Joana Toro shares her inspiring story of determination amidst adversity in a candid conversation with Loculars

From working at a nightclub, to selling Bibles during the day, and dressing up in Hello Kitty costumes to pay her bills, Joana Toro’s journey as a photographer is one of perseverance and passion.  Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Smithsonian Magazine, and she recently collaborated with CNN and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown for a feature on Queens. We are delighted to have Joana offer two amazing experiences on Loculars, and recently sat down with this Colombian documentary photographer to learn about her journey and what’s next on her agenda.

Photo Ayash Basu. Joana Toro in a candid conversation with Loculars.

Where did you grow up and how did you get started in photography?

I was born in Bogota and grew up in Barranquilla, Cartagena on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. I moved back to Bogota to study graphic design, where there was a photography class as well. I was terrible at graphic design, but with photography something clicked and I realized that I could communicate what I want. I began to shoot with a small Pentax K1000 camera. I left graphic design after one semester but kept shooting. I realized that I enjoy photography and was finally good at something. I was extremely lost in my life at that time.

I was working as a doorman in a club in Bogota at night and selling bibles during the day.

I was living in a small room in a tough place. 1998 to 2000 were very difficult years for me. In a way photography found me, by accident.

How did you decide to become a professional photographer?

A friend of mine who completed graphic design in university and was going to work at the local newspaper asked me “I am going to the newspaper next week, why don’t you come with me?” And I said “Me? But I don’t have anything!” He said, “You have some pictures, and I like your pictures, let’s go show them your pictures.” So, I went to the main local newspaper -“El Tiempo” with a bunch of my photos, which were more of naked pictures of some friends. One of the people there saw my pictures and asked me to cover a section in the newspaper called “Daily Life” – which covered health, women, beauty etc. So, I took that job, filling the section once a month.

© Joana Toro. Bogota, Colombia prisoners cut hair at the barbershop of the central penitentiary “La Picota”

While working there I heard that they had openings for internships. The program was about shooting with a photographer of the newspaper for a month and learning from him. I went to the editor and applied for the internship and got denied the first day. So, I went back the next day and waited outside so he could see me. I did this for days, until one day he said – “Wow, you are too much!” He finally gave in and offered me the opportunity to shoot there for one month. I took that opportunity and practically lived there! They saw my attitude and my passion and gave me more sections of the newspaper to shoot. I stayed there for four years. The newspaper was my college. I learnt how to use a camera there, I learnt from others with a lot of experience and I learnt from my mistakes. From 2000 to 2011, I went on to shoot for major newspapers and magazines in Colombia.

© Joana Toro. A mother and her son in their house at Monteria, Cordova (Colombia), which is also a public pool hall

How did you end up in New York? How difficult was it to get established?

When you are in the media for so long, you don’t have a life. You are shooting through holidays, Christmas and New Year’s just following news without a personal life. In 2011, I realized that I had done the media circles and it was time to go out on my own and explore photography in other ways. At the time, I was shooting for a Getty Global Assignment and my best friend was living in New York. He told me a lot of stories about New York just like in the Woody Allen movies. I thought I could make the same money but in dollars, so I came to New York in July 2011.

When I got here, reality hit me. I struggled with English. I was expecting that Getty would give me work and I will get paid and be happy but that didn’t happen. I spent all my savings in one year. After a year, I had two options – go home or start from zero.

In Colombia, I was a good photographer and had a place. I wasn’t famous but I was recognized in the media. In NY, I was another Latina immigrant with bad accent and grammar.

I started to clean, became a nanny, began waiting tables. I wasn’t very good at any of that. I had to pay for school for learning English. I found this Spanish speaking community in Times Square where they dress up like characters from comics and pose with tourists. It had flexible schedules and I saw it as a way to get some independence. So, I found this job as Hello Kitty in Times Square. It was an awkward and very difficult moment in my life.

© Joana Toro. Selfie in her Hello Kitty costume in Times Square, NY

It took me time to realize that the community I’m working with was very interesting in itself. I began to journal and document life as a person in Times Square in a Hello Kitty costume. It taught me a lot. It was a test of self-esteem. If being in media was my college, this experience was my PhD.

I learnt not to take things personally. Once you are inside of that mask you are not important. 

How did you change from being a photo journalist to a social and documentary photographer?

NY taught me how to break out of journalism and see documentary photography as a way of life. As a breaking news journalist, you are constantly taking pictures from one story to another. You forget to feel. But as a documentary photographer, you begin to feel. I began to understand my projects less as a journalist, but more as an activist. I don’t get attracted to issues that don’t have something beautiful to show. My passion is to help and empower people that don’t have power. That’s why I think of myself as a social photographer, because it’s to bring attention to the issues of minorities.

And how did you get your first big break in the US?

I had spent 1.5 years documenting life as Hello Kitty and showed them to a friend accidentally. He said that I should show this to people. I knocked on a lot of doors. Twelve editors said “No.” After three months of getting “Nos” from many editors, Jim Estrin of the New York Times Lens gave me my break. ‘I Am Hello Kitty’ was published in the NY Times in 2014. I felt like this was the beginning of me as a documentarian and I was not just a journalist.

© Joana Toro. Dona Berta from Mexico, repairs her Minnie Mouse costume at her house.

I didn’t know all the buttons I was touching with this story. When it was published, it made a big bang locally. It exposed the people of the community. I started getting calls for interviews. I was scared. There were a lot of hate messages coming through as well, as it brought many social issues related to immigrants to the forefront. I received letters, some thanking me and some asking me to go back to Colombia. It was controversial and scary once the media began to take interest.

© Joana Toro. Seen right through the eye hole of Joana’s Hello Kitty costume. Immigrants dressed up as entertainment symbols ask for donations after posing for pictures in Times Square.

My surprise was the positive feedback I got form the Hello Kitty community. This story led to creation of an association for them. They are not invisible anymore, they have rights and got IDs. They did press conferences and finally had a voice. This was the best experience for me.

What excites you about Loculars and what are your thoughts on it?

I am excited about Loculars because it makes the experience of photography a communal one. It brings photography to people that maybe don’t have the same perspective. Common people love and enjoy photography but they don’t come with the expectation of getting published or working on only serious issues. It’s also breaking the concept of tourism by immersing in the local experience. It’s beyond seeing an interesting building and maybe seeing a deeper and more interesting thing happening outside the building. You guys are changing the tourism experience with photography as another way to communicate.

What’s next for you?

The next project is a three-year project. It’s about exploring African roots in Colombia, looking at the various cultural and human rights aspects of African people in Colombia. The concept is a bit vague right now. But there will be chapters. I have the first chapter in mind, it’s about African midwives. The other chapters will be on internal migration of African communities. It’s a work in progress. The other work in progress is a book on Hello Kitty.