Born and raised in Puerto Rico, NYC-based photographer Omar Z. Robles spends the holidays in Caguas with family, only to find himself in a foreign land where he once called home. Strapped with the Leica M10-D, Robles turns to photography to keep himself grounded and finds light within the darkest of moments.
“Back when I was studying mime at the Marcel Marceau school in Paris, one of my teachers, out of the blue took me aside and said, ‘You know, we just don’t look up often enough.’
I’m back in NYC after spending holidays back home in Puerto Rico. The older I get, the more I try to visit home whenever I can. This time, circumstances where rather different. I wasn’t only going home for the holidays. A family member was recently diagnosed with a congenital defect and will be having a battery of surgeries done over the next year or so. She was having a procedure done right before the holidays, and I wanted to be there to support her.
Because of this situation, I wasn’t really planning to create any artistic work this time around. Honestly, I wasn’t even in the right place emotionally. After a few days coming back and forth from the hospital and spending too much time worrying, I needed to get out of that headspace. I had to put my mind on something else. I decided to reach out to several local dancers and scheduled a few sessions. I can always find a safe haven when I immerse myself in doing what I love to do.
The first week after the surgery was a bit touch and go. Because of this, I decided to schedule my sessions at dawn. Furthermore, I choose to shoot everything at our hometown, Caguas, around the old town square (with the exception of one session shot at the beach). That way, if there was an emergency, I could still be near and accessible. Hence imposing myself a set of circumstantial limitations. Other than that, I had no specific plan or artistic vision.
That, however, is how I usually approach my work. I let the moment or location speak to me and make creative decisions based on what I appreciate at the moment. Little by little, things start taking shape on their own. I grabbed my Leica M10-D and got to work.
Shooting at dawn allowed me to enjoy a beautiful quality of light. The type of directional light, you can only get right after the sun rises. It lends itself to an excellent play of light and shadows, thus creating a strong contrast. I used that lighting to my advantage emphasizing my subjects in a very unique way.
Usually, I shoot with longer focal distances, floating between the 90mm, 75mm and 50mm. Somehow I found myself working outside of my comfort zone. Organically, I started gravitating more and more towards my 28mm Summicron. Longer focal distances allow me to isolate the subject blurring away the background, which is why I prefer them. Yet, for some reason I seemed to want to incorporate more of the surroundings on my frames. The 28mm wide field of view became the right tool to tell the story that was unraveling before me. Embracing more those streets and buildings. Engraving them into my memory as if to never forget them.
These where the streets I grew up in. They used to be mine. Yet today, I live far away from them. The streets I roam nowadays are not mine, they’re foreign. They will always be. I realize now, that perhaps subconsciously I was trying to bring home back with me with this series. As my family member finds herself fighting for her health, I began to realize how much I miss my home. A home that much as my family member is fighting hard for its future and well being as well.
Another interesting thing about this series is that I also found myself shooting upwards from and lower angle. As if I was recalling my teacher’s words, trying to look up. In order to do so, I had to get myself really close to the ground. Devouring both the ground and the sky in every shot. As if to remind myself to hope for better things to come, in spite of being so close to the asphalt.
As I’m writing this note, Puerto Rico is struggling yet after another natural disaster. Almost three years ago, the country suffered one of the most disastrous hurricanes. We lost over 4,000 lives then. Now, a swarm of earthquakes has been rattling my countryfolk for 3 weeks. Over 1,000 seismic events have been registered so far and they keep happening every day. It is estimated that at least 700 families have lost their homes while thousands are sleeping on the streets out of fear of going back inside their homes. Worrying the structures will crumble over their heads at any moment.
My streets are shaking, my streets are suffering. Meanwhile, local and federal authorities are playing politics withholding the much needed aid and funds. Playing a blame game and doing nothing to help. I had the opportunity to visit one of the evacuee camps and the the situation is dire and very real. People need supplies and first necessity items. More than anything, people need reassurance- to know that somehow things will be okay.
In the mist of all this chaos, I witnessed one of the biggest acts of kindness I’ve ever seen. Due to the government’s inaction to help, folks decided to take it upon themselves to help those in need. Fundraising and delivering supplies straight into the hands of the evacuees. I was immediately filled with hope. Organizing massive brigades to visit communities and lend a hand. Putting their own lives at risk in order help our brothers and sisters.
My people are growing stronger with every blow. When life has hit them at its hardest, knocking them down, they rise up. Lifting each other up each and every single time. That is the home I’m taking back with me. Not just the streets but its beautiful people. Even at our lowest point, we stand tall. Looking up, aiming high.”