Every person pictured has a name, of course, but the subjects in acclaimed photographer Philippe Cheng’s latest portraits are displayed nameless for a reason.
The photographs capture the faces, the personalities, the spirits of many of the clients, volunteers, supporters and collaborators of Organización Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island (OLA) – a diverse group of people that Cheng documents in a new, ongoing, black-and-white series called “Soy OLA.”
The title translates to “I Am OLA.”
“We’re not labeling anyone or showing their names on purpose,” said Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director. “We just want to show the spectrum of humanity of who is involved with OLA.”
Some of Cheng’s subjects may be recognizable as prominent leaders of religious institutions or other non-profit organizations on the East End, but he says his objective is to treat everyone with the same level of importance and make a larger point.
“We are all part of the same community,” Cheng said. “We are one.”
They came from work or from school, from all over the East End, to Cheng’s Bridgehampton studio during several recent afternoons when the natural light would be most ideal for pictures. Many of the women came without makeup on.
“A lot of people were stepping outside of their comfort zones, so there’s nervousness on one level, but there’s a genuineness of spirit,” Cheng said. “Even though we spent only a short amount of time together, it sort of pushed an emotional button – this is important enough today to say, ‘I am like my neighbor.’”
The Soy OLA project began with an offer from Cheng to help Perez revamp OLA’s website. The website needed fresh imagery, and if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s compelling imagery.
“I wanted to make sure the images we were sharing on the website were focused on the arts, showing members of our Latino community enjoying themselves, celebrating culture, celebrating who we are, and we were not just going to show images around immigration or workers, but that we were going to share the full conversation,” Perez explained. “Philippe knew those were interests of mine, and said what about a series of portraits?”
She grabbed a tissue and dabbed at the corners of her eyes as she continued: “There are still so many negative images that are put out on social media and other places, and there are so many topics that are sad. This portrait series allows our local community to have these beautiful faces full of story, of pride, of beauty, to remember that this is our community. It’s not just some headline, but these are the faces of our community members and we are lucky to have these people among us – all of them.”
One OLA volunteer who offered to be photographed, Lina, said she had never had a formal portrait taken before.
“People are going to see the photos and wonder what it is for, what OLA does, and will inform themselves. Maybe they will get involved if they find it interesting, and the people who are already involved will be interested in getting more involved,” Lina said in Spanish through a translator.
Lina said Cheng’s results are beautiful, professional and elegant, with the black-and-white format calling more attention because everything else in the world is generally in color.
During their photo shoot, Lina said, Cheng “was very nice with all of the people, very warm and welcoming, especially with the children, so it was a good feeling. He is a really good person to want to help OLA and get the message out.”
Not everyone is smiling in their portrait, but that’s okay, Perez said. Each image simply represents a pure moment.
“There was just a natural element, a natural beauty, a natural light,” she said. “Philippe is present on the other end of the camera and chooses to give the subject tremendous weight, but not in a heavy way. He is elevating every subject using this natural light, purely wanting to know who that person is.”
Cheng said the success of the portrait series lies with his subjects.
“It’s really the people who make the pictures. I’m the witness,” he said.
So far, there are more than 30 portraits in the Soy OLA series. While it currently lives on the organization’s website, olaofeasternlongisland.org, Perez hopes to put together a gallery exhibition in the future. Cheng concurs.
“In my dream world, we’ll have a thousand portraits of people who have that kind of stake in equality,” he said.
Another aspect of the project Cheng hopes to include is representation of those who cannot show their faces for one reason or another, for instance because they may be undocumented immigrants. He envisions a portrait of a person holding up some sort of black board in front of his or her face.
“You probably would be taken aback” in seeing that among all the smiling faces, he said, “but realize one of the reasons why OLA exists, especially in this political climate.”
Perez said the Soy OLA series helps people see there are mutual resemblances in each other.
“We seem to be all of the same family. There’s a connecting point,” she said.
Cheng echoed her sentiments.
“When you break it down, we are all one,” he said. “In these times, it’s important to remember that we’re not isolated.”