We had a chat with the born and raised NYC native about her experiences at New York Fashion Week, retouching and Instagram culture.
Twenty-five year old Michelle Figueroa is a storyteller for a living. Her medium is photography and visual arts of all kinds is her passion. Her choice words of career advice: “Do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Born and raised in Washington Heights, NYC, Michelle was given a camera her Sophomore year of high school as part of the Expanding the Walls program at her school in Harlem. She fell in love with this form of expression and despite adversity, ran with it to where she is now: a professional photographer, living in New York City and capturing the zeitgeist of our generation moment by moment in creative and compelling ways.
We asked her a few questions about the ups and downs of her profession, the way media is changing our worldview, and her own contributions to the digital world on a daily basis. Peep some really cool original photographs at the end.
How did you get your start?
My mom bought me this toy Barbie point and shoot film camera in the 90s when I was younger and I would always carry it with me. I’m not sure I took that many pictures on it though but it was my most prized possession at the time. I really started to get into photography in sophomore year of high school with this Expanding The Walls program in Harlem. They gave me a 35mm pentax camera, a tripod and a journal along with the classes that would take place a few days after school. Most of my shots back then consisted of black and white silver-gelatin prints of plants lol.
What is it that most fuels your passion for photography?
I’m a self proclaimed “raconteur” (LOL) I like telling stories and hearing people talk about theirs. Creating a narrative or immortalizing a moment with a capture is what makes me fall in love with photography every single time.
What is most important for you in the work you produce?
The most important thing for me is to maintain a certain level of authenticity or narrative to my photos. I feel more like a creative documenter than anything else. If i do a creative shoot i tell the model to move around and pretend the camera isn’t there, granted people are always performing themselves when they see a camera but that’s where i separate the narrative vs actual authentic photos. I’m starting to like Street Photography more and more because of this. It’s a true representation of people in a space.
Which type of photography is your favorite and why? What aspects of your job give you life and which do you find tiresome?
I do all types of photography so it’s really hard to just pick one. I guess I just like taking pictures of people, whether it’s for a fashion shoot, a concert performance, an environmental portrait or strangers on the street. People are just so fascinating to me.
The coolest event you’ve ever shot?
I like events with a lot of light and people so i guess my favorite are the concerts I shoot. The coolest would probs be NYFW.
What was your experience with New York Fashion Week like?
There’s a stigma that NYFW is a very exclusive place to be invited and it is but I feel like more and more people are able to go because of social media since it’s free promotion for the events. NYFW is very cool, you get to meet a lot of people from everywhere in the world who care about fashion and express themselves through fashion. Everyone is so nice and so stylish so it was def fun to be a part of.
Which collection was your favorite to shoot??
I like presentations more than runways. You get to appreciate the artistic details of what the designers put into it. I loved Laurence and Chico, which was a very avant garde style that mostly can’t be worn out everyday unless you’re a badass lol And of course Anna Sui, which is more wearable but definitely unique with it’s patterns and elegant cuts.
You capture New York in such an intimate, quirky and beautiful way. How would you describe your relationship with New York?
Thanks! I have a love/hate relationship with NYC. It made me who I am and I’m so proud to have been born and raised here. What I love most about [this city] is the diversity of people. Everyone is different, has their own style, their own traditions and they all come together into this melting pot that is NYC. NY doesn’t really have it’s own culture — whatever anyone is, goes. NYC’s culture is EVERYONE’s culture mixed in. You have a taste of so many things here from the different types of food and the accents to the tourists and the newcomers and the different sections of the city that make it unlike any other part that adds to that NYC charm. You can actually start conversations with strangers and it’s easy to make friends because there are so many interesting people. The only downfall is that NYC is very congested and crowded. As much as I love the diversity of people here, there just are too many. It’s more apparent when it’s after work rush hour and you gotta squeeze into the already packed full subway or it’s an extremely hot day and not one space is vacant on the grass in Central Park.
This has become a really sensitive topic lately with campaigns from major brands promoting a switch to feature unaltered images of “real” women. How do you feel about retouching?
If used correctly, I have no problem with retouching. I mainly use Photoshop for color grading; that’s where the unique style of the photos that photographers take comes in, otherwise most shots would be straight out of the camera and look kind of the same. I’ve also used Photoshop for smoothing out wrinkles in clothes but would ideally have the photo be as authentic as possible. I’ve worked for brands where they take retouching to the next level… (yeah I’m callin’ them out lol) where they want to lighten the skin or push in the waist or remove beauty marks or make the eyes bigger, the hands smaller and it makes me sick every time. This is why there are unrealistic beauty standards. No one looks this perfect. Actually, seeing the before shots made me feel better about myself for not being as perfect as they’re presented. But not everybody gets to see the “before” photo. So yeah, I definitely love that more and more brands are switching to less retouching, more natural women in campaigns.
How do you keep up to date with the latest trends in your industry?
I usually look at the streets of NYC for the new trends, that’s one of the best things about living here. It’s an eclectic mix of everyone and everything. I also look at the photos of fashion week. That’s a good indicator of what type of things the stores will sell and what people will buy. You just gotta be ahead of the game to not fall in line with everyone else.
Nowadays, it seems that there are amateur photographers popping up all over the place with the pervasiveness of Instagram as maybe the most popular social medium out there right now. How do you think Instagram has affected photography?
Photo in general has become more easily accessible, especially with the great 12 megapixel quality of iPhone cameras now. Everyone has a camera on them almost all the time and everyone has a platform to showcase whatever they want to document and post on Instagram. Anyone can use that space to be creative, even if they aren’t professional and it’s kinda inspiring to see what others can come up with… albeit more competitive as well.
I had a professor once tell the class that video is taking over and soon photography would be a dying art within the next 40 years. I’m not sure I agreed with that but I think Instagram has definitely helped photo along for that not to be the case. Photo is thriving now more than ever. We’re constantly being hit in the face with photos.
Can Instagram be authentic expression?
I feel like Instagram is so contrived sometimes. We’re putting up appearances with those photos of our good times. No one is posting about what a shit day they’re having unless it’s on a finsta that only a handful of close friends can see. Even I feel uncomfortable showing my bad days because Instagram is supposed to be your highlights. I feel like many people compare their “behind the scenes” to other people’s highlight reel and then get stressed out about having the best time of their lives. They do trendy things just to document a snapshot of it, even if they’re not having fun, solely for the purpose of posting it on Insta to show everyone. That’s where the in-authenticity comes in. So the cycle continues to perpetuate. It feels like a competition. Like if you’re not having fun and proving so on social media then what are you even doing? I conform to it a lot too.
Everyone hates this question of course but – what’s next for you? What are your goals for the next five or so years?
I really wanna try my hand at filmmaking since I’m obsessed with storytelling. Within the next five to ten years I’d like to have a short film made that I’m proud of… and hopefully have it be shown at MoMA or a Film Festival or something haha.
Your point of view as a Latina from the Bronx, making your passion your profession is super badass and we love you and your work! Is there anything you’d say to young women out there who are aspiring to be photographers, artists, creatives, etc?
I had a few people tell me that photography and filmmaking were “men’s industries”. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I’m not good enough to be a photographer. So I took those words and proved to them that I can. To all the women out there, especially to the POC’s that get told they can’t — take that negativity and instead use it as incentive to better yourself and practice your craft. Hone in on it and just show them that it’s possible and you can be one of the best.