This Saturday, March 12, the “Enchant This” photography exhibition opens in Washington, D.C. The exhibition invites viewers into an intimate visual exploration of New Mexico — a little known southwestern oasis, where family, food, lowrider culture and stunning landscapes create a vibrant, magical tapestry. It’s a powerful story told through the lens of two talented New Mexico-based photographers, Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli and Gabriela Campos.
Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, District Fray sat down with Paolinelli and Campos to explore the origins of “Enchant This”, their mission to dispel the myths perpetuated about their home state (“Breaking Bad” fans) in popular culture and more.
District Fray: What inspired you to manifest the “Enchant This” exhibition?
Gabriela Campos: Nathaniel and I are shooting constantly; it’s part of our routine. Sometimes, during the summer, we’d go out weekly on Sundays to photograph the lowrider scene, which is really rich and vibrant in Albuquerque. So this is a culmination of the work we’ve been doing for the last couple of years.
This feels like an intimately personal creative endeavor. Why is that?
Nathaniel Testuro Paolinelli: We’ve always both been drawn to this culture. It’s so New Mexico, it’s so Albuquerque, it’s everyday life here. It’s interesting, and I can’t not be out there documenting [it]. There’s so many great things happening here and it’s our job to record it in some way.
G.C.: Growing up in New Mexico, you’re immersed in the culture and the traditions. You’re exposed to the Spanish influence, the Mexican influence, the native influence. I work as a photojournalist for the [local] newspaper, so I’m constantly immersed in that and the yearly traditions. We love to document it because it’s so special. What makes New Mexico different from other states are these cultures and traditions. And as a photojournalist, sometimes you can’t help but photograph and document because it’s in your blood at that point.
What gives Mexico its magical quality?
N.T.P. : I haven’t traveled extensively but I’ve definitely got out of New Mexico and traveled around the country [and] around the world. New Mexico is different. It’s unique. People are friendlier [and there’s a lot of diversity here, which you can feel once you get on the ground. It’s different from other places in America that I’ve been to. There’s a lot of really warm, welcoming people, but it’s a hard environment. It’s a hard situation for a lot of people. It’s just different here. There’s something about it.
G.C.: It’s something that you experience in the air. There’s some electric energy here in the desert that you don’t really feel in other places. The different cultures coming together produce something that’s really unique and really special. And that expresses itself in the cars, in the food and traditions, and mostly in the people, [though] the landscape itself, too, is really something that’s drawn inspiration for a lot of artists of every medium. So I feel it comes down to this energy in the air, this tangible thing that you can feel, sometimes just walking around the state, or meeting the people here. It’s something that you have to feel for yourself. And I’ve only felt it in a few places, and New Mexico is definitely one of them.
What makes telling the story of New Mexico through a lens so unique?
N.T.P.: What makes it special is we really were so connected with the people that we’re photographing; it gives a more intimate view into what’s happening here, as opposed to [an outsider] taking some snapshots of what’s going on.
G.C. : People have a very romantic idea of what New Mexico is. It’s Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes. It’s Sante Fe Plaza. It’s Adobe buildings. But we want to show that it’s more complicated than that. There are these really interesting people that exist here that don’t necessarily fall into these clean little groups. It’s diverse, it’s different and it’s unique. It’s special. It’s beyond what people think New Mexico is. Sometimes you have to show [people] what it really looks like instead of just a pretty picture.
What drives the choices you make when curating images for a photo exhibition?
N.T.P. : It’s always an impossible task to pick the right pictures. I was trying to choose images that I felt represented my view of New Mexico. I wanted to show what I see; I think they convey a slice of life here that is not everybody’s reality, but it’s a reality that I find interesting.
G.C.: We take so many [images] — thousands upon thousands of photos. The photos we chose [represent] the cultures and subcultures that we’re most attracted to, and that we’ve spent the most time with in recent years. Nathaniel and I both put in a lot of lowriders; that’s something I’ve been covering for the last 10 years. It’s a culture I grew up with, and now I’m a part of it. Deeper explorations are so much more fun now that I know all the characters and the people and feel more connected.
Photographers often make an intentional decision to shoot in either black and white or color. Why was it important to strike a balance with this project?
N.T.P.: Black and white is nice, but not every photo should be in black and white, because some photos tell a better story when they’re in color. This exhibit is showing our view of New Mexico, more so than having all black and white photos or all color photos. There’s a wide variety of stuff in these pictures. But one thing [they all have] in common is [being] taken here.
G.C.: I feel some photos need to be in color; you need to translate the vibrancy of New Mexico and some New Mexican colors need to be seen in their full spectrum. You lose a little bit of that in black and white.
Can you talk to me about the lowrider culture? That part of New Mexico’s culture is foreign to a lot of people.
G.C.: Here in Albuquerque, and on Sundays in the summer, it becomes a community event. There’s one corner in downtown Albuquerque that becomes the focal point of this lowrider culture. Families show up, little kids are there running around with their parents and people are cooking food. The cars cruise up and down the street and it becomes less about the cars and more about these people and nice families coming together to [express] their art in these cars. And it happens every week. It’s like a community BBQ picnic where everybody’s invited. Everybody’s involved. People think lowriders are for these really tough looking dudes, but it’s a family event.
N.T.P. : It really is a family event. What I’ve really gained out of this is that these guys are really, really cool people that are into their cars, but [also] really into their families and their culture. It’s such a nice thing to see all this [happen] every Sunday during the summer. It’s amazing. It’s almost like an impromptu block party. And we like being there and being a part of it. That’s exciting. You can feel the excitement in the air when you’re down there.
What surprised you while creating this exhibition? What (if anything) did you learn about yourself?
N.T.P.: I learned that the more connected I am with the subject, the better the photo was. It’s a journey; I’m trying to get closer to people.The people I photograph, I have some attraction to them. I want to know more about them. What I’ve discovered is that I really like talking to people, even though I’m really shy. Photography brings out a more bold version of me.
G.C.: Over the years of shooting so much, [we’ve learned] to not just be a bystander, but to become connected with your subjects, to spend time with them, to enter their world and fully immerse yourself. I think that really comes through in a photograph. If you’re walking in and sitting down, really becoming engaged in this environment, and really talking to the people, that’s really going to make a difference in your photograph. That’s something we both learned; time spent creates better images, connections with the folks that were photographing and stronger work and an ability to maintain these projects for years to come.
What “lens” would you encourage people to look through when viewing the exhibition?
N.T.P.: What I hope someone gets out of [this exhibition] is to get a peek, through my lens of a little slice of Albuquerque or a little slice of New Mexico that you may not see if you just come here as a tourist.
We’re an unknown place in America —the spot you fly over between the coasts. Not [many] people know anything about New Mexico other than Breaking Bad or the high crime [rates]. This is exciting for us because we get to show people what it’s like here, in a place that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
G.C.: New Mexico is one of those states that people just drive through, and they don’t really stop. They think it looks like this endless mall of shops and normal things. But New Mexico is a place where you can celebrate culture on a micro and macro level. People have this very romantic idea of what it means to be from here. And sometimes they discount the reality of what it is to live here. I hope [this exhibition] gives viewers a chance to see the beautiful, the unique, the strange places and people and cultures that exist here that makes it so special.
The “Enchant This” exhibition runs through April 3. For gallery hours, visit here.
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