“We all have an imagination and interests outside of photography and I believe every photographer has their own way of making a statement (whether that is small or large),” she adds. “Create images that inspire you and excite you, and hopefully others will see and feel that.”

Man with the orange beard, seen on East Houston #35mm

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Sabrina’s work for the #NewOriginals project will be curated by photographer Ryan McGinley later this month and displayed in our upcoming exhibition in NYC this December.

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