Josefina Santos’s Colorful Photography Portrays Humanity and Personal Identities
Josefina Santos is a Colombian graphic designer and award-winning, self-taught photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. She was born and raised in Bogotá, surrounded by a family of journalists and writers in which storytelling was the norm. The spark for telling visual stories was always present in her life, but it was not until adulthood that she found her calling for photography as a serious artistic career path and passion.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I found a photography album that belonged to my father. He’d taken photos from trips around Colombia. They were for investigation, but also with friends on trips to very remote places,” Santos said. “I just remember that I saw that album, and something in me made me click. I feel that was the first encounter that I had [with photography].”
That moment was the first time Santos’s interest in photography became evident. This encounter inspired her to begin shooting 35-millimeter photographs during her adolescence. At the time, her photography was more of a hobby; she did not consider photography a viable career. When the time came, she chose to study graphic design at Parsons School of Design in New York.
“I ended up studying graphic design. That was what brought me to New York, and I worked as a graphic designer for a lot of years,” Santos said. “I was a bit frustrated and unhappy because I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Yet, the study of color theory is always present in her art: colorful photography that portrays humanity and personal identities. There’s no way you’ll miss the color in her photographs. It’s an inherent tool for Santos’ visual storytelling and an artistic element that adds depth to her portraits.
With her educational background in color and a desire to delve into a new art form, Santos challenged herself to discover who she was as a photographer. In her exploration of finding herself as an artist, she also pursued staying in New York long-term. That meant getting an O-1 work visa, which is a non-immigrant visa given to individuals who possess extraordinary ability. During that process, she returned to Colombia for a while and found herself working on one of her most ambitious and personal photography projects: Sucre.
Initial Personal Exploration Through Photography
“During that time, when I was changing my visa, I was in Colombia. That’s when I started my first personal photography project,” Santos said. “That project did not change my vision, but it gave me the fundamental bases on what type of photographer I want to be and what I like.”
When Santos was raised in Bogotá, she spent more time with her paternal family. As an adult, she wanted to explore her roots on her mother’s side. Her maternal great-grandfather was Lebanese and migrated to Colombia from the area that is now known as Syria. Santos first thought that her photographic exploration of her maternal family would be about that, but once she started visiting the Department of Sucre in Colombia, her project completely changed.
“I thought the project was going to be an exploration a bit more personal, but once I started going to Sucre to spend time with my grandmother, my cousins, and being in the town, the project started opening up,” Santos said. “The project started presenting itself.”
She began approaching people on the streets to take their portraits. These initial interactions with strangers made her nervous., But with time and repetition, she gained confidence while integrating herself with the community. This led her to discover her love and passion for portrait photography.
“I take photos of people. That’s what I’m really passionate about. It’s more than doing portraits,” Santos said. “I’m really passionate about the collaboration that I have as a photographer with the person I’m shooting. It’s really a collaboration. I don’t take a photo of someone. That person also has to give me [back]. It’s a relationship that goes both ways.”
It’s been five years since Santos started her project, Sucre, which will be her first photo book. It was through Sucre that she found her talent and ability to do portraits. She considers portraiture very intimate because of the required physical proximity with the people.
Through Sucre, she started seeing additional opportunities bloom as a professional photographer in the United States. It served as a bridge to editors in major media publications, by understanding that her personal story is a defining element of who she is as an artist.
“For many years, no one answered me. I then noticed that they started answering when I began sharing this project. I realized that this was a personal project that was saying something, and it was my point of view,” Santos said. “That’s why people began answering, and that’s how I had my first meetings with editors. It has a more personal tact, and I feel that when editors hire you, it’s because they’re looking for you [in your photography].”
Making It into the Big Leagues
At this point, her career began to take off, and she started to take herself seriously as a photographer. In 2019, at 26 years of age, her professional photography career began. Since then, Santos has had her portraits published with media outlets such as the New York Times, TIME, Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, InStyle, ELLE, Teen Vogue, and Vogue U.S.
Her work with major publications has given her the opportunity to shoot portraits of high-profile celebrities. She has photographed artists and athletes, including Serena Williams, Bad Bunny, Gloria Estefan, Olivia Rodrigo, Sydney Sweeney, Toksicha, Kylian Mbappé, and many more.
“All of what you do and the opportunities are incredible. Taking photos of Bad Bunny. Wow. I wouldn’t have reached this point of photographing Bad Bunny if I hadn’t been through all of this, through this personal project,” Santos said. “It’s also about the importance of the collaboration you do with everyone you’re working with, including the person you’re photographing, because it’s a relationship.”
Santos emphasizes the interpersonal relationship between her and the person photographed each time she shoots portraits. For her, it’s about creating a safe space and making sure her subjects are always taken care of. Therefore, her colorful portraits evoke profound human feelings, which portray her interpretation of their personal identities.
“Photography and portraits are never a real identity of the person photographed. It’s always a collaboration. Both of us are always there,” Santos said. “I want people to be reflected and elevated in the photos. I respect everyone who gives me the opportunity to photograph them. I always want to elevate them and for it to be genuine.”
To achieve those genuine portraits, Santos adheres to an empathetic process during her sessions. She understands that she’s interacting with people first and subjects second. She creates a space where they feel comfortable to share their energy, then explores the photographic possibilities that they’re giving her. To generate this interaction, she talks with them, asks them questions, and gets to know them. To create a friendly environment, she always tries to include music and props as a way for the people to relax before she photographs them.
Portraying Celebrities’ Humanity Through Color
For Bad Bunny’s portraiture, Santos explored her creativity and artistry by incorporating dissected butterflies she had purchased long before. She hadn’t yet had the chance to make use of them. But after Santos and Bad Bunny’s stylist had chosen various fashion looks, she asked Bad Bunny if he’d like to use one of them for the photos.
“He loved it and chose a red one. With him and his makeup artist, we decided to place it on his hand. It was very nice because that gave a certain vibe to the photos and direction to how he was going to pose,” Santos said. “Since we wanted to show the butterfly, many of the poses naturally began being like this, and this [does gestures with hands]. Everything with the hand in front.”
Using props enabled Santos to portray a very natural and genuine version of Bad Bunny. Another example where props enhanced Santos’ carefree and uplifting portraiture was her work with Dominican rapper Tokischa. When you look at those photos, your glance is immediately drawn in because of the bright green malachite background, and its contrast with Tokischa enchants you.
“With Tokischa, it was very mystical. I had that malachite background saved for a long time in my ideas folder. That background by itself tells an impressive story. I work with intuition a lot. If there’s something that I physically react to, I trust that and use it,” Santos said. “With that background, I was like: that’s perfect for Tokischa. And just by coincidence, Tokischa loves malachites. She had a necklace with that gemstone. She also had her nails done [with that pattern],” Santos said. “That was not planned. For me, that was like: wow. She even asked me how I knew, and I told her I didn’t know.”
One of Santos’ characteristic elements is trusting her intuition with colors to evoke certain feelings, as exemplified in her malachite background with Tokischa. For her, colors are synonymous with feelings and a tool to represent different phenomena throughout the stories she’s working with. She uses color to make people pop out, to create tension, or to generate a softer ambiance, depending on the story’s purpose.
When selecting the colors she wants to explore, she accounts for the person's skin tones to prevent washing them out. Along with skin tone, she considers hair color and other physical characteristics to make the person stand out in a carefree manner. This is particularly evident in French football player Kylian Mbappé’s portraits.
With one day’s notice, Santos was asked if she could photograph Mbappé for the New York Times. Despite this time crunch, she delivered captivating portraits, in which he seemingly stares directly at the viewer, while still giving off a friendly vibe. He stands out—the strong contrast between the bright red background and his black shirt pops out of the page.
“With Mbappé, for the red [background] I thought about France. I had to use red. How am I not going to use it with his skin tone? Red will look great with him,” Santos recalled.
Her meticulous color selection on set is just one element of her process to breathe life into her photos. Since she works with film photography, controlling the colors is essential in conveying that sense of humanity. After shooting the portraits with a medium format camera, she selects the final photos and finally edits the final selection. In the editing phase, tweaking the colors allows her to create more depth while staying true to her Colombian roots, which are synonymous with her love for vivid, brilliant, and intense colors.
This mastery of color is rooted in her interpersonal relationships with the people she photographs.
“I’m very sensitive and susceptible to people’s energies. That sometimes works in my favor. And sometimes, it works against me. If something isn’t working and there’s no connection, it’s hard for me,” Santos said. “I completely open up to the people I’m photographing, and when they give that back, it’s incredible. We nurture each other with that collaboration. But when it doesn’t happen, I suffer a lot energetically, and it’s very difficult for me.”
To keep up with Santos’ beautiful portrait photography, follow her on Instagram at @josefinasantos.
©ArtRKL™️ LLC 2021-2023. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. ArtRKL™️ and its underscore design indicate trademarks of ArtRKL™️ LLC and its subsidiaries.