Interview: Ken Castaneda

Ken Castaneda is a visual artist based in New York City. He attends the School of Visual Arts. Ken likes to shoot himself and other people, and even sometimes himself with other people.

Recently, Ken had his first solo-exhibition showcasing his new series, Frontera Familiar. At 21, he is pushing the boundaries that are placed within our society through the representation of queer latinx in his work.

I first met Ken at a pre-college course at SVA in the summer of 2016. Even though he was the TA of the class I was taking, we quickly became close friends through mutual interests. In the short time that I’ve known him, he has taught me so much about art and life (and also how to ride a bike). I also admire the way in which Ken is able to capture his thoughts and feelings through his photographs, so I was happy when he agreed for me to visit his dorm to discuss about his new series.


Photography and GIF by Kay Thebez

Kay: How did you get into photography?

Ken: From an early age, I always witnessed my father being the documenter, always having a VHS, a point and shoot, something to document what was going on. So, I was very aware about images from an early age. When I began shooting around late 2010 early 2011, I finally was able to be the documenter myself. I got my first ever DSLR from a friend for $40, and became best friends with an aspiring makeup artist who was my muse from 2011 onwards. A lot of my early work is self portraits, which I still shoot today.

Kay: Tell us about your series, Frontera Familiar

Ken: Frontera Familiar is in many ways a first attempt at piecing together the complexities of the Latinx American Modern Family. It is photographs of my family performing different characters, roles, its images based on language and interpretation. There are also a lot of metaphors within the images that speak to the intersectionality of growing up Latinx American, growing up queer, and how that relates to our current political climate today. Ultimately, Frontera Familiar is really a way where I can collaborate with my family, help understand them more, make up for lost time when photography wasn’t an outlet for me. It’s a beautiful effort on all our parts.

“Silver Lining” (2017) from Frontera Familiar by Ken Castaneda

Kay: What was the first photograph that started your thematic exploration on this project?

Ken: The image “Silver Lining” stuck out to me. I had been making images of my family for a while but on the side I was also making images of fences, borders, boundaries. I grouped them all together one day, and when I found this image, it reminded me of the story of when my dad crossed the border. He told me once he had crossed Tijuana into San Diego, the time of day was night, and all you could see in the distance was this faint horizon of mountains; where you needed to go to be free. The image “Silver Lining” also has that same quality, where the sky meets the sea but it’s so seamless you aren’t sure where it ends or begins, and the silver wire stops you from accessing it completely.

from “Frontera Familiar” by Ken Castaneda
“Car Crash” (2017) from Frontera Familiar by Ken Castaneda

Kay: What does your creative process look like?

Ken: I actually take a lot of time to make a new image. I act upon my instinct of what I feel is urgent for me to make. I sketch out some photos sometimes, but ultimately when I have a clear vision in my head I just go right into it with little planning of what’s to come. While my images are staged most of the time, I still want there to be a space for surprise, human error, which leads to unintentional beauty and makes the image feel real.

“Dad at Work” (2016) from Frontera Familiar by Ken Castaneda
from “Frontera Familiar” by Ken Castaneda
“Mom and Dad” (2016) from Frontera Familiar by Ken Castaneda

Kay: What is your favorite piece?

Ken: I think my favorite image from the show is the one of my mom and dad hugging. It again was one of those spontaneous but planned moments where the color was right, the form was right, their actions were right. It’s a very unsettling image because a hug is supposed to be a sign of comfort and gratitude, but the gloves add a level of discomfort and security, but from what exactly? It speaks a lot about the layered lives of parents and their own insecurities and issues.

“Blue Rail, Passaic” (2016) from Frontera Familiar by Ken Castaneda

Kay: With the continuation of this series, what are some of the themes or images that you are hoping to further create and explore?

Ken: I always strive for my images to reach a broader audience, and to reach people who had the same or similar upbringing as me. In the history of photography, the lineage is very white, very male, and school does not help deviate from this history enough. We don’t learn enough about artists of color let alone about Latinx artists, who have been working as long if not longer than the white history that we are taught. Even in the field today, majority of commercial work, ads, galleries, are showing white artists, and on some occasion white queer artists: which are supposed to stand in for all queer or minority artists working — but that’s not valid. I want to continue to speak about these complex identities, without losing who I am, and where I come from. I want to help empower young queer latinx artists and activists to keep fighting for what is right. I will never stop pushing the envelope.

“Me as a Luchador” (2017) from Frontera Familiar by Ken Castaneda

Kay: Since you are a senior, what are you looking forward to after graduating?

Ken: I’m looking most forward to actually, taking a step out of making photographs, and expand my work towards performance and video work. I feel like while photography can achieve a lot, there is so much more internally that I want to unlock, and I think performance can help me achieve that. Also — trying to stay in New York City.

You can find his work on his website, and follow him on Instagram.


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