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Interview with NICOLE CANEGATA

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

We sat down with Photographer, Nicole Canegata, to talk about her work, who her influences are, and what inspires her.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Nicole Yvette Canegata and I am an internationally published commercial and fine art photographer from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where I was born, raised and am based. I am a fifth generation “Crucian” of Puerto Rican/Taino Indian, West African and European descent. My lineage is a living blueprint of my culture and heritage. Virgin Islands culture is linked to a history that spans the emigration of Pre-Columbian indigenous people, the African diaspora of the transatlantic slave trade, and European colonialism attributing to our rich cultural diversity, delicious local food, and many festive traditions.

Our history does hold a dark past of trauma and enslavement of black and brown people. Our culture and identity for centuries have been marred, blemished and devalued. Despite the horror, our people have risen up over time, and these stories of triumph are celebrated. The people of the Virgin Islands were amongst the first freedom fighters in the Caribbean, and blazed the trail for emancipation and equality in a time that you could not utter these words without harsh repercussions.

I am inspired to shed light on these stories and have been focusing on incorporating that narrative into my work. I recently created a project titled the “Daughters of AyAy”. AyAy is the Taino name for St. Croix during Pre-Columbian times. I have been exploring the tales of my ancestors from an empowered feminine view- point, highlighting the matriarchy - its strength and resilience - as well as healing these ancestral wounds through various rituals on this land. It’s been such an honor to be a channel for my ancestors and share these powerful visuals with my community and the world through my lens.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on St. Croix spending most of my time on the beach, in the “bush,” or with my large immediate and extended family – the Canegatas (on my dad’s side) – who are amongst the oldest and prominent local families on the island.

Who are your biggest influences?

The work of Herb Ritts influenced me early on. Michael Stokes is my favorite photographer of HOT MEN now.

How would you describe the Virgin Islands?

The Virgin Islands is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and I am so blessed to call it home. Besides the natural beauty, pristine beaches, and amazing food scene, our islands embody a rich cultural heritage and are a diverse melting pot of people. The Virgin Islands are comprised of four islands, St. Croix (my island) which is the largest, followed by St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island. Each island has its unique and distinctive attributes. I encourage those who are reading this to visit and immerse themselves with the local people, connect with the beautiful land, and experience the island vibes.

In St. Croix, affectionately known as “Twin City,” we are deemed the cultural bearers - our island is an oracle of history in every sense. You can viscerally feel swept away in time when walking through both the downtowns of Christiansted and Frederiksted as the buildings (some of my favorite photography backdrops) with its architectural style and street names, reflect the strong Danish colonial influence of that time. Most of the plantation estates on the island still have fully intact sugar mills, remnants of a flourishing sugar industry which relied heavily on slave labor, but now serve as tourist attractions. Many of these estates have been transformed into present day museums, with very detailed archives chronicling and mostly focused on the plantation owners’ lineages. However, the elders of our community continue to orally share the stories that aren’t chronicled on building plaques or necessarily written in the history books.

Do you still have family living there?

As I mentioned, I have a large immediate and extended family; on both my parents’ sides. All of my younger siblings and most of my first cousins left the island when they went to college on the mainland and haven’t returned - they are spread out all over the states and the world. But I would say that 75% of my entire family still lives on St. Croix.

What was your exposure to photography while living in the Virgin Islands?

My Dad was an amateur photographer and I was inspired by his photo obsession at a young age. He helped me realize the importance of documenting everything and everyone through creating a visual story. He handed me a Polaroid camera at age 7, and awoke the budding photographer inside of me; however, it was not until later on in life that I would explore my photographic potential and skills.

Who were your early influences?

One of my earliest influences was the renowned photojournalist/portrait photographer, Fritz Henle, who made his home on St. Croix, during the late 1950s. It was very common to see his original works in various venues – local businesses, banks, restaurants, and in the homes of many in our community. His photojournalistic style really resonated with me and stimulated my wanderlust to travel the world.

What rule(s) of life do you live by?

I don’t like rules, but I ascribe to being fully present in every moment.

Are they still your influences or do you have some new ones?

Fritz Henle remains my ultimate influence! I also love the classic photographers: Ruth Bernhard, Vivian Maier, Imogen Cunningham, Sebastião Salgado, Irving Penn & Michael Kenna.

Was there a moment, growing up in the Virgin Islands, when you decided to be a photographer?

This is an interesting I decided to become a photographer later on in life. I come from a family of talented artists, but for most of my life, I’d never considered myself in that category. I’d never taken a formal art or photography class growing up, but there was always a yearning inside of me and an appreciation for the creative arts.

My initial major in college didn’t fulfill or quench this creative yearning. After many years of following the status quo and working 9-5 desk jobs, I realized that travel and ultimately photography were my life’s passion. Photography has played a major role throughout my life, but I had never acknowledged it or saw it for what it was back then. I recognized the importance of documenting moments, and I loved creating beautiful imagery for myself. Little did I life was about to change forever...

In January 2007, my Dad was killed in Iraq while serving in the Army National Guard and had only been in the Middle East for a month during his active duty tour. Out of that grief and pain, I decided to live more fully. After my Dad’s death, I purchased my first digital SLR camera and my life hasn’t been the same since. I started documenting my world travels and everything around me.

In November 2010, I was approached by a local art studio director here in St. Croix who was interest- ed in having my first solo show at his space: MacheteMachete Art Studio. My solo debut: “The Traveling Lense” featured a collection of travel photos depicting everyday life around the globe. This moment in my life was the catalyst that really inspired me to follow my dreams of being a photographer, and ultimately led me to quit my financial research job and go back to school for photography. I graduated in April 2014 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Professional Photography from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California.

Can you tell us about the spaces that you live and work in?

In 2018, I was the artist in residence at the Henle Gallery, a beautiful and spacious art gallery and home to some of Fritz Henle’s (my photography mentor) original prints, located on the second floor of a historic building from the early 1800s in downtown Christiansted. I worked out of the space and exhibited a collection of my fine art photography prints during that entire year. It was a dream come true and I felt that I had come full circle to have my work featured alongside my greatest photography influence. I am planning to work out of that space again this fall.

Do you follow a routine while working / shooting?

I don’t really follow a routine while I work because all of my shoots are so different from each other. For example, as I approach photographing architectural interior shoots, I want to be able to give life to a space, make the viewer feel like they can walk through the space, and capture details that may go unnoticed to the average eye. If I haven’t scouted the location, I am very inspired in the moment and will observe, explore, and play. If I have scouted the location and my client has specific angles or a vision they want me to capture, I follow their lead and go from there.

When preparing for a food shoot, I spend a LOT of time with pre-production. Once I figure out exactly what type of food experience I want to capture or convey, I will do my research for inspiration photos in books and online. My research includes the food/drink items, to the plate-ware & cutlery, color theme and feel of the shoot. I really enjoy this process, as I am a foodie through and through!

Most recently, I have done a couple pseudo “fashion” editorials as personal projects. During this process, I tend to look through print fashion magazines and online fashion blogs for ideas and inspiration with a specific vision in mind. Then I scout and select models that will help me accomplish this vision, with the goal of collaborating with them, and most of all having fun in the end!

What is your definition of beauty?

Beauty, as it relates to art, awakens our physical senses and evokes divine appreciation and inspiration. It is a way of being and feeling...existing in all forms and present in everything around us and within us.

What is your definition of art?

Art is the creative language of the soul that is expressed in various forms to make us feel, think, and connect with the deeper levels of our existence.

How important are the individual stories of your subjects to your work?

To be able to speak through my lens and give an image/person/event a voice, create a story, stir discussions or emotion, or shed light on a particular subject, is my driving force. Photography allows me to be honest, free, and ever present, always honoring my subjects and the world around me.

Can you tell us about the process of capturing your photographs?

My creative process really depends on the project. When working on certain personal and commercial projects, I really enjoy being inspired in the moment... being open and spontaneous and just going with the flow of creative energy. With other projects, I do lots of research and try to be as prepared as possible for specific shoots.

What photographer of the past would you most like to work with?

Fritz Henle! I would love to go back in time and work with him...documenting and witnessing the Virgin Islands in the late 1950s – a time of great transformation and cultural re-awakening for our islands as we acquiesced to being a territory of the United States.

How has the Virgin Islands influenced your work?

The Virgin Islands feeds my creative soul through its sublime energy, inspires my visual senses on a daily basis with the natural beauty that abounds, and rein- forces the importance of my roots, culture and connections – human, nature, and spirit – which are fundamental elements in my work.

What is your biggest or greatest indulgence in life?

Travel and Food. When traveling, I am truly inspired in the moment by the energy I feel, the people I meet and the landscapes that move me – I feel most alive when I set foot in a new place with amazing adventures in store. I LOVE to eat and I come from a line of great cooks and professional chefs – that doesn’t mean I cook, LOL, but I am working on making time with my crazy schedule to experiment in the kitchen.

Has social media had a positive or negative impact on your career?

I sort of have a love hate relationship with social media! I am fortunate that it’s had a mostly positive impact on my career when I am consistent with my presence and posting, and I am grateful for that. Remaining consistent is my challenge as social media can be somewhat exhausting and draining to keep up with, and I struggle to make the time amidst my very busy work schedule to stay engaged. I think once you’re consistent and your content is solid and captivating, social media is a great and positive tool for connections, networking, and attracting new business.

What advice can you give photographers following in your footsteps?

The first piece of advice I would share is to not doubt yourself. As creatives, we are always our worst critics (my constant struggle) - which can be good and bad - but I urge anyone reading this, to let that voice inside of you push you to always be better and not hold you back.

Know that your job is very important as a photographer. We tell stories...create magic...evoke emotion... document and archive the intangible to last a lifetime. There is power in all of that and I recognize that my job isn’t about taking pretty photos (even though I love to do that) or capturing moments, it’s about digging deeper to understand the connection of our humanity.

What is your motto in life?

“Follow your Bliss” which is a quote by the prolific writer, Joseph Campbell, one of my literary heroes. I also have this quote tattooed on my forearm.

What was your favorite life experience and why?

My favorite life experience to date was having the opportunity and privilege to study abroad with the Institute for Shipboard Education’s “Semester at Sea’’ program, during my senior year at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. I lived on a ship for 100 days, circumnavigating the globe and visiting 10 different countries: Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, India, the Seychelle Islands, South Africa, Brazil and Cuba. It was during this amazing journey of a lifetime, that I realized that photography and traveling would become life-long passions of mine. Since then I have traveled to 6 continents, 57 countries, and over 190 cities across the globe. One of my life’s goals is to visit 100 countries.

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