As a young Cuban boy who emigrated to America in the 1950’s, Lopez felt displaced and out of place. Until, that is, until his father put a camera in his hands—a German Agfa 35mm—and handed him 10 rolls of film. Lopez was 12.
The camera gave Lopez a way in—it was a tool by which he could capture his new American life, and it gave him a sense of purpose. Photography “began for me as a way to explain my sense of otherness, which every immigrant has,” he says. When he developed his first photograph, “an image magically appeared and I was hooked,” he recalls. Eventually, he says, “photography became something more than just an object that I put on a wall and became something magical.”
He enlisted in the US Army during the Vietnam War era, and was stationed at Fort Bragg and Fort Jackson, South Carolina. There, he served as a drug and alcohol addiction counselor for returning Vietnam veterans, many of whom returned from the warfront with inexpensive cameras they had purchased in Vietnam, and photos of their terrifying, life-altering experiences. “I didn’t have anything in common with them, but when we started talking about photographs, they would talk about their experiences and they will recall certain traumatic moments near death,” he recalls. “So I said, well, why don’t you go out and take pictures about how you feel now and so I began to understand that the photograph had this cathartic aspect to it that I’d never thought about before.”
He went on to study with the legendary photographer Ansel Adams, and became a tenured professor at the University of Miami. Today he is Chair of the Department of Art and Art History. In the 1980s, Lopez received international accolades for a series he did on AIDS victims, called Faces of AIDS. He grew to understand the socio-economic implications of the disease, the stigma, and the loneliness and rejection that often came with an HIV diagnosis. In those years, almost all HIV-positive individuals knew they were going to die; Lopez focused in on their eyes—and the eyes became a focus of his work from then on.
The Sephardi: “The story of every immigrant”
Lopez first became involved in Sephardi Voices through Prof. Henry Green at the University of Miami, SV’s founder and director. Lopez’s own family roots are in Spain, and he had always suspected he may have Jewish heritage (a DNA test later proved otherwise). But it was the stories of the displaced Jews from North Africa and the Middle East that truly ignited his interest. “I realized that the story of the Sephardi Jews is the story of every immigrant,” he says.
For the Wynwood exhibit, he photographed 25 individuals across south Florida. He connected with the subjects’ refugee experience immediately. “You’re in a place—you think you’re home—and then something happens, whether it’s political, cataclysmic, war—and then you’re not there anymore. There is the displacement, the sense of otherness. I identified very much with everyone I photographed.”
Lopez has been showcased in over 350 group exhibitions and 35 solo exhibitions. His work is included in many permanent collections including the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of American Art, La Biblioteque Nationale de France, The International Museum of Photography, and the Museum of Modern Art. His work has been exhibited across the United States, Europe, China, Japan and in numerous publications.
A new exhibit – focusing on Sephardi Jews in Miami – is on display at the University of Miami Gallery Wynwood Design District in Miami on February 3 to February 28.