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  • Writer's pictureJenni Berrios

Annual Student Exhibition Show (ASE)- Finding My Artist Style

"The Responsibility of Being Me" is the name of this series. Here I will discuss the inspirations and aspirations that developed from this project.

While developing work for the Annual Student Exhibition (ASE), my Abuela passed away, and that event created a turning point in my life and my art. As the oldest, I was responsible for traveling to El Salvador as my mother’s representative. My Abuela's funeral put into perspective the sacrifices my family endured to ensure their future and their families, and the pain of the family members left behind, like my Abuela. By pursuing the “American Dream,” hard work will pay off, resulting in each successive generation being better off than the previous. My mother risks never returning to her home country and family. As my mother’s representative, I had to make decisions on her behalf and be held responsible for arranging a funeral. I resented my parents for pressuring me when I was younger, but it forged my dual identity as a Salvadoran and an American. “The Responsibility of Being Me” is a show that demonstrates the complexities of my identity and discovering who I am: my efforts to break generational family trauma and pressures from my family and myself. I often have to prove myself as a Salvadorean or vice-versa, and in the end, I am learning to be content with my duality. This series clarified the work I want to be doing in the future. I want to challenge my art to involve the realities of crossing the borders through storytelling or even tap into more taboo topics within the Latinx community. The photography and videos document the pressures and responsibilities I have to uphold within my family by presenting my duality, the complexity of ‘The American Dream,” and being vulnerable in my art.

My recent work was different from my past projects by attempting other mediums and pursuing color photography. I stayed away from digital photography for a while, but it made it so convenient to document the event for my family. The color photos revealed details that black and white film could not. In specific, a consistent feature in the series, What is "The American Dream” is the color pink. The pink color surrounds my Abuela’s house and is so vibrant. The color pink was an essential part of this series because it became a representation of my Abuela’s home, and hence her. When curating this series, I wanted to spread out the pink, so the viewer’s eyes could pan across the series.

I also organized the photographs by pairing them formally, so the viewer was not overwhelmed by filled frames in the pictures. This work physically manifested itself as a time-stamped my Abuela's house as she last left it. The vibrant color contrasts the sad event photographed, showing the Salvadorean culture on death. Death in El Salvador is celebrated with family and the community. The size of the prints invites the reader to know the family in the absence of my grandma. Even though her profile is not present, her belongings and house symbolize my Abuela.

Another theme in my work is a duality between my Salvadorean and American culture. I accomplished this by visually presenting the chaos and harmony of my cultural duality. For example, in my two short video works: the Spanish audio contrasts with the English subtitles demonstrating my bilingualism and belonging to two different communities.

Figure 1 Jenni Berrios, Short stills from Pupusa, 2022

The video work of making the Salvadorean dish Pupusas was exceptional work for me because it was my first time making pupusas. I grew up not learning the Salvadorean cuisine or traditions because my family and I assimilated to American culture. My voice-over was my honest thoughts and was an improvised script. The other video is unique because it includes my dad’s lullaby. His voice was paired with a voiceover of my anxieties about college and how I stress myself to be the best to make my family proud. Also, part of the American Dream is to assimilate, and these videos show my struggles to be part of the American culture as a college student. I am still longing to be connected to my cultural roots. This project led to my self-validation as I immersed myself in El Salvador and Latinx communities to capture the stories that make us. These stories are essential to understanding whom I am and helping others understand the complexity of dual cultures.

Figure 2, Jenni Berrios, Untitled 2022

What inspired this series is this image (Figure 2). This image shows the connection between my family and me, connecting across borders, but my picture reveals the reality of their absence. Absence is a constant feature in this series, from my family to my Abuela’s passing. There were so many images, but I narrowed it down to the chaos of her house, the emotion of my family, how death is celebrated in El Salvador, and how my Abuela connected herself to us through pictures and memorabilia. And now, this series has come full circle, as we directly relate to her last memories through these images of her funeral and her house as she last left it. The American dream forces us to hang on to memories, as seen in my grandmother’s room filled with pictures and objects. This series was a great way to get back into the roots of my documentary photography. However, this time, I document my life. I opened myself to be vulnerable in my work by letting the viewers experience the responsibilities I have in my family.

Last year’s work ended with Breaking the Ciclo's series(see figure 3), where I interviewed family members about interfamilial trauma, a taboo topic in the Latinx community. So, this semester's work was an extension of that, but documenting my life through video work and color photography. By storytelling differently, I invite the viewers to approach the art and visually see my life documented in photographs and experience the challenges associated with the Latinx experience.

Figure 3 Jenni Berrios, Familia Tree, 2022

However, this semester I felt like I had parted ways with photojournalism. As I reflected on the label of photojournalist and art photographer, I realized there is no line between the two. Both share stories, but my work now engages the viewer differently, and I have a different relationship with my camera. For me, a photojournalist is responsible for separating themselves from what they are documenting for the story's integrity. In contrast, an art photographer is allowed and encouraged to give their perspective and opinion. My work now challenges me to develop different ways I can tell a story. For example, creating videos or making big colorful prints, which is something I never saw myself pursuing. However, the transitions to those mediums felt natural because they only expanded my ability for storytelling. My work with photojournalism was to document the Latinx community and directly engage with the community to produce stories. And now, my art photography takes those foundational practices of a photojournalist to document my life.

After college, I plan to continue this year's body of work and challenge myself to pursue different approaches to storytelling. Also, I want to continue working on the themes of “The American Dream,” duality, and immigration policies. I am proud of the work I created this semester, where I stepped out of my comfort zone, and how different my art interacts with the viewer. I am passionate about supporting the Latinx immigrant community and being able to educate others about the traumas that occur to ignite change. The idea of validation and solidarity was placed into perspective by an article called “How Latinos are bonding over first-generation trauma.” “[First-generation trauma is] a colloquial term some Latino Americans use to describe the emotional struggles of children whose parents are immigrants.” (Garcia 2021) I want to highlight these parallels of experiences in my images or videos to emphasize that this is a shared problem. I also want to continue documenting the family members and the things left behind after a few pursue “The American Dream.” Staying with my Abuela is where I recognized the trauma related to the people left in El Salvador and their objects as reminders of their absence. Whether it be an empty house, room, or images. Absence is an effect of “The American Dream” and a series that can be influential and beautiful. Overall, I am eager to continue the themes I have been working with and uncover my photography style.

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