Capturing moods with Eli Sleepless

With a subtle balance between light and shadow, Eli Sleepless’ photography transmits a sense of peaceful warmth. Initially finding out about them through an online submission, we became immediately engrossed in their work. Eli, a 26-year-old Ecuadorian genderqueer living in New York City, is a self-taught film photographer. Shooting with 35mm film and available lighting, their portfolio includes a wide array of portraits, life shots and abstract nudes. “I try to capture moods and express emotions with my photos regardless of the subject matter,” they explain to us in one of our email conversations. Their work has been featured in two galleries in Brooklyn and at a grassroots show in Manhattan. In addition, through their current ongoing photographic series they also aim to draw attention to the faces and work of other femme identifying and non-binary people of color.

In the interview below we talk about how they started taking pictures, their creative process and the importance of representation of people of color in the art world, amongst other topics.

Laura  is a queer Latinx immigrant filmmaker from Colombia.

Laura is a queer Latinx immigrant filmmaker from Colombia.

La Liga Zine: What motivated you to start doing photography?

Eli Sleepless: This question always makes me squirm because I started shooting before I had any deep reason to. When I was 9 or 10 I’d shoot with disposable cameras for fun. When I was 13 to 17 I’d shoot with little point and shoot digital cameras, for fun too but around this time it was to record moments and places I wanted to remember. When I started shooting with an “artistic” focus I just wanted to take meaningful photographs without really knowing what that meant. It’s really just this strong desire and the reasons that come after it have changed a few times.

LLZ: Are there any photographers or fellow creatives that you look up to or have been influenced by? If so, how did you find their work? What drew you to them?

ES: I didn’t really feel a connection to the classic photographers I was shown in a college class. There wasn’t much diversity in terms of style or culture or even body shapes. I learned a lot by going to The Strand bookstore and just looking at the photography books. I would go home and look up the artists that moved me the most. Bruce Davidson’s subway series really inspired me - it was very vivid and honest. I was also into Helen Levitt’s work, especially when I was trying to shoot street photography. Then when I was 22 I learned about Nan Goldin and it got to me on a personal level - photography as a means to remember and deal with loss. I liked how intimate a lot of her work feels.

LLZ: What are the themes you’re most interested in exploring through your work? Why are they important to you?

ES: I’d say different things at different times, especially when I use it therapeutically - as someone with a few mental illnesses this switches up a lot depending on what I want to remember or what project seems the most do-able with my resources. And while this might not be obvious in the work I have out, this is so important to me! Through mainstream culture there’s this idea that art or some specific hobbies will “save” people from their issues and that’s just not true for many and can prevent people from starting. It can help, but it doesn’t mean it will go away. For me personally, once I stopped seeing my art as a lifeline I started to enjoy it and become better at it. I shoot a lot of themes and do the ones I can when I can. Photography is very personal to me so sometimes my reasons for shooting seem selfish, even though I’m always aiming to have representation in the art world. I’m interested in exploring loss and healing, self examination (through self portraits as well as other work I haven’t published), recording the neighborhoods me or my friends live in (especially now that gentrification is a huge force), intimacy (platonic or romantic) and sexuality.

LLZ: What is your creative process like? How do you know when you’ve gotten “the shot,” or when you’ve successfully captured the feeling or mood you wanted? Or is your process more organic, not knowing where you’re going or where you’re going to end up?

ES: It’s always different. Sometimes there’s very specific shots I want and sometimes there’s only a vague idea. Most of the time there’s a moment during the shoot where I feel like it’s “working” and like I got it right but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. It can’t be rigid because people bring their own energy to shoots. There needs to be room for how they’ll feel in front of the lens so their mood or some aspect of their personality can come through the photos. And a lot of my photos aren’t from shoots, they’re just from having a camera with me and getting lucky or feeling something and trying to work with that.

“It’s important to feature artists of color so we can have more opportunities available to us, and it’s so important for people to see artists they can relate to. “

LLZ: You're currently working on a photographic series featuring femme and gender nonconforming people of color living in NYC. Your work shows a diversity of skin tones, bodies, hair textures, ethnicities, etc. during a time when people are more outspoken about our desire to see more people who look like us in visual art and media. How and why did you come up with the concept for this ongoing series?

ES: I used to art model part time for photographers and noticed that most of them, especially the ones who shot fine art, had portfolios of only feminine, young, cis, able-bodied white women. I never saw people that looked like people that I loved and lived around in most of the more popular photographer communities. It’s so homogenous and unfair how we never even get to hear about artists of color, especially women of color. It doesn’t matter how great they are and how much they put themselves out there if they’re not given the same chance. It’s important to feature artists of color so we can have more opportunities available to us, and it’s so important for people to see artists they can relate to. It’s encouraging for me when I hear from people with similar experiences.

Rocio  is a 23 year old painter from the Bronx.

Rocio is a 23 year old painter from the Bronx.

LLZ: You’ve been shooting for over 7 years now. However, being a photographer is not easy as it’s an unstable occupation. Moreover, the art world is still dominated by white artists and it's often very hard for artists of color to succeed. What would you say to all the younger latinx photographers and photo enthusiasts out there feeling discouraged because they lack the resources, their parents disagree with the lifestyle and/or they don’t see many people like them succeeding in the field?

ES: This is a tough question because success can mean very different things for different people. I wouldn’t call myself a successful photographer on most levels - I make no money from what I do and I’m pretty unknown. But I would say I’ve succeeded in improving my work and I’m better able to express myself with my photos than I used to be. Photography has also helped me emotionally, more than most things. Sometimes people message me to say my work speaks to them and that’s really touching too. I’d say that it’s very very hard. I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices - outing myself as queer/trans to strangers, feeling my family’s disapproval for a lot of the work I’ve shot, the literal costs of film work - just off the top of my head. For what it’s worth I’m couchsurfing right now. But I reached a point where shooting became a need - I realized I might never make it and the desire was still there. While hearing from people makes it feel like I’m doing something meaningful, I know I’d shoot regardless. If you have this desire or need or passion in you then keep trying. Shoot because it’s worth it to you in one way or another. And remember that it’s ok to take long breaks - things happen.

Rocio  is a 23 year old painter from the Bronx.

Rocio is a 23 year old painter from the Bronx.

LLZ: Do you have any plans for the future? Any other upcoming projects?

ES: Yes! Right now I’m focusing on my women/ femme/ and gender non conforming people shoots as well as self portraits. But when I have time I hope to revisit my old conceptual art nudes. When I started shooting more consistently years ago I just reached out to art models in my area or the vague “art model” community, and this time I’d prefer to hear from art models of color who aren’t as well known so we can talk about more specific experiences and emotions and can attempt to translate them to images. Besides that there’s always a lot of things I’d like to explore! I’m very lucky in that I always want to shoot a ton of things unless my depression is at a low.

Find more of Eli's photography on their FB, tumblr and IG

Interview by Mia Rodriguez and Mari Santa Cruz

Edited by Mari Santa Cruz