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Photographer Profile: Rafia Santana

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

CA: What made you want to do photography? RS: My mother is a photographer. My father is documentary filmmaker and he also makes photographs. There used to be a darkroom in my apartment (removed shortly after I was born because we needed the extra space). My brother makes video art, animations, and does video editing. I come from a family of artists so it was only natural that I’d become one as well. I was given my first camera in pre-school and in high school my parents got me a digital camera for my birthday. I’d been making art all my life: drawing, painting, and printmaking but capturing moments with a lens felt so much more satisfying than making the image appear with my hands. In college my major remained undeclared for the first few years, as I tried printmaking and photography classes. My experience with the photo labs was much more cathartic and productive than the print space. I never got paint on my clothes, there were usually enough stations to work at, and I used my mom’s old supplies so I didn’t have to worry as much about art class expenses. I loved working in the dark room: the buzzing and clicking of the photo enlargers, the moody safe light glow, and the magic of finally seeing your image appear on a sheet of paper submerged in developer. I’ve since moved on to digital processes but there’s always a special place in my heart for darkrooms.


CA: How do you incorporate photography to encompass how you see the world? RS: I use photography to communicate with the world. It’s my way of being present. In my self portraits I use my body to express emotions I haven’t yet found words for.

CA: Do you have any inspiration from the world of photography? RS: I draw inspiration from all kinds of art. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami had an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008. I went to see it after school with my friends and loved it. He calls his style super flat and it’s based on a specific 2D aesthetic derived from traditional Japanese art. I work with two artists: photographer Renee Cox and multimedia artist Carla Gannis. They both have been heavily influential to my creative process.


CA: What do you do to improve on your craft? Techniques? RS: I attach creating to everyday parts of my day. I take pictures on my route to work, I keep a notepad with me and write when a thought comes to my head, I practice my singing when I walk to strengthen my voice. When I’m feeling down or anxious or bored, I pick a medium and create something, anything. Even if it’s terrible, it’s progress.

CA: What is the perfect picture to you? RS: I don’t believe in the perfect picture. I do, however, believe in pleasant surprises: when you find something in the image you didn’t see when you first shot the photo.

CA: How do you work with your clients for shoots and events? RS: I work alone usually, because the ideas and passion to shoot often strike me suddenly and I want to jump up and create the image immediately. Sometimes I have friends come over to shoot and I set up my tripod and start giving them accessories and objects from my room to pose with. Other times I have friends with talents of their own that want me to photograph them so they’ll either tell me what kind of mood they want to show or they’ll just leave the artistic direction up to me. It really depends.


CA: How long have you been doing photography? RS: I have been making art my entire life. I started seriously making photographs when I took a darkroom photography class in high school.

CA: Do you have a favorite shoot? RS: A friend of my who is a singer/songwriter who wanted me to photograph her. I asked her if she could come to my apartment at 5am. It is the perfect time to shoot but the time frame the sun is up is rather short (30 minute). She came around dawn and we got to shooting. We had some great shots from that shoot.


CA: What is fun and rewarding for you in regards to photography? RS: When you see the image or you see the image on the street (you have the feeling I have to get that shot). There are things that happen within seconds and you can miss it. I was walking down the street and I caught the image of a dog about to fall off a sidewalk. To be able to snatch a split second out of life is exciting. In even in the dark room to develop you film and the image appears. The image coming out of the paper is kind of crazy (that’s magic to me).

CA: How do you want your work/portfolio to be remembered for? RS: I want my work to be accessible to those who may not even understand.  I want my images to resonate emotionally with the viewer. I want it to be remembered as playful but serious. Elementary yet powerful. I don’t want people to think too hard on it. People shouldn’t have to read a book to understand my work.


CA: What is the best advice you can give someone with a strong desire to do photography? RS: Just do it. Look at art and other works. Look at them and look at yours (then just do it). Start and be aware of why you are doing it.

Follow Rafia on her facebook page @RAFIA, her tumblr page raf-i-a, and her instagram @raf.i.a

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