We’ve long been aware of Christian Rodriguez’s photography. His portraits of women are intimate and empathetic. His gaze is non-judgemental; he seems comfortable navigating themes of solitude, motherhood, and the multitude of challenges that face today’s youth. His ongoing work on teen mothers, shot throughout Latin America, has been picking up momentum online for some time. Earlier this year, he was one of three recipients of the Getty Images Instagram Grants, which awards photographers around the world engaging with their respective Instagram communities via their photography.
Christian, a member of Prime Collective and a contributor to NatGeo Photos and #EverydayLatinAmerica, shared some images from his ongoing work in Buenos Aires, Argentina, called Fuerte Apache on our Instagram feed last week. Christian made this work while also holding a photography workshop for teenage mothers from the neighborhood of the same name, believing that “photography [is] a powerful tool to help verbalize feelings and emotions that previously could not [be] put into words.” He continues, “I think it is important to give voice to the protagonists, as they are also creators and have a message to give based on their experience. We are working on empowering girls.”
Christian was kind enough to share further thoughts on the issues that motivate him as a photographer.
CatchLight: Regarding teenage pregnancy, can you speak a bit more about your own experience? When did you become aware of your own mother's experience? What does she think about young women today and their options as young women?
Christian Rodriguez: Since I was a teenager I knew my mother had me at a very young age, and that she was a single mother, a pattern repeated in teen pregnancy. I have always been interested in social issues, before becoming a photographer I did humanitarian work for two years. I wanted to start a project that was very personal, and that had some self biographical content. As I studied the theme and knew in depth, I realized the gravity and the importance of this issue in Latin America. [My mother] always tells [me] that her chances (options) were greatly reduced [because of having a child so young]. She is convinced that the only way to make real change is [by] giving more opportunities to teenage girls, and that schools must support the girls [and young women] so they can have access to higher education.
CL: In your introduction to Fuerte Apache you write: "The visibility of this issue and the implementation of medium and long term measures are essential to generate a change. More work is needed on the empowerment of girls. The achievement of true equality in decision-making will develop in equity in life projects. The day life projects for boys and girls become similar, teen pregnancy will decrease."
What kind of work do you see being done in Latin America right now with regards to generating change and empowering young women - are there any organizations doing work with young women that you admire?
CR: It is clear that the work that it is being done is not enough because the numbers are increasing, and teen pregnancy is not being reduced - but the opposite. In this context, it is not only necessary to implement long-term but [short-term] programs [towards these efforts] - to help change the context for girls and especially towards reducing the high numbers [of teen pregnancy]. It is not just ‘education,’ ‘poverty,’ or ‘violence.’ There are many factors that affect [the current situation]. However, generating life projects [such as extra curricular activities and professional development] apart from being mother or father are essential for real change; one that allows girls to believe in their dreams of having a career or reach a professional aspiration.
The work performed by Camila Guzman, director of the program "Bebé, piénsalo bien" (Baby, think about it) has helped to reduce teen pregnancy by almost 35% in Colombian municipalities that have implemented this program using baby robots.
CL: How can we break the cycle of poverty --> abuse --> invisibility of young women's plight/struggles as young mothers in Latin America?
CR: We have to work on empowering girls. Girls must have the same real opportunities as boys. A girl can earn as much or more money as boys. We must [help them to] generate other life projects so that girls do not have as [their] only objective: “to be a mother” but to have access to studies, etc. Long-term education is the key. Give them all the information about the possibilities, they may have the opportunity to choose whether to abort or not. Focusing on a generation, we could break the cycle of teenage pregnancy. I am an example, I had access to education and did not become a teen father.
CL: Tell us about the Fuerte Apache Photography workshop. How did you find the young women at the beginning of the workshop and how were they when the workshop was over? Any change?
CR: I think photography is a very powerful tool to verbalize emotions or feelings you have inside. This workshop was a way to give them new tools. [To] help them to look at their surroundings with new eyes, and especially help them to see that not everything is wrong in the neighborhood, and that despite the context in which they live they can [find, make] something that gives them comfort.
[There is one story from] one of the participants [that] really impacted me, a boy of 16 years. One day he was walking in the neighborhood and a drug dealer did not like the face of the boy and shot him in the leg. His leg had to be amputated and he came to the workshop some weeks later. That is the reality we live in these neighborhoods, so I think that social and cultural programs are very important. Give a breath and a smile to this context of oppression that the poor classes of Buenos Aires live in.
CL: How did speaking with these young women impact your work/images for Fuerte Apache?
CR: The months we were there we could create a very nice group of work. We always talked to them as equals, talking about my own experience. Trying to explain that there are many ways for your life. The neighborhood is not a condition to you at all, although it is stigmatized from other areas of society. I was born in a similar neighborhood in Montevideo, Uruguay; on the outskirts of the city. I felt comfortable spending time with them, getting to know their stories, understanding the context in-depth and what is happening there. To me that is essential before taking any pictures.