Emily Sujay Sanchez uses the camera as a therapeutic tool to overcome the challenges she faces as a first generation Dominican American woman.
“My story is no different from women who look like me,” says Emily Sujay Sanchez, a Bronx-based photographer of Dominican heritage, who recounts a story of trauma, survival, and healing that first took root when she picked up the camera at the age of 23.
“I had just moved back to Providence, Rhode Island, after having my son. It was a really rough time,” Sanchez says. “ I had this baby and separated from my son’s father, right away. I was suffering from postpartum depression, though at the time I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t find work, and then when I did it was an overnight job one hour away from home, working in the coat checkroom at a casino. I was going through it.”
But providence, as it were, intervened and Sanchez enrolled in a photography course being taught at a local school. “I took into to film and darkroom and I will never forget the feeling because I was able to quiet everything that was going on at the time,” Sanchez says, then stills herself, holding back the tears.
“I still remember the first photographs I took. My instructor sent me out and said, ‘Take pictures of what attracts you and look at the lines’ — whatever the hell that meant!” Sanchez laughs. “The city is deserted, there’s nothing really going on. I was walking around this area and there was a diner. I saw a waitress outside smoking a cigarette on her break. Her eyes were glazed and she was completely in her own world. I asked if I could take her picture and she said, ‘Sure.’”
A Return to the Past
Although Sanchez soon moved again, the pleasure of walking through the world and creating images of her community was firmly implanted in her soul. “I’ve always felt like I haven’t been great at other things in life and this has been my gift,” Sanchez says, sharing the struggles she has faced. Raised by a single mother struggling to break the cycle of poverty, Sanchez was sent to live with relatives in the Dominican Republic at the age of 4. That’s when the sexual abuse began.
“I have a really hard time with my memory,” Sanchez says. “There are these big gaps in regards to childhood and high school years; a lot of what I remember unfortunately were things that were traumatic. I don’t remember the things that happened in between. It’s something that I’ve suffered from.”
Determined to confront her past head on, Sanchez recently decided to travel to the Dominican Republic for the first time in 13 years. To gain strength and courage, Sanchez approached her journey with the attitude of, “We’re going to heal from this. We’re going to attack the monster, and we’re going to do it with photography,” she says. “It made me feel safe because I knew I was good at this and it made me feel strong. I told myself, ‘We’re going to visit the house where the abuse happened and we’re going to photograph every room. Whatever you’re inspired to do when you’re there — set the house on fire? — go right ahead!’”
But it didn’t quite happen that way. While walking to the house, Sanchez dropped her camera and cracked the lens. “I cried — then I took it as a sign that maybe I wasn’t ready and it shouldn’t happen right now,” she says. A couple of days later, she got the camera to work and decided to photograph and interview her great aunt. After making a couple of portraits, Sanchez photographed her great aunt and as she said the rosary along with the evening prayers broadcast over the radio.
Recreating the Present
After returning to her home in the Bronx, Sanchez learned of an opportunity to submit her art to an employee exhibition at the Frick Collection in Manhattan, where she worked. “It was the very first time showing my work, which was really exciting but a bit intimidating too,” she says. “I don’t know how I thought of it but I decided to show my great aunts portraits with an audio clip of her prayer. My supervisor, who I did not get along with surprised me by taking an interest in my work. It affirmed my knowledge that I am more than what people perceive me to be.”
As an artist, photography is fully integrated into her life. “Doing social work allowed me to be more intentional because I would have to walk to my cases. Then, I started working for a company that provided a car but I still had me camera so there are shots I have taken right out of the car window,” she says with a laugh.
Moving forward, Sanchez is planning to return to the Dominican Republic so she can finish what she started. “I want to know who my family is,” she says, determined to make a way. “I spoke with my mom about gathering her siblings for a family portrait and explaining to them the importance of getting their stories, even if it’s just for that one conversation and nobody ever speaks to each other again.”
Reimagining the Future
For Sanchez, photography has become a therapeutic tool and a means to create a space to speak about her experiences as well as also the challenges facing her people today. Her work, published in the new book Women Street Photographers (Prestel) edited by Gulnara Samoilova offers the vantage point of an insider who understands the struggles of the community.
“I am always going to be photographing my experience and my world: the people who do not have the same opportunities as others, who are struggling on a daily basis to pay their bills, maintain their homes or having family issues,” Sanchez says. “We are more than what the world says we are. We’re a resilient people especially the women. We are carrying our families, our work, our pain, and the troubles of the world — and still we plow through and make it happen.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Women Street Photographers, Prestel, $ 35.00, £ 24.99. Available here.