Balancing his travels, his artwork, and his clothing line For The Talented Clothing, Hartford based photographer David Sierra does it all with an appreciation for life. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011 and fighting through the pain, David Sierra came out stronger and more determined to make as much art as he possibly could. We caught up with David to discuss his beginnings as a photographer, how he handled his diagnosis by creating art, and what he has lined up for the future.
When we met up in Hartford to chat with David Sierra it was in his silver Prius, right before he was planning to drive to New York for the weekend. Already packed up and ready to go, he had his camera bag and equipment right beside him.
This isn’t surprising, as he’s always on the move. Being a photographer, the 36 year old believes travel is just something he has to do. “You get to experience life from a different perspective,” he explains. He sees traveling as a means to truly experience and to capture the photography he has looked at throughout his life. David reveals, “I’m always in my car because I am always looking for that moment. When you see me in my car, most likely my camera is sitting right next to me.”
Although he now spends most of his days traveling and taking photos, it wasn’t always like that for him. He was not exposed to the photographic medium growing up, and because of this, didn’t even think about taking pictures. In his youth he did not look to a favorite photographer for inspiration because it wasn’t until high school that he became interested in the subject. “I didn’t know of this world of photography,” he says. And trying to get him to explain what eventually got him into photography and art is not an easy task, and for good reason.
"I hate when people answer the question of why or how they got into art. Most of the time it’s all bullshit,” he reveals, “Something they say to make themselves sound intelligent or deep. At the end of the day, I really can’t explain it. I can’t explain how I move my fingers, I can’t explain how I walk. I mean, I can if you want to get all scientific and shit, but at the end of the day it’s something you just do. Without thinking about it. The same is for photography and art. It’s something I do, something I can’t explain because it’s a part of my DNA.”
Some time after realizing and exploring his love for photography, David was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011. Dealing with the pain associated with the illness led him to abandon his camera, which devastated him even further. He describes the experience as feeling like his body was “falling and breaking down at the same time”. “I cried myself to sleep almost every night,” he recalls, “At the time I did not touch my camera. I was slowly dying inside and out.” When he truly believed that the end was near, he decided he needed to document what his life had become. He needed others to see and understand what happens to someone with Crohn’s disease.
His first attempt at documenting this was to reach out to people around the world, getting videos and photos of their own personal experience with the disease. He realized, however, that most people were afraid to show others what their life had turned into. After struggling to get participation from others, David realized he had to use his own story and experience to show the world what he wanted them to understand. He reached out to fellow photographer Keith Claytor of TimeFrozen Photography, who he describes as the only person who could get the ideas from inside his head and into something tangible. From there, his first photo book was born.
“I did not want these pictures to be pretty, perfect, or anything of that sort. I needed them to be dark. I needed them to feel real. I needed the viewer to feel the pain I felt, and to realize that my mind was gone.”
Titled Not the End, the book showcases high contrast, black and white photographs taken by both Keith Claytor and David himself. “I did not want these pictures to be pretty, perfect, or anything of that sort. I needed them to be dark. I needed them to feel real. I needed the viewer to feel the pain I felt, and to realize that my mind was gone. The saying is ‘mind over matter,’ but during that time matter was over my mind,” he recalls. Creating the book helped David breathe again. The process in making it took over the pain, the discomfort, the meds, everything. It released him from the heaviness that held him down and helped him to start feeling whole again. Printing 1,500 copies, it surprised him when after just a few days the book was sold out. People dealing with Crohn’s from all over the world could relate and wanted a copy. David started receiving letters, artwork, and support from readers of the book, thanking him for showing them that they were not alone in this fight. He admits, “The book was never intended to be something I showed the world, it just happened that way. The book was made for me to live again. It was like a letter from myself saying goodbye to the world in picture form.”
Self Portrait, 2011 / Self Portrait, 2018
Not letting this diagnosis slow him down any further, David threw himself into his photography, starting multiple new projects including a series titled “Focus,” where he created large photographs of blurry scenes to depict his experience before he began wearing glasses. “The world looks very different without my glasses,” he explains, “It has a certain beauty to it.”
Another untitled series is based on the amount of time he spends in his car while traveling, displaying various scenes through the windows of his car. These images show snapshots from sparse highways filled with an early morning fog to various drivers unaware of a camera capturing their daily commute. His “#bathroomselfie” series (featured in our Fall 2018 issue) was inspired by what he saw when browsing through other people’s photos on social media. Trying to understand why so many people take selfies in bathrooms, he decided to put a spin on the typical bathroom selfie, creating his own versions which usually don’t include his image at all. These “selfies” depict rows of urinals, sinks covered in plastic, and architectural structures - from banal brick walls to elaborate lighting fixtures - which allow you to wonder what kind of building this particular bathroom is located in.
Currently, he’s working on a new series of portraits which features photos of women without any makeup on. The ongoing untitled natural series is based on how he feels about society’s relationship today between women, appearances, and social media. “Social media and other media outlets has young girls thinking in order to be loved they have to look or act a certain way. Most young women are trying to become strippers, or posting XXX photos just to get likes,” he explains of his project. Having young girls and women in his life, he wants to help change the way they view beauty and acceptance. His portraits are close-up, unposed and not overly edited. The women pose in their everyday clothes, and he attempts to show them as they are, without any suggestions of how they should look or present themselves to the world. This mentality spreads out onto the way he shoots most of his portraits, as many of them are shot and edited in a variety of styles using differing techniques. He explains that his style is usually based on the subject he’s shooting - he believes in capturing who they are as opposed to who they or the rest of the world might expect them to be.
“It’s really a love hate relationship for me. But the true best part about making art is that I get to breathe again, because up until that point I always feel like I’m holding my breath.”
One of his favorite portraits is of his mother in front of a simple black backdrop. Positioning her eyes in the top right portion of the frame, a light comes in from the left side of the image, putting a focus on the various medals that hang from her shoulder. She has a strong and undefeated look, staring directly into the camera with a slight smile across her face. When asked about this image in particular, he tells the story of his mother who decided to start running in her 50s.
“She started training everyday and began eating like a vegan [laughs]. Next thing I knew she was winning all of the races in her age group. She showed me all of her medals and I was just amazed. So I wanted to capture her in that moment, with all of her medals on her, like she just won the Olympics. That picture was taken without any planning, in my mother’s living room with the TV on. The whole shoot took about 10 minutes. That picture is how I always see my mother, as a champion.”
Wanting to create something that would uplift and encourage people to showcase their talents and to be their authentic selves, David started For The Talented Clothing Company with friend and DJ, Deshawn Hawkin aka DJ Hawk. Branded with their signature “Talented” logo on neutral colors including black and navy blue, the clothing was made to show that a person’s particular talents should not be overlooked just because “society doesn’t acknowledge it as being the ‘cool’ thing to do.”
The company’s mission is to highlight and recognize talented individuals in a wide variety of fields. Expanding on this mission, the duo plans to add video portraits of various “talented” people, including mothers, fathers, trash men, teachers, musicians, straight A students, and much more.
Along with his photography and co-owning a clothing line, David has spent some time contributing to various film projects. As a camera operator, he worked beside his good friend and director Jon Genius on “In A Hartbeat,” a local film about gun violence in the North End of Hartford, CT. In 2010, he also provided some camera work for a short series of videos titled “Black Cats.” Created by a few of his friends, the concept for this series is “a social commentary to accompany the modern day adaptation of ‘Marijuana and a Pistol,’ a short story by Chester B. Himes, 1940 Esquire Magazine.”
His next dive into filmmaking will be with a documentary on the Bulkeley High School boys basketball team winning their first state championship in 2000. Coached by ex-Hartford basketball star Eddie Griffin, this was their first win in the school’s history, as well as their first championship appearance in 38 years: at that tournament they had been defeated by the Hartford Public High School’s team, which at the time was ironically was led by none other than Eddie Griffin. As a member of the basketball team during their legendary win, David has personal ties to that memorable season and plans on creating a film that highlights and celebrates the untold stories from former players, students, faculty, and more. This documentary is currently planned to be released sometime in 2020, for the 20th anniversary of the team’s historic win.
As David Sierra expands his talents to newer and bigger projects, we look forward to following him to see what he does next. When asked what he believes to be the most uncomfortable part about making art, his answer was simply, “The most uncomfortable part about making art is making art. Trying to get that idea out of your head and turning it into something you can see, touch, or smell.” He then adds, “In your head, your idea always sounds amazing.” And the best part about making art? “The same answer as the most uncomfortable part of making art.”
He elaborates, saying, “It’s really a love hate relationship for me. But the true best part about making art is that I get to breathe again, because up until that point I always feel like I’m holding my breath.”