photographer santana bellas talks gentrification, authenticity, and being a gay black artist

July 26, 2017
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Written by Devyn Springer /Offtharecord*, AFROPUNK contributor

I first came across the work of Santana Bellas a few years ago on Tumblr, while searching for artistic blogs to follow that sparked my interest. What drew me to Bellas’ work was the strong attention to detail that covered his entire aesthetic; an attention to detail that exists through peculiar fashion sense, shadow-filled lighting, and models in photographs who are visually striking in unconventional ways.

When I spoke with Santana Bellas on the phone, I was delighted to hear from one of my favorite photographers as we discussed identity, artistic influences, and life in general. “I came to the Bay Area when I was 15, then later moved to LA for art school. After that I came back to the Bay Area, and I’m 24 now and have been here ever since.” He describes an upbringing as a military child, having moved around to several places like Hawaii and Northern Virginia as giving him an open mind. “Growing up in different places really makes you open minded and lets you see and appreciate different cultures.”

There is an innate serenity or calmness found in Bellas’ work, which resembles his deep interest in spirituality. “I like to read a lot, especially spiritual books,” he says. “I’m influenced by reading books on Buddhism, Sufism, meditating, poetry, and things like that.” His photographs feel fresh and interesting, and often feature models of color in contemplative, colorful scenes. I find his often placement of models in nature, or surrounded by plants and vivid army greens, to be quite particular given he is a Black photographer portraying other people of color in this manner. It seems to define, or possibly reclaim, a narrative of reattaching bodies to nature and spirituality that have been historically denied of that experience.

Last year Bellas helped create “The Gentrification of Oakland,” a newspaper creative project that focuses on social justice issues and, as the name insinuates, the gentrification of Oakland. As someone who has spent much time protesting gentrification in Atlanta and looking for various ways to bring attention to the displacement of Black people occurring in several cities due to gentrification, I found this newspaper-style creative project to be a completely unique and wonderful way to bring attention to the discourse.

A large part of the Gentrification of Oakland newspaper was interviews with residents in Oakland about the subject, and I wanted to know in what ways his identity as a Black photographer played into conducting these photographs and interviews. “We wanted to go into different parts of Oakland and just discuss the topic with folks, and allow them to honestly explain how they felt.” He says that they met several folks that were opposed to gentrification, and even some who were in favor of it. “We would be on streets in predominantly Black neighborhoods with old, ran down housing and cars on it, and right across the street we would see techy, hipstery buildings filled with mostly white people and it was just really odd. We saw a white couple walking her dog through the projects in West Oakland, and they clearly stood out. It was so odd because they’d walk through poverty stricken areas like they don’t see what is around them.”

Projects like the Gentrification of Oakland are so important because they repeal a history of racial voyeurism that has plagued the art of photography since it began. From Jacob Riis’ 1980 How The Other Half Lives to today’s Viceland obsession with gazing into the Black community, there has been a lack of Black photographers cultivating and documenting our own narratives; our communities have often been subjected to outsider interest, which is often exploitative in its class/racial voyeuristic nature. This is reflected in the work of approaching residents, Santana says. “I was there working on interviewing and photographing people with my friend who is very racially ambiguous, and if I wasn’t there I don’t think most Black resident would have felt comfortable being photographed by him or it would have been much more difficult. Many people were more comfortable with me talking and taking photos of them. I think having a Black person talk to another Black person about our topics, you feel safer. Me being a tall Black guy with a beard, people felt comfortable with me, members from the Nation of Islam would say ‘salaam’ to me, you know?”

This exposes the power in his work and the power in being someone who is not just a photographer, but a Black gay photographer; you are able to step in and fashion art and communication where the rest of the world has historically failed. “When you have white photographers and videographers doing documentaries on ‘the hood’ or you have Noisey centering white boys walking through the streets of Atlanta, South Central, or Chicago, it’s like – yall are just doing this shit for views and clickbait.” This is the kind of work which positions Black and Latino neighborhoods and experiences as mere entertainment, Santana says, when they bring “Twink looking white boys to talk to dreadheads in the hood just for the laugh of it.”

When I ask about the art scene where he is, he describes working with a collective of friends who are all creative. “We all just take pictures, model, write, do all that stuff,” he says, noting that they happen to be mostly people of color in the collective, too. When you search through his Instagram or Tumblr page, you instantly get a sense of friendship and compassion for those people around him that are featured in his work; sentiments that are missing from many people’s artwork.

Bellas says being a Black artist can be overwhelming at times, which is why it’s important to create our own spaces for art and existing. “It can feel like sometimes, ‘you’re too queer for the Black community’ or ‘you’re too Black for the queer community,’ and between being fetishized by white gays at the gay clubs and all that, it can be a lot.” He speaks with passion about just how intimidating being a Black and openly gay artist can be, but assures “it can be inspiring, because we are so unique and special as Black queer artists.”

“My influences vary, but since my mom was in the military I’ve always liked military inspired fashion and the color green. I really like Fidel Castro, the way he held himself and how he always looked in imagery was very great to me, and the way he held himself.” Santana’s style can be described as urban thrift store Fidel Castro chic, and it shines through in all of his photos.

His fashion sense, like the artistic style presented in his photographs, signals a desire to be offbeat and avoid what is trendy, and this is surely what makes his work stand out. Santana Bellas’ photography feels fresh and intriguing, while existing within a cultivated and developing aesthetic filled with dark greens and sunshine that radiates some kind of innate spirituality. I look forward to seeing what other projects he puts out!

*This post is published in partnership with Offtharecord.