For her new series Pampara, Bronx-born photographer Renell Medrano returned to the Dominican Republic, where she spent summers as a child
New York-based photographer Renell Medrano has long explored her hometown in her work. Previous series have seen the image-maker document teenage girls in the Bronx, where she was born (Untitled Youth, 2014, her Parsons thesis project), while Peluca, exhibited last year in New York, compiled imagery from Medrano’s editorial archive to explore the power of wigs. “I carry this very scenic backstory – growing up in the Bronx,” she told Antwaun Sargent in his 2019 book The New Black Vanguard. “I try to portray that in my images.”
For her most recent project, entitled Pampara, Medrano explored some of her family heritage further afield. Her parents are from the Dominican Republic, and having spent holidays there since she was a child, Medrano has long wanted to photograph the country. The series was commissioned by WePresent and will show in London today, marking Medrano’s first European exhibition.
“I wanted to go back and pay homage to my parents’ culture,” Medrano tells AnOther, “and shine a light on what is part of me: the people, the culture, the freedom and the innocence [in the Dominican Republic]. I thought, how come I have never photographed what is so special and a part of me?”
The series’ title, Pampara, is a Dominican saying that translates from Spanish to “it’s lit”. There is an undeniable energy to the warm, vivid portraits in the series, which capture people in San Cristóbal and Santiago, where Medrano’s father is from. “I let people come to me, and usually that’s how I work when it comes to documenting,” Medrano explains. “It was not about me finding subjects, it was more about what I connected to.” This approach meant that those she photographed ranged from her grandmother – “the photo of my grandma is my favourite; it makes me feel nostalgic as that was where I had my naps after playing all day long, as it was the only room that had air conditioning” – to children on the beach or playing in the street or women in their homes.
“My memories from spending time there as a child are of feeling liberated, my grandmother’s cooking, and the roosters waking me up in the morning,” Medrano says. The Caribbean nation has undoubtedly influenced her photography, explaining that “the people, the environment and the vulnerability are what I carry with me in my practice”. While previous projects have explored life in New York, returning to her parents’ home country for the first time since she was teenaged marks a renewed perspective and a homecoming for the Dominican American photographer.