Leo is a project by photographer Christian Rodriguez that follows the journey of his cousin of the same name, who had received his visa to live in America while Christian was out on a trip to the Dominican Republic to see his family.
“I hadn’t been back in eight years and during that time Leo had been born,” explains Christian. “He was three years old when I first met him. I was photographing him ‘cause he was adorable and was always looking outward into the world and being so pensive for a three-year-old.
“What made me more interested was later in my trip, I heard that he had received a visa and would be moving to his father’s place in New York. The anti-immigrant rhetoric stuff was starting to take shape. I saw it as an opportunity to tell his story and the story of so many other immigrants. With pictures I felt I could humanise this conversation a little.”
From the beginning, Christian instantly draw parallels from his own experiences with his brother having been born in the Dominican Republic and then his parents waiting until they immigrated to New York City to have Christian. “They did it for similar reasons, better working conditions and to offer their children and better chance at life,” says the photographer.
The series spans four years and Leo’s life is documented candidly making it clear Christian’s relationship with his subject made this possible. “Leo and I would chat and hang out at home, I’d always have my camera ready. I really looked for moments that would relate to his departure, moments maybe where he was just staring out into the distance, it made me wonder what he was thinking about,” says Christian. “Some other things I looked for were the influence of the United States on the island. I have an image in the series where Leo is at school, he happens to be saying bye to his teachers and collecting his report card. On his shirt is a big American flag layered over the outline of the United States. It made me sort of emotional when I saw that negative later.”
Other images capture Leo playing in the park on his own, thoughtfully looking out of the window and surrounded by family. “I’d prefer to think that my work falls into a fine art category, but a lot of the people who look at my work feel it falls into more of a documentary style,” says Christian of his approach. “With most of my images I can see how the two mix. I’d love to one day be the person people think of when it comes to telling stories about modern Dominican life.”
At beginning of the project Christian was only in the Dominican Republic for a month, so his time with Leo was limited. “Now Leo and his family live about an hour and a half from me in New York, so I commute and have to make sure to go when something interesting might be happening in his life,” says Christian.
The series is a thoughtful and honest portrayal the human side of immigration, one that’s often forgotten. “The issue of immigration is not a simple one, however we are all one, border security is important and I understand that, but with these images and stories I hope that people can connect and understand better, a different perspective,” says Christian. “The images are also about a child growing up in front of you, in a series of images you span four years. I hope to continue until Leo will allow me, and hopefully I can capture him well into adulthood.”