Q&A: Photographer Fortunato Castro Posed As His Mother

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For his senior thesis at Cooper Union, 27-year-old artist Fortunato Castro turned his lens on himself, for a series of powerful self-portraits. But, unlike most self-portraits, he posed in an unusual way: as his mother.

Growing up in California, Castro listened to stories from his mother’s youth in El Salvador, where she lived until coming to the States at age 25. “I remember her stories were so vivid, and I would feel like I was her in that moment,” he told the Cut. “Those stories are what made her my mother, in my mind, even though I didn’t actually experience them.” For the series — which is titled Some Girl, Some Where — Castro studied photographs of his mother from her twenties and re-created the scenes from her youth. The result is part Leigh Ledare, part Cindy Sherman: a study on the mutability of social identity and appearance, as well as the uncomfortable but invertible relationship between family and sexuality. The Cut spoke with Castro about gender, drag, and the challenges of representing your mother’s sexuality.

You say that this series is an attempt to photograph your mother not how she is, but how you see her. What aspects of her personality and your relationship did you feel were important to preserve in the images? 
Well, this character will always be about my mom, but for me it isn’t really my mom — or, not in a one-to-one ratio. I don’t really think the character looks like my mother does. I mean, my mother looks very different than I do, and also, she’s a woman. I was thinking about making images that exist in the life of everyone: There are the kind of photographs that your girlfriends take of you right before you go out, where you’re looking really great and the lighting is sort of moody, and then there’s the picture you take for your boyfriend, that you only want one person to see. I looked really closely at all of the photographs I have of my mother at my age, and they’re all very posed — partly because it was the seventies, and photos weren’t taken as often as they are now. For me, it was important to preserve the awareness the character has that they’re being photographed, and also how aware the character is of the image that’s being portrayed of them.

What was it like to pose as your mother? Did you feel vulnerable on her behalf?
At first I think I was hesitant to make these images because I’m not a woman and I don’t want to be a woman. I’m not a drag performer.  And I think, being a gay man, it’s very easy for someone to put you in that hole — like, That’s a man who wants to be a woman, which isn’t what this work is about at all. I’m very protective of my mother, and I think it was really important for me to make the images as honest as they are, because they’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. And my mother isn’t perfect. I think because the images are sort of about a false reality, the only element of truth I could have is that vulnerability.

Many of the images are overtly sexual. What were the challenges of representing — and inhabiting — your mother’s sexuality?
I was interested in the ways that people feel they need to present themselves in order to feel attractive. The images were very much about a character’s desire to be sexy or sexual. That was tricky — no one wants to think about their parents being sexual. I think that makes people very awkward, but I think it’s one of the strengths of these photographs. To me, this wasn’t about drag. This was about a transformation, about becoming a character — becoming a very specific character to show her human experience.

I’m not a woman and I don’t think about sex the way a woman does. The only way that I could construct these images was based on how images like this are already culturally constructed.

What is your relationship with your mother like? Has she seen the photos?
She hasn’t, actually. My mother lives in California, and I don’t get to see her often, unfortunately. My mother is very progressive for where she comes from, but she also comes from a religious background. She’s always been super supportive of me and my art, but I’m sure if she saw them, she’d take one look and say, Oh my God, my son wants to be a woman. I’m sure she would not be able to get over that. So this is definitely the kind of thing I’d want to show her in person, to really explain what I’m trying to do. I’m sure once she knew that, she would love them. She’s very supportive of whatever I do.

This interview has been condensed and edited from its original version.

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