The coronavirus pandemic has changed how many of us see our families. Some of us have lost relatives unexpectedly and have had to deal with the particular grief and difficulty of not seeing them one last time. Some of us have become closer to our families as the pandemic pushed us under one roof, while others feel the absence more keenly because they have been living far away from their relatives. For Christian Rodriguez, a Dominican American photographer from New York, photographs have become a lifeline during this strange and devastating time.
When the pandemic first hit, Rodriguez’s father became incredibly sick. Rodriguez documented what that period was like for his family and how it changed his relationship with his father in a poignant continuation of a long-term project. “I began taking photos of my father during my college years. I'd come home for winter and summer break and follow him around,” he explained. Around this time in 2013, Rodriguez was far from home most of the year at the Savannah College of Art and Design and experiencing the entirely different culture of the American South.
“I don’t have any photos of my grandparents and know basically nothing about my great-grandparents. I’d like to imagine young Dominicans in the future getting a glimpse of what it meant to be us in 2020, and to see it in such detail that it encompasses years and years of life.”
What was your relationship with your father like when you were younger, and how did that change once you started photographing him?
My father came to the US in the early ’80s from a town in Dominican Republic that had a population of maybe hundreds of people. We never saw eye to eye on anything. He couldn’t understand me, what my world was, and it just drove us apart. It wasn’t till college, away from New York, in Savannah, that I started to question the ways capitalism and immigration gave us the opportunity for a better life while also stripping us of our rituals as families. Work always took priority, and that usually meant juggling so many things at once that he never put in the work to establish real and grounded relationships with his kids. When I turned the lens towards my father in 2013, I was surprised by his comfort. He tended to ignore me and saw it as a school project. Through the years I’ve continued to do so and in turn gained a connection with him that would’ve never formed.
How has photographing your father shaped your other work?
I really want to share the immigrant experience with people in a humanizing way. It’s pushed me to document difficult realities for the new generation of immigrants in this country. With that empathy I’ve tried to show who we really are, our strength and ability, not just as immigrants but as humans.
I know 2020 was tough for you all. What happened to your dad, and how did you all work through it?
I remember throwing this amazing New Year’s party and having a feeling that 2020 would be a monumental year for me, but never did I imagine how it played out. Shortly after lockdown, my mother called me and told me Dad wasn’t feeling well. Within a week from that call, the doctors caring for my father reached out to us and asked that we say anything we’d like to, as it was likely we would lose him. It was shocking news.
While holding my mother from falling to the ground, over a FaceTime call we shared with him that he was strong and could beat this. It was one of the darkest days in my life for sure. We were very lucky — three months after that call my pops walked out of the hospital. In these moments, photography again gave me a way to cope, and lean into the emotions that might not always be at the surface. It was painful and to this day can catch me off guard. Shit, I’m trying not to well up writing this! We all worked through it in different ways, but the one thing that was universal was how much closer it drew my family.
Photography just became my way of journaling, it became a way to break that sadness up a little bit. It provided my mom and I some respite. We would go on walks in the park, look at the flowers blooming. It felt like my mom and I were working through this together.
What is your life like now with him at home?
I’m not gonna lie, it's still a challenge, but things are returning to normal. The last bit of recovery was finished up two weeks ago. He had a feeding tube placed for about a year — we just went to the doctor’s, and when they removed the tube it was a huge relief for him, my mom, and the family. There’s lots of upkeep, with endless appointments and physical therapy, etc. But we’re happy to finally feel a sense of normalcy. He goes on his afternoon walks and overall lives a semi-independent life again.
I love the photographs of your dad in the Dominican Republic with family. What was it like to go there with him?
It was the first time in my adulthood that we were there at the same time! I heard he was going, so I got a camera ready, hopped on a flight, and documented for like a month. What took me off guard was how silly he was around old friends. I got to see his best attributes, and some of those moments captured on camera. As time goes on and we both get older, that trip stands out. Life in Dominican Republic for him seemed like a great alternative to the hustle of New York City.
What do you see as the future of this project?
Lately I’ve felt that I’d love to see this and other projects of mine intersect, with a crescendo of stories and a fuller perspective of what it is to be an immigrant, Dominican, and the very tactile connection between these two islands. What will it look like? Not sure, but I’m dedicating more and more time to pursuing this. Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari started up this feeling that I wanted some of this in moving images — just not really sure where it’ll go yet.
What are your photo goals for 2021, and beyond, outside of this project?
This often feels like it changes in my mind, but 2021 is a big year for me. I’m turning 30 and feeling more committed than ever to expanding my work and pushing myself into spaces I’ve been afraid or shy to occupy. I’m aiming to get back into the studio, hash out ideas that have been swirling around my brain. I’d like to be as uncomfortable as possible because often it's where growth is found. I want to establish more friendships between Dominican Republic, New York, and all other diasporas. Obviously more hugs, too. I miss hugging everyone.