When You Learn, Teach. When You Get, Give.

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Last Sunday, Sandy Abdelrahman from Skaped invited me to take part in their Me & My Community Programme to talk to young photographers about turning ideas into photography projects and empower them to explore the issues that they care about the most. Skaped is an organisation that raises awareness of human rights issues and challenges as a way to inspire young people to become actively engaged in social and political matters around the world, as well as at their doorstep.

When Sandy first contacted me about running this workshop with Skaped, I couldn’t help but think about Maya Angelou’s poem Our Grandmothers where she says: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” To me, there is nothing more fulfilling than to share what you have learnt along the way with others. It’s my way of paying forward all the kind support that I have received since I moved to London to become a photographer.

You climb, and then you lift others. That is the only way our industry gets stronger, and that is also the way in which you help people to grow and empower them to make our communities better. Working with those very talented young photographers made me think about me at their age. They are so hungry for change, they are so aware of the issues affecting their communities, and they want to do something about them.

What was I doing in my early twenties? Not trying to change the world, I can tell you that. I wonder, what would have happened if an opportunity like this one had been offered to me back then. To take part in workshops exploring human rights in my community through photography. Would I have taken part in them even if they were for free? Probably not. They say ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will come”.

I wasn’t ready. I lived a comfortable life, oblivious to the issues affecting my community, my country or the world. And my surrounding never encouraged me because we all had very superfluous priorities. But, it is never too late to take action. Even if it took me twenty years to get here, I am now more ready than ever.

I thank Skaped for asking me to be part of one of their outstanding projects, and I applaud all of the young people who take part in them. I wish that one day, I get to be half as aware and engaged as you are.

Photo credits: behind the scenes shot by Skaped.

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Glass Is A Revealer Of Hidden Realities

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Comic artist Rob Bidder works at the Wellcome Collection in London and publishes his work on their website. As part of his series Body Squabbles, he created a piece called Glass which starts with the phrase “Glass Is A Revealer Of Hidden Realities”. Today, I went to an optician to have my sight checked, and I finally understood what Rob meant. After trying different lenses during the eye test, a reality that was hidden for me was suddenly revealed. Not only could I read better, but I could also see with my own eyes how having a good customer service makes all the difference in the world.

I have been trying to get my sight checked for months, but every time I tried to make an appointment, something didn’t work out. At first, I thought that I would go to one of those cheap high street opticians because I’ve never worn glasses before and just have my eyes checked to see how bad the situation was. I tried to make an appointment three times in three different shops, but for some reason or another, I was never able to.

The first shop that came out on my online search was one of those that has a name which implies that with them you will be saving money. I made the appointment online, which seemed easy and straightforward, but a few days before the appointment, they called me to tell me that they didn’t have availability for that day. I asked the person on the other side of the phone how come the website let me make the appointment, and they said that the calendar on the website is just for me to suggest a date when I’m available, but they still need to call the client to confirm if the date is truly available or not. They wanted to give me an appointment for a month after the date I had requested, but I declined. I’d instead go somewhere else.

The second one that came on my search was from that chain that has a name which implies that with them your lenses will be made quickly. I made the appointment online, also an effortless and straightforward experience, and I received an email confirmation. A week later, on the day of the appointment, I showed up in the shop, but they couldn’t find my name in their appointments system. I showed them the email that the website had sent me and they said that even if I received an email, I still needed to receive a phone call confirming the date. Imagine my disgust.

The third one on my search was one of those that belong to a big chain of pharmacies in the UK. I checked on the website if they took walk-ins and went to the nearest one. But, to my surprise, the clerk asked me if I had made an appointment and when I said that I hadn’t because on the website it stated that they took walk-ins he said that even if that was true, all the time slots were taken for that day. The only thing that he could offer me was an appointment for a week from that date.

I was livid. I couldn’t believe that in 2019 and in a city like London it would be so frustrating to have your sight checked. My reaction was to postpone my eye test for a future when high street opticians got their act together. However, the next day, my friend came over to visit, and when I realized that she wore glasses, I asked where did she have them done. She said that she goes to an independent optician who’s not cheap, but she feels that they treat her like royalty. At that point, I didn’t care anymore about the money. I just wanted to feel that I was giving it to someone worthy of it.

A few days later, I went to said optician’s website and found out that they didn’t take appointments online, only over the phone (who uses a phone these days?!), they cost three times more than the high street shops, and they are located 45 minutes away on the train from where I live. At any other point of my life, this information would have made me not even consider them for a second but, after all that I had been through, I felt like I had no choice. I rang them, I made the appointment, and today I had my sight checked and ordered my new glasses.

The shop was small and lovely, the staff went the extra mile to make me feel welcomed, and they took all the time and had all the patience in the world to help me select the frames. Most importantly, they made me feel like to them it really mattered that I was satisfied with the experience. When it was time to pay, and I saw the big figure, I honestly didn’t care about all the money that I was spending there because they really deserve it.

This whole experience made me think about my photography business and how tough the competition is in London. There is always a new photographer starting out every day, and some of them are charging a third or less than the rest of us for a job that could be considered almost as good. That is why, when I talk about my work to potential clients, I don’t talk about my style (anyone can do what I do) nor about my rates (there are plenty of cheaper photographers). I talk about myself and my ethos, and I let my personality be the unique selling point.

Think about the last time when a supplier made you feel special. Don’t you want that same experience for your clients as well?

Photo credit: Sabrina Carder © 2017 JC Candanedo.

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Blogging Is An Act Of Ego

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Writing is an act of ego. When you sit down in front of the white page, you have to truly believe that you have something interesting to say for someone else to want to read it. And, even though writing can be a cathartic and liberating way of expressing what’s on your mind, it can also become an experience filled with frustration. Continually trying to measure the success of your writing by the number of people who read your posts can send you down a spiral of disappointment. There will never be enough analytics in the world to satisfy your need to be read.

When I started my blog, I did it with the idea in mind to tell the story of my journey from working in a different industry to becoming a full-time professional photographer. I wasn’t actually telling the story to other people, I was telling it to myself. It was my way to track my progress and to remind myself to stay humble and to never forget where I came from. However, it quickly became my strongest marketing tool, and, nowadays, I purposely use it to shape my branding and to tell the world about my learnings, my work and my concerns.

When you work professionally in photography, the competition is intense. You need to be constantly promoting your work and letting potential clients know about your existence. This is particularly true in big cities like London, where photographers spring up like mushrooms. What’s worse, we are all promoting ourselves in the same unidirectional ways (emails promos, newsletters) and it is very frustrating when after so many years of investing time and money promoting yourself nobody seems to be listening on the other side. According to figures from Spektrix, over 75% of these promos remain unopened, and over 97% are not clicked through.

Blogging seemed like a solution to that. Through my posts, I am telling the story of my brand and telling my readers what I stand for. But, measuring the success of blogging comes with its challenges. You find yourself from very early trying to figure out how to increase the number of visits and subscribers. And none of those numbers tells you if people are actually reading you.

Luckily, I realised that keeping track of those figures was useless. Even if I had hundreds of subscribers and thousands of visits to my posts, I wouldn’t be able to know if someone was actually reading them unless someone gave me some form of feedback. So I stopped obsessing over those numbers. These days I just write hoping that one day someone will run into my posts and find something useful in them. Until then, it’s only a labour of love.

If you are a photographer or a creative in general, and you still haven’t found a way of promotion that feels like you, why not create it yourself? That’s what my friend Olivia Pinnock did for herself. She wasn’t finding the jobs that she wanted in the industry and that’s why she created the Fashion Debates, a platform that has allowed her to show the industry what she wants to be hired for.

So, even if blogging sounds like a self-centred thing to do, I do it in the hopes that my words inspire others to reassess their lives, to consider a different perspective on the issues that I care for and to learn about the creatives industries. That is what my brand and I stand for, and that is what I try to promote.

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For Every Mean Thought, Speak One Kinder

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I just read the title phrase of this post on The Authentic Project’s Instagram account today and thought that it was an excellent piece of advice. Especially in the times we are living when we are surrounded by so much negativity and so much hatred. You can’t fight fire with fire, so cooling down our thoughts before we speak might help us meet in the middle with those who think so differently to us. Being kind to others does not mean being weak; anyone who has been kind to someone who has mistreated them knows how much courage it takes.

We need more kind words, and we also need to start making an effort to make the people around us feel like they matter. It sounds like a lot of work and the sceptical who reads this might wonder why even bother. But, the truth is that happiness is contagious, and when you start making people feel better about themselves, they will inevitably try to make others feel the way that you made them feel. This will result in improving your community’s mood, and in return, you will be more comfortable belonging to a happier environment.

We are bombarded every day with sad and apocalyptical news. From social media, from the news outlets and even from the small talk with strangers or peers. Every day there is something that has gone wrong with politics, with the environment or with humanity. This affects particularly the more susceptible demographics like our youth because they either haven’t lived long enough to compare what is going on today with similar events in the past or because people in power haven’t provided them with the right tools through education to be able to deal with these situations.

The importance of self-worth has been lost, and people today feel that there is no future for them. This makes us all vulnerable and prone to manipulation. An emotionally broken population makes and easy to handle pack. This is why this is a moment for solidarity and for finding more points in common and pointing out fewer differences. We are all in this together, from the far left to the far right and everyone in between because we are all part of society. If we don’t start being good to people now, the consequences can be catastrophic for all of us. We don’t want to relive the events that affected humanity a century ago.

This is not the time to be a bystander and shrug the shoulders when we see what’s happening around us. We need more citizen engagement, and we need more acts of kindness. We need to start speaking from the heart more because when you speak from the heart, the other heart will listen.

Photo credit: behind the scenes by Andrzej Gruszka.

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Who You Are Defines What You Do

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Although it might seem very obvious, when I heard the phrase “what you do does not define who you are; who you are defines what you do” I had a sudden realisation. For the longest time, I tried to keep the two sides of my craft separate. On the one hand, my commercial work focused on fashion, beauty and portraiture; on the other hand, my personal work dealt with human rights, mental health and national identity. But, the one thing that they both had in common was me. So why was I trying to keep them apart when in reality they are but two sides of the same person?

It’s not that I was ashamed of any of the aspects of my practice. On the contrary, I’m very proud of everything that I have done over the past few years. But I had been advised over and over again to keep those different types of photography separate because clients might get confused. According to my advisors, clients only hire you when they see that you do only the exact thing that they are looking for, and when you can be put in a niche. The truth is that I have never been busier since I decided to show in my portfolio who I really am.

It was no secret that I am interested in social issues like immigration, discrimination and human rights. I have been writing about them for years in my blog. But if you saw my portfolio, all you could see was my flashy fashion, beauty and portraiture work. If you wanted to know what I was doing in my personal projects, you had to go to my blog or ask me to see those images. It didn’t make sense.

And then I heard that phrase. Who I am informs my work. Who I am. Who am I?

I am JC, and I’m a London based photographer. I work commercially in Fashion, Beauty and Portraiture with clients that include designers, production companies and beauty brands. In my personal work, I deal with the Social Issues that matter the most to me like Human Rights, Mental Health and National Identity.

Before becoming a photographer, I was a Project Manager for 20 years, and all the skills learnt in my previous industry help me to deliver my photography projects to my clients successfully.

I also write a Blog about my experiences working in the Creative Industries where I talk about the industry and the business of photography through interviews to other creatives, features on fellow photographers and opinion pieces on social issues.

I am a member of the Association Of Photographers - AOP, of Humanists UK - an organisation that campaigns for Human Rights (LGBTQ+ rights, Women’s reproductive rights and the rights of non-religious people), and of PhotoAid - an organisation that links NGO’s in need of photographers with photographers willing to volunteer their time for the causes that they believe in.

Ultimately, my goal is to use my work as a photographer to help make this a Better World.

There, that sounds like a complete version of me.

Knowing who you are and what your work is about takes you a long way and makes telling your story so much easier. Getting to know yourself, not easy at all. For me, it has been 45 years in the making, but now, when I see my work, I can see myself in every single one of my images.

Photo credit: behind the scenes by Tori Dance.

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When The Mercury Rises

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I’m writing this post in the middle of a heatwave. Tomorrow, the mercury will rise to an unprecedented 38º C in London, which means that it will be hottest here than in my tropical native country of Panama. Funny enough, summer-loving people in London are celebrating this weather without thinking for a second that this heat is a sign that our planet is not doing well. Admittedly, I am a winter person, and I don’t like the heat, but if I go to a Caribbean beach in Panama and all of a sudden it starts snowing I would be far from happy. We are warming up the planet to extinction, but we are going down with a celebration.

Around this time last year, I wrote a post on sustainability and the myths of Recycling and how we need to reduce our waste as much as possible. Today, I write about why we should be cautious when the brands that we buy from tell us that they are sustainable and green. Over the last year, many brands have jumped on the wagon of sustainability, especially fast fashion brands, but I wonder if we are starting to use this term as a selling point rather than as a real concern for the planet.

I’m not underestimating the efforts and the investments that brands are making to become more sustainable. But, some of the things that these brands are advertising as their efforts to becoming green are just a fraction of what they need to be doing. To be truly sustainable, a brand must acknowledge that the life-cycle of a garment is longer than they had anticipated and should also include the life after the item has been worn and replaced.

This new way of thinking about the life-cycle of clothes involves both brands and consumers. We are all in this together and if we don’t want to kill our planet, we must act now.

What actions can we take right now to become more sustainable?

As Brands:

  • Use sustainable materials/suppliers/processes: this is what the majority of brands calling themselves sustainable are doing right now, and in principle, it is something good. But it is just the first step on the roadmap to sustainability. The work doesn’t end there; there is more to be done.

  • Source locally: it is kind of counterproductive to source sustainable materials in remote places, ship them all the way to the factories and then ship the finished garments to distribution centres where they will be shipped again to the points of sale. It really doesn’t matter how sustainable a brand’s materials are if the carbon footprint of their supply chain is destroying the Earth.

  • Generate less waste: this is the tricky bit. Fashion brands need to sell to stay in business and to sell more, you need to produce more, but there must be a limit to the amount and frequency of the items produced. A brand may be the greenest of them all in sourcing sustainable fabrics or having a sustainable supply chain, but if they are releasing hundreds of new designs each month to force their customers to keep on renewing their wardrobe, all their sustainability efforts will go to waste. Literally. The real challenge of turning a fashion brand into a sustainable brand is how to make customers buy new clothes while at the same time stopping them from sending the old ones to landfills or incinerators. This is where the concept of circular economy comes in, but is it really possible to make fashion circular?

  • Keep it affordable: Price is the icing on the cake. Sustainable materials and research are still not cheap and to be able to lower their cost we would need to produce and sell so much that we would be contributing to the problem of waste while trying to amend it. At the same time, the sad reality is that if sustainable clothing is more expensive than non-sustainable one, people will keep on buying the latter.

As consumers:

  • Buy less: it all comes down to generating less waste, and to generate less waste, we must renew our wardrobes less often. This is the last thing that brands want to hear, but in all honesty, we don’t need to buy new clothes every season. Today we have five times more clothes on average than our previous generations, maybe because they didn’t have the money or the offer, or perhaps because they made their clothes themselves and these lasted longer. My mom once told me that she only had two dresses that my grandmother had made her, and as a child, she would have to go out on Sundays looking the same every week. And so did everyone else! Obviously, I’m not pretending that we go back to making our own clothes (which wouldn’t be too bad) or to owning just two pieces of clothes. The ideal would be to buy less but buy smarter, buying from brands that are truly sustainable and circular and that produce quality clothes that last longer and promote less waste.

  • Buy Second-hand/Vintage: Buying smarter also involves giving a new life to someone else’s old clothes. Pre-loved clothes are not only a sustainable way to renew our wardrobe, but it also gives you the advantage of not looking exactly the same as everyone else who buys from current seasons.

  • Don’t Become a serial returner: sizing is a serious issue when buying online, and sometimes we have to purchase and return at least once to get the right sizing. Some consumers buy/wear/return consistently, or buy many different sizes of the same item in the hopes that at least one would fit instead of properly researching the measurements of their body according to the tables that online retailers provide. Serial returners have a massive impact on the environment.

  • Buy from brands that are circular: again, buy less but buy smarter. Buy from brands that allow you to take your old clothes back to the shop in exchange for store credit. But, before doing that, ask them what they will do with your old clothes.

  • Repurpose your old clothes: don’t throw away your old clothes. Hand them down, take them to charity shops, return them to the shops where you bought them from if they offer store credit, donate them to the homeless but don’t throw them in the bin.

  • Don’t judge people for what they wear: the pressure to look always stylish and trendy is one of the main reasons that force us to buy so many clothes that we don’t need. This is particularly true when you work in the fashion industry because peers and superiors are constantly judging you from what you wear. This forces workers in the industry to contribute to this cycle of massive spending.

The time for complaining about the heat is long gone. It is time that we do something about it. We must seriously keep this conversation alive and look for ways to becoming more sustainable and saving our planet. Do you have any other ideas of how to become greener as consumers and as brands?

Photo credit: behind the scenes by Andrzej Gruszka.

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Stand Up For Human Rights

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was conceived by the international community 70 years ago as a way to avoid the atrocities of the Second World War from ever happening again. Its adoption in 1948 by the then newly created United Nations meant that, from that day forward, the concept of individuality was declared universally and every individual everywhere would have a set of rights assigned at birth that must be guaranteed at all times. The Human Rights concept is very recent and very fragile, and that is why upholding and protecting them is a matter of priority for all of us.

The proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of the biggest achievements in the history of humankind, and its significance has no parallel. Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of the drafting sub-Committee, wrote that on the day the declaration was adopted “there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international setting.”

Today, those who are born in countries where their Human Rights are protected can’t imagine a world where they never existed in the first place. Before the concept of Human Rights was conceived, states had ownership over their citizens’ rights and their power over individuals was absolute. Still today, there are nations in the world where the fight to have your most basic rights as a human guaranteed is an ongoing feat. What’s even worse is that some of the nations that voted in favour of the declaration back in 1948, like the United States, China or the United Kingdom, seem to be abdicating on that system that they gave us.

Human Rights are the roots of justice and freedom, of peace and inclusion, and their main restriction is fear: fear of others, fear of what’s different. Fear makes humans do the most horrific things to themselves. We need to stand up for our rights and for the rights of others and put an end to the toxic tide of hatred that is rising around us. I know that if we all join forces, we can do it. In the words of my friend and fantastic poet, Dean Garland: “in the brazen heat of fire and hate, hope trickles down like fresh water.”

That is why I have joined the #Standup4humanrights campaign, and I have pledged that:

  • I will respect your rights regardless of who you are. I will uphold your rights even when I disagree with you.

  • When anyone’s human rights are denied, everyone's rights are undermined, so I will stand up.

  • I will raise my voice. I will take action. I will use my rights to stand up for your rights.

Visit www.standup4humanrights.org and take the pledge today!

Photo credit: portrait taken by Dan Clarke.

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The Path To Diversity Can Be Painful

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Promoting inclusiveness and trying to make all the projects that you work on as diverse as possible is no easy feat. You encounter a lot of resistance, not only from people who oppose diversity but also from people whose levels of inclusiveness are not the same as yours. However, if the aim is trying to create an inclusive society, we must accept the fact that people who don’t think like us should also have their place in society in order for our communities to be truly diverse. In terms of equality, the term diversity means “the inclusion of different types of people in a group or organization.” But, where do we draw the line?

I used to think that the line was easily drawn on anything that attempted against human rights. Any form of hatred is inadmissible. But as simple of a rule as it might seem, the nuances make it more complicated. When trying to explain to certain people that words can kill and that a comment that might seem innocent can be very hurtful or can even lead to someone taking their own life, I’ve been told that I don’t have a thick enough skin. Referring to someone or a group of people with derogatory terms, not only has implications for the affected person but also sends the wrong message to those who might find the support they crave for their discriminatory practices.

At times, promoting diversity and calling out on inequality can hurt. Especially when the people with opposite opinions to yours are family members or close friends. You just can’t understand how someone who has your own blood or whom you love so much would not be as concerned for human rights as you are. This reality has sent me down a spiral of disappointment and rage many times in my life. Even in the present, it is sometimes really hard to breathe deeply and have patience whenever a person close to my heart says something really awful against women or against a specific ethnic group.

Personally, the reason why it hurts so much is that I have also been affected by discrimination myself. I’m a gay-forty-something-year-old-atheist-immigrant, so I’m constantly facing homophobia, ageism, anti-atheist discrimination and xenophobia. What’s even worse, I am also a very empathetic person so whenever I see someone facing discrimination I can completely relate to the pain.

But, I can’t let the pain cloud my judgement. I believe that the biggest mistake of the political correctness era of the ‘80s and ‘90s was to ostracize anyone who didn’t think like us because what happened was that they all united forces and came back fighting stronger than ever in the recent years. I believe now that if you have been a victim of discrimination, or if you are an ally of any group affected by discrimination, you cannot discriminate against others yourself. Even if that means that you have to include those who think completely different to you. You can’t fight hatred with hatred.

I’m not saying that we should condone discriminatory practices or allow space for hate speech. All I’m saying is that if we really want to be inclusive, everyone must be welcomed. Otherwise, we risk becoming hypocrites by doing exactly the opposite of what we preach.

Besides, we are in desperate need of allies and if we want the support from groups that have never been marginalized, we can’t start our request for help with rage. We must fight discrimination and be very angry about inequality, but we must use that anger to fuel our fight and not to rule out possible allies. I know it’s easier said than done, but being someone who has felt discriminated by those close to me many times while growing up I can tell you that, had I let my rage inform my relationship with them, I would probably be all alone now.

Photo credit: behind the scenes taken by Andrzej Gruszka.

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