Mujeres y Melodias: An Interview with Demi Vera

Author: Yeni Sleidi

“My friend posted a topless photo of me adjacent to one of Robert Mapplethorpe, and mine got deleted. I barely have breasts, but regardless of that, it shouldn’t have mattered. It really irked me, and I had to do something about it.”

“Bare Melody” is a zine that timehops through adolescence. It is 10 pages of disjointed anecdotes about burgeoning maturity, falling in love, stumbling out of it, and the music that accompanied it all. Despite its short length, it took me a week to finish.

“This zine’s too real,” I told my roommate as I set it down to take an extended breather. That was my first glimpse of Demi Vera’s work, which combines photography, writing, and ample amounts of introspection to document human behavior.

She first started “capturing moments” in middle school, and eventually enrolled at SUNY Purchase, where she studied photography and anthropology. Now 22 and back home in the Bronx, she’s aiming her camera at her community.

Her projects include a look into the vilification of the female form, young adults’ disillusionment with faith, and “Mujer,” an attempt at self-love. I spoke with Demi at Live from Underground, a monthly open mic night that she helps host. A couple hours later, she nestled into the crowd, Canon T3i in hand, and set the flash ablaze.

When did you first start taking photographs?

I’ve been shooting since I was in the 5th grade. My father used to buy me cameras and would get the photos developed. But he found out that I was giving them to my friends, so he began secretly taking the rolls out and I kept going around shooting anyway. I then started buying my own cameras in middle school.

In your zine, you mentioned that an English teacher tried to discourage you from being a writer because you were a poor speller. At what point did you decide to ignore her and write anyway?

It’s never really mattered. I mean, I remember her saying it, and I remember how it felt, but it didn’t stop me. I was on stage two months ago and read my pieces to an audience for the first time.

How did “Bare Melody” come about?

I’m romantic about everything. I think that’s one of the things I was trying to tackle: that I fall in love with everyone, all the time. But it specifically followed the story of my ex-girlfriend and me. I’ve broken many hearts, and she was the first to break mine, so it felt like karma and it fucked with me. Every day I’d come home, cry, and then write a couple lines. It helped me cope, and I wanted to share it with people, so I turned it into a zine.

Did that experience influence any of your other work?

After her, I started going on a self-exploration journey, and that’s when my nude projects developed. I asked myself why I was always going to others to find acceptance, or for someone to tell me that I’m beautiful. So I decided to focus on the things that women are taught to feel ashamed of, the things we’re told to hide.

And “Shame on You” was the first of those projects.

That started on Instagram. My friend posted a topless photo of me adjacent to one of Robert Mapplethorpe, and mine got deleted. I barely have breasts, but regardless of that, it shouldn’t have mattered. It really irked me, and I had to do something about it. But I didn’t photograph myself. A lot of my work is about my relationships, or my involvement with underground culture, and I wanted “Shame on You” to focus on the women who answered my ad. I’m talking about some people who I had never met before, but came to my studio and really opened up.

Was “Mujer” a follow-up?

“Mujer” was originally about self-discovery. I photographed the parts of my body that I felt insecure about, and I zoomed in on them because I wanted to make people uncomfortable. But I ended up inviting 10 other women to participate and explore themselves in the same way. I took 100 photos of the body parts that they considered flawed, and then turned them into a collage. It forced us to stare at ourselves and realize that we’re not alone in our struggles.

I noticed that you mentioned Sandra Bland after summarizing “Mujer” on Tumblr. Do you plan to address police brutality in future projects?

Absolutely. The cops are hounding out here in the Bronx — they’re just looking for bodies to take in to meet their quotas. But my work hasn’t been geared towards that because I don’t feel like I have the energy to totally focus on it. Right now I’m growing as an artist: I was a lover, now I’m finding self-love, and after I find myself, I can help the world. I’ll get there.

What do you try to capture in your work?

I’m sort of in love with the subtle poetry of humanity, and that’s what I try to capture. It’s also always been documentary-based and candid. I spent four years working on “Adolessons,” going around with a tiny pink camera that looked like a toy and low key photographing underground party scenes. My goal was to capture the essence of growing up and being intoxicated, because that’s when everyone was the most vulnerable. But I think one of the rawest photos I have was taken in the 7th grade. It’s of these two girls fighting in the cafeteria, and one of the girl’s hair is wrapped around the other’s arm. Everyone was around them watching, but I leaped on top of the table and caught it.

For additional information please visit demivera.com.

Originally published at posturemag.com on October 12, 2015.