Purple Mangrove: Exploring the Rougher Side of Miami in Documentary Photos

All images and words by Daniel Valledor. Used with permission.

Miami is probably America’s most multicultural city (perhaps with the exception of NYC). In fact, you’d think you’re in a different country if it wasn’t for the red, white and blue flags in front yards and massive deep beats coming from black SUVs.

I hadn’t been to Miami for over 20 years, so when I arrived I was (once again) very impressed by how the most evident sociocultural contrasts blended in with the tasty pinkish colors and palm trees. A guy in a Bentley here, a homeless who’s just passed out in the middle of the sidewalk there… And I felt very lucky to see each and every scene with an unbiased eye, something that usually helps photographers capture cultural shock in an honest way.

Editor’s note: We’ve featured Daniel’s work here before. And this is a project and words by him.

I had roughly a week to explore the essence of the city -and I wanted it all-, but I didn’t know where to start. Miami can vary so much depending on the neighbourhood you’re in, so if you’ve walked down Ocean Drive for a while, suddenly switching to Little Havana can seem like entering an entirely different planet.

It takes some time to actually understand a city. Not that you can really get to know it in a very short period of time, but you can know it well enough so you can push your photography past your average point-and-shoot tourist shot and actually give it a feel of your own.

For a guy from Madrid like me, adapting his street photography to a city like Miami is no joke, even if he can get around using Spanish only. I spent the first two days wandering around with my camera without a clue about what I was doing.

So I basically studied the people at first. I walked a lot. I spoke with as many locals as I could. I even -accidentally- attended a health resource fair at Miami Dade College (where I was told I was overweight). This was all part of the “process” of understanding the city and its people. So as I progressively figured the city out and gained some confidence, I started visualizing what I could photographically expect from this trip.

Shooting certain areas were easier than others. As you may’ve guessed, I felt very comfortable in Little Havana, where locals (mainly Cubans) would walk up to me and ask me about Spain (and Spanish women). I spent a long while chatting with the old domino folks at Maximo Gomez park. They were very easy to photograph and didn’t seem to feel threatened at all by cameras.

South Beach is obviously one of the best places to take pictures at, with its Art Deco buildings and neon lights, but it’s conceptually challenging because it’s been done millions of times before by every single tourist that visits the city. However, I was there for the people, so I did it anyways and tried to make it mine. But not all parts of Miami are that friendly, especially if you have a shiny camera around your neck.

I was happily walking down Grand Avenue in Coconut Grove, counting one Ferrari after the other, and the minute I crossed Margaret St. I found myself walking among crack houses, shot up storefronts and mean looks. Just like that.

I saw nice colors on a building’s entrance and just when I was about to snap a picture, a young woman popped out of a door and shouted, “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be this far! People think you’re an undercover cop.”

“No,” I replied, “I’m just Dani, from Spain.”

I must’ve sounded so naive that she obviously felt bad for scaring a lost tourist like myself. That’s how I met Jill, who turned up to be the closest thing to a guardian angel any street photographer can find in a place where freckled guys with a Leica are sitting ducks. She showed me around her neighborhood, the Village West, home of the first Bahamian settlers in Coconut Grove.

Locals there are visibly nervous about strangers (especially ones with cameras), probably thanks to the heavy pressure by real estate prospectors’ to run them out of the neighborhood and transform it into a 7-figure residential area.

Jill offered to go to Overtown to take pictures because she had some friends there. Considering somebody got killed there practically every day, I preferred to pass and visit the place on my next trip. Maybe. Or better yet, just let Boogie do it.

I left Miami feeling I had barely scratched the surface, so I know my work there is incomplete. It’s not only about color. Yes, color is present in Miami like in no other city you’ve seen before. But it’s mainly about Miamians. They form up an ethnically rich, complex society made up of insane appetite for success, countless personal failures, extreme social contrasts and incredible purple sunsets. And honestly, I can’t wait to get back.

Daniel Valledor (b.1983)

I am a photographer and dop based in Madrid, Spain. Although a Telecom Engineer, I studied cinematography at Escuela de Cine y del Audiovisual de Madrid (ECAM) and have since worked in advertising and commercial photography. I’ve also shot a number of short films, winning over 50 awards and over 100 selections in international film festivals.

I shoot with a Leica M (both film and digital) and a 28mm lens. I chose this camera body because it is very small and quiet compared to any SLR, and allows me to approach people’s area of comfort without getting noticed. The 28mm is the result of testing different focal lengths: even though it’s harder to get the results I want than with a longer lens (ie 35mm or 50mm), it’s worth the effort. The sensation of proximity is hard to beat, but you have to get really close (less than 3 feet in most cases)!

I love practically all the Magnum-style photographers (Mark Cohen, Martin Parr, William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, Joel Meyerowitz), and probably my favorite: Ramon Massats. But what really made me love photography in my early years was the wonderful cinematography work by Vittorio Storaro (“The Conformist” and “Reds”), Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”), Luis Cuadrado (“El Sur”) and Sven Nykvist. To me their use of light as a tool for storytelling is a true inspiration.