Sasha Nialla Puts the Focus on Immigrant Women

In honour of Women’s History Month, photographer Sasha Nialla has created a series of black and white portraits of immigrant women, in partnership with New Women New Yorkers, a nonprofit organization working towards empowering young female immigrants. The series, aptly titled Real People, Real Lives, depicts its female subjects looking off to the side, with images of their hometowns projected onto their faces. Nialla used this exhibition to reflect on the women’s experiences, to share their stories, and to highlight their courage. The photographs will be on display for a special one-night exhibition hosted at The Centre for Social Innovation in New York City on March 24, 2016. Click here to RSVP.

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Here, the photographer discusses her work, the inspiration behind it, and explains the importance of creating a dialogue around women’s history.

Tell me about yourself: Where did you grow up?

We moved a lot growing up. My parents couldn’t sit still…they are very artistic and like to work on projects. My Dad would build an addition onto the house, or remodel the kitchen or build a deck in the backyard, and once this was done, we would move. It was the only life I knew, so I learned to be independent, make friends, and feel comfortable starting over. This lead into my adult life. I have lived in New York City for 16 years, and, of course, I’ve moved apartments at least seven times.

Why did you decide to move to New York? What has your experience been living there?
Before I moved to New York, I was in college in Northern California spending most of my time skateboarding and smoking pot. My folks convinced me to move to New York since they had already moved back. Besides, I wasn’t a great student. I wanted to be an actress, and New York is a good place to start. I enrolled in a two-year acting conservatory and got a low-end agent. I started going on auditions but very quickly realized that I didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have the love or passion for acting….

When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
…[My father] gave me one of his cameras and said, “go find yourself.” He didn’t necessarily mean in photography, but that’s exactly what happened. I found my passion. I was determined and willing to make major sacrifices to commit my life to being a photographer… This began my life of “fake it till you make it.”…I was shooting black and white portraits, printing them in rented photo labs and I was hooked. I got the photography bug.

New York is a great place to learn and hone one’s craft. There are subjects everywhere, and I took every opportunity that came my way. Nothing landed in my lap, so I [put in] the time and continue to pound the pavement. New York allows for this, in that people are willing to meet you. New Yorkers like to talk, they like to meet new people and hear about what you are working on. I used this to my advantage over the years and built my career.

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How has your approach to photography evolved over the course of your career?

I started with no real skills, just an eye [for it] and [an affinity] for meeting new people. With each project, I learned more, from how the light falls, and how the light tells the story just as much as the composition. I’m constantly testing new lighting styles, [discovering] how light hits the face, and how it changes the contours. Looking at other photographers’ work, or paintings and sculptures, and learning what works and what doesn’t. Since I prefer to photograph people, I find it important to connect with my subjects; to get them to trust me and let down their guard. This might be why I love photographing real, everyday people. It’s a chance to hear someone else’s life story; what makes them tick. I try to convey that in their portrait—in their eyes, and in their body language.

Tell me about Women’s History Month and why you decided to participate with a one-night photo exhibition?

Every year I donate my photography services to organizations that could benefit from professional portrait photography. While searching, I found New Women New Yorkers. Reading further on their site, I was affected. NWNY is a non-profit dedicated to empowering young women immigrants in New York, and after speaking with them, we agreed that a photo exhibition would be a powerful event to bring awareness to this important cause as well as Women’s History month as a whole.

Sasha Nialla photograph

Bringing awareness to women’s history is something I’m also extremely passionate about. We have made progress towards integrating women’s history into academic and popular dialogue, but we still have a ways to go. 

Women’s History Month is just as much about our past as it is about our future. Our past reflects a consistent, persistent fight for justice and women are continuing that fight to this day. Women are standing up for what is just and right. Today we have women CEOs, doctors, and politicians, and we continue to evolve. But it takes work. None of this has been handed over willingly, and this deserves recognition.

Immigrant women are coming to America for the same opportunities that our ancestors fought for. These immigrant women are looking for a chance to make a change and have a voice in America.

What inspired you to create this series of portraits of female immigrants?

I believe a picture says it all. These portraits show immigrants and refugees as people and not as social/political data. People connect with a face; they need to see that a person is behind this story. A person is trying to get her citizenship, and a person is working towards a better life for herself and her family.

I want to bring awareness to the fears and strengths immigrant women carry each day. The cities they first called home are a huge part of who they are. For this reason, I chose to integrate their hometowns into their portraits. Landscape images of their birthplaces were projected onto their faces, bodies and background to create highlights and shadows. These projections blended onto the sitter’s features, emphasizing their beauty, their emotion and the marks of their struggles, which are visible in their eyes and expression.

Sasha Nialla photograph

What are your thoughts on female immigrants’ experience, both in New York specifically, and in general in North America? 

I feel women immigrants are brave and determined. It takes courage to travel to a new country and start over. Many of these women travel here alone, barely speaking the language, not knowing the customs or how to make their start in the U.S. workforce. New York is a very competitive and fast-paced city. Someone will always be there trying to get the same job, the same apartment, the same seat on the subway. New York takes strength and confidence to get ahead. I feel this could be very intimidating for a woman immigrant. Where does she even start? Organizations like NWNY are important. Through their programs, women gain the knowledge, skills and support needed to pursue educational and professional opportunities.

Immigrants in North America face similar challenges—feelings of not belonging, or being told they don’t have the same rights as Americans. It’s very frustrating when we have politicians saying that immigrants are not allowed in this country and don’t belong here. That message carries with people.

Sasha Nialla photograph
Walk me through your process for this project, from inspiration to execution. What was it like working with these subjects?

When photographing this project each woman came to my studio in Brooklyn. It was just the two of us—no assistant, unless you count Stella my pup. She does her part to help. I spent time getting to know each woman. I asked them questions about their lives, where they came from, what they are doing now, what makes them happy. I wanted to know them. And I wanted them to connect with me and trust me.

By choosing to project photos of their hometown, I feel the project has more of an impact. It’s more intimate, [and provokes] more questions from the viewer. This type of lighting quality gives the portraits an intimate, raw and romantic feeling.

During the shoot, the women were so excited to see photos of their hometown projected on the wall. This led to more stories and lots of laughs. I did choose not to photograph the women laughing. I feel the power [of the photographs] comes from the stare, the eyes seeing their goals and dreams. The confident, powerful look is the message I hope to convey.

Sasha Nialla photograph

What do you hope viewers will learn from your exhibition?
I took this project as an opportunity to give back, to stand up for women immigrants. My goal is to bring awareness to the fears and strengths immigrant women carry each day. My hope is that this will instill compassion, patience and acceptance, that will stay with the viewer long after the exhibition has closed.

Where do you see yourself in the future? 
That is a fun question I have answered on many business plans, and the answer continues to change. I’m finally realizing that I can’t control everything. Life has its own plans. I will probably be somewhere planning my next move. I do know that I’ll continue to photograph people for worthy causes, and my [future] work with look quite different from today’s.