Behind the Photo: Rhynna M. Santos on capturing pleasant surprises in the Bronx

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Photo: Rhynna M. Santos

Rhynna M. Santos is a New York-based documentary photographer and teaching artist who’s been photographing her community for nearly a decade. She’s the founder of Bronx Women’s Photo Collective and the curator of the popular Everyday Bronx Instagram account. Here, she shares the story of how she captured one of her iconic early shots that she calls a ‘quintessential Bronx moment’ with an iPhone.

What was going on the day when you captured the turtle shot? Were you out doing some more general street photography for Everyday Bronx?

It was a regular summer day, and I was doing errands for my father, picking up his latest prescriptions. It is notoriously difficult finding parking around this area, so I drove around for a while and finally found a spot in the middle of the block on Stratford Ave. As I walked to the corner of Westchester Ave., I saw people gathering in the middle of the street. Once I got closer, I saw kids playing around an open pump. The day was hot, and I wasn’t surprised people were trying to cool off. When I got closer, I saw a giant turtle near the few kids splashing by the pump. It looked like a turtle you would see in a zoo. It wasn’t a typical thing to see, but living in the Bronx not completely unexpected.

The owner was there, clearly enjoying the commotion he created with his pet. He wore a navy blue Kangol hat, long dark denim shorts, black sneakers and a white t-shirt rolled around his neck. ‘It’s hot today. We all gotta cool down,’ the smiling owner said.

I immediately thought of photographing what was happening, but since I was in a hurry, I told myself I would get the shot once I got my father’s meds. After living in the Bronx for as long as I had, I was confident the scene would be there when I came out. Once I finished my errand, I walked back to my car and saw the turtle had made its way down the block. I loved seeing how people reacted to this giant turtle casually strolling the street. I positioned myself to have the turtle in the foreground and the spectators in the background.

What made this particular moment a very Bronx experience?

When I walked up to the scene of this giant turtle taking a casual stroll in my neighborhood, it immediately felt like a quintessential Bronx moment. It was a unique and unexpected happening, but it also was hilarious. I wanted to document the pleasant surprises you can find in the Bronx.

How many frames did you end up taking?

I only took two frames of the scene. The moment was so unique I didn’t think I had to take too many photos. At the time, I also didn’t think I would wind up posting it on Instagram and that it would become my most popular print.

What camera and lens were you using at the time?

This early experience is what taught me to ALWAYS carry my camera. The only thing I had on me at the time was my iPhone 4S. I took out my phone and took the frames. Back in 2014, images taken on cell phones were not considered as serious as if taken with a camera. I had just started photography and had deeply immersed myself in learning all documentary photo rules. I was saving for my first professional camera, and all I had on me was a phone.

I also learned that you should not shy away from making art just because you don’t have the most up-to-date equipment. Being a photographer is very expensive and, therefore, elitist. I believe phone cameras have allowed the average person not just to document their lives in an affordable manner but also opened up opportunities for people to express themselves artistically.

I love the expressions of the two guys in the background – was that something that you noticed while you were shooting, or a happy surprise that you noticed after the fact?

Seeing the turtle out and about had made such a commotion with passersby that I knew the magic of the shot would come from the residents’ reactions. I positioned myself to ensure I included people reacting to what they saw. This shot was the second one I took, and I knew I had something with the two young men looking at the turtle.

Only later, when I looked at it closer, did I realize how special it was. I particularly love the young man in the colorful shirt. His facial expression of disbelief spoke for all of us. He had turned so quickly to see the turtle in the middle of the street that I caught his chain suspended mid-air. Both young men looked bewildered by what they saw, but in very typical Bronx style, kept it moving and didn’t stop to investigate further. I also love the opposite directions the young men and the turtle were taking. Their stories merge at this magical point and then move on.

Whose turtle was this, and where was he going?

The owner of the turtle is out of frame. He was incredibly proud of his pet and enjoyed showing it off. He gladly answered questions from curious onlookers about the turtle. He seemed knowledgeable about the type of turtle it was and how he had only let it walk on the pavement because the hydrant was open and the pavement was wet. He said it was a warm day, and he wanted the turtle to cool off. After a few minutes and taking the two frames, I also was on my way. It was yet another unique Bronx moment that I felt so lucky to have witnessed.

What pieces of advice would you offer to aspiring street photographers?

One, don’t get intimidated by what type of equipment you have. The best tool you will ever have is your imagination and your love for the community. Second, stay positive. It is hard to see the beauty around us if we are not connected to seeking it out. This is a hard ask, especially during these difficult times, but talent is fueled by interest and curiosity. I love the Bronx so much that I have never had a hard time finding unique scenes to photograph. Lastly, stay in love with photography! Study it, create community with others, and practice by doing it.

Why do you love photographing in the Bronx?

I love the Bronx! It has been a place that has always been welcoming to me and where I have been able to be part of a strong community.

My grandparents and father moved to the Bronx from the upper east side in the early 1940s. So, my family has had a long history in this borough. I came to live here full-time in high school and graduated from St. Raymond’s Academy for Girls. After college and living in Madrid, Spain, I moved back to the Bronx.

It’s the birthplace of hip-hop and the center of creativity and fashion. People have learned to do so much with very little, and this ingenuity fascinates the world. We just need to get credit for it!

I am fascinated by the resilience here and feel I owe so much of who I am to this place. So I do what I can with my photography to give back to a borough that has given me so much. Through my images, I want people to see the Bronx I see and the pride I feel living here.