Daylight Dialogues X
Sara Urbaez, LISTO
Sara Urbaez is an award-winning photo editor and the creative force behind LISTO. She has worked in the photo departments of Airbnb, WIRED, Departures, Art + Auction, and others. In her spare time, she volunteers as a full spectrum doula.
What is your new site LISTO?
LISTO is a new online curatorial platform devoted to dismantling colonial tendencies in photography. It’s a space that honors artists of color through curation and conversation. We are challenging the narrow lens through which communities of color are represented by empowering artists to tell visual stories from within their own communities and elevate their work on the platform. We are dedicated exclusively to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] artists. We have one on one conversations with artists highlighting imagery, and talking about their lived experience.
Does anything like this exist?
Not that I know of. Currently all curation and interviews are done by me, a first generation Dominican photo editor. Our design director Tiffany Chan, was born in Hong Kong and raised in California. Hanifa Haris is a muslim woman who has raised between Brooklyn, New York and Lahore, Pakistan, and will help as a consultant and co-curator for future projects. LISTO is a curatorial platform run by and for BIPOC.
Stone's series Natura Negra draws on her experience of nature growing up in an urban setting.
What was the impetus to start it?
BIPOC have been advocating for change in our industry for as long as the photo industry has existed. There are countless times as a photo editor that I’ve tried to convince gatekeepers to allow for artists of color to tell their own stories. I became increasingly frustrated, so I began the daily practice of highlighting BIPOC photographers on my own Instagram. It was a world that I had been looking for my entire life - photographers, taking an authentic look at their realities. There was so much great work being produced, and it was thrilling to share with my network and let the imagery speak for itself.
For several years, I wanted to create a more formal curatorial platform, but felt extremely hesitant. Thanks to my community and close confidants, I was encouraged to create this space. I was also deeply moved by all the work that I saw Authority Collective, Women Photograph, Natives Photograph, Color Positive, and Diversify Photo doing.When I met the brilliant designer Tiffany Chan, I knew that she was the person I wanted to build the platform with. In order for there to be meaningful change in the industry, it’s not enough to just hire BIPOC photographers, it’s about shifting the whole system and empowering diverse designers, curators, and editors.
What are you bringing to it with your specific background?
My photography expertise (having studied art history and photography as well as 9+ years in the industry) and the community that I have cultivated is the foundation on which LISTO was built. As an afro-latina woman in the industry, I didn’t meet or see many people that looked like me in the rooms I was in, and this platform is a virtual room for all of us to be celebrated.
The relationship with photographers I’ve built is something that has taken me years, and there is so much thought that goes into the photographers I choose to work with. Where are they based? What are their future goals? What type of work do they want to be doing? These are the questions I wish more editors with hiring power were asking. It’s unacceptable to not have BIPOC photographers on your roster and to continue to hire the same successful photographers over and over again. Who I am, everything I’ve experienced because of my identity, informs the work that I do.
In your mission statement, you write:
We reject voyeuristic and othering practices that historically have dominated photography. We are visual activists, protesting the white gaze with art that uniquely captures lived experience.
What is a visual activist?
A visual activist is a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change using photography. Someone dedicated to understanding, questioning and challenging the historical and contemporary visual culture. When BIPOC artists document their own lived experiences, it directly challenges stereotypes. To me, this is visual activism. When creatives seriously consider the ethics of producing and sharing imagery, this is visual activism. We can transform photography from a tool historically used to exoticize and other us into one that empowers us.
Can you speak to these historical practices that you reference? What differentiates voyeuristic or othering photography from respectful and ethically sound photography?
During colonial rule, photography was used as a way to own and study populations. Images perpetuated biases and racist prejudice. The medium was used as an oppressive weapon. The colonial gaze creates imagery that is an affirmation of racist attitudes and othering perspectives. There are countless examples of this - racism pseudoscience, exoticism, lynching photography, etc. This brutal history informs photography today. How we represent people matters.
Photography has a long history of not allowing cultures to represent themselves. Our mission with LISTO is to dismantle this practice and to give credibility back to diverse storytellers. We have a voice of our own.
Public Service is an organization speaking openly about the white gaze and the need for equity in image making. I find their definition and language to be extremely poignant. They talk about how the visual culture we consume is dictated by white image makers, and this ultimately informs how we perceive the world. This gaze has serious implications, and, in order to change how we see ourselves and each other, image making needs to be diversified.
We all need to think more critically. Who is being photographed? What is the power dynamic between the subject and the maker? Many people in the industry have never been required to think about or have conversations about their privilege. Stay tuned for a blog section to be added to the site for more explorations of these issues.
Is documentary inherently problematic? Do you want to focus on work that has a documentary approach?
The focus is on amplifying all kinds of photography. Documentary itself is not problematic, but parachute journalism is. Sending journalists or photographers to document communities they know nothing about and have no connection to produces work that is tone deaf and distorted. Our identities are nuanced, layered, and complex. When editors and artists capitalize on images of marginalized groups but do nothing for the community and their own inner circles do not reflect their work, this is extremely problematic.
Do you already have in mind the types of work that you want to show.
There are so many different artists in mind, some of whom I’ve already started having incredible conversations with. We’ve recently worked with and featured Rodrigo Oliveira, Chanell Stone, and Ricardo Nagaoka. It all begins with the artists. Once I speak with them, we work together to choose specific projects and imagery that we feel aligns with LISTO’s mission.
How do you find new work?
I’m a complete photo nerd. Instagram is a major resource, fashion magazines, newspapers, art exhibitions, agencies, newsletters. Looking through art and photography brings me joy and wonder - I do it every single day. When I see an artist whose work moves me, I reach out. Spending time talking with artists and listening is essential.
Talk about your plans for the cadence of new work and how people can get their work seen by you.
We are highlighting new artists on a weekly basis and we will be launching group curated themed shows as well.
We just launched in June and are very much in the beginning stages, but reach out on our website wearelisto.com if you are an artist and have a project that you’d like to be featured. In the next few months, we will be doing formal open calls.
Currently we are only showing existing series, but we are working on getting grants so that we can commission photographers to create in-depth photo essays.
Edited for clarity and length.