Pass the Mic Interview Series, ft. Carly Zavala

By Nathan Phan

As National Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, we’re featuring Venezuelan-born and Brooklyn-based photographer Carly Zavala for our Pass the Mic series. Growing up in Venezuela, Carly was always surrounded by art, inspiring her to make her own form of art. And after a 15-year long career as a nurse, she found her art form in photography. 

In our interview, we asked about her journey shifting careers, the most important elements to a great photo, and how being Latinx influences her work:

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How did you get your start as a photographer?
I started photographing while I was in nursing school. I’d sign up to take a new art class each semester, and one of those was an intro to darkroom photography. It was a 4-hour class (where 3 hours were dedicated to lab time), and I remember being the only student in my class that would stay the entire time. I would say it was here where my love for photography started. By the end of the semester, I had dedicated so much time there, that my instructor ended up letting me not complete the final project presentation, without it affecting my grade.

There was something truly magical for me when I was in the darkroom — to be able to see something, capture it on film, process and develop that film, then printing that image and watching it slowly show up on the paper was so satisfying to me. Although I don’t shoot so much film now, I still have a great appreciation and love for it. 


When did you know you wanted to shift from nursing to photography? What was your experience like transitioning careers?
I’d been wanting to leave nursing for a really long time. I don’t think it was until I moved to NYC in 2014 that I started to consider photography as a career, and more so a few years into me living here. Nursing started to take a toll on me both physically and emotionally, and it got to the point where I couldn’t take any more. I decided at the end of December 2019 to quit my job and try to transition into photography full time. Obviously this ended up being difficult in many ways because of the pandemic the following year, especially as a new photographer trying to get into the door. 

During the pandemic I started to take a lot of self portraits, and that’s where I was able to start working on my style more. It allowed me to experiment/play around with posing and lighting. Once restrictions started to ease up, I had to get out of the comfort of shooting indoors and started to shoot outside more. It’s something that can be a little tricky because you are at the mercy of the weather, but I’m comfortable with using whatever is available to me at any given moment. I think this is something I’ve developed having been a nurse, because there is no planning in nursing. You have to learn to quickly adapt to whatever situation or change comes up, and make it work. 

Closer to the end of that year, I had signed up for a mentorship program through NAL Media and was given one of the spots. I was paired up with photographer Elizabeth Weinberg, and she helped me curate my site and coached me through putting my work out there. She then gave me a list of photo editors, and I started to just reach out to as much as I could. It was really intimidating at first, but I started to get responses back from photo editors and met with them over Zoom. That was really encouraging. Eventually my first assignment came in towards the end of the year for NYT Magazine, and I photographed Rebecca Hall for an interview they did on the movie she directed, Passing.


What are some important elements that make an excellent photo?
Photos that make me stop in my tracks and look at more intently are those that I consider to be excellent. With those photos, the elements (lighting, color, composition, the subject, etc) are a chosen mix that the photographer used to express their own ideas. It’s unique for everyone. So I think it’s very important to develop what that is for yourself in order to create excellent photos. 

Tell us about a favorite project you’ve worked on recently.
I have an ongoing project of doing self portraits that I love to do. To me, it’s my visual diary where I’m able to document and express how I’m feeling at a given moment.

Does being Latinx influence your photography? If so, why?  
I would say yes, but you may not specifically see it in my current work. When I was younger and lived in Venezuela, art was something that was always present in the day to day. Through music, paintings, murals, dances, sculptures etc, it was everywhere. Having been exposed to that much creativity since infancy left me with a need to make my own form of art. Photography happens to be the one form that stuck with me.

There are projects that I’ve been putting together (but have not yet completed) that are related to my Latina roots. With these you’ll see that influence a lot more in my work.

What’s one thing you wish people knew more about photography? 
I wish for people to see photography just as they would see any other form of art. I think sometimes people think it’s an easy process of pointing the camera and clicking and then done. But for me, the final image is the end result of an entire process that I’ve thought through. From thinking of the idea, to the setup of the lighting, to the final editing of the image… It’s all part of the dance that makes the final image and the work, my work. 

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