Photographing in a Sea of Complex Dialogue

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael CourierLTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

Each person who attended the opening ceremonies of the LTC Carnaval received a biodegradable balloon to release at The Quad at DePaul University.

I am sitting on the couch and my palms are facing me. I’m trying to decide if my right hand, my camera hand, is swollen or if it’s just my imagination. In the past two days I’ve spent over 20 hours photographing. There are 12 more hours of work ahead of me and I’m not thinking about the exhaustion.

From July 23rd to July 25th, I was the official photographer of the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC) Carnaval of New Latina/o Work. I scampered about the Theatre School of DePaul University looking for the important moments. I photographed conversations, educational talks, discussion groups, rehearsals, readings, and the environment I was immersed within.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

Closing ceremony celebrations!

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

Jorge Huerta leading a discussion group (L). The cast for the reading of the living’life of the daughter mira by Matthew Paul Olmos (R).

Over the last few weeks I’ve tried to figure out what to say and how to say it. My photos alone do not adequately portray the emotion and conviction that occurred on stage. They do not reflect the tone of voice and timing that is so crucial in comedy and drama. They alone do not represent the historical context and importance of the issues discussed.

The Carnaval was a place where conversations about race, immigration, education, family relations, societal roles, religion, time travel, LGBTQ issues, heritage, and mental anguish were explored through theater and conversation. Those topics sound heavy—and they certainly can be—but clever storytelling and laughter made them easy to digest.

Here are a few things that have stuck with me since the festival ended.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

Breakout session during the festival.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Mother Road by Octavio Solis.

“The color we all are.”

“Can you see anything beyond the taint of his bones? Can you see the color of his skin? You see white or black or Mexican on him? That right there, that’s the color we all are. In the end, that’s the color of strife and need and hunger and pain. That’s the color of death.”

Those lines come from Mother Road by Octavio Solis. In this scene, the characters are having a discussion while the bones of a deceased family member lay in view.

The themes of the play were part of a larger conversation that I had with playwright Amparo Garcia-Crow. We talked about her DNA test and the diverse background she uncovered. Besides making me want to have my own DNA tested, our conversation relates to a broader view. We discussed the “Out of Africa” theory which is the most widely accepted model of geographic origin. As humans migrate and evolve, our skin color changes. The melanin in our skin adapts as we move to other areas with more or less UV light.

Our skin color is beyond our control. With enough time, it changes. Therefore, judging those with more or less melanin is a silly concept that serves no purpose other than to divide, hate, and degrade. As silly as it is, it’s still a major issue that will take more time and more education to resolve.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Satyricoño by Migdalia Cruz.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Perfectamente Loca by Magdalena Gómez (L). Actors in the greenroom before they take the stage (R).

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Más by Milta Ortiz.

Education as a social filter.

Milta Ortiz’s Más discusses the Tucson Unified School District and the Arizona law that was written in 2010 to end the Mexican American Studies Department program. The law makes it illegal to “teach classes that are intended for any given ethnic group”. Regardless of the benefits—like a higher graduation rate and improved standardized test scores—the courses were banned. It was said that they promote racism. For many students, the class allowed them to see their own reflection in the classroom.

Last month the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Arizona district court to require a trial because enough evidence exists to indicate the law is partially motivated by “discriminatory intent.” This isn’t the first time—nor the last—that education will be filtered from our younger generation, but there are other ways of restricting information without abolishing an educational program.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

Ideas to improve Latina/o theater being written down during a group session.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Swimming While Drowning by Emilio Rodriguez.

Colorado’s AP studies program altered their material because it covered too much of the darker aspects of American heritage. In Texas, their new textbooks downplay slavery. They ignore the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. An edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was altered so that a number of offensive words were changed to new words with different meanings and subtext.

If we are to advance and heal as a society, if we are to avoid previous mistakes, we must know what came before us. Filtering out our dark past and ignoring those who have a different background than us makes it that much harder to relate with one another. It’s disgraceful to our past, and it’s dangerous for our future.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Wolf at the Door by Marisela Treviño Orta.

“I’m not racist. They’re racist!”

I recently watched the documentary 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets. It was enlightening. The post-show conversation featured the mother of slain teenager Jordan Davis, whose death was the impetus of the film. Jordan was fatally wounded by Michael Dunn, essentially, over loud rap music and an abrasive conversation.

That’s a twisted motive for shooting 10 bullets into a car of four teenagers.

Dunn’s language was shocking. In recorded calls he made from prison, he referred to the youths—all black—as thugs, gangster rappers, and part of the MTV generation. His language was demeaning and misunderstood. The teenagers? All suburban kids with no record.

It led me to wonder, what were his experiences with other cultures? Where did his prejudices originate? Where was his empathy and remorse?

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Sweep by Georgina Escobar.

The mission of the LTC Carnaval was about increasing the visibility of the Latina/o playwrights, and actors, to promote a positive culture of diverse backgrounds. The plays were about complex issues; about creating a dialogue. About representation.

The same reason Michael Dunn was misguided and wrong is the exact reason why the LTC Carnaval is vital: empathy.

If my view of society is warped by misinformation and bias, my actions will then be based on a corrupted source. You cannot view an entire group of people based on the actions of one person. Nor can you view an entire group based on the actions of a few characters on a tv show or within a play.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

The cast of Parachute Men by Mando Alvarado.

Everyone deserves to be represented in society. We deserve respect for our personal choices. We should expect no harm to come to us for being different.

More conversations with people from different backgrounds will help bridge this social gap. More plays with people from different backgrounds. More stories with diverse characters. More dialogues about complex issues. Not simply soundbites or stereotypes.

As we continue to divide our society into labels, groups, and factions, it’s all too easy to dismiss those who we deem to be different than us or those we do not understand. It’s easy to stifle their voices and ignore their sufferings because they are outside our group and not within.

The spirit of the festival was based around the idea that, regardless of age or background, we each have something to offer other people and they have something to offer us. If we carry that message forward, we’d be making excellent strides toward helping—and understanding—one another.

LTC Carnaval at Theatre School of DePaul University - Performance and Event Photography by Michael Courier

All of the playwrights! From left to right: Marisela Treviño Orta, Mando Alvarado, Diane Rodriguez, Emilio Rodriguez, Virginia Grise, Matthew Paul Olmos, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Georgina Escobar, Milta Ortiz, Magdalena Gómez, Octavio Solis, and Migdalia Cruz.

Footnotes, Summaries, and Gratitude

Each of the twelve plays can be written about in length for each performance. Not to mention the impact and weight the conversations had about progressing Latina/o exposure in the theater world—and the world as a whole. Or the civil and societal impact of racism.

A number of other sources have also covered the LTC Carnaval. The American Theatre has posted a summary. HowlRound has covered days one, two, and three on their site.

I’ve linked to the New Play Exchange in many of the photo captions. Each link takes you to a draft of the play that has been pictured. If the play wasn’t available, I’ve linked to the playwright’s bio. I encourage you to find the time to read one piece of work, but hopefully more.

Lastly, I cannot say enough about the quality of the atmosphere that was created by those who attended the event. Time and again I heard words of encouragement and excitement. Words of advice or hope. People actively and passionately engaged in conversation. That’s an infectious environment that is hard to ignore. It’s inspiring!

I didn’t feel like a witness, I felt part of the event. People noticed my efforts to capture the festivities, too. They were concerned about my wellbeing and that was touching. A few people gave compliments to images that were already published. Others were curious to know how they looked.

The fact that I can learn while I work is a perk that is not taken for granted.