Business + Marketing

Making Portrait Projects That Educate and Empower

September 10, 2019

By Catalina Kulczar

All Photos © Catalina Kulczar

The collaborative musicians from The Hum.

I’m the daughter of immigrants who made their way from Hungary and Italy to Venezuela, and then from Venezuela to the United States. Hearing and being part of my family’s stories makes me a naturally inquisitive person. I’ve found myself exploring other people’s stories through my lens. Sure, client work can be great, even fulfilling if you can find a way to align your values with the right people and brands. It allows me the time, resources and sanity to pursue my personal work. 

The collaborative musicians from The Hum.

There’s this voice in my head, constantly telling me to make, create and share more stories. My personal values have led me to create several bodies of work that inspire people, that make them reflect on their own values and their stories. This drive has certainly been amplified since becoming a working mother.

Laboratoria graduates.

Some personal series have been inspired by the mission of an organization led by my sister-in-law, Mariana Costa Checa. Laboratoria is a social enterprise that was started in Lima, Peru, in 2015, empowering young women in low-income households throughout South America with education so that in six months, they can become front-end developers. At the end of this rigorous program, Laboratoria matches companies with graduates, placing over 90 percent of their 1,000 graduates to date in jobs in the Latin American, still male-dominated tech sector.

I made a series of portraits with Laboratoria’s first graduating class in 2015 in Lima, and through it, I had the opportunity to engage in profound conversations with a group of fearless girls who are eager to take on the world. Most of them had never owned or had access to a computer before joining the program. Before they knew it, they had jobs that were tripling their household incomes. It was literally life-changing work.

This project became a launching pad for many of my female-driven portrait series. I have photographed two subsequent Laboratoria classes, one in Mexico City and another one in Lima this past January, in addition to creating their manifesto video, which I shot and directed in Mexico City.

Subjects from The New Order.

President Trump’s election, the #MeToo movement and gender equality became important factors that fueled me to photograph more women. As a result, The New Order, a personal portrait series about women in tech, was born. This is an ongoing personal project that spotlights women in New York City who have worked in technology and have created a lasting impact in the sector. Like Lisa Gelobter, the Chief Digital Service Officer for the United States Department of Education under the Obama administration. She led the team that built the United States Department of Education College Scorecard, which helped college students make sensible choices about college investments. 

The truth is that this project—like all personal projects—is fueled financially by jobs that also pay the bills. I am constantly applying for grants both from the public and private sectors to help grow this series. In a perfect world, I find funding that allows me to travel to the west coast and around the world to photograph more women that have made an impact in tech. There are plenty of them out there.

Some of the Quinceañeras portrait subjects, all of whom were orphans wearing donated clothing. 

The Quinceañeras project precedes any of my other women-centric projects. This was a private commission for me to make portraits of six girls who were celebrating their 15th birthday in Quito, Ecuador, back in 2012. 

It turns out that these girls were orphans, and the building where I photographed them was built by the woman (and her nonprofit) who commissioned the portraits. The dresses were donated, as were their shoes. It’s very likely that these girls had never been photographed before, and to gain their trust, I did what I do with anyone in front of my lens: established a solid level of communication with them, asking questions about themselves or something they like to do for fun. I tell them to take deep breaths and through a series of personal interactions, I create portraits that are honest and connected.

This series is very special to me. For a long time, I struggled with making these portraits perfect. I actually edited out the electrical plugs at one point and sat on these images for weeks. I finally came around and realized that what I thought were imperfections of these portraits were actually huge indicators of the environment in which I made these images. The crooked rug, the electrical outlets, the big shoes, the awkward look and body language in some of these girls—these are all beautiful visual indicators of this project and their environment.

I exhibited Quinceañeras at the New Latin Wave Festival last fall. It was striking to watch people interact with these portraits. I hung them from C-stands and had one full-length portrait of each girl on one side of a frame and the closeup portrait on the other side. You could walk right up to each image and rotate it. 

On the floor was a placard describing the project. When people read the last sentence explaining these girls were orphans wearing donated clothing, most were visibly moved and many shed tears. There’s something very special about this series that I want to share with more people across the globe. 

These portraits were recently published in print and online by the Italian magazine C-41 in their Beauty issue. It’s my dream to reconnect with these six young women and see where they are today.

The Hum is a series of collaborative performances in front of live audiences over the course of four nights. Curator Rachael Pazdan pairs two to five female musicians who have never performed together before and has them play unique sets for one night only. These women make the time to rehearse, take a chance on each other, perform live and own the stage. 

I established a degree of trust with each of the 80 badass musicians I photographed by touching on how important it is to set an example for young girls who want to be in the music industry. Yes, you can be a lead singer for a band, but there’s so much more. They too can be in the pages of She Shreds Magazine or Tom Tom Magazine, the world’s only publication dedicated to female drummers and beat-makers. 

The Hum was a dream project, and last summer, I was given a large wall at the Lower Eastside Girls Club to exhibit a selection of these portraits for one month. These portraits were seen by all of the girls there, and that was ultimately my goal: Each girl could see themselves in my work, in the portraits that I made of powerful women of all ages, shapes, sizes and ethnicities.

Look around at today’s political environment. There is so much working against women’s equality that I want my photographic contribution and legacy to be a body of work that inspires my daughter and her generation, and future generations, to feel empowered to do whatever they choose. 

Catalina Kulczar is a Brooklyn-based portrait photographer and filmmaker who focuses on projects that frequently explore women’s roles in contemporary work and society.

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“Diversity Is Not a Trend. It’s Life.”