Feature: “Dons & Divas” by Alison Viana

Alison Viana is a Cuban-American photographer and editor from Miami, Florida. She received a BFA in Photography at Parsons School of Design and currently works as a Staff Editor at the New York Times, in addition to her personal photography practice. Her work explores themes of sensuality, identity, and race. For her, Photography is used as a way to get her closer to people and paces that she would otherwise find unattainable or inaccessible.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you come to start your “Dons & Divas” project?
I began “Dons & Divas” as a way to explore the relationship women have with their hair, specifically women of color. When I moved to New York, I would walk down Lexington in East Harlem and admire the beauty shops, fascinated by the amount of salons and barbershops that populated the neighborhood. I would peek in and take pleasure in looking at the vibrant colors, extravagant decor and most of all, the people. I first thought to photograph black beauty salons when I was living in Miami. The culture that I was exposed to sparked a curiosity in me that I wanted to explore. At the time, I was enrolled in a color photography class at Miami-Dade College with professor Tony Chirinos, where we chose a subject and spent all semester documenting it, and I had my mind set on beauty salons. I was heavily influenced by the “hair” culture within the Miami latin and black communities. Growing up, I saw people put a lot of emphasis into how their hair was styled as an extension of themselves. I’m a half Cuban, half white woman with curly hair. I was convinced that I was more beautiful when my hair was straight. Weekly, I’d spend a half a day in a salon chair and endured the dreadful heat of the blow-dryer and pull of the hot iron just so I would feel beautiful and be seen as beautiful by others. These ideals of beauty were instilled in me from an early age and it wasn’t until my late teens when I decided to stop ironing my hair and to accept my hair for what it was; curly. I was so tired of fitting in on what society thought was beautiful. All of my experiences pushed me to one day walk into one of these salons to begin documenting a space and the people that is so under-represented and explore notions of beauty and identity within the context of a beauty salon, so I officially began working on “Dons & Divas” in 2015, during my Junior year at Parsons School of Design. Later, I expanded the project to include men, because beauty standards transcend gender and I think people should see that.

from “Dons & Divas” by Alison Viana

How does your work as an editor inform your work as a photographer?
I believe everything around me in one way or another informs how I create images and shapes my practice. As a Staff Editor, I am constantly looking at different images of all kinds. I can better recognize and edit different images to match the style of photography they reflect. As a student, I was in an environment where I could experiment and freely express myself while using photography my tool for exploring the world around me and the very things that peak my interest.

How was the experience of photographing such a tight knit community portrayed in your “Dons & Divas” project? Did you maintain relationships with the people you met through the project?
It was such an enlightening experience to photograph “Dons & Divas.” I met wonderful people who welcomed me into their space and who were so essential and formative to the work. I gained a deeper insight into the hair culture and how these spaces where people constructed their identities also, acted as safe spaces for minority communities to speak openly about politics, popular culture, and personal life. For many, it was a place of therapy. I made so many new friends and acquaintances along the way and I continued my relationship with a few barber shops and salons that I returned to multiple times throughout creating this work. During shooting days, I would spend almost the entire day hanging out and photographing the people who came to get their hair done. Some days, I stayed till the shop would close and hangout to drink and join in on the gossip. Nowadays, I still stop by if I’m in the neighborhood of any of the salons I photographed.

from “Dons & Divas” by Alison Viana
from “Dons & Divas” by Alison Viana

What were your main challenges in photographing the project?
My greatest challenge in photographing “Dons & Divas,” along with gaining access was getting people to forget I was there, which was not easy considering I would bring an entire “studio” setup that consisted of a speedlite or two with light stands to hold them up. If I was lucky, I would have a friend come assist me and hold a flash by hand, which made the moving around much easier. Another challenge was gaining the trust of the clientele and to assure them that I was capturing them in a “good” light because many people came into the salon very visually vulnerable, but authentic. The women were especially concerned with how they looked in the images, while most of the men didn’t really seem to care. I think this is so because there is more society pressures placed on women to achieve and maintain beauty.

from “Dons & Divas” by Alison Viana

Do you plan to continue work on “Dons & Divas”? Or do you think this project is pretty complete? How do you know when a project is ‘finished’?
It’s been a year since I’ve walked into a salon to photograph it. I feel satisfied with where I left the project. I wanted to create a visual representation of how people of a certain culture have created their own standard of beauty. I think “Dons and Divas” captures that, but I have considered making it a multimedia installation by incorporating music & sound to the project to make it more dynamic. I determine a project complete when I feel that I have visually achieved the message I am trying to get across.

from “Dons & Divas” by Alison Viana

What is your favorite thing to do in New York during the summer?
My favorite thing to do in New York during the summer is have BBQs in the park with friends and attend more outdoor or rooftop dance parties.

from “Dons & Divas” by Alison Viana

This Feature is part of COLLECTION #01: “IN THE CITY”

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