Photographer Juan Veloz on using VR, shooting celebrities and staying true to yourself
We chat with the Dominican photographer about his partnership with Meta in VR and why his background and community are important to his work.
Today, Meta begins the fifth instalment of its Metaverse Culture Series, with a focus on Latin culture. This includes launching a new space within the metaverse called Neuvo Norte, crafted by Puerto Rican artist COVL: you can read our article on that here.
Meta is also releasing a docu-short titled Tercera Cultura. This features a powerhouse panel of Latin culture shifters who met in VR to explore identity, authentic expression and economic opportunity within the metaverse.
The participants included Juan Veloz, a Dominican photographer and brand collaborator who's committed to capturing stories that haven't been told. To mark the occasion, Meta invited us to interview Juan ourselves within the metaverse, using an Oculus Quest 2 headset and meeting within the Horizon Workrooms VR app. You can read the interview below or watch the full Q&A in the video above.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Juan Veloz is a self-taught photographer who first became known for photographs capturing the authentic identity and personality of people from his local community. He later moved to LA and collaborated with some of the most prominent names in fashion, music, and the arts: Vogue to Dior, Netflix to Nike.
Juan's work ranges from edgy street photography to portraits of celebrities such as John Boyega, Tove Lo, Babyface, Jennifer Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, Regina King, Kelis and Usher. Throughout it all, he's committed to representing voices and narratives often missing in contemporary media.
We chatted with him about the opportunities offered by VR, the importance of honesty and authenticity, and striking a balance between representation and creative freedom.
How did you get involved in this VR project?
Meta reached out to me, and at first, I was a little nervous because I didn't know what it was. But everything is always changing, so adapting to the times is cool. So I felt like: 'Just step into it. You don't know what can come out of this.'
I'm really big on just accepting change in my career. It just makes it fun. You don't always have to do what feels normal. It's good to just change it up. And I'm just over the moon to know I'm a part of this reality and experience.
Apart from virtual meetings like the one we're in now, what does VR offer photographers?
The cool part of VR is that it can be whatever you want. For instance, you could make a gallery space within VR to display your work. Maybe even allow people to step into that photo and see the story of that photo. It's limitless what can happen with photography and VR because you just make it what you want to make it. And it's your world that people are stepping into.
As part of the Metaverse Culture Series, the artist COVL has made a virtual world called Neuvo Norte to represent Latin culture within VR. What did you think of it?
I love Neuvo Norte. It's like a warm blanket of my childhood if that makes sense. Because it's true to Latin culture, people can relate to it. I think a core part is that it's authentic. It wasn't forced. Instead, Meta brought in someone who knows the culture, speaks it, and lives through it day and night. It was genius. And COVL is an amazing artist. So it was a good experience. It was comfortable. I felt good about it.
How much has your Latin background influenced your photography?
Oh, it's been my MO since I picked up a camera. I started photography because my grandmother always spoke about not having any images of herself growing up in the Dominican Republic. So I thought: 'I can document my family.' As my career progressed, I never wanted to forget the root of it all. It was because I started taking photos with my family. So whatever project I do, I always bring a part of that.
How well do you think Latin culture is represented in the US media?
There is a change happening with the media. Many brands and companies are realising that hiring people who are actually in the streets, who are actually doing the work, and who know what they're doing is the best route to go.
If you force something, then when it's out to the world, it doesn't make sense. People can't relate to it. I think hiring people who get the work and the language is the best way to go. Just keeping it authentic.
For instance, when this metaverse project was brought to me, I only did it because it felt right. Because the people were actually a part of it, like COVL, it just felt right to do it. These are my people; these people can really speak the same language. I think that's the best way to always approach anything in life. It just has to feel authentic to what you do.
Do you feel responsible to your community for what you produce?
Yes and no. In the Latino community, we feel like we have to hold that baton. But at times, it gets a little tough. I'll think: 'Wait, I started creating because I wanted to feel free. I wanted my voice to be heard.'
I also want to protect my culture. But you have to be mindful and careful in how you say things, and including everyone: black Latinos, white Latinos… you have to make it a broad thing. So it's a yes and a no when it comes to ensuring everybody's represented because I didn't have that growing up. I just wanted to make sure that the next person coming after me has something to look at and that it feels authentic. And they think, 'Oh cool, Juan did that,' and 'I would love to do that as well'.
These are my people; these people can really speak the same language. I think that's the best way to always approach anything in life. It just has to feel authentic to what you do.
So, what's your advice to young people who want to be photographers?
There's something that I told myself when I got my first big project. It was to never forget why I started photography; to follow that little voice saying, 'Juan, your story matters.' And I think coming from a place of honesty helps as well.
You have to be real with yourself. Ask yourself: why do I want to do this? That applies to anything in life. But with photography, you are creating the story; you are documenting. So you have to be very mindful of: 'Do I want to do this or not?' But at the end of the day, just be authentic and true to yourself, and you will create the best work.
Also, don't seek validation from different companies or different brands. Just create for yourself. That will help you breathe a bit and put your shoulders back. If you create for yourself first, then when a brand brings you onto a project, it's because they love your work. So let's meet in the middle. Let's respect each other, and let's create some art. Never lose yourself in the process.
What's the community like among photographers in Los Angeles? On one level, you're all fighting for the same work. So is there a sense of community?
I wouldn't say fighting for the same work because I have a bunch of friends in the photography game. And I kid you not, if I can't do a project, I'll hit my boy, like, 'Hey, I can't do this. Jump on it!'
There's work for all of us. There's nothing but space for all of us. And I think creating the community around that has always been my approach. When I just speak to other photographers in the game, it's all love. Some people are competitive. But that's not my MO. And all my friends are working. So it's all love at the end of the day.
You've photographed a lot of famous people. How different is it from doing street photography?
My approach to every single photo I've taken has been the same. I'm always honest. And that also goes for how I was raised. My parents, my family is Dominican, we're very loud and honest. But we start with love. And I think working with celebrities, or famous people, they want to be seen, they want to be heard. We're all human. So let's just take a breath. Let's remove that like whole: 'Oh, I have to look amazing.'
My honesty, I think, is what makes anyone and everyone comfortable that I work with. I think it's always the best way to go, working with celebrities because everyone wants to just be treated like a human. They're always under the microscopic eye and waiting for something to look or feel bad. My biggest compliment when I work with anyone is: 'You made me feel comfortable.' And I feel like, okay, my job is done. Because as a human being, I want to be looked at as a human first.
What photographers have inspired you, personally?
I've been hugely inspired by Renell Medrano, an amazing Dominican photographer from the Bronx. She was one of the first photographers to bring me under her wing. I did four projects with her, and what made a big impression was the way she moved. Seeing a black Latina just work the room and not really care what people thought about her was beautiful because I was raised by black Latinas. It reminded me how powerful women are and how much respect we need to give our black Latinas in this space.
Something of Renell I'll always remember is her saying, 'Juan, stay true to yourself. Stay true to yourself. Work will come. Don't stress, but just don't stop creating.' So she was a huge inspiration. And hopefully, she'll see this because I always want to give flowers to the people who've had a huge influence on my life. And she is definitely one of them.
You can watch the Tercera Cultura docu-short, which features Juan along with artist COVL, disabled model, actress, and advocate Jillian Mercado, activist and entrepreneur Sara Mora and athlete Tori Ortiz, here.