Raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York by immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, Damaso Reyes has had some of the common experiences many first-generation Americans have had since the Dutch started procreating in the colony they called New Amsterdam. Damaso has grown up with all the common icons and habits of the plurality we call “American,” but he is distinctly aware of diaspora, and the baggage it brings metaphorically, economically, socially, emotionally, and—not least importantly—literally.
Artistically, Damaso has spent his adulthood as a photojournalist chronicling the dispossessed and asylum-seekers of the world. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Far Eastern Economic Review, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair Germany, Der Spiegel and TIME Asia, among others. Recipient of a J. William Fulbright Scholarship and an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship, Damaso has shot photographs around the globe. His current project, The Europeans, is documenting the changing face of Europe. Sponsored by Kodak, this series of black and white photos documents immigration, identity, economics, and the politics affecting these issues.
“I don’t like flat pictures,” says Damaso. “I like visually-rich images in all senses of that term. I shoot extensively in black and white, but I love saturation in color, as well. Honestly, part of it is about metering. That addresses how you see light and how you want to render light. I like photos based in reality, but maybe slightly richer. One of the goals of being a photographer, and any artist, for that matter, is to show things about the world we might be familiar with, but in a different way.”
“It’s a philosophical choice for me about whether to shoot black and white or color for a particular assignment. I made a conscious decision four and a half years ago to shoot The Europeans project in black and white. What’s important for me is shooting differently, depending on which I’m using at the time. If it’s color film, I see the world in a different way, and I’m trying to accentuate things accordingly. The same is true for black and white. It’s important to make choices. I will not shoot certain things if I don’t have the right film with me. I’m a big fan of the new Kodak Ektar 100. It’s got incredible grain. If I’m shooting models in lower light, I’ll use Portra 400. As an artist, you have to make choices about the cameras and film you use. Of course having a good light meter and understanding the light around you is integral to making good choices.”
Damaso received an excellent technical background in photography by attending New York University. Before that he learned on his own, starting with a subscription to Photographic, from which he followed the exercises, and tried to copy their sample photos. “When you really understand the fundamentals of your craft and are able to manipulate the tools in your repertoire, brings you closer to getting a great picture and not just a good picture,” he says. “The problem with all this great technology photographers now enjoy is people getting into the field feel they don’t need to learn the fundamentals. When I was in college one of the first things I learned was the zone system. To this day I still use it. It informs me and helps me take better pictures. You can’t really execute your vision if you don’t have the technical foundation.”
Feeling strongly about starting off with a great photograph is imperative for Damaso’s work. “If you want to create images which are visually interesting, complex and different, the light is your fundamental resource to do that. You can play with images in Photoshop and in the darkroom, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. You can make a bad photograph good, but you can never make a good photograph great. When I have a properly metered and exposed photo, it means I don’t have to waste a lot of time working on it afterwards. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the more time and care you take up front, the better off you are in the long run.” Even though he constantly runs the numbers of the zone system through his head while working in chaotic environments like street shooting, Damaso says, “there are times I use the spot meter on my Sekonic L-508 Zoom Master. It’s great to have it when I need it, but most of the time I use the incident meter. I like having tools which give me the information to make the right choice for my work. A lot of photographers don’t understand built-in camera meters have serious limitations. They are not incredibly accurate devices. Most people who don’t know the zone system don’t understand how light meters work. Camera meters in the Program mode are always incredibly conservative. They are always trying to get you more light. You need to account for that and the best way is to use a light meter.”
“I just came back from overseas for months and I was using my Sekonic meter every day. It worked perfectly, and you have that peace of mind your exposures aren’t going to be wildly off.” This is important for Damaso, who “hasn’t used a strobe in a few years, now.” A big advocate of shooting with available light only, accurate meter readings are critical to his process. “If you want to increase, say, depth of field, you can’t adjust that in Photoshop. You need a meter while you’re shooting to make those kind of things happen.”
With a great passion for social justice on both national and small community levels, Damaso chronicles all he can on his seemingly constant travels. Exposing the plight of those forced to flee their homelands to capturing exotic flowers, Damaso continues to calculate light values in his head, checking them when he needs to with his “essential tool,” his Sekonic L-508.
Written by Ron Egatz