Photographer Juan Veloz on using virtual reality, capturing celebrities and staying true to himself

Today, Meta begins the fifth installment of the Metaverse Culture Series, which focuses on Latino culture. This includes launching a new space within the metaverse called Neuvo Norte by Puerto Rican artist COVL: you can read our article on it here.

Meta is also releasing a short documentary called Tercera Cultura. This includes a powerful panel of Latino culture changers coming together in VR to explore identity, authentic expression, and economic opportunity within the metaverse.

Among the attendees was Juan Veloz, a Dominican photographer and brand collaborator dedicated to capturing untold stories. To celebrate this event, Meta invited us to interview Juan ourselves within the metaverse, using an Oculus Quest 2 headset and meeting in the Horizon Workrooms VR app. You can read the interview below or watch the full Q&A in the video above.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Juan Veloz is a self-taught photographer, first known for photographs that capture the authentic identities and personalities of people from his local community. She later moved to Los Angeles and collaborated with some of the most prominent names in fashion, music and the arts: from Vogue to Dior, from Netflix to Nike.

Juan’s work ranges from sharp street photography to portraits of celebrities such as John Boyega, Tove Lo, Babyface, Jennifer Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, Regina King, Kelis and Usher. Throughout all of this, she has devoted herself to representing voices and narratives that are often missing in contemporary media.

We chatted with him about the opportunities VR offers, the importance of honesty and originality, and balancing representation and creative freedom.

How did you get involved in this VR project?

Meta got to me and I was a little nervous at first because I didn’t know what it was. But everything is always changing, so adapting to the times is great. I felt like, ‘Just step inside. You don’t know what will come of this.’

I’m really big on just accepting change in my career. It just makes it fun. You don’t always have to do what feels normal. It’s good to just change. And it makes me so happy to know that I am a part of this reality and experience.

Besides virtual meetings like the one we’re in right now, what does VR offer photographers?

The great thing about VR is that it can be whatever you want it to be. For example, you can create a gallery space in VR to showcase your work. Maybe it allows people to step into that photo and see the story of that photo. There is no limit to what can happen in photography and virtual reality because you are doing what you want to do. And where people step foot in is your world.

Artist COVL has created a virtual world called Neuvo Norte to represent Latino culture in VR as part of the Metaverse Culture Series. What did you think about it?

I love Neuvo Norte. It’s like a warm blanket of my childhood, if it makes sense. People can relate to him as he is loyal to the Latin culture. I think the main part is that it’s authentic. It wasn’t forced. Instead, Meta brought in someone who knows the culture, speaks and lives day and night. He was genius. And COVL is a great artist. So it was a good experience. It was comfortable. I felt good about it.

How much has your Latin background influenced your photography?

Oh, it’s been my MO since I got a camera. I started photography because my grandmother always talked about not having any pictures of her growing up in the Dominican Republic. So I thought, ‘I can document my family’. As my career progressed, I never wanted to forget the origin of everything. Because I started taking pictures with my family. So no matter what project I do, I always bring a piece of it.

How well do you think Latino culture is represented in the US media?

There is a change happening in the media. Many brands and companies are realizing that hiring people who are actually on the street, who actually do the work and know what they are doing is the best way to go.

If you force something, it doesn’t make any sense when it spreads around the world. People can’t relate to it. I think it’s best to hire people who know the job and the language. Just keep it authentic.

For example, when this metaverse project was brought to me, I did it just because it felt right. It just felt right to do so, as people like COVL are actually part of it. These are my people; these people can really speak the same language. I think it’s the best way to always approach everything in life. It just needs to feel authentic for what you’re doing.

Do you feel responsible to your society for what you produce?

Yes and no. In the Latino community, we feel like we should hold onto that stick. But sometimes, it gets a little difficult. I’m going to think: ‘Wait, I started creating because I wanted to feel free. I wanted my voice to be heard.”

I also want to preserve my culture. But you have to be careful and careful how you say things, and everyone included: black Latinos, white Latinos… you have to make it something broad. So it’s a yes and a no when it comes to getting everyone represented because I didn’t make it big. I just wanted to make sure the person who came after me had something to look at and that it felt real. And they think, ‘Great, Juan did that’ and ‘I would love to do that too.

These are my people; these people can really speak the same language. I think it’s the best way to always approach everything in life. It just needs to feel authentic for what you’re doing.

So, what is your advice to young people who want to be photographers?

There’s something I said to myself when I got my first big project. It was never to forget why I started photography; To follow that little voice that says, ‘Juan, your story matters. And I think coming from an honest place helps, too.

You have to be true to yourself. Ask yourself: Why do I want to do this? This goes for everything in life. But with photography you create the story; you are documenting. So you have to be very careful: ‘Does he want to do this or not?’ But at the end of the day, just be original and honest with yourself and you will create the best work.

Also, do not seek endorsements from different companies or different brands. Just create for yourself. This will help you breathe a little and put your shoulders back. If you create for yourself first, then when a brand involves you in a project, it’s because they love your job. So let’s meet in the middle. Let’s respect each other and create some art. Never lose yourself in this process.

How is the community among photographers in Los Angeles? At some level, you’re all fighting for the same job. So is there a sense of community?

I can’t say I’m working for the same job because I have a lot of friends in the photography game. And I’m not kidding, if I can’t do a project, I’ll beat my son like, ‘Hey, I can’t do this. Jump on it!’

There is work for all of us. There is nothing but space for all of us. And I think it’s always been my approach to build a community around that. When I talk to the other photographers in the game, it’s all love. Some people are competitive. But this is not my MO. And all my friends are working. So at the end of the day it’s all love.

You have photographed many famous people. How is it different from doing street photography?

My approach to every photo I took was the same. I am always honest. And that also applies to how I was raised. My parents, my parents are Dominican, we are very loud and honest. But we start with love. And I think when they work with celebrities or famous people, they want to be seen, heard. We’re all human. So let’s take a breather. Let’s remove this as a whole: ‘Oh, I have to look great.’

I think my honesty is what puts everyone and everything I work with at ease. I think working with celebrities is always the best way because everyone wants to be treated like a human being. They are always under the microscopic eye and waiting for something to look or feel bad. My biggest compliment when working with someone is: ‘You made me feel comfortable.’ And okay, I feel like I’m done. Because as a human being, I want to be looked after as a human being first.

Which photographers have inspired you personally?

I was heavily inspired by Renell Medrano, a wonderful Dominican photographer from the Bronx. He was one of the first photographers to take me under his wing. I’ve done four projects with him and it was his course of action that made a huge impact. Seeing a black Latina is just working the room and not really caring what people think of her because I was raised by black Latinos. It reminded me how strong women are and how much respect we have to show our black Latinos in this field.

One thing I will always remember from Renell was, ‘Juan, stay true to yourself. Stay true to yourself. The job will come. Don’t stress, but don’t stop creating either.’ So he was a great inspiration. I hope he sees this because I’ve always wanted to give flowers to people who have had a big impact in my life. And it’s definitely one of them.

You can watch the Tercera Cultura short documentary featuring Juan with artist COVL, disabled model, actress and lawyer Jillian Mercado, activist and entrepreneur Sara Mora, and athlete Tori Ortiz here.

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