It’s hard to believe when you browse George Sifuentes’ portrait-rich Instagram feed that he still has a very difficult time approaching people. But the street photographer, who has only been shooting for a little more than three years, is still terrified of hearing the word, “no”.
Thankfully, for his nearly 60K Instagram followers, his desire to capture the colorful characters of Los Angeles is much stronger.
As a photo documentary junkie, Sifuentes says he’s always been intrigued by films about visual legends Gordon Parks and Estevan Oriol, but never had the motivation to shoot on his own. However, that all changed in 2012, when he got an iPhone. He quickly learned of the Hipstamatic and VSCO Cam applications and soon began trying to mimic their styles.
The result? A newly discovered passion and purpose at the age of 30.
Trishna Patel sits down with Sifuentes to discuss the challenges of approaching strangers, the pressures that come with social media notoriety, and why he attributes his focus on L.A.'s Latino community to time spent with his grandmother.
How has mobile photography and its social sharing applications, particularly Instagram, played in your journey?
Mobile photography has played the biggest role in my journey for the simple fact that it’s how I started and its still how I continue to build my body of work. The beauty of mobile photography is the simplicity and convenience of having the “camera and the darkroom” all in your pocket.
Instagram has been the platform to not only showcase my work, but it has connected me with some of the most artistic eyes from all around the world and I draw major inspiration from all of them.
What compels you to create a portrait of someone? What else do you look for?
My motto is shoot first, think later. While I might be keeping an open eye to everything around me, I can’t seem to ignore a sense of character. I am instinctively attracted to people. Once I catch a glimpse of someone who I think would take a beautiful portrait, nothing else exists.
“Character” is all in one’s natural expression and is amplified by their attire. I really have a hard time taking compliments on my portraits because in my eyes, all I did was press a button, its the subject who’s visual wisdom and beauty that does all the heavy lifting.
Talk about the upsides and challenges to a strong online presence?
I don’t feel any pressure to perform or produce better images now that my following has grown. I still hit the streets to find images with the same passion as I did when I had 500 followers. If anything, I pay a bit more attention, dig a little deeper for the story and subject.
Social media notoriety helps if you stay true to your content, I’ve been offered money to shoot outside my “character criteria” and I refuse to do it, especially because I’ve worked to establish a recognizable style the last few years.
Tell us your favorite things about shooting in Los Angeles? What are you favorite areas and why?
The best thing about shooting in L.A. is the massive variety of people and neighborhoods so close to one another.
Hands down, my favorite place to shoot is on Broadway in downtown. It runs through the historic core where the cities oldest souls and newest inhabitants walk side by side. My second favorite is Boyle Heights/East LA. My Mexican culture is so visually strong in these areas that it’s highly unlikely I leave without anything good. Third, Venice Beach; if you look beyond the tourist trail you’ll find some of L.A.'s truest characters influenced by art, music and gang culture.
What exactly is it about people that you want to capture and portray?
I want to portray truth and originality in my subjects. I want my audience to look at my portraits and understand without even doubting for a second that my subject is the true, beautiful character he or she is.
Tell me about your particular interest in L.A.’s Latino community.
The Latino community is home to me. And growing up with young parents means you spend a lot of time with your grandparents. For me, photographing these streets is nostalgic because I used to walk them while shopping with my grandmother on Cesar Chavez Avenue and Grand Central Market.
Those memories are a beautiful limbo of familiarity and the unknown. That limbo sparks my curiosity to learn and document more while its familiarity gives me the courage to maneuver with confidence.
Also more than ever, being Latino in this city means so many different things. We are [one of] the few communities in Los Angeles that can say five or more generations were born and raised in this city. Documenting both the older and younger generations and observing the varying degrees of mainstream influence is very interesting to me.
How do you create a relationship with your subjects?
Speaking Spanish is everything when it comes to photographing the Latino community. It establishes a common bond which can lead to trust, plus Latinos (mostly the older ones) want to know why the hell you want a picture of them in the first place. With the elderly, they have no understanding of why I want to photograph them. They could care less of my photographic passion and most of the time they are not aware of their beauty.
I wish you could ask one of my subjects why they allowed me to photograph them.
What is the most challenging aspect about street portraiture?
I have a fear of rejection and the unknown. The hardest part for me is also what comes easiest to me; the approach. It may not come off like I’m nervous as I approach each person, but my heart is racing.
I make sure to give off a vulnerable, genuine energy but nothing’s ever planned out. I have to make sure I’m “quick on my feet” because the unpredictability of the streets can turn a situation in a matter of seconds.
Hearing “no” is still something I struggle with because once they say it there’s not much I can do to change their mind. I have to let it go, which eats me alive. But when I get the shot I want, it feels like Christmas.
What has helped legitimize you in the street photographer community?
I think it’s my consistency. I consider portraits to be the “road less traveled” of street photography, and I think my audience and my community recognize that it’s hard to shoot.
Portraits require interaction, timing, luck, expression, connection and story. Whereas a lot of popular Instagrammers shoot the usual architecture, landscape and sunsets and have been criticized for focusing on style over substance. Every time I hit the streets, however, my goal is to give you both.
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