With Dialect, Felipe Romero Beltrán Reinvents Documentary Photography
The photographer’s latest book documents a group of migrant men making the journey from Morocco to Spain.
Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with the Colombian, Madrid-based photographer Felipe Romero Beltrán on his latest project.
When I saw pictures from your new book, Dialect (published by Loose Joints), months ago, I was immediately drawn to their bewitching nature. But I kept asking myself, “What is going on in these images?” So what, in your opinion, is this project about?
Dialect started in 2020 with this group of young migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco, to arrive here in Spain. Because of very specific political bureaucracies in Spain, these migrants have to spend a long time—usually three years—waiting for papers, which will allow them to live and work here. I met these guys during a talk I was giving on my experience as a migrant, because I’m originally from Colombia. At first it was just that—trying to make a connection with these guys and speak to them, and a real relationship formed.
From there, I proposed the project and explained that I wanted to take photographs of them in this limbo state, documenting the years of waiting. The guys started taking Spanish-speaking classes, workshops to develop skills to integrate into society, and this project we shot was also a way for them to integrate. For me, it’s been quite a learning experience—not just in terms of my technical approach to photography, but also in regards to my ability to conceptualize an entire project.
One of the reasons this project stood out to me is because it’s technically documentary photography, but it feels like fashion imagery.
Absolutely. When I first met these guys, I was just taking photos of them for their WhatsApp and Instagram accounts while getting to know them. Because they were minors, I had to wait for formal permission to photograph them for the project. During that time, I heard a ton of stories about their experiences coming from Tangier, Morocco, and then to Seville. When I proposed the project, I asked them to reenact, in the photographs, some of the experiences they had on their journey from Morocco to Spain. In the case of Youssef (pictured below), he was talking a lot about how he traveled to Seville on a boat with 80 other people. I asked the guys to approach this reality through a straight photographic image, but with a twist on the reenactment, since I was not able to be there at the time. This kind of reenactment leads to conversation about their experiences and to accept them in a way—and the photograph is a way to remember them.
It’s almost like the process of making the photographs is a form of therapy, then? How did you come up with this approach to documentary photography? I’ve never heard of anything like it.
I’ve always been connected to education and to academics. In school, I started to think critically about what documentary means, exactly—how we categorize what is documentary and what is not. I wanted to play with that.
Is this project also partly a study of masculinity?
Yeah, absolutely. It was part of the project because these men were living together 24/7 while waiting for their papers and they had a specific situation as migrants. They were trying to make a living in Spain with the same background, the same experience. And of course, everyone has a different role and each person has to make a position on what they wanted to become afterwards. It was kind of unconscious for me, because I felt like part of this group. We made this bond and this relation that you can feel in the pictures.
How do you light your work?
Normally, I mostly use flash, especially for the interiors. And I use digital mostly, but it’s an old camera, so I can’t change much of the parameters.
I can’t believe these images are digital—they don’t feel that way at all.
That’s the thing: At the beginning, I said, “Let’s do it in digital,” because of money. But at the same time, it was easier to show the guys the pictures right after I shot them, to see if they liked it. If they didn’t, we’d repeat the picture and make edits to how we photographed them. So we shared our thoughts on the session when I was working with them.
Can you tell me a bit more about your own story and how you got into photography?
As I told you, I’m from Colombia. Socially and politically, Colombia is a complicated place. At the beginning, I was meant to study more on the journalistic or anthropologic side of things, but I discovered photography when my sister coincidentally brought a camera to our place. In an instant, I was like, “What the hell is this thing?” We build our relation with the world through words, through sentences, through this verbal experience. And with photography, it’s completely different. That’s what really struck me about it. At 17, I got a scholarship in Argentina and moved there by myself, because I needed to find a job. I studied there for five years, then I moved between Israel and Palestine for another scholarship that I got from the university. I applied for another scholarship here in Madrid for a master’s degree, and now I’m finishing my Ph.D. in photography.
Quite a long, long path—but fortunately, I could attach all my education to my practice.
Is there a photographer whose work you find particularly inspiring?
I’ve always pulled references, not just from other photography, but also paintings and movies; one of the references for this project was Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian filmmaker. I found it interesting how he approached not only the visuals, but also the narrative itself. So that’s one instance. But photographically speaking, I’m keen on a lot more.
On one hand, I’m really interesting in photographic surface—like Wolfgang Tillmans, for example, who’s really sophisticated, educated, and respectful with the photographic medium. But at the same time, I’m fascinated by the conceptual approach: One of the references from the development phase of the Dialect project was [painter] Diego Velázquez, because he was from Seville. He has this relation with the Baroque that you can still feel in the city: in the architecture, in images, and in the religion.
What are you most proud of when it comes to your career and journey as an artist?
That’s a complicated question. But the thing that makes me happiest is that every project is a learning path, and it’s always connected with my next thing. For example, we are now working on a different project with two of the guys from Dialect that has to do with dance and movement. This is an example of that organic path.
At the same time, the thing I’m most proud of is that each project allows me to learn and be more precise, not only when it comes to the concept, but also in the photography. I’m trying to improve every single day that I’m doing pictures.