“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!” ― Ted Grant, Canadian photojournalist
Local photographer Leonel Saravia’s introduction to photography was serendipitous. Required to take an art class for his course requirements he chose photography. Marion Patterson, lab assistant to Ansel Adams, was his professor. Unbeknownst to Leonel his life was about to change. Patterson was forever pushing Leonel to express himself in new ways. The camera became a means for him to speak out and help others and at the same time himself.
Starting out Leonel used photography to further the awareness of AIDS, educate the Latino community and provide a venue which people could openly discuss HIV and safe sex. The photographs were not of people with HIV but of people, ordinary people with the titles serving as primers to initiate conversation.
Leonel only photographs in black and white. Always nudes. He is old school using film, controlling the processing by developing each print himself in the dark room. His models are ordinary, everyday people with ordinary bodies. When asked why, Leonel says, “We are all insecure about our bodies. Everyone thinks their body is flawed even people who are at the gym working out everyday. My photographs enable people to discover that they do have a part of their body that is beautiful.”
The child of estranged parents living with his father’s family in an alcoholic environment, a victim of abuse, physical and verbal, with lack of parental love before he was reunited with his mother after 12 years. An obsession with black and white photographs of celebrities and actors enabled Leonel to escape into an imaginary world where he felt safe and happy. These far removed figures became his family—his role models—enabling him to survive and maintain a positive outlook during these difficult years.
As a young Latino, machismo was an integral part of growing up. Societal influences from his male counterparts and the church cast disparaging beliefs towards women as whores based on perceived provocative dress. Nudity was taboo, a sin. Today, for Leonel nudity presents a purity, a glimpse into the soul.
During the photographic session repressed, personal issues tend to arise with this process serving as a catharsis. The absence of clothes can have such an unforeseen effect on the psyche and the outcome—a photograph of the person’s inner soul. Viewing these photographs the existentialism of their emotional essence is revealed—hope, forgiveness, strength, determination, vulnerability, tenderness—each is unique as each person is unique. The inner beauty of ordinary people is exposed for us to see. Unlike the young Leonel’s world of escape, today, the black and white photographs are of ordinary people, good people with positive messages.