You’re in New York City. Standing in a subway car, you hear the hissssss of the brakes. You take one last look and pocket your phone as the train comes to a halt, positioning yourself to rush out of the doors as soon as they open, along with the other passengers. Your feet hit the platform, you turn a corner past the gate and walk toward the stairs to the street. You hear the ‘click-clack’ of shoes around you as you all make your way toward the surface. There’s a crisp chill in the air. You feel it fill your lungs as you top the steps at Jay and York and raise your hand to block the sun.
– WHOOSH! –
You’re almost knocked sideways by a leaping man in a leotard!
Behind him kneels a handsome, bearded fellow with an olive complexion, dark, kind eyes, and glasses. He is holding a camera. Based on his look and collective demeanor, if someone were to tell you he was a poet, you would believe them.
That man is Omar Robles, and you just photo-bombed his shot!
If you are already familiar with Omar and his work, it’s likely that you immediately think of the beautiful flowing lines of dancers; transcendent moments captured in a single frame against the, often harsh, NYC backdrop—though his work has taken him all over the world.
I had the chance to catch up with Omar recently, and although I had a few specific questions in mind, we quickly fell into natural conversation about a great many topics related to art, the artist, and photography.
photos by Omar Z. Robles
INTERVIEW WITH OMAR Z. ROBLES
Chris: I know you’ve shot a bit of film. What is your experience and relationship with that?
Omar: I’ve really been considering starting a film project. I like the experience of doing one thing at a time. You hear people say that it slows you down, but you can slow down with digital if you want to. There's just a pro and a con [to film vs. digital]. With digital, you can move faster, shoot more frames, make more mistakes. I like that, but at the same time, it is interesting just to slow down; it is just a different approach. Even if they could make a digital camera, and you could get that same sensation of shooting, I do not think that you would get the same feeling as film.
Right! Shooting film forces you to slow down and be more thoughtful and intentional.
I'm looking into ways to slow down with my work in general. I think [because of social media] we are forced to feel that we have to create content constantly. I think that a good percentage of that content is actually disposable. You're just creating stuff because you need to put something out there. Over the last few months, I’ve just tried to slow down. I'm intentionally shooting a little bit less.
Going out and shooting to create content is good in the sense that it keeps you thinking, but it's bad if you're just doing stuff. You're just going through the motions because you have to create something, anything, and put it out there.
I wonder if, at some point... will it stop? When is this machine going to stop? Because I feel like it has to stop!
By Omar Z. Robles
Do you feel that way about your own work or what you’re most known for? Like it could be a machine that just has to stop one day?
I do enjoy the community aspect. I enjoy sharing. I think, in general, there has been a loss of substance all around. I think that I am at a point where I want to start exhibiting my work in places that have more weight and longevity [outside of social media]. To do something that is more tangible, like an exhibition and an actual book. Something that would be some kind of legacy.
Getting even deeper into this, and I don't think that I've talked about this with very many people, the fact that I didn’t [really] create anything new. I didn’t create a style. Dance photography and dance photography outdoors is something that has been done forever.
I did create a niche for myself on social media that kind of spread like wildfire, I think. Right now you see a lot of people doing very similar stuff. That makes me think that there has to be a shift. I meet people that are replicating something that someone else is doing, and I might think to myself, “why are you doing this?”
So many people are trying to shoot in a similar style, but there’s really no essence. There’s no substance, and you just end up with this big pool of… stuff.
I see it too. I think that we probably all did that to a degree, especially when we are getting started and trying to find our voice as photographers and artists. We see something that we admire, and we then try to emulate it because we relate to it emotionally. It’s like we’re trying to scratch this itch of wanting. Of course, there’s a line where that becomes unhealthy or unethical. Maybe it’s the substance that people are searching for when they’re looking for their voice. And when you don’t know where else to look, you look toward what inspires you.
Regarding your personal take on dance, sure, it’s been shot before, but it’s never been done by you with your eye, your vision, and your voice.
You’ve kind of already answered my next question, but, what are some things that you do to keep yourself excited or inspired?
“Something that feeds my energy is to do other things every once in a while. You know, something to shake your mind and cause you to see things differently.”
As well as @acrossworlds, your street photography account. That is what you were primarily doing when you and I first met, right? That and your “Sunday’s Best” portraits.
Yeah. Man, it’s been a while since Sunday’s Best!
By Omar Z. Robles
What was the other account you were doing? It was like body/movement nudes?
Well, it was called OZR. It was mostly nude boudoir; it wasn’t body movement specifically. I actually specifically stopped that account for two reasons; Boudoir had been happening forever, but it really became quite a thing with a lot of people doing it. [Boudoir overall] got very vulgar very fast, and I really didn’t like that. I don’t judge people, but I saw a lot of distasteful things, and my images kept being reposted on feature pages next to some really raunchy and ugly things. That kind of discouraged me. I was trying to do something different and away from that, and people don’t seem to understand the difference; the difference between something distasteful vs. something created artistically.
What also happened is that I found a link on Instagram to “Temporarily Deactivate” your account and “temporarily” became “I can’t figure out how to reactivate it.” and, "I don’t care because I don’t want to keep doing this."
I really do enjoy photographing that style of work, though, which is why #DanceSnug was born — trying to mix both of those worlds. With dance, there’s a little bit more of a subtle element that seems to make it harder for people to put it into a different category.
Over the summer this year, I did do a nude rooftop series [#BareSkyDance]. With everything that’s been happening with the #MeToo movement I really wanted to get dancers to speak. People will often ask me, “Why are you photographing nudes?” I thought to myself that it was less important WHY I would do it than it was why a person would choose to pose for this. What drives them to that? So, I started asking them. A lot of things surfaced; some were people who’d been sexually assaulted. They found that this was a way for them to take control of their bodies on their terms.
Wow. I love that you’re providing another platform for those voices! Have your personal experiences influenced or shaped your work, and what you say with it?
You always have to play a fine line, especially when it comes to political subjects and things like that.
I’ve had this discussion with a photographer friend of mine whose work is all about social justice. He would say that all photography has to have a meaning and a purpose. I would kind of disagree with that. I don’t approach it from that perspective.
I think that we create art because of expression; we want to say something. We want to express ourselves. Sometimes it's an outcry, sometimes it's about injustice or wanting something to change. Sometimes it's just about pretty. Sometimes it's just about aesthetic or happiness.
I have never really made my work about that, but because of my experiences, because of the things that I’ve lived and seen, there’s always [even in spite of me] this element of speaking. It’s just not always in your face. One way or another, people still have to confront what they see in your work.”
One of the subtle things that I try to do is work with dancers of diverse shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Another thing that I’ve done is photograph dancers in locations of social relevance. Sometimes people pick up on it, sometimes not, but the people in that situation usually do.
As an artist, I don’t want to say that you have a responsibility, but some moments are good and are necessary to utilize [for awareness]. At the end of the day, if we don’t use art for that...
Where can we find you online?
photos by Omar Z. Robles
A NOTE FROM CHRIS DANIELS
An artist’s journey is a very personal one. We all view and interpret things differently, and have to decide how to balance what we observe and want to say within our life, work, and art. There’s no singular way to take this journey, nor is there one path to follow. Perhaps what is most important is being mindful of where we plant our feet with each step we take.
Here is an interesting fact about Omar:
Before he was a photographer, and where his love of storytelling with the body began, he studied in Paris under Marcel Marceau, the legendary Mime artist.
Here are some of Omar’s ongoing projects:
#DanceSnug- For this series (which typically pops up when the temperature really drops in NYC) Omar brings the dancers indoors. The images often elicit a heightened intimacy and sensual longing.
#BareSkyDance- The images and voices of dancers in the nude on NYC rooftops. These images are astounding (and some of my personal favorites). The words of the subjects bring another level of vulnerability and complexity to the project.
@acrossworlds - This is where you’ll find Omar’s street photography. Omar certainly has an eye for this, and I’ve even had the pleasure of snapping, shooting, and bouncing around the streets of New York with him.
Written by Chris Daniels- a portrait photographer and writer, based in Seattle by way of Atlanta, Nashville, and Los Angeles.