By Terrance Turner
Renee Rodriguez, former contributing photographer for OutSmart magazine, has arranged an exhibit in honor of the Orlando victims. Featured at Galveston’s Tremont Gallery, the exhibit, entitled Viva Pulse, is a celebratory one, she explains: “The exhibit is not a memorial but a colorful and lively tribute that was necessary for me to speak my visual voice and bring awareness and healing.” In the exhibit’s press release, she elaborates further: “My intent with this photography exhibit is to simply visually celebrate the blessed 49 souls,” she says, “in the most simple and organic way possible.”
The project is a new foray for Rodriguez, who has been working in photography nearly her whole life. In an interview with OutSmart, she made clear that her work is far from just a job. “I was born to do photography,” she says. “I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old. I received my first camera at eight. I went to school and got a bachelor’s degree in it, but my father was the one who originally taught me the basics of photography. He was self-taught in Vietnam.”
It was little trouble for the young Rodriguez to grasp the fundamentals. “I just picked it up, and it was instinctive. It was natural,” she says. “I’ve been doing it 34 years—full-time for the past at least 15. Passionately, all my life.” Her father taught her a more natural system for lighting and exposure that enabled her to work with minimal materials. “I come from working-class parents, and I always had what I needed,” she explains, but “I wasn’t an affluent student who had the funds to buy all the bells and whistles, if you will, of photography.” But the method she learned from her father allowed her to work within those financial constraints, and it stays with her to this day. “I use 100 percent natural sunlight for all of my work,” she says.
For 19 years, she held down a day job as an administrative assistant, doing photography on the side. But a bout with cancer caused a shift in how she viewed her career. “In 2014, my life changed,” she remembers, “and I have since devoted my efforts and my drive solely to my passion of photography.”
Rodriguez categorizes her work as fine-art photography, “the accelerated emphasis of everything cumulated.” Her motivations are community-oriented: “My photography, since day one, has always been for everybody else, versus myself.” Her mission is uncomplicated—“simply bringing awareness to all things forgotten.”
That brings us to the tribute to the victims of the Orlando massacre, which hit Rodriguez hard emotionally. “I am a lesbian, and I have contributed to OutSmart in years past,” she says, “and at the end of the day, for me, when that tragedy occurred, we all had a feeling, a thought, a memory, an impact. I don’t care what block or denomination you come from—I think it affected everybody.” In the wake of that shattering aftermath, she conceived of the project. “I needed to voice my heart, and the only way I felt that I could possibly do that was visually.”
Having been presented a space at the Galveston Art Walk, Rodriguez decided to make it a tribute to the Orlando victims. The concept occurred to her two weeks after the shooting, but the project didn’t start to fully develop until July. It started with a plank of cedar wood. “I found the oldest, most dilapidated board that I could find, to represent how broken I felt when the news hit, and the way that the nation felt. I hand-sanded it, I cut it to 49 inches specifically, and I painted it solid black. I then purchased a pound’s worth of large nails,” she says, “and I hand-painted each nail—49 nails—in the colors of the rainbow.” She affixed each nail to the board in a single line to show the unity and oneness of those who were slain.
“I didn’t know, exactly, by the end of the evening when I created the piece, how I was going to display it at the actual wall until two hours before [the exhibit] opening,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to make 49 prints, one for each victim.”
That is exactly what she did. Beneath the black cedar board (which is at a 45-degree angle) are 49 photographs. “Each photograph is a 4×6 print matted in a 5×7 mat board for sale at $25 each,” she says. “I plan to donate a portion of proceeds to a local Galveston LGBTQ youth organization.” The prints are arranged in rows by color. Above the board are black-and-white photos. “So the whole piece is kind of like installation art, which is something brand new to me,” she says. “I’ve never really done this; I’m just kind of letting it happen.”
Rodriguez says that the initial response to her exhibit on the night of the Art Walk premiere was “overwhelming”—some people were standing in front of the display crying. Others complimented her work directly. The reaction made the photographer wonder if more audiences might be interested in the experience. “I just ask that those who are interested in visiting [know that] it’s not a memorial,” she reiterates. “It’s not anything that was meant to be sad; it’s meant to be a celebration, a very intimate celebration of life.”
Rodriguez thanks friends Lisa Yarbrough and David Gerhardt (of the Bacliff, Texas, business New from Old) for sponsoring the wooden board. She also wants to express thanks to Tremont Gallery owner Joey Quiroga. “He encouraged me to do this,” she says. “He’s always been 100 percent supportive of me.”
Despite the acclaim for her work, the woman behind the camera doesn’t like bringing attention to herself. She points out that there are 40 artists with work at the Tremont—“I’m just one of many”—and she prefers for the focus to be on her art. “I’m just happy to be able to be creative, to share what my passion is for those who are no longer here, and [to] celebrate the life of all of them. I feel it’s a part of my duty, not only as an artist but as a human,” she says. “I turn to my art to heal, to mend, to be lifted. Art is essential to all life, and photography is essential to mine.”
What: Viva Pulse: A Visual Tribute to Orlando’s 49 Tragedy Victims
When: Now through August 31, 2016
Where: Tremont Gallery, 23rd Street, Galveston, Texas; open Thursday through Sunday, 5–11 p.m.