By Ron Wagner
Cristina Benitez is Watkins senior Sandra Ventura-Benitez’s mother. She’s a naturalized American citizen who fled to the United States at the age of 21 to escape the savage 12-year Salvadoran Civil War, a war that cost the lives of more than 75,000 people. That also makes her an immigrant.
To her daughter, that fact is a footnote in the life of the woman who created, raised, and loves her. To many Americans, however, “immigrant” is the only label for Benitez that matters.
But what if it weren’t?
Ventura-Benitez can’t change everything, but she can change that. And she’s doing it through a series of intimate photographs.
“A lot of my work is centered around (my mother) and her journey and her story, because as a child she grew up in a civil war,” Ventura-Benitez says. “I come from a family of immigrants, so it’s important to tell their stories. I always say that when people see other people, they want to know their stories. When people see my work, I want them to be able to create their own stories but also be able to listen to what’s trying to be said.”
Cristina is Ventura-Benitez’s biggest inspiration, but Sandra also has made portraits of her sisters Joselin Gonzalez and Melany Gonzalez and has begun taking pictures of other women in the Nashville Latino community in which she is heavily involved. Her eventual goal is to have a series.
“My work is centered a lot around female empowerment,” Ventura-Benitez says. “When you see my photographs, they’re not straightforward. I want you to come up to a meaning, so I’m not really being direct.”
Understated doesn’t only describe Ventura-Benitez’s pictures. A quiet and—by her own admission—shy demeanor belies the ambitious nature of her artistic goals that began with the decision to come to Watkins determined to be a photography student despite having little idea how to use a camera.
“Ever since I was little I wanted to do something in the art field. I just never really thought about what,” she says. “I was always interested in photography. I was just never given the opportunity to learn anything because in high school they didn’t have any programs that dealt with photography, so coming to Watkins, everything was from scratch. But it was really neat to me to learn everything. The fun wasn’t taken away.”
Robin Paris, the chair of the Watkins photography department, has known Ventura-Benitez since she was a freshman and serves as her advisor. Watching her grow has been rewarding, to say the least.
“We’ve had a lot of students who make incredible work, and they all are going to do well,” Paris says. “Where Sandra stands out is that she’s had this goal of how to use a camera ever since she started, and she has found ways to make things work for her.”
Ventura-Benitez’s portraits are minimalistic but powerful, and all are purposefully missing the traditional square frame. Circles, instead, give the pictures structure in space.
“The circle is one of the most pleasing shapes to humans. They mimic the face. They mimic the sun,” Paris observes. “To Sandra, it has been about these circles of journeys. The portraits are quite lovely, and they do just what she wants them to do: They show a lot of dignity to the people she’s photographing.”
Two of Ventura-Benitez’s biggest influences are artists Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, who are known for tackling social issues affecting minority groups. But Sandra’s goal isn’t to be a savior—it’s to be a friend.
“For me, it doesn’t have to do with making the world a better place. It’s telling somebody’s story and showing that other people care, you matter,” she says. “You’re not the only one who’s affected. Others have this story, and I just want other people to care and not be ignorant to situations that are going on at this time.”
That certainly sounds like a better world, but in the short term Ventura-Benitez will have to tackle the fear of sharing the intimacy of her art. She admits she can barely stomach the idea of showing the photographs, and selling them is still out of the question. “It’s so personal for me,” Ventura-Benitez admits.
That’s not unusual for young artists, Paris notes. “How can I tell a story that tells a truth that other people don’t know about? This kind of work has a trajectory that isn’t necessarily about images on a wall, a gallery,” Paris says. “She’s been focusing on ways to make her community known to people outside of that community and to dignify the work they do, the journey they’ve made. These will be in her senior show. Like a lot of students, she’s unsure. They know what it means to them. They know what it means to a few of us. But often times, especially when they’re really personal, a lot of students, if they’re honest, are unsure of what they’re going to mean (to everyone else).”
Paris doesn’t share her doubts because of her confidence in her student.
“I appreciate where her heart is and where her goals lie. It’s commendable,” Paris says. “She’s really good at this kind of social documentary work that she’s doing now.”
For a glimpse at Ventura-Benitez’s portfolio, visit her website.