Unity and displacement: The photography of Elías Carmona

– By Don Macica –

If you’ve ever been to a festival or event in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community where artists are selling merchandise, you have likely encountered photographer Elías Carmona and his work. The images that he captures are compelling, detailed and, above all, profoundly humanistic. The subjects are often people, but there are also non-animate objects that tell their stories as well.

Carmona has an exhibit opening at the Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery this Friday, February 16 (it was originally scheduled for last week, but one of Chicago’s capricious winter storms literally blew away those plans) entitled Humboldt Park: People and Community. I reached out to Carmona with a few questions about him and his work.

Elías Carmona

DM: Are you self-taught or did you study photography? If the latter, where?

EC: Yes.  I’m a self-taught photographer.  I became interested in cameras and as a teenager while working during summer at my uncle’s fonda in Santurce.  I went to Rahola (a popular camera store) when I was 16 and got my first camera. By that time I had a friend that was studying photography and he gave me my first lessons.  Later on, I was attending the University of Puerto Rico where I worked as a photo lab technician at the university library and also the assistant photographer at a horse racetrack. Later I was able to work for a few photo studios as a lab technician and that gave me the opportunity to learn and expand my knowledge in the field.

DM: Your work had a documentary and photo journalism aspect, but it is also can be artful and carefully composed. What has influenced this direction?

EC: The work of the photographer Jack Delano, definitely his work gave me a lot of inspiration. [Ed. note: Delano was an American photographer working for the Farm Services Administration who went to Puerto Rico in 1941. He returned in 1946 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, then stayed permanently and spent the next 40 years as a photographer, documentary film maker and composer.] Another person was Axel Santana. He was the director of the University photo lab and also the son of one of the master photographers on the Island.


DM: When and at what age did you move to Chicago? Why did you move here?

EC: I moved to Chicago in August of 2007, when I was 34 years old.  I had established a connection with the Humboldt Park community in 2004 while visiting during the summers to participate in presenting my work with other artists from the Island during the Puerto Rican festivities.  Then I had the opportunity to work in the photo documentation of the community of Humboldt Park and at the community high school (Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School).

DM: Much of you work centers on the island of Puerto Rico and its cultural manifestations in Chicago, but you’ve also included images from Chiapas, Mexico. Is there a larger idea at the center of your work?

EC: The human condition, the beauty of nature, the displacement, how culture can unify, the humor, seeing the past in the present day….  That is what I try to capture and show with my work.


DM: Your Instagram and Facebook feeds have some great images as well, and I know you were recently in Jamaica. Most of these are shot on an iPhone. Is that sort of a sub-genre of photography? Are you after anything different with these than your more formal works?

EC: Thanks.  I have been using the iPhone for a little more than a year and I opened my Instagram account at about the same time. I’m a late bloomer to this idea of immediately of posting images using social media platforms. And yes, I’m fascinated by the possibilities this gives to the photographer to showcase their work. I’m now in the process of digitizing the negatives of the images I took while still living in Puerto Rico that were shot on film from the early 90s to mid-2006.

I went to Jamaica on a family vacation. While there, I had the chance to walk around and take photos using my phone and doing some “study.” Using a phone instead of a camera provides a certain discretion and doesn’t call attention at all. But, yes, I’m always curious to catch an interesting image that shows what I see in the moment.


All images courtesy of Elías Carmona

Humboldt Park: People and Community, Photos by Elías Carmona. Humboldt Park Boathouse Gallery, 1301 N. Sacramento Avenue, Chicago. Opening reception February 16 at 6PM (Facebook event link). The exhibit will be up for two weeks.