Fujifilm Students of Storytelling: Maria Victoria Polanco’s Exploration of Freedom in 2020

Maria Victoria Polanco‘s passion is to share stories of resilience, hope, loss and love—”basically the human experience, but through the lens of the communities I find myself in,” explains the photographer who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Bronx in New York City.

Polanco won the Fujifilm Students of Storytelling competition for her specific visual narrative on an exploration of what freedom is and means in 2020, and all that she says has been taken from us—including “the ability for people to gather, celebrate and mourn, and just carry out day-to-day social interactions during the pandemic.”

Fujifilm created the contest to identify the next generation of U.S. storytellers, and to provide them with Fujifilm X Series or GFX System gear to bring their vision to life.

“Ultimately, freedom is a continuum, in a sense, because we are ultimately seeking different sets of freedoms. Whether they are freedom from structures, or creative freedoms.” Photographed on a Fujifilm X-T30 camera with a 35mm f2 lens. All Photos © Maria Victoria Polanco

Rangefinder: What interests you as a storyteller? Which stories are you drawn to?

Maria Victoria Polanco: I am interested in putting the stories of people of color at the forefront of the media that we all consume. It is clear to me that for so long, the preferred stories being featured and told to us in school, art, movies and literature are those of white people. As a woman of color, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Bronx, I find myself gravitating towards stories that touch upon what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. My community is my biggest inspiration, and I want to see the lives of the people from my community reflected on screens, pages and stages. I am hoping through my work, I can shed a light on all the wonderful people and stories that exist in communities like the one I am from. 

Rf: What stories do you want to share through your work? 

MVP: I want to share stories of resilience, hope, loss, love—basically the human experience, but through the lens of the communities I find myself in. I am hoping that by sharing these stories, I can help elevate these voices that for so long have not had a place in our society.

Freedom is being unshackled. All of us, in some way, are free. We can walk through the world and explore all we want. But at the same time there are these things that are pressing us that we can’t sense. Because we are a woman, or we are black, or we are gay. There are invisible forces that sometimes are very prominent, but in other ways restrict us and cause us to limit our freedom, our creativity, our expression.” Photographed on a Fujifilm X-T30 camera with a 35mm f2 lens.

Rf: Describe the evolution of your style and approach. What (and who) has influenced your work, and how? 

MVP: Since I began my work, my focus has been people and their stories. Something about sitting down with a person and getting a snippet of their life story followed by a portrait-making session is what makes this art form so special to me, and completely different to the other art forms I practice. 

In high school, when I began to explore photography, my work was heavily influenced by Brandon Stanton, the creator of the blog Humans of New York. I was fascinated by how Stanton was able to capture someone’s complete essence in a photograph and a few lines of text, not too long after meeting them. I found myself so moved by his work. The days following my first encounter with the blog, I probably watched every single interview that Stanton had done in order to further understand how he was able to do the work he was doing all around New York City. Then I began to incorporate bits of Stanton’s method into my early work, and although nowadays I find myself trying to hone my style, I find that most of the time, my work leads me back to portraiture.

Rf: What is the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received and followed? 

MVP: Someone recently told me that even if I don’t feel 100 percent about my work, I should still put it out there, because there are others only giving 70 percent and their voices are still being heard. Up until that point, I was afraid to put my work out in the world because I was under the impression that I was only allowed to showcase things that seemed to me as “good enough” or worthy of being seen by others. After this brief conversation, I was able to free myself from those self-imposed barriers and actually began to share with the world what I have to offer, even if I feel like my work could be better. In the end, it is not up to me to decide whether my work is “good” or not; my job as an artist is to create, and thankfully, I am doing just that. 

Rf: How has photographic education affected your career and development as a photographer? 

MVP: I am not trained as a photographer in any way and have only taken one film photography class in college, which is what pushed me to think about photography a little more than just as a casual hobby. I go to school for acting, so I borrow my storytelling skills from there. Everything else, I’ve learned from the internet, and I use my impulses as a guide.  

Rf: Can you tell us about your submission to Fujifilm’s Students of Storytelling program? How did you come up with the project?  

MVP: It was the middle of March and New York City had become the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. I rushed home from college and started taking acting classes in my living room. In the matter of a couple of weeks, it felt like everyone’s lives had completely changed and I began to think about all of the things that had now been taken from us because of the virus—the ability for people to gather, celebrate and mourn, and just carry out day-to-day social interactions. Being socially isolated from the world was taking a toll on my happiness and I began to wonder about the root of those feelings. I couldn’t help but link my feelings of unhappiness to this idea of the freedom I once knew. Thus, I began my quest to understand this notion of freedom, specifically in 2020. I knew I wanted to pursue this project through photographs, and then I came across Fujifilm’s Students of Storytelling program advertisement, and as soon as I read the word “storytelling,” I knew I had to propose this idea. It was 3 a.m. and I hadn’t fully flushed out my idea, but I wrote out my proposal anyway and hit “Send”. 

Summer uptown means the fire hydrants are open and that your shower water will now be brown because of it. But there’s nothing like seeing the neighborhood kids running up and down the streets enjoying the freezing cold water under the sun and 90 degree weather. Photographed on a Fujifilm X-T30 camera with a 35mm f2 lens.

Rf: What does freedom mean to you? What do you  hope to achieve through this work? 

MVP: The word freedom is so multifaceted and means so many different things to so many people, especially in the United States. To me, freedom is liberation from any outside forces preventing one from being their full, authentic self. Freedom is a feeling, and to me, a birthright. It is not something that should be taken from people, or people should lose their lives trying to get a glimpse of, but instead something that should be cultivated. Through this work, I am hoping to engage with other people on what their notion of freedom is. I am hoping to put a magnifying glass on the definition of freedom and allow others to reflect on their own concepts of what freedom is. I think that if we all took a second to think about what freedom means to us, and how we are choosing to uphold that definition, there could be a chance for greater human compassion. 

Here sits Ashley, as we waited for her mom to get started on blow drying her hair and beginning our talk on freedom. Photographed on a Fujifilm X-T30 camera with a 35mm f2 lens.
While Esperanza blew her daughter Ashley’s hair in various directions, (a ritual so intriguing to me it could be its own story, as I remember having my hair done like this constantly when I was younger!) in Spanish she commented to me how freedom now lives in her. Photographed on a Fujifilm X-T30 camera with a 35mm f2 lens.

Rf: What works have you produced with your new Fujifilm systems? 

MVP: In addition to my “Exploration of Freedom” project, I have had a blast going around my neighborhood and photographing daily life with my new Fujifilm system. I live in the South Bronx, and while I didn’t always find the beauty in it, it took me leaving the ‘hood for college and then coming back to realize how much magic and life there is on the streets. Being able to capture that through such an amazing camera has only made this collection of work so much more fun and something I want to continue to capture.

Rf: Where do you see your work going from here?  

MVP: From here, I want to continue to work on my craft as a photographer and storyteller. No matter what art form I pursue, I always find myself coming back to photography. So moving forward, I want to embark on projects that bring me closer to my Dominican and New York City community. I have so many ideas and questions, and through that, my goal is to bring these stories to the forefront. Front and center.  

Rf: Which brand, media outlet or agency is your ideal client? And why? 

MVP: I have not been in the photography world long enough to know where I want my work to exist beyond the platforms I have built for myself. Give me a couple more months and I’ll have a clearer answer. One can dream of The New York Times and clients like that, but I do know that one of my ideal media outlets is a published book of my photographs, alongside an art gallery exhibit for a museum in New York, and then somewhere else in the world. There is nothing like browsing through a carefully curated body of work, flipping through photos printed on pages, and being able to take your time with every image. Not that you cannot do that digitally, but being able to hold a physical image in your hand and experience an image beyond a screen is an exciting way of experiencing photography and would be my ideal way of sharing my work.  


Visit the official Fujifilm Students of Storytelling site for more information about the complete program. Follow @mariavonfilm to stay up to date with Maria Victoria Polanco.

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