Ryan Ochoa Explores Identity and Mental Health Through Film Photography

All images and text by Ryan Ochoa. Used with permission.

My name is Ryan Ochoa and I am a photographer based in San Francisco. I work mainly with film, specifically 35mm since I believe it adds a rawness that reflects my hyper-sensitivity to the world — both the pain and the beauty within it. My go to camera is the Canon AE-1, and all photos in this series were shot on this camera. Topics I like to explore in my work include gender and identity, the illusion of the American Dream (a nightmare), as well as the distortion of image through light and color. I am a young queer boy who deals with Borderline Personality Disorder (which causes my hands to shake leading to the blurriness of some of my images) and these aspects of my identity heavily influence how I view the world behind the lens.

Why did you get into photography?

I got into photography because I used it as a meditative practice to find the beauty in the world around me. It is a therapeutic art form for me, and allows me to have conversations with myself that otherwise I would not have. For example, this identity project allowed me to better understand my own identity, which is something I would not have ever explored out of the context of photography.

Which photographers are your biggest influences?

My biggest influences are: Larry Sultan, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Laura Greenfield.

How long have you been shooting?

I have been shooting for two years now.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

Photography is important to me because it documents a moment in time. It is as close as we get to an objective representation of a specific moment. Photographs tell stories, and I think there is something beautiful about contributing to this larger narrative of art, history and the self. Shooting is also a way for me to bond with my subjects and the world at large. I am quite shy but behind the camera I become a bit more confident.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

I think I am more of a creator since I seek out certain subjects, settings and context to tell a specific story. I recognize how all of my images are influenced by my own perspective, so in this sense I am a creator.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically?

I usually experience flashes of shots I want to take. A head emerging out of water, a boy putting on lipstick, etc. I go into shoots with a desire to re-create these shots. When I am taking a picture, I think a lot about the colors in the frame as well as composition. Is this a unique perspective? How do I challenge the viewer’s gaze? I love playing with perception and motion, but I also really try to get raw portraits, if possible. Mechanically, I try to have a higher f-stop to let in as much light as possible. I only shoot in conditions in which the light works for my style.

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

I developed some of these photos on my own and others I had developed for me.

Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio.

This project is a series of portraits I did of those I love. Each session was really an exploration of identity, with an attempt on my part to create an environment, an outfit, a photography style and ultimately a context that represented my view of the individual I was shooting with. I find identity to be a violent term that leads to self-destruction, so I explored this as well. Whether that be Carly playing around in a pool, where there was this drowning of beauty and emergence of a clean slate that I saw with her; or Aaron, bare and naked like a confused boy, to bold, beautiful, and painted in make-up, there are different ways we hide, we shine and we present ourselves. I think the intimacy I share with each of my subjects allowed me to capture images that reflect both their identity as well as a larger discussion on what identity means. How do you represent someone in a photo? What if you could use two images to capture the dynamic ephemeral nature of our identities? That is what I explored with this project.

What made you want to get into your genre?

I really want to tell a story about mental health, pain and the performance of identity/normalcy.

Tell us a bit about the gear that you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision

Just me and my Canon AE-1.

What motivates you to shoot?

My depression oddly motivates me because I feel so much lighter after a shoot. This satisfaction is what gets me out of bed and behind the camera.

Visit his website to learn more about Ryan Ochoa and see more of his film photography.