Seeking to tell a different story of Colombia, one not focused on cocaine trafficking or the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Delphine Blast was drawn to the quinceañera. She befriended countless families in Bogotá, learning how they saved and prepared for their daughters’ fifteenth birthday, an event considered a pivotal celebration in a young woman’s life. Some elements of the event resemble a marriage, beginning with the girl changing from flat shoes into high heels to symbolize the transition to womanhood. Curious about how Colombian women reconcile tradition and modernity, Blast set out to witness and document the moment with them. Believing that an emotional connection to her subjects is key for creating a great portrait, she learned the girls’ career aspirations, their and their mothers’ attitudes towards the quinceañera, and even which of them played on the local soccer team. For Polarr, I spoke with her about the portraits and her process.
Emily von Hoffmann: What’s your process like for finding a new subject, and searching for that personal emotional response that motivates you?
Delphine Blast: I guess it is more instinctive. I try to trust my instinct, my feelings. I usually work on long-term projects. So even if I find a story I want to tell, it will usually take me time to think about it. I need to process it, for months sometimes. I like focusing on people or aspects of life people have not talked about yet, so it takes time. You have to be patient and get connected to the right people.
EvH: How did you become interested in documenting quinceañeras in Bogotá?
DB: Countries like Colombia have been moving fast these last years, and I felt that there was so much to tell about those changes. Colombia is too often stuck to its cocaine trafficking image or the FARC issue. These are important matters of course, but I felt there was much more to tell. Before the project, I had heard a little bit about this tradition but I wanted to learn more. As a woman myself, I wanted to understand what this celebration really represents for the girls and their families; I wanted to understand how Colombian women manage to reconcile modernity and tradition in a country torn between these two entities. I wanted to understand what role Western culture plays across social classes in a country like Colombia.
Photographer note: Brenda’s parents are both recyclers. They saved money for more than three and a half years and spent more than six and a half millions pesos (nearly 3000 US$) to organize the celebration. 150 people were invited. Brenda wants to become a surgeon.
EvH: There’s so much tension or contrast in the images, between the often-rundown surroundings and the girls in their dresses. And you learned that even some of the poorest families will spend millions of pesos on these celebrations; was that angle a key part of your interest, and what did you understand about this tradition by the end of your project?
DB: I decided to focus on the poorest families because I knew the celebration of the quinceañeras was maybe more important to them than other family was had higher incomes. I wanted through my images to show this “tension,” those sacrifices and the importance of the celebration for them. In the Latin Hispanic world, the tradition of the quinceañeras marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. Some people criticize heavily the disproportioned costs of such parties and that some costs of parties could cover one or two years of study of the girls. I perfectly understand that. But I also understand the families who celebrate the quinceañeras like that. More than a birthday party, it is a key event in the life of young Colombian girls. It contains a strong social and emotional symbol.
Photographer note: Luna’s father is a shoemaker and her mother a recycler. They are very simple people and didn’t plan to celebrate her fifteenth birthday party until they finally gathered a enough money. It was a last minute celebration with 80 people. Luna wants to become a soap opera actress.
EvH: How well were you able to get to know any of these young women or their families?
DB: I got to know some of the families quite well. It is an intimate moment and the family really had to trust me to have a close look to it. I was very lucky to get to know this part of this culture and to be invited to take part of it. When I participated in the quinceañeras, I was sometimes treated as a member of the family. Even once, because it was too late for me to go back home, I slept in the bedroom of one of the birthday girls!
Photographer note: Most important for Melany was celebrating her birthday with her family. It will keep the shoe-changing ceremony in her memory. This ritual takes place at the beginning of the party and it is usually the father who takes care of the task, kneeling while the girl sits on her throne. 90 people were invited. Melany wants to become a stewardess.
EvH: Do you have a particularly favorite image or two in the collection, and can you tell us more about the story behind it? What makes it unique or lucky to you, either technically or creatively?
DB: Yes, of course. I have a few favorite images because I have a special link with the girl or her family. I think about Laura Cristina (top) in her beautiful red dress posing in the terrace of her parent’s house. Her parents were both very friendly and welcoming and invited me to the birthday party but unfortunately I was not able to come. Laura Cristina is a very special girl. She plays in the local football team! There is also Brenda…She was very touching and her mother was really a nice person and she cared a lot about me. That was very touching. We nearly cried when we had to say goodbye.
Photographer note: Karen lives with her mother, a secretary who saved some money for more than a year and had a six month loan to organize the party. It cost 4 millions pesos ($1,800) and 85 people were invited. Karen wants to become a doctor.