Visiting photographer puts lens on Chicano movement

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At age ten, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer José Galvez entered the offices of the Arizona Daily Star carrying a shoeshine box. “Times were so different. You could have a kid wandering in off the street,” Galvez said, referencing himself. From this point on, Galvez immersed himself in the world of journalism, entranced during this first visit to an editorial space. “I was very impressionable back then.”

Galvez worked under the guidance of Victor Thronton, a managing editor of the Daily Star and city editor of the Phoenix Gazette. “He took me under his wing and let me sit in on daily news conferences,” Galvez recalled. “He encouraged me and pushed me to question what I saw.”

In high school, Galvez bought a camera at a Tucson-area pawnshop and began photographing people in his local community, launching a enduring commitment to documenting the Latino experience in America through narrative and journalistic portraiture. “What I look for is a combination of dignity and story,” Galvez said. “I search for the right look in the person’s face and body language. You don’t see a lot of people smiling at the camera. I want them to relax and be oblivious to my presence and the presence of the camera.”

Galvez developed a great deal of enthusiasm for both the craft and the project during his college years. Inspired by his mentors at the Daily Star and invigorated by dynamism of the Vietnam Era, Galvez went on to major in journalism at the University of Arizona and following graduation, stepped on as a staff photographer at the Daily Star. “It was an exciting period,” Galvez recalled.

“You had the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon in the White House and then Watergate. You had the Women’s Movement and the Black Power Movement. Across the Southwest, you had the farmworker movement led by Cesar Chavez,” he said, speaking of the five-year United Farm Workers (UFW) movement that called for improved conditions and wages for farmworkers across the nation.” It was just natural for me to take photos as we marched along.”

As the world around Galvez evolved, so did his work. “My earlier photography was centered primarily around the American Southwest, but featured almost exclusively Mexican Americans,” he said. “They’re weren’t a lot of immigrants back then. You had a lot of farm workers in the field and I would photograph them, but it wasn’t like today. Now, I’m photographing people from a number of different national identities—people from Honduras and Chile, the Dominican Republic, Argentina—from all over, really.”

Galvez, however, asserts that his work is not about one particular aspect of identity, but rather its total and very unique sum. “I didn’t really see those nationalities,” he said. “The work I’m doing is not about immigrants. It’s about people.”

When Galvez began working at the Los Angeles Times, he became the first Mexican-American photographer on staff. In 1984, he and a team of twelve other journalists won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their 27-part newspaper series, “Latinos,” documenting the lives and culture of southern California’s Latino community during the early 1980s. The team consisted of two editors and 11 reporters (including Galvez) and together, they conducted over 1,000 interviews.

“It was really exciting. I didn’t really believe it was happening,” Galvez said of the night on which he discovered that he and his team had received the award. “We got together in the news room. It’s real. We won a Pulitzer, and it was an honor to be the first people of Hispanic decent to win.”

Galvez did mention, however, that this announcement was bittersweet. “I wondered, ‘why has it taken so long?’” he recalled, noting that qualifying his team as “first” represented a long history of under-representation. “[The Pulitzer Prize has] been around for a long time. The whole thing was quite exciting, but you have to put it in perspective.”

Galvez’s work operates in direct conversation with the American cultural dialectics and possesses the same reflective nature as the artist himself. “What I’m trying to [present] is a brief history of Latinos in the United State and the Chicano movement. We’re in a very contentious debate about immigration and border security and all that rhetoric,” Galvez said. “My role in all of that is to inform and educate. In my work, I try to get across that the people I photograph are no different than you. They’re families, they’re students, they’re workers, they’re store owners. They have celebrations, they go to church and they own homes. I want people to connect and have them see that.”

Through this ever-evolving compilation, one thing remained constant over the course of Galvez’s career: his steadfast commitment to the film photography. “Film is so contained,” he said. “Every image counts.”

Galvez feels strongly about film as a medium and urges young photographers to be more judicious in their selection of material. “Stop it with the selfies,” he said. “We’ve seen this immense influx of images and so much is such a waste of good technology. If you’re not creating anything meaningful as you get older, that’s going to be sad. I really want [young people] to take a moment and take some meaningful photographs of families, friends and places.”

His project persists. Almost thirty years later, Galvez is still very much involved with documenting Latino identity. Harking back to his early days at the Daily Star, Galvez noted that he’s constantly on the lookout for new subjects. “On the drive up to Maine, I’ll be looking to see what I see,” he said, “and ultimately, my mission to teach people to make a connection and have empathy.”

Galvez will present his work Oct.30 at 7 p.m. lecture in Diamond 142. This follows a 6 p.m. reception and exhibit to be held in the atrium of the Diamond Building.

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