Photographer Juan Velos on using VR, photographing celebrities and staying true to yourself

Today, Meta begins the fifth installment of its Metaverse Culture Series, focusing on Latin American culture. This includes the introduction of a new room within the metaverse called Neuvo Norte, designed by Puerto Rican artist COVL: you can read our article about it here.

Meta is also releasing a documentary short titled Tercera Cultura. It features a high-profile panel of Latin American culture changers who have met in VR to explore identity, authentic expression, and economic opportunity within the metaverse.

Attendees included Juan Velos, a Dominican photographer and brand collaborator committed to capturing stories untold. To mark the occasion, Meta invited us to interview Juan himself in the Metaverse, using an Oculus Quest 2 headset and meeting in the Horizon Workrooms VR app. You can read the interview below or watch the full Q&A in the video above.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Juan Veloz is a self-taught photographer first known for photographs that capture the authentic identities and personalities of people in his local community. He later moved to LA and has worked with some of the biggest names in fashion, music and art: Vogue to Dior, Netflix to Nike.

Juan’s work ranges from offbeat street photography to portraits of celebrities such as John Boyega, Tove Lo, Babyface, Jennifer Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, Regina King, Kelis and Usher. He is committed to representing voices and narratives that are often absent from contemporary media.

We spoke to him about the possibilities of VR, the importance of honesty and authenticity, and the balance between representation and creative freedom.

How did you come to this VR project?

Meta reached out to me and at first I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know what it was. But everything changes all the time, so it’s cool to keep up with the times. I felt like, ‘Just go in. You don’t know what can come of it.”

I’m really great at just accepting changes in my career. It’s just fun. You don’t always have to do what feels normal. It’s good to just change it. And I’m just overjoyed to know that I’m a part of that reality and experience.

Aside from virtual meetings like the one we’re in right now, what does VR offer photographers?

The cool thing about VR is that it can be anything you want it to be. For example, you could set up a gallery space in VR to show your work. Maybe even allow people to step into that photo and see the story of that photo. There’s no limit to what can happen with photography and VR because you just do it the way you want to do it. And it’s your world that people are entering.

As part of the Metaverse Culture Series, artist COVL has created a virtual world called Neuvo Norte to represent Latin American culture in VR. what did you think about it

I love Neuvo Norte. It’s like a warm blanket from my childhood, if that makes sense. Since it corresponds to the Latin culture, people can relate to it. I think a key element is that it’s authentic. It wasn’t forced. Instead, Meta brought someone who knows the culture, speaks it, and lives it day and night. It was awesome. And COVL is an amazing artist. So it was a good experience. It was comfortable. I felt good about it.

How much has your Latin American background influenced your photography?

Oh, it’s my MO since I picked up a camera. I started photography because my grandmother always talked about not having pictures of herself growing up in the Dominican Republic. So I thought, ‘I can document my family.’ Throughout my career, I never wanted to forget the root of everything. That was because I started taking photos with my family. No matter what project I do, I always bring a part of it with me.

How well do you think Latin American culture is represented in the US media?

A change is taking place in the media. Many brands and businesses are realizing that hiring people who are actually on the road, who are actually getting the job and who know what they are doing, is the best way to go.

If you’re forcing something, then there’s no point in getting it out into the world. People can’t do anything with it. I think hiring people who understand the work and the language is the best way. Just stay authentic.

For example, when I was presented with this Metaverse project, I just did it because it felt right. Because people were actually a part of it, like COVL, it just felt right to do it. These are my people; These people really can speak the same language. I think that’s the best way to approach everything in life at all times. It just has to feel authentic to what you’re doing.

Do you feel responsible to your community for what you produce?

Yes and no. In the Latino community, we feel like we have to hold that baton. But sometimes it gets a little tough. I’ll be like, ‘Wait, I started creating because I wanted to feel free. I wanted my voice to be heard.’

I also want to protect my culture. But you have to be mindful and careful about how you say things and include everyone: black Latinos, white Latinos… you have to make it broad. So it’s a yes and a no when it comes to making sure everyone is represented because I didn’t have that growing up. I just wanted to make sure that the next person that comes after me has something to look at and that it feels authentic. And they think: “Oh cool, Juan did that” and “I would like to do that too”.

These are my people; These people really can speak the same language. I think that’s the best way to approach everything in life at all times. It just has to feel authentic to what you’re doing.

So what’s your advice to young people who want to become photographers?

There’s something I said to myself when I got my first big project. It should never be forgotten why I started photography; to follow that little voice that says, ‘Juan, your story matters.’ And I think coming from a place of honesty helps too.

You have to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself: why do I want to do this? This applies to everything in life. But with photography you create the story; you document So you have to think very carefully: “Do I want to do this or not?” But at the end of the day, just be authentic and true to yourself, and you’ll get the best work out of it.

Also, don’t get endorsed by different companies or brands. Just create for yourself. This will help you breathe a little and pull your shoulders back. If you create for yourself first, then a brand will bring you to a project because they love your work. So let’s meet in the middle. Let’s respect each other and create some art. Don’t ever get lost.

How is the community of photographers in Los Angeles? On one level, they are all fighting for the same work. So is there a sense of community?

I wouldn’t say I fight for the same work because I have a lot of friends in the photography game. And I’m not kidding, if I can’t do a project I’ll hit my boy like, ‘Hey, I can’t do this. Jump on it!’

There is work for all of us. There’s nothing but space for all of us. And I think creating a community around it has always been my approach. Just talking to other photographers in the game is all love. Some people are competitive. But that’s not my MO. And all my friends work. So at the end of the day, it’s all love.

You have photographed many famous people. How is it different from street photography?

My approach to every single photo I took was the same. I am always honest. And that goes for my upbringing too. My parents, my family are Dominicans, we are very loud and honest. But we start with love. And I think when I’m working with celebrities or famous people, they want to be seen, they want to be heard. We are all human. So let’s just take a breath. Let’s remove that as a whole: “Oh, I must look amazing.”

My honesty, I think, is what makes each and everyone I work with feel. I think working with celebrities is always the best way because everyone just wants to be treated like a human. They are always under the microscopic eye, waiting for something to look or feel bad. My biggest compliment when working with someone is, ‘I felt comfortable working with you.’ And I feel like, okay, my job is done. Because as a human, I want to be seen as a human first.

Which photographers have inspired you personally?

I’m very inspired by Renell Medrano, a great Dominican photographer from the Bronx. She was one of the first photographers to take me under her wing. I’ve done four projects with her and what made a big impression was the way she moved. To see a black latina just working the room and not really caring what people think of her was beautiful because I was raised by black latinas. It reminded me how powerful women are and how much respect we must give to our black latinas in this space.

One of Renell’s I will always remember is her line, “Juan, stay true to yourself. Stay true to yourself. work will come. Don’t stress, just keep creating.” So she was a huge inspiration. And hopefully she sees that, because I always want to give flowers to the people who have had a huge impact on my life. And she is definitely one of them.

You can watch the Tercera Cultura documentary short where Juan stars alongside artist COVL, disabled model, actress and advocate Jillian Mercado, activist and entrepreneur Sara Mora, and athlete Tori Ortiz.

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