‘Gods that walk among us’: the photographer bringing glamour to portraits of community leaders

Camila Falquez has photographed many of the most famous people in the world: Zendaya, Lil Nas X, Penélope Cruz. But her portraiture intentionally straddles two worlds: one of global stars and the other of local community leaders, from drag queens to flower merchants, whom she deems “the gods that walk among us”.

It’s a phrase she first discovered the phrase on a sign in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that featured photos of Indigenous people. “When I saw it I thought, ‘Oh wait, this is what I do, this is my work.’ It’s an invitation to change the orientation on how we perceive who we have around us – and a warning that the person you might be dismissing or mistreating is a god or a queen.” She made the phrase the title of her debut solo exhibition at Hannah Traore Gallery in Manhattan.

The gods that walk among us are people like Maria Antonia “Toñita” Cay, who came to Manhattan from Puerto Rico at 15 and owns the longest-standing Latino social club in the otherwise gentrified Williamsburg neighborhood. Toñita can be found in the Caribbean Social Club almost every night, her hands layered in clunky rings, surrounded by a gaggle of large men, feeding her community and, when necessary, kicking people out of her bar.

“I’ve shot President Biden, and I was more afraid and intimidated by Toñita. She is the ultimate authority,” says Falquez. “She fed thousands of families during Covid and is still doing it,” she adds. “To me, that is a revolutionary act.”

For Falquez, the key to communicating power does not lie in the cost of dress material or the whiteness of the subject; it is their attitude, their posture, that sends a message. “Power is a thing that is within,” she says. “It’s within their adversity that [my subjects] survive and thrive. It’s a joy you cannot steal.” Draped in gowns with pop color backdrops and placed on pedestals, these activists embody the gods their communities know them to be.

Falquez was born to Colombian parents in Mexico City. During her art education in Barcelona, she bristled at the juxtaposition between the Eurocentric material of her course and her own background as a Colombian immigrant. “I’m aware the system is not made for me,” she says. She moved to New York at 21 and began reconnecting with her Colombian identity, dancing in bars and affiliating with her community. In her work, she began subverting the expectations of western art and who gets to be the subject of a lavish portrait.

She chose subjects whose services warrant public praise. The chef Natalia Mendez runs a community kitchen that feeds local residents and fights for undocumented immigrants’ rights; Qween Jean founded a non-profit focused on Black trans liberation; the list goes on. But what sets Falquez’s photos apart is how, to mirror their impactful work, she frames her subjects: like royalty. “The power dynamic between the subject and the photographer has everything to do with the outcome of the image,” says Hannah Traore, whose gallery will be home to 25 Falquez pieces until 9 July. “Camila makes everyone feel safe, and that’s where the magic happens.”

Ultimately, Falquez’s work is in service to a larger movement. Rather than leaning into the backwards expectation that those deeply involved in activism should “continue to struggle” or be denied indulgence, she instead acknowledges the investment these individuals have put into their communities by placing her time, money, and energy into their beauty. On shoot days, Falquez brings together a collective of talent from stylists (with whom she heavily collaborates) to chefs – setting the mood with music, delicious food, and dancing.

This, she says, is made possible by the two worlds she encompasses. “It’s good for the gods that walk among us that I shoot Zendaya. Because if Zendaya is next to Toñita, people will start to see them as the same.”

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