• Journal

Focus on the Photographer: Gabby Garcia-Steib

Upon her move to Mexico City, we caught up with photographer and filmmaker Gabby Garcia-Steib on the topics of art, truth, storytelling, and teaching.

Photo: Michael Tucker

Upon her move to Mexico City, we caught up with photographer and filmmaker Gabby Garcia-Steib on the topics of art, truth, storytelling, and teaching.

Family seems so important in your life and work. What would you like to say about that? Has it always been so, or did you have some moment that led to greater appreciation and focus?

I had a strange childhood. My parents divorced when I was very young and I moved in with my maternal grandmother when I was about 14. My parents were from extremely different social classes, and this made me reflect on my identity constantly. My mom’s side is Nicaraguan and Mexican, and my dad’s side is from Gentilly, Louisiana. There was always tension at my birthday parties, because half of the family was speaking Spanish and the other half was reserved and judgmental. I always gravitated towards my mother’s family because they were more affectionate; I think latinos tend to be more giving and warm and centered. I had always been fascinated by my grandmother and her past. Living with her changed my life – I had become part of this past with her. I don’t know how to explain it. We would listen to her old Mexican cassette tapes together while she made me platanos and gallo pinto in the morning, she would tell me stories about why she left Nicaragua everyday, she made me more compassionate. I lived with her until college, when she got sick with cirrhosis, and she started home hospice. I was holding her hand when she took her last breath. That moment was life-changing and I knew I wanted to continue her legacy and record stories. I knew I was going to live through her for the rest of my existence.

What are some other favorite memories about living with your grandmother and learning from her?

Some of favorite memories were the simple things like watching her soap operas with her, like la Rosa de Guadalupe, or at Christmas eve every year we’d be eating nacatamales and she would turn on her cassette player and pull out her Maracas to play for everyone. She adored performing. She was an an amateur actress when she was younger, and her mother was a seamstress so she has all of these photos of her dressed up looking like Maria Felix or something. When I was 17 or 18 I started staying out late and she would lock me out of the house if I arrived past 10pm. She lived in a very safe area but she was so mad at me for leaving her too long. She would leave me notes in spanglish, because she really wanted to use english more. When she got sick she regressed into a fragile and childlike state; I would feed her mandarin oranges on the couch and sing songs with her to help her remember things.

My grandfather left her for another woman when my mom was about 5, but before all of that my grandparents corresponded in lengthy letters between Mexico and the U.S. and my grandmother numbered them and kept them in this cabinet above the fridge. She was very specific with her things, constantly archiving things – I think that is where I got my need to document everything from.

How has your relationship to your Latinx heritage continued to grow and evolve beyond your primary family?

I think I’ve always somehow been involved with the Latino community here. I worked at Mexican restaurant in college and became close with a lot of immigrants from Central America, mostly women and mothers, and I learned the struggle of migration, as it was something I had never experienced. I only know the stories of the generations before me who left for political persecution and new lives in the states.

You've done so many things over the years. Teaching, organizing, art. What are your primary media, and what jobs and roles have been most important to you?

I started volunteering with community organizations in college, teaching ESL classes through Catholic Charities for adults. I also began the first bilingual column in Antigravity Magazine to shed light upon Latinx issues in New Orleans. I feel there has never been enough coverage or documentation about the histories here, and it has been something that I feel drawn to connect the missing links and help give voices to those who face erasure. Almost two years ago I started teaching ESL full-time at a charter school in New Orleans. It had always been an emotional job. Students were coming to school with parents being in processes of deportation, coming with stories of gang violence. I mean, they had so much pain in them, and they’re expected to just live this normal day-to-day life. I had worked endlessly to have my students recognize the significance of their voice and their narrative. Most of my teaching has always been based on writing, and often on story-telling. Through these exercises, my students, some as young as 7, have divulged horrific and traumatizing stories that exemplify the brutality of migration and the impact it has on immigrants in America. From gang violence, to border patrol shooting at buses and family members in front of my students, to not eating for days and walking on foot through the desert of Mexico, to not being able to leave the house out of fear of deportation, my children have faced it all.

I think my primary medium is photography and filmmaking, but there is no art without truth, and I think telling stories is my focus and documenting cultures that I know are important to me. Teaching has always and always will be a role that is important to me, and I think because it is so dynamic, there is no one-way to teach. I received a fellowship this past year with an organization called Our Voice Nuestra Voice where we learned to be more adequate teachers to our ESL students, and it really changed my mindset on a lot. We can't teach if we do not understand the struggles, the barriers, and the histories of students of color. We live in a country where the world does not want them to succeed. Giving them voices and working with them instead of constantly having this approach of “you have to do this”. I learned that teaching is really a two part job; I am learning as much as they are, and they have the right to learn in an environment that supports their cultures, their needs, and their form of learning.

“I learned that teaching is really a two part job; I am learning as much as they are, and they have the right to learn in an environment that supports their cultures, their needs, and their form of learning.”

So incredibly strong and well stated. What are some projects you're developing this year?

I'm currently moving to Mexico City to focus more on my work, and take a break from teaching. I am going to be working with a few organizations here. I am inspired by the filmmaker Jasmin Mara, and she does a lot of work with indigenous communities in Mexico and specifically in storytelling and documentary filmmaking. I hope to work with some of the organizations she has partnered with, as well as visiting family.

I recently found out I was selected for a residency with Antenna for the Paper Machine Book-making residency so I can finally put the million scattered ideas I have in one place! I plan on translating some of the hundreds of letters I have between my grandparents for the book.

What's your favorite thing about life in New Orleans?

I was born here and lived here my whole life, so I don’t know anything different than life in New Orleans. I like how slow time moves. Sometimes I compare to other cities, and think about how behind we are socially, economically – but I don’t think it is a bad thing. I think we hold on to pleasure, to vices, to energy, and it makes us work slower. Maybe I’m wrong; time is just a concept. I like driving down Broad Street and the Algiers flea market, I like stumbling into second lines, I like being able to drive to my mom’s house for lunch and feeling the breeze from the Mississippi River.

Who are some of your favorite creatives in New Orleans?

The crew at Ascendance, Jasmin Mara, my friends Nic Aziz, Delish, RIQ50, Alex Smith, Jenna Knoblach, Honey, Sophie, Zuzia, Sam — the people who constantly push me to be vulnerable with them are the most creative people to me.

“Students were coming to school with parents being in processes of deportation, coming with stories of gang violence. I mean, they had so much pain in them, and they’re expected to just live this normal day-to-day life. I had worked endlessly to have my students recognize the significance of their voice and their narrative.”
“Sometimes I compare to other cities, and think about how behind we are socially, economically – but I don’t think it is a bad thing. I think we hold on to pleasure, to vices, to energy, and it makes us work slower.”

Who are some other photographers, filmmakers, or artists in other mediums that inspire your work?

I am greatly influenced by Latin American photographers, filmmakers and performance artists such as Sara Gomez, Lygia Pape, Ana Mendieta, Graciela Iturbide and Victoria Santa Cruz.

What about any mentors?

I’ve had the opportunity to work under local artists Michel Varisco and Marian McLellan in my college years. I recently met photographer Patrice Helmar when she had a residency with Antenna, and she wasn’t exactly my mentor, but we met at one of her photo clubs, and she encouraged me to show her my work and really believed in me. It was the first time in a long time someone made me feel like I was capable of so much more. She shoots Large Format and Medium Format a lot, and gave me advice on technique and how to lose the fear of documenting raw moments. I appreciate her.

Wisdom you’d share with your younger self?

I wish I could tell my younger self to love herself, and to never second guess her decisions.

You can view more of Gabby's work on her website, gabbygarciasteib.com.


   
   
   
   
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