Ana Espinal is a New York based photographer. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Ana moved to New York City with her family as a teenager. Most recently she has been working on a series of self portraits that explores the intersection of femininity, identity and beauty. Ana has also been exploring the ethnicity and physical characteristics of Dominican women. She received a BFA from School of Visual Arts in 2018, and AAS degree in Commercial Photography from CUNY, at LaGuardia College, in 2014.
Cooties Presents: Ana Espinal
Cooties is super excited to announce that Kiaya Rose Dilsner- Lopez has officially joined the Cooties team as our Lead Writer! Kiaya’s first assignment for Cooties was to chat (via the powers of Skype!) with the incredibly talented Ana Espinal. 
Read Kiaya’s interview with her below!
I stand over my Wi-Fi router and pray that the blinks keep steady for my Skype interview with a photographer. I take my seat next to the router as I start the call from Brazil to New York City, not too far from my hometown.
On my computer, I am first welcomed by the warm laughter of Ana Espinal. We share stories about the heat of New York City. It’s a cold winter in the south of Brazil. I shiver as I think about the sizzling heat of the sidewalks. Before we start the questions, she warns me that English is not her first language and she may not be able to express everything she feels in this language. She usually tries to avoid talking about her work, and prefers to let her photographs speak for themselves. I assure her that it is no problem; in my daily life in Brazil, I mix up my languages constantly and I haven’t had a completely clear thought in one language for a long time. In the end, we both agree that even with the difficulties of language, women still have messages that must be shared internationally. We laugh off our nerves and begin.
KIAYA ROSE DILSNER LOPEZ FOR COOTIES ZINE: “I would like to start at your beginning. How did you get started in photography? How have you changed over the years in your style?”
ANA ESPINAL: “Well, I come from the Dominican Republic and I lived in a very small town. I remember that we had only one photographer in the town and I was always curious about the way he took photographs. For me, I never imagined photography was going to be a profession. But when I moved to New York, I took one class of photography and I fell in love with it immediately. It’s something that you have to experience: the process of the dark room, the chemicals. It was something needed.”
“When I moved to the city, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I came from this culture, Dominican culture, where art is not a profession. My mother always said that I had to study something that would lead to a job. She wanted me to study nursing, but I knew that it wasn’t for me. Later, I remember my friend asked me to go to a photo shoot with her at LaGuardia College. I didn’t know anything about SVA or Pratt. I mostly associated with my friends and family and they didn’t know much about art at that time. For me, art was something important, but I wasn’t educated or familiar with how art worked.
I went to LaGuardia and fell in love with the photography department there. After, I decided to go to SVA for my Bachelor’s and that’s when I discovered that I could create how I felt through photography. It was a long process. Finding myself and understanding what photography means to me, what I can do with photography, how I can express myself. It was a crazy process, but I remember one of my professors at LaGuardia saw my work and how deeply involved I was to making photos every single day. She helped prepare me to apply to SVA. And never in my mind did I think that I was meant to be a part of SVA. I thought this is not for me. This is for American people. But in the end, I went and now I think that I can do much more with photographs than I ever thought I was capable of creating before. I learned the type of work I want to do: something with a message to tell. I want to talk about things that are meaningful. I don’t know if I am making sense.’’
CZ: “Everything that you are saying makes sense. Everything that you’re saying is important. The fact that you said that this school isn’t for me, it’s for Americans—I mean, of course it is for you because your perspective is important and I am happy that you were able to go to this school and talk about your ideas. Personally, I feel excited when I see other Latinas creating art and getting recognized for their work. I am happy to be here with you and learn more about your process. So, don’t worry about your words. They make complete sense to me.”
“Now I’m going to transition to the Beautiful Woman. What inspired you to create this series? Can you talk more about some of the cultural practices you include in the photos?”
AE: “Beautiful Woman is where I did my self-portraits. I started working on that series two years ago, but I was making this just for me. Every day, I went to photograph in the studio and made photographs just the way I was feeling. I was feeling frustrated with myself, the way I looked.”
AE: “There is this pressure where women have to look a certain way to be beautiful all the time. Painted Face was the first photo. I remember telling my co-worker that I used to wear makeup every single day. For so many years, from morning to night, I was dependent on make-up to feel more confident and pretty. I was so disgusted of wearing makeup. I was so consumed by wearing foundation. But also, with age, you find out that this is not important. I thought about how I got so consumed by this and I really wanted to make photographs about how this felt. Painted Face, a dark photo with foundation on my lips, symbolized my frustration of being consumed by this make-up.”
“I started doing things that made me feel uncomfortable, but at the same time to feel beautiful. Silky Waist is based on the experiences of my mother. When she was young, she used to wear a corset because she wasn’t happy with her figure and I didn’t understand it at the time. But now, I’m going through the same feelings that my mom had. Now I’m wearing things to hide my belly fat. The series is about what we do to hide our imperfections. When I was making this series, I wanted to show the idea of beauty with comfort and the importance of that balance. Beauty can also be comfortable.”
AE: “Exactly. I think it’s still not yet complete. I think that I still need to work on how to make it better, but it’s a good start.”
CZ: “So you’re going to continue adding to Beautiful Woman?”
AE: “I’m thinking about it because sometimes you get consumed by the stress of making things, trying to make good work. Now I’m taking a break to relax and think about it. To look at the project and see what is missing and how I can make it better.”

My screen turns black. The Wi-Fi cuts out. I click to connect and disconnect twelve times. I stand on couches, zig-zag around the router, dance in the corners of the room trying catch a signal from this unpredictable box. Fifteen minutes later, the blinks wink back at me and I connect with Ana Espinal for a second time.

CZ:“Sorry about that, the Wi-Fi here is unpredictable. Thank you for your patience.”
AE:” No worries. Where were we?”
CZ: “We talked about your photography and your Beautiful Woman series, but now I would like to learn more about your life. I read through your bio and I learned that you moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a teenager. Can you share more about what that experience was like for you?”
AE: “Like I said at the beginning, as a Latina, most of the time, you keep your family and friends close to you. I have many sisters and one brother, and at the beginning of this change, I would surround myself with people I knew. Even my friends were from the Dominican Republic and it was difficult to make friends with other people, especially Americans. I was afraid to speak the language. I wasn’t that confident. It was difficult because I had to learn the culture and at the same time, I didn’t want to have that culture. I came here not because I wanted to be here, but because my family came here. I had to adapt to this new life, new people, new language, new food. Everything was so different, so instead, I stayed in the culture I knew, my family and close friends.”
“When I went to college, I finally realized that I was making a mistake. I was afraid to explore many things in the United Sates. I regret that I didn’t spend more time learning the language. But it was difficult for me. When you are young, you have this mindset that everything is bad. You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to make friends from a different culture. You just want to go back to where you came from. The Dominican Republic is very different and I had to learn how to be on my own. It was difficult, but it was also my mistake to not understand and adapt to the United States’ ways of living. But yes, it was a difficult time.”
CZ: “We talked about your photography and your Beautiful Woman series, but now I would like to learn more about your life. I read through your bio and I learned that you moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a teenager. Can you share more about what that experience was like for you?”
AE: “Like I said at the beginning, as a Latina, most of the time, you keep your family and friends close to you. I have many sisters and one brother, and at the beginning of this change, I would surround myself with people I knew. Even my friends were from the Dominican Republic and it was difficult to make friends with other people, especially Americans. I was afraid to speak the language. I wasn’t that confident. It was difficult because I had to learn the culture and at the same time, I didn’t want to have that culture. I came here not because I wanted to be here, but because my family came here. I had to adapt to this new life, new people, new language, new food. Everything was so different, so instead, I stayed in the culture I knew, my family and close friends.”
“When I went to college, I finally realized that I was making a mistake. I was afraid to explore many things in the United Sates. I regret that I didn’t spend more time learning the language. But it was difficult for me. When you are young, you have this mindset that everything is bad. You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to make friends from a different culture. You just want to go back to where you came from. The Dominican Republic is very different and I had to learn how to be on my own. It was difficult, but it was also my mistake to not understand and adapt to the United States’ ways of living. But yes, it was a difficult time.”
CZ: “I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m happy that you were able to be open and learn more. I’m sure that through your conversations with people, others learned from you too.”

AE: “Yeah, my aunt was telling me the other day that I don’t have American culture or Dominican culture. I am in limbo. And I said yes, that’s what most young people who come to the United States feel. You don’t feel like you belong here because you’re from somewhere else, but you also don’t know as much as everyone else from where you’re born. So where do you belong?”

CZ: “Do you feel like your experience between two cultures affects your artistic perspective?”
AE: “Somehow yes, but it’s more complicated. I would love to represent Latinas because there aren’t many out there and I feel like it’s because of the culture. You come from this background where your family is not familiar with art and I feel that many of us have to go through that to find ourselves, our passion, and our art. We don’t have as much family support. My family didn’t understand why I wanted to do photography. I did everything on my own and I had to prove to them that this is what I wanted to do. I had to prove that I was capable of making good photographs. Last year, my mother finally understood after I showed her the studio: where I worked, where I learned. She is so proud. When she sees a photograph, she is happy for me.”
“And yes, I come from the Dominican Republic, but I have a problem when people categorize me and put me in a box. People assume that coming from the Dominican Republic means that I must make work that is colorful and based on my background. I don’t like that. I make work about Dominican women but that’s because I feel like I want to celebrate these women. I also feel like I am a woman and I want to represent women in general.”
”But also, it’s in between. Yes, I am Latina and I want to celebrate everything about being Latina. But I also want to celebrate being a woman. I want to bring my culture and be recognized for these parts of myself, but I don’t want anyone to make me feel like I can only make one type of work."
"The type of work I make is not just about me. It’s about my mother, my friends, all women. I see them as a person: a woman who is going through all this, the sacrifices we have in just being a woman. We must tell men about these issues. It’s not just about the cultures.”
CZ: “Yes, I agree. You shouldn’t have to feel like you’re stuck in a box. You should be able to just create and talk about things that are important to you.”
AE: “Yes, exactly. I am Latina, 100% Dominican. I want to have that in my art, but as my choice. I feel so happy bringing Dominican culture because it is a precious place of flavor, happiness, music, friends and good people.”
CZ: “Do you feel like Dominican and U.S. beauty standards are different or do women go through the same issues?”
AE: “I think women in the Dominican Republic and the United States feel the same issues. They are different countries, but both feel pressures to look beautiful. In the Dominican Republic, women go to the salon every single weekend. We have thick hair and thick hair is not appreciated. To be beautiful, you need straight hair from the salon and you go through two hours to feel beautiful. But I feel like now there is a young generation in the Dominican Republic that is asking, why do we have to do this? Why do we not celebrate and appreciate our heritage: our curly, original hair? That’s something from a young age. Everybody tells all the young girls that we have to go to the salon and I still do it. Even today, I feel that I look more beautiful with straight hair than my natural hair.”
“This is only one example, but both cultures say that women need to dress certain ways, wear her hair in certain ways, wear makeup in certain ways, and also have a nice body. It’s similar in both cultures with the pressure on women to be beautiful.”
CZ: “Thank you for sharing about your perspectives on beauty, culture, and women. Before ending, I would just like to ask, what is your advice to other women who are trying to make it as photographers out there?”
AE: “My advice is very simple. You have to work very hard. You have to be working. You have to dedicate time to your work. If you’re going to be a photographer, you have to find your own style. Don’t try to copy someone else. You have to be authentic to you. The problem with photography is that there are so many photographs and it’s hard to distance yourself from other photographers. 
Always make something that is true and fresh. Dedicate time to it.
“Many people will not support you and you have to make work that is for yourself first. Many will not agree and many will not accept it, but sometimes it’s important for you to make work that makes people uncomfortable. Don’t listen to negativity. You can listen to advice. Take the advice that goes along with what you want to make, but listen to yourself too. Sometimes, the best feeling is when you surprise people, when you see their faces—their underestimation. It’s good to surprise these types of people and show them that I have more inside of me than you think.”
“When you feel good inside, it’s right.”

To see more of Ana’s work, visit her website:
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