Sabrina Santiago on her infatuation with rooftop portraiture
by Rennie Svirnovskiy / Photography 5 months ago

New York released everything Sabrina Santiago had pent up inside of her. Sydney – where she worked and wrote for Vogue Australia, RUSSH Magazine – was fine, but New York was all she wanted to talk about when I got her on the phone toward the end of March. 

“I put out more work in the first two months of getting back to New York than I had the whole time in Sydney,” Santiago said. “I thought about New York every day when I was in Sydney, and I think I came up with all of these things in my head that I wanted to do– you know when you just step away from something?”

She’d only stepped away for a bit. Now she’s back, obsessed with the city that puts photo opportunities right at your feet– you just have to take them. 

“There’s this one image I took that has three triplets in the same outfit,” Santiago said. “I felt like it was unreal. The lighting was perfect, and I was just shocked at how I could stumble upon this moment.”

Santiago started her professional life early, flipping through the fashion magazines her mom kept around the house and growing interested in the world of fashion editing. But her curiosity piqued at photography, specifically with 35mm color film: she started developing black and white film, experimenting in a dark room of her own, radiating from the visceral feeling of it all and shooting just 36 photos per day. It challenges, she says, what she sees in one day and influences how she shoots video.

She does that with a Super8 film camera– all for the colors.

“When the sun hits the film, it makes those light flares,” Santiago relished. The videos she makes – some for herself, some for brands that have reached out to her to develop their promotional material – have a nostalgic quality only Super8 film and editing on iMovie can make. They have the stunning composition only a lifelong photographer could get together. 

Her subjects?

“I find that I gravitate toward women,” Santiago said. “Someone told me the other day that my photos are just women that are bad-asses doing their thing. That was the best compliment I’ve ever gotten because women are so beautiful and deserve to be photographed more and documented that way.”

Specifically where?

“I love roofs because I’m so drawn to the sky,” Santiago said. “I got lucky that my apartment has a huge roof. It really challenges me to think about space.”

She’s photographed – by her count – “probably more than 40” people on the rooftop, each in different positions than the others but all against the sky as the primary backdrop. She’s moved by the city lighting and tries to use it at all times, on all subjects.

“I took photos of this girl with a yo-yo because I love the idea of things from your childhood that randomly make their way back into your memory,” Santiago said. 

You can tell by looking at her photos that Santiago loves faces, loves eye contact and the evidence of contact between the person in the photo and the person taking the photo in the photo. Sometimes, Santiago admits, she gets a little in her head about it.

“It takes me a while to reach out to people sometimes if I want to take their photo,” Santiago said. “I’ll think so much about what kinds of photos will feel like them but also feel like me. I guess it’s about making pictures of people feel like them but also that are nice to look at if you don’t know them.”

How does Santiago find her subjects?

“I think Instagram is such a great tool for that these days,” Santiago said. “I’ll go on a whole hunt for people. I like to find new faces – sometimes that’s on Instagram, or sometimes it’s on the streets.”

She’s made entire relationships out of the people she’s photographed and collaborated with– friendships with high school students, older German women, Parisian blondes and strangers’ dogs. That foundation of friendship with subjects made it almost easy to launch VISCERAL8 – an art platform that she put together with her best friend, where she picks one word every month and asks visual artists to submit their interpretations of the word.

“I feel like the art world can feel daunting, and so it’s nice to create a community or a collective,” Santiago said. “I feel like bringing people together over one word was always interesting to me, you can have so many interesting interpretations. I love seeing illustrations alongside photography– it’s nice to see all these things alongside each other while surrounding one common word.”

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