Puerto Ricans, Reframed

Edwin Torres describes his portraits of Puerto Rican Millennials as “a project about hope.” The 26-year-old photographer produced his series with help from a grant from The Ground Truth Project, a non-profit that offers narrative storytelling grants to young journalists. “A lot of these young people I’m photographing, their futures are uncertain, my future is uncertain,” Torres says. “But there’s lot of light that they’re emanating and putting out into the world.”

The black-and-white images are striking, yet simple. Their focus is on the people Torres photographs: a broad range of characters including doctors, hackers, and food truck entrepreneurs. Some are unemployed and looking for work. Some are college dropouts. One poses at a tech conference on the island, and another stands in the classroom where he teaches in The Bronx.

Torres’ work is informed by his personal background—he was raised by Puerto Rican migrants in the Hunts Point neighborhood of The Bronx. It also reflects Puerto Ricans’ complicated history both on the island and in the mainland United States. “Us Puerto Ricans, we’re a really prideful people, and we love our culture because we’re such a mix of so many different cultures,” Torres says. “But with that pride in our culture, and that richness, comes a lot of complexity ... When I’m in the U.S., I feel like a Puerto Rican even though I was born in New York. Going to a liberal arts private school, I felt like the ‘other.’ When I go back to the island I’m an American. You don’t really have a home anywhere you go, so you’re always in flux, in between.”

In the 1960s, Puerto Ricans moved to New York City in large numbers in search of jobs. Many were already mired in generational poverty by the collapse of the island’s sugar cane industry at the end of the 20th century. But they didn’t necessarily find the prosperity they were looking for in the U.S. In 2000, a report by the Community Service Society of New York found that young Puerto Ricans were faring far worse than other Latinos in New York, with “rates of school enrollment, educational attainment, and employment lower than any other comparable group.”

Today, the island remains in economic crisis. In January, it defaulted on payments for its massive debt for the second time in five months. As Puerto Rico continues to slip into recession, many residents on the island have chosen to move, more recently in record numbers, to the mainland. Last year, 84,000 people left the island for the U.S., a 38 percent increase from 2010, according to Pew Research Center.

In the midst of this moment, Torres hopes his project can serve as a “visual dialogue” between young Puerto Ricans on the island and those on the mainland, as both groups navigate a socioeconomic climate shaped by a history of poverty. To encourage this, he shares the portraits on social media and plans to exhibit them towards the end of the summer. Ultimately, he hopes other young Puerto Ricans today, wherever they are, see these stories and find inspiration, connections and a sense of community, despite the ocean separating them.

Torres shoots his portraits on a 30-year-old Hasselblad medium format film camera, which forces him to slow down and adjust his settings manually. He develops the black-and-white film himself in the basement of the Bronx Documentary Project, a nonprofit photography and film space where he also volunteers. It’s a painstakingly slow process compared to shooting digitally. Each roll he shoots makes just 12 images, so he has to be particularly thoughtful about each frame so as to not waste the expensive film. But his pace is intentional. “I thought it was the best way to do it to pay tribute to the people,” Torres says. “A medium-format black-and-white portrait empowers them, makes them look like they deserve the space on this negative.” The decelerated process also lends an air of intimacy to the images. With the extra time spent setting up the shot, Torres’ subjects can become comfortable with him as they share their stories.

Torres associates his project with the Spanish slang word pa’lante, which roughly translates to “onward” or “forward.” “As minorities, we tend to think less of ourselves or be less confident about the fact that our stories matter,” he said. “And I’ve felt that throughout times in the project as well. I keep reminding myself, no, it does matter, people need to see this stuff.”

“We need to see stories of hope every once in awhile,” he says.

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