Jana was the first photographer we worked with after moving from Los Angeles to Austin. Her joy-inducing work is fresh, inviting and quite possibly the perfect dose of color we all need during this decidedly gray time in America. Her photography celebrates womxn of color and Latin American culture, subjects that are more often not the star of the show.
Photographer Jana Cantua Looks Through The Lens To Celebrate Brown Skin
She shared her experience as a Latina photographer in a field predominately dominated by men, what is was like growing up in a Texas bordertown and commiserates on just how important it is for us all to consider diversity not just in front of the lens — but behind it as well.
CHELSIE: Hi, Jana! Tell me about yourself.
JANA: I’m a photographer based in Texas. I was born in Mexico, and I got started working in retail. I worked with Free People. They’re not that great of a brand, but that’s where I got my start. I managed their Instagram for San Antonio. Long story short, that’s how I got my start in photography. They would send me mood boards and styling stuff and examples of what they were trying to capture. They would send samples and most of them weren’t very simple. Now that I think about it, they were asking for a lot. I would source models or use people that worked at the store and take their photos. I was responsible for sending new content every week. They ended that program two years after I started working there in 2017. So I stopped working there. Then I thought, well maybe I’m going to keep doing this because I really love it. That’s when I started kind of shooting for smaller boutiques at first. My first lookbook was actually in Marfa, which was really cool, and I still work with that client. From there it just kind of exploded into full time.
CHELSIE: Are you self-taught?
JANA: I am. I still struggle with it, because everything is so secretive with photography. You can’t just go to a photographer and be like, “Oh, can you give me advice on how to do X, Y, and Z?” A lot of times people feel like, “Well, what I do is my own formula.” So then they feel you’re trying to steal their style. So I still struggle with trying to get on the same level as everybody else because people have BFAs obviously, but I got my official start in 2015.
CHELSIE: Your work is very good. It’s remarkable actually. Do you sometimes feel imposter syndrome when you compare your work to someone who has a BFA?
JANA: There are so many things. I didn’t go to college, so I don’t know what I’m missing out, but from what I can imagine there’s a lot of very technical things such as lighting that I’ve learned on the job. I don’t know. I just recently started feeling this because I started following some photographers and then I would see their bio page. They’d say, “Oh yeah, I got a BFA here and an MFA there.” So then I would think, “Oh, their work is more elevated than mine. How do I get this work?” I read a lot of their interviews, and they had all gone to school. So then I was thinking, well maybe that’s what I’m missing. But I mean, I’m not going to school at this point.
CHELSIE: Not to discredit people’s experiences who had the opportunity to go to school by any means, but I dropped out of college too, and I’ve dealt with a lot of imposter syndrome. The reality is I am a business womxn, and I am good at what I do. I think a part of why you are so good at what you do is that you’ve had a different experience as a photographer and an artist. You’re able to see things with a different eye. Your work isn’t from the same academic filter, which means you capture things differently. Especially with your experience as a Mexican American.
CHELSIE: When did you come to the United States?
JANA: I came when I was two years old. My parents decided that they were going to move to Minnesota. We then moved to California and in California, I lived a very nomadic, unstable childhood. My parents were always moving around. I started elementary school and all that in Minnesota, but I’m glad I didn’t grow up there. When I was eight years old we moved to South Texas by the border. They call it the Valley. It was a big culture shock because everybody over there is Mexican American. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want to be Mexican until I moved there. I’m fluent in Spanish, but I wouldn’t do speak it. I would just tell people that I wasn’t from Mexico, that I was from Minnesota. I didn’t really realize how much being in Minnesota had affected me until I went back when I was 13. I started to realize the reason I didn’t like myself was that everyone around me was six feet tall and blonde. Everyone would always tell me, “We need to pluck your eyebrows. You need to dye your hair. Nobody had hair on their upper lip. Things like that. Once I got older, I learned to accept myself, but it was actually really nice to grow up in the Valley because everyone was similar to me, so I never felt out of place. But I moved to Houston when I got married at 18. That was a culture shock because I hadn’t interacted with white people in a long time.
CHELSIE: Were you treated differently in Houston?
JANA: Yeah. I would try to be friends with my coworkers or people that were in creative fields and they would just kind of push me away a little bit. I didn’t really understand what was going on. We moved to San Antonio in 2015 and I love it here. There’s a big Mexican population here, but then I started realizing that San Antonio is very segregated. Gentrification wasn’t that bad when I moved here, but it’s getting worse. I still love it here, and I want to live here forever. But there’s three or four photographers that get all the work. They’re mostly men. It’s a very sexist city to work in as a photographer which is why I decided to look for most of my clients in Austin.
JANA: Photography in general is a male-dominated industry. I’ve been so frustrated. For example, there was one event that they threw here. It was all about feminism and womxn empowerment and stuff. They had a bunch of womxn participate but they had a man shoot it. And not to be envious, but if you’re all about womxn and helping womxn, then why wouldn’t you hire a womxn? sing. I see a lot of my peers too who have struggled to get that recognition and they have equal if not better work than the men.
CHELSIE: What has your experience been working as a Latina photographer?
JANA: Well, I do have to be really thankful for my clients. I’ve also been able to pursue my project where I document people of Latin American descent. It has been getting good support. It’s a photo series that I just started. A lot, I’ve told people about it and they ask what my plan is if I’m going to have an exhibit or make a book. And I’m like, girl, ‘I don’t have the funding for that.” Basically, this project showcases people of Latin American descent in high fashion environments or environments where you embrace parts of yourself through your dress. It’s very small, but I just wanted it to be something where Latin people are represented in the way that we want to be seen. Of course, that’s coming from my perspective, so it’s not going to be perfect, but I wanted to have something to showcase the beauty and strength of Latin American people. I posted one of the pictures from the project and someone messaged me and said she really loved the photo because her little boy needs to learn that his brown skin is beautiful. He was in school in Victoria, Texas, and she said there was this little girl and she told him that he needed to take a shower because he looked like he was very dirty, which is awful. She has a daughter too, and she said she wants them to be proud of their brown skin and being Latin American.
CHELSIE: Where can people find this project?
JANA: It’s on my Instagram mostly (@janacantua), but I have it on my website too. It’s called Cariño. It means darling, but it also means to care for. If you have cariño for yourself, you care for yourself. This project is entirely funded by me, and I don’t have a huge production team but I wanted to showcase the strength and beauty of people of Latin American descent through the medium of photography.
JANA: The negative feedback that I have gotten from my page in general, is that I should try to shoot with womxn who are more the beauty standard so people can notice my work and actually want to hire me. It’s great that I’m trying to showcase different skin tones and ethnicities, but I should try to just shoot with the beauty standard because it’s just going to make my portfolio look better.
CHELSIE: Fuck the beauty standards. That’s very frustrating. I’m sorry. What does your creative process look like, and where do you find inspiration?
JANA: I would say 90% is my culture and the place I’m from. And then the other percentage I would say is definitely color and fashion, and maybe that has also something to do with where I’m from. I just really love color so much. I’ve been obsessed with fruits lately. Bright orange and pinks are what’s been inspiring me. I also really love mountains which is why I love going to Marfa.
CHELSIE: Where in Mexico were you born?
JANA: The city is called Torreón. It’s on the North Northern Mexico border.
CHELSIE: What was your experience like growing up in a border town in Texas?
JANA: It’s funny because I really hated it when I lived there because schools had very little funding, so there were no art classes or music. So I was very frustrated in school because I wanted to learn and express myself through art, but there really wasn’t much. But now that I look back on it, it was actually really nice to grow up somewhere where I felt understood. It’s weird. Cause when you’re an immigrant in Mexico, they’re like, “Oh, well you’re, Mexican-American. Which, I mean, yes. I don’t understand the experience of being a Mexican that lives in Mexico. But then when you’re in the U.S. it’s like, “Oh, well are you a citizen?” I’ve actually been asked that before.
CHELSIE: That’s shitty. What has that felt like for you?
JANA: It’s kind of like you are the other, but I would say where I grew up, everyone is the other, just like you. So they understand. When I lived in the Valley, no one was ever like, “You don’t look Mexican.” Or the things that I get here in San Antonio. I never had any of that over there. Cause everyone shared the same experiences as me.
CHELSIE: How has it been as a self employed photographer during the pandemic?
JANA: To put it simply, it sucks. People are losing their lives, and I’m happy I’m still alive and everyone in my family is, but in terms of business, it was such a promising year, but it just tanked. The first three months I was able to make more than I ever thought I could make in three months. And then all that is gone now because there was absolutely no work for the following months. It just sucks. I’ve been trying to pivot and do more couples, portraits, headshots, that kind of thing. But in April, I made $300 and that’s not profit. That’s just how much money came in. Yeah. I’m still trying to recover.
CHELSIE: Were you able to get unemployment?
JANA: No, I didn’t get unemployment because I opened a print shop. And when you get unemployment, you can’t have any money come in.
CHELSIE: What has your experience been learning how to manage your personal finances? Were your parents good with money?
JANA: My mom was really amazing with money. She made $12,000 a year. She didn’t work summers because she worked at a school, but when she told me how much she made as an adult, I was like, how? Because we always had food. We always had a decent place to live. It was obviously not in the best neighborhood, but she always made sure that we had what we needed. She was very good at saving. She did wonders with the money that she had, but she didn’t teach me any of any of that. A lot of times with immigrant parents, they think the school is going to teach my kid how to do all this. So she didn’t really teach me and I didn’t really know what I needed to know. So I didn’t ask.
CHELSIE: I feel that. Is there anything else that you wanted to share? I’ve really loved our conversation. Your story is powerful.
JANA: The most important thing I want people to know is that they need to think about who’s behind the lens too. I spoke to an agent and she was saying that their agency is like a family and that they’re always hesitant to bring on strangers. One of the photographers who’s white male was her friend since middle school or something. And I think that is a big problem because people only want to hire people in their circle. There’s so many talented people. Not even me, just in Austin alone. So many talented photographers of color who are shooting amazing things and they just need an opportunity. So give them an opportunity.
CHELSIE: If you only work with people you grew up with or that you know, or that look like you and have the same friends as you it’s all the same shit. It’s boring.
JANA: And then they’re like, “Shy am I not attracting this kind of audience?” It’s because you’re not hiring a diverse group of people. And hire womxn! Men shoot more than 90% of advertising imagery.