Art Against All Odds: An Interview with NYC Photographer Helena de Vengoechea
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(Originally published February 18, 2010 on The Examiner.)
In February 1993, photographer Helena de Vengoechea was 18 years old and was about to start her last semester of high school.
Like many other seniors, Helena had every intention of finishing high school with a flourish.
She was excited about the prospects of going away for college, especially since it meant that she would be leaving her small town in Connecticut.
To ensure her fateful departure, she applied to several schools, not leaving anything to chance.
However, Helena was naturally rife with exuberance and she couldn’t wait until May to leave. Thus, she spontaneously decided to take a short road trip with her boyfriend.
The trip would change her life forever.
For on the way back, they would end up in a car accident that would put Helena in a coma for ten days and keep her in the hospital for a month.
Although it would take three bouts of clinical depression and a good five years to fully recover, Helena was not only an optimist, but she was as stubborn, as she was naturally driven to succeed.
“So, when the doctor adamantly told me ‘Helena, don’t go to college,’ I had no choice but to go to college,” she explained with a smile, one Saturday morning over coffee and tea.
Helena was born on March 7, 1975, in Caracas, Venezuela and lived there until she was five when her family was transplanted to Connecticut.
She is now 34 years old and lives in New York City, working full-time as a freelance photographer and graphic designer.
17 years ago a life-threatening accident wrenched her out of a life that many of us are not only apt to take for granted, but are apt to follow blindly – college, a stable corporate job, marriage, kids, a house in the suburbs, and years of dissatisfaction, because we never followed our bliss.
That’s why, although she’s been through her share of disappointments, today, Helena is pursuing her dreams.
“I’m giving myself two more years to make it as a full-time photographer in New York City,” she conveyed with the same kind of conviction that many young dreamers have when they first move to New York City.
Yet, Helena is a veteran, with no delusions. “I know this will not be an easy journey, it has already been a rather bumpy road. But despite all my harrowing and weary-for-the-worn experience, the biggest lesson I’ve learned, is always pursue your dream. Because, for a long time now, I’ve felt that I’ve been running away. I’ve felt that because I’ve been afraid, because of a lack of money, because I’ve feared my art would not pay off. So, I’ve avoided doing what I have long wanted to do.”
“But now I know. I don’t want to look back 20 years from now, and know that I didn’t at least try. That’s why I know that if I don’t do this now, I may never actually do it. I’m single, I have no children, no husband, and I want to share my work, my Discreet Messages. I want to have a positive influence on society.”
So far, Helena has had ten exhibitions in New York City and she has had an impressive list of clients including Polo Ralph Lauren, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Vogue, Travel + Leisure, City magazine and more.
Most recently, one of her pieces was displayed at the Jack Shainman Gallery, which hosted an art benefit to raise money for the RHM Foundation.
Despite all the obstacles, Helena has long kept her eye on the prize.
“I distinctly remember when I was first given a camera by my parents in middle school, seventh grade. I remember how my father would be angry with me because I often ran up his pharmacy bill with all the photos I got developed.”
“I took pictures of everything – nature, friends, family – and then I would design collages out of them. It was both the beginning of my career as a photographer and a graphic designer.”
And although, at first, she pursued a relatively “safe” college degree in Spanish, she eventually switched and ended up pursuing her true passion – photography.
“Although I almost went to school in Michigan, I ended up going to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I had mountains, nature, and my older brother, Rafael, had gone to school there. Moreover, the university had 25,000 students, which I thought would be a world of difference from the town I grew up in, which only had 9,000 residents. Alas, I was wrong, because Colorado was just as homogenous as Connecticut was, if not more so.”
Nonetheless, Helena has traveled extensively since then. And having lived in New York City for a number of years now, she’s been exposed to one of the most diverse centers for commerce, art and culture that the world has to offer.
"At first, what initimidated me most about pursuing my passion, was that my Dad had long told me that there was ‘no money in art.’ He had studied architecture at Cornell and had grand aspirations of being a great architect. But then – he got married and had three kids. He soon realized that he could not support his family by being an architect, which is why he ended up working at Xerox for the next 25 years.”
“Furthermore, in 1995, I distinctly remember the moment I found myself developing some film in a darkroom, because I was having an exhibition in Denver, and I had an epiphany that would direct me for many years to come – I didn’t want to end up being a starving artist.”
“Thus, after an internship in New York City at an architecture firm, where I ended up taking a lot of photos of interiors for the company, I went back to school and switched my major to creative advertising. Ultimately, I graduated with a BA in creative advertising, and a minor in art history. After that, I worked for a year in Boulder, at Sterling Rice Group as a production artist.”
Eventually though, Helena would get the creative itch again, knowing she was destined for more. “I went back to school for graphic design, at the Parsons School of Design and completed a two-year degree in a year and a half.”
“I ended up freelancing as a graphic artist for two years at places like Estee Lauder, Scholastic, The Gap, Avon, and Ann Taylor. But all the while, I knew that my passion has always been in photography.”
Yet, much the same as freelancers are experiencing today with the recession, jobs and assignments can be hard to come by when the economy is not doing well, as it was doing as a result of 9.11 and the subsequent crash of the economy.
Thus, Helena decided to take a job with Ralph Lauren in 2002. “I was hired to prep and present the children’s line in NYC. But then I burned out, which is when I began to volunteer my time and services with the company’s charity work. I ended up documenting many of their charity events with my camera, which ignited a fire which I had quelled too long for the sake of prudence.”
And although it would take a few more years for her to leave the safety and comfort of the corporate job, in 2006 she decided that she had to make the leap somehow.
“I saw an advertisement for a photography workshop being held by Mary Virginia Swanson, in Santa Fe, New Mexico titled ‘Target Your Market.’
“‘Swanee’ (as she is affectionately known by many of her students), was a huge inspiration to me. I spent an incredibly motivating week there and learned how to market my work, how to build websites, how to network, as well as the importance of joining photography organizations, participating in portfolio reviews, and entering competitions.”
“As a result, I’ve been a member of ,En Foco for three years now, which exhibited my work, Discreet Messages in Latin America, at the Vantage Point Gallery at ICP at The Point CDC
from November 2007-January 2008 in NYC.”
After she returned fired up from the workshop, she made up her mind to leave Ralph Lauren in order to pursue her career as a photographer full time. It would take another year before she had the resources to do so, but eventually she resigned in 2006.
With her savings and the generous support of her parents, she’s been in hot pursuit of her dreams ever since.
And despite the harsh economy, which has hurt everyone, especially freelance artists, Helena has relied on her natural swell of optimism and exuberance to keep going.
“I get up every morning at 5:30 and either go to gym or start working. As a result, every day flies by, because I have this certain passion and vision. Apart from regular exercise and being driven to work, I’ve got a lot of optimism, faith, and love to motivate me. It’s in me, it’s part of my spirit. Especially, since I know I’ve been through hell already, and was fortunate enough to come back. So, its very hard for me to not want to make the most of my life. Because I know it was given back to me for a reason.”
“That’s why I want to share my work with the world. I want others to see what I’ve seen and to hopefully, be motivated to see and think differently because of the messages that I find on the streets and I have long loved to take pictures of. I want others to learn and grow from them, just as I have.”
For more information about Helena V. de Vengoechea’s work:
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