From America to Americas: Behind Photographers

Photography allowed Costa de Souza and Vieira to reflect on their ethnic and cultural identities.

After leaving college in New England, photographers Milena Costa de Souza and Pedro Vieira set out on a road trip to their home country, Brazil. The couple never imagined that their initial journey would grow into a project that spanned over 14 years and took them throughout the American supercontinent. Their photographic exhibition, “From America to Americas,” is now open for the public to see in Gelb Gallery until January 23.

The two photographers, along with Stephanie Sparling Williams, Assistant Curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art and Visiting Scholar in Art History, spoke at a lunch and discussion sponsored by the Tang Institute last Wednesday. The photographers discussed their journey and their work, which emphasizes Hispanic identity, country borders, Latin American political activism, and intersectionality between gender and culture.

“So we were very curious about the political situation that was happening in Latin America. There was a lot of political turmoil. A lot of changes were happening,” said Costa de Souza during the event.

Costa de Souza continued, “People that fought against dictatorships in Latin America were getting elected as new social movements were rising. So this is something that we’re very curious about. And it also had to do with our search for our own identity and like this question that we were raising through that year. So that’s how we decided that we decided that this project, ‘From America to Americas,’ was going to be about the social movements.”

Before coming to the United States, Costa de Souza and Vieira never put much thought into issues related to race and ethnicity. They soon experienced, however, being labeled as either Hispanic or Latinx, which prompted their desire to start exploring their identity.

“[It was] the first time that we realized that we are from Latin America. It’s funny to say that, but once you’re living in your own country, sometimes you don’t ask yourself some questions. And of course identity and subjectivity changes as you go around the globe and through specific experiences. So that’s why and how we decided to start this project,” said Costa de Souza.

Both Vieira and Costa de Souza expressed hope for their work to be used pedagogically by students at large.

“We want the students to have a broader sense of America; [we want them] to think that the concept of America, Americas, and Latin America can be taught in a broader way and we can think beyond the borders. We can try to understand it beyond all these colonization processes and try to find these places where we can start conversations. This project is very intersectional that some points just connect all these countries that we’ve been to, all these cultures that we have visited,” said Costa de Souza.

Sparling Williams explained that the exhibition had already been taught in many classes with many more courses in line for the future.

“There are ideas for using this exhibition in Math and Science classes, in Spanish classes, English classes, History classes, and Art classes which is really exciting, and today I want to use the rest of our time to preview one of the core methodology that I teach with here and that I’ve developed over my years of teaching: close looking or slow looking,” said Sparling Williams.

The faculty members who were present responded well to Sparling Williams’ activity and said that they would consider using the gallery to assist their teaching.

“Milena and Pedro are coming to my class, Spanish-620, and I love that we can have that connection to what we are studying right now,” said Carmen Muñoz-Fernández, Instructor in Spanish and Director of the Learning in the World program.

Rafael Kelman, Instructor in Art, shared Muñoz-Fernández’s sentiment.

“I haven’t yet used [the exhibition] for teaching, but I haven’t yet figured out the specific teaching resources that Dr. [Sparling] Williams generated. So I was very interested to hear about those and to participate in the pedagogical activity that was pretty new to me,” said Kelman.

Kelman continued, “I’m still trying to figure it out as an art teacher who is not teaching photography because there isn’t that easy connection to make. But I think just looking at composition and just how meaning is made in these objects is something that can apply to any medium. I’ll probably try to get my Art-225 class in here to try to do some drawings of the photographs.”

Many students can look forward to viewing the gallery or studying it in many of their classes across multiple disciplines.

Editor’s Note: Andy Zeng is an Associate Commentary Editor for The Phillipian.