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BRIO SPOTLIGHT
presents

MARISOL DIAZ

a blend of skill and sensibility that's

picture-perfect

 
   Marisol (c.) and photos from "A Walk Down Broadway," a project she shot for the Riverdale Press.
 

In 1997, Marisol Diaz was an emerging Bronx photographer who had little more than a camera and a whole lot of curiosity. It was also the year she began documenting the fire company in Castle Hill. For the next several years, she would go to the firehouse whenever she had money for film.

I wanted to understand how groups of people got along,” she says. “The psychology of things is very interesting to me. So the firefighters were really good to me and let me spend time with them. There was an empty seat on the truck, so I went with them on ride-alongs. They would even make me food, and let me sleep over and hang out in the recreation room.”

When Marisol described the project to people, they would sometimes say that she was “just hot for firemen.” When she explained her real inspiration, the reaction would change drastically.

“I would tell them about the night when I was a little girl, when the landlords set fire to our apartment building to collect insurance money,” she explains. “How my family had to hurry out of our home to keep from being killed. How I had to deal with the emotional scars and try to figure out why people act the way they do. That was the inspiration behind the Fireman Project and when I told people that, they would feel ridiculous.”

Marisol's Fireman Project: "Renewal 1999" (l.) and "Engine 64" (r.) "I prefer shooting in black and white over color any day of the week," she says. "I can see how useful color can be, but I also feel like color can be distracting. Black and white eliminates some of those distractions and gets straight to the concept of what it is."
Marisol has since become one of the Bronx’s most accomplished and respected photographers. However, her source of motivation has never changed. The desire to understand people and document the truth drives her each day. In fact, it is this mindset that has led her down the different paths she has taken toward becoming a three-time BRIO winner and, most recently, Photographer of the Year by the New York Press Association.

 

And there have been many different paths. She spent eleven years as Program Director of En Foco, a non-profit dedicated to cultural diversity in photography. Many of Marisol’s exhibitions during this time reflected that mission. In a transition to photojournalism, she is now the Photo Editor of the Riverdale Press. Here she was named Photographer of the Year for her “eye-catching images,” “technical proficiency” and “ability to get close to her subjects.”

She seeks to pass this skill set on to her students at Bronx River Art Center (top left). Marisol teaches both the technical and the practical aspects of photography, while staying true to her personal mission by reminding her students to “bring things to their natural state.”

On top of all this, she manages to run a sole proprietorship, Marisol Diaz Photography. Her clients have ranged from the Bronx Borough President’s Office, to local arts and cultural institutions, to Coca-Cola and the New York Mets.

So there is little that Marisol hasn’t seen: from the terrifically inspiring to the terribly tragic; from the ordinary to the fascinatingly obscure; and everything in between.

Her very first documentary work fit perfectly into the category of “fascinatingly obscure.” So does the reason she chose to shoot it.

“People think I’m crazy,” she says, “but since honesty is the best policy, here it goes. I was taking a documentary class at City College. We had to come up with a project, and I had no idea what to do. So I went to bed and in my in-between state, I heard this voice that said, ‘shoot the monastery.’ I could think of no reason why that thought would have even crossed my mind. And it wasn’t an idea or a question. It was a command and I had no choice but to do it.”

I found out there was a monastery in Hunts Point called Corpus Christi, and I wound up shooting there for a year. It was an amazing experience, to see their life and how different it is than what people think. I have pictures of the nuns playing volleyball in the summer. People laugh at those pictures because they seem so unusual, but it goes to show they are regular people like everyone else.”

 

Photos courtesy of Marisol Diaz

Thus began Marisol’s quest to uncover the truth—no matter how hidden or suppressed that truth was. The search only intensified when she began working for En Foco. Here, she learned just how suppressed the truth could be.

“Charles Biasiny-Rivera, a founder of En Foco, was a huge influence,” she says. “He would tell me how En Foco was created because the Latino community was being depicted by the other—people who were not Latinos—and not in a truthful way. It was an invented way, and Charles would say how we needed to document our own lives and show our own depiction.”

Through the years, Marisol continued to document the overlooked side of things and explore their deeper meaning. In the end, her work is always about people and making sense of them.

“Two projects that were crucial were Human Imprint and the Machine Project,” she says. “Barry Kostrinsky, founder of Haven Art Gallery, had a factory full of large pieces of machines. So I documented them and I started seeing the pieces as people. The equipment was old and about to be discarded, and that’s exactly what we do to people. We use people, then they get older, they become non-functional and we discard them. But what makes this happen? That’s what I try to answer.”

“Then in Human Imprint, I photographed the subway system with a focus on the people in it. I did this because when you see a train, you say the train’s coming—you never think the train and the people are coming. So I took a picture of the train with the doors open and then one with the doors closed, combined them and erased one of the doors, so you could see the people inside and it looked like the train was moving with the doors open. The idea was that when the train goes by, it goes by with human lives.”

 

Human Imprint: "Hunts Point Grand Central," photo courtesy of Marisol Diaz.
Human Imprint: "Jane at Astor," photo courtesy of Marisol Diaz.
Human Imprint: "Please Step Back," photo courtesy of Marisol Diaz.

The idea did not go unrecognized; Marisol won a BRIO award for Human Imprint, as well as one for the Machine Project. Marisol believes this support came at just the right time, and that it helped sustain her career.

“With the first BRIO, I bought my first digital camera and was able to fulfill my clients’ needs,” she recalls. “Without that camera I would have lost clients. I also used the money for a trip to Kansas City, Missouri, because the National Press Photographers Association was having a conference there. I learned a lot and got to hang out with photojournalists. But without BRIO I would never have gone digital.”

Marisol makes it clear, though, that it took more than financial backing to succeed. She says the Bronx Council on the Arts was able to deliver this extra support as well.

“What BCA and BRIO also do is validate you. If it wasn’t for BCA supporting me as an artist, I probably wouldn’t have stayed with it. You have to have a place that validates what you do, and in this case we had BCA. BRIO and BCA made me feel like I could do it.”

 

After winning three BRIO awards, Marisol left En Foco to pursue photojournalism. In January 2012 she became Photo Editor of the Riverdale Press, a job she describes as “an opportunity to have a photo exhibit every week, with thousands of people seeing the exhibit in the paper.” The job also allows her to continue chasing the truth—whether it is a baseball game, a college graduation or bird-watching in Van Cortlandt Park (left).

Being a photojournalist constantly reminds Marisol that the truth can be hard to bear. The tragic stories are the most challenging part of her job, but she stills finds them important to share. 

“Last April, an aspiring chef from Korea was shot and killed over a cell phone. To shoot his mother crying was horrific. I really dislike those assignments, but it’s important to do them. These killings are over stupidity. They don’t have to happen, but they still happen, and that’s why people should know about them and realize that. It’s hard, but it keeps me searching for why people let these terrible things happen.”

Overall, her time as a full-time photojournalist has been anything but terrible. She calls the Riverdale Press one of the best opportunities she’s ever had. It has taken her to many new places where there have been many new truths to be discovered.

But wherever her career takes her, she says she will never lose her love for photography. The value she has found in it, she says, will always motivate and inspire her.

“I’m a shy person but the camera has opened my life to so many things. If I didn’t have the camera, what reason would I have to go up to people and find out about their lives? Photography is like a window that opens the world up to me.”

 

Lydia Clark, BRIO Coordinator
John Sparaci, Spotlight Editor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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