Statement of Plans

October 26, 2017

Paul Thulin

Guggenheim Fellowship

Statement of Plans, Fall 2017

Isla de las Palmas



I am currently working on a new documentary photography project, Isla de las Palmas. The work addresses the cultural and historical complexities of Puerto Rican identity. Self-identifying as Puerto Rican (mother is Puerto Rican), I share a fractured sense of self with multiple generations of the Puerto Rican diaspora and native islanders. With my photography, I want to shed light on the untold histories of Western colonialism, capitalist exploitation, Caribbean Catholicism, youth rebellion, and indigenous heritage politics that play a role in fueling, in essence, a perpetually colonized state of existence for millions of Puerto Ricans.


I am seeking original aural, written, and photographic documentation of my engagement with anthropologists, educators, community organizations, underground punk musicians, tourist traps, paranormal sites, and significant natural and historical landmarks. My research will engage the island of Puerto Rico and its surrounding isles; the migratory proto-lands of the indigenous Arawakan peoples of the Peruvian Amazon; the historical source of Catholic Jibaro immigrants, the Canary Islands; and finally New York City, home of roughly a million Nuyoricans and the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Photographing such a diverse range of landscapes, events, and peoples will complicate and erode oversimplified grand narratives of what it means to be Puerto Rican. I hope to present a radically new historical perspective of a multifaceted society as it relates to my creative interpretation, emotional engagement, and critical inquiry.  


Currently, I have already made one trip to Puerto Rico, scouting locations and researching interesting leads. I have captured some intriguing images but feel I am just beginning to scratch the surface of how Isla de las Palmas will unfold visually. In the next six months, I have plans to personally engage with internationally recognized anthropologists, cultural institutions, and social movement leadership invested in Puerto Rican identity. After significant research and correspondence, I have been granted access to tour two Anthropology research labs at the University of Puerto Rico, Utuado and San Juan, and an extensive cave system on Isla de Mona. These labs and natural formations contain unique indigenous artifacts and markings that complicate the traditional historical narratives of the pre-Columbian peoples of the island, often referred to as Taino. I will experience these rare objects and interview the scientists with the intent of transforming this experience into images that simultaneously resonate as documents of the past and a metaphor for the present.


Also planned is a visit to Naguake-Boriken, which is the first indigenous organization in Puerto Rico dedicated to the preservation of natural and cultural heritage. The organization sponsors community improvement initiatives directed at spreading Taino native customs, language, and knowledge. I will have an opportunity to photograph and interact with the members and students at the Naguake Eco-Agro Cultural Reserve and Community School to learn more about a growing indigenous revival movement referred to as Neo-Taino.


In addition, I will interact with a reemergent underground punk music scene in the district of Santurce, San Juan. An interview and portrait session is planned with Juanko Suarez, the founder and lead singer of the legendary 90’s underground, Puerto Rican, punk band Lopo Drido. This band revolutionized the rock genre on the island by singing original punk songs in Spanish, with lyrics that criticized United States colonial policies and celebrated the Island Independence Movement. Before Lopo Drido, the majority of “rock” cultural production of the island, unlike the rest of Latin America, was exclusively produced in English and consisted of remakes of early American and British punk songs. Through researching 1st and 3rd generation island punk musicians, I hope to discover a sense of the deeply rooted socio-political circumstances that affect the local youth coping with the island’s colonial history.


As a photographer, I continue to engage and help define a growing documentary trend in fine art photography that celebrates the power of ambiguity and emotive resonance in text and imagery. This "movement" is equivalent to the 1970’s “New Journalism” literary scene that diverged from the standard dispassionate and fact driven model of reportage by fully incorporating fictional literary devices. In recent years, straight documentary photography has become increasingly theoretically problematized as it grapples with the criticism that most iconic works in this genre, past and present, are highly edited, subjective visions of the world. In this light, my research into Puerto Rican identity will expand upon previous photographic interests explored in Pine Tree Ballads. This “docu-literary” photography project serves as a subjective interpretation of my cultural identity in relation to particular landscapes, histories, artifacts, institutions, politics, economies, communities and peoples of Puerto Rico and my family. I will engage a perpetually unfolding, pluralistic history of the subject that will emotionally envelop me and resist any attempt to represent unbiased facts. As I have in the past, I will use multiple cameras, formats, film and digital technologies to expand the range of material inquiry and resist conformity to inherited, modernist traditions of visual syntax.


I see myself as a meta-modernist artist oscillating between ideological naivety and cynicism, enjoying a devotion to pragmatic romanticism, an imaginative truth. I relate to the idea that contemporary documentary photography thrives upon experimentation, irony, offbeat rhythm, a complexity of materiality, multi-relational points of view, nonlinear sequencing, and performative research. While at the same time, clinging to sincerity, knowingness, a search for the truth, and optimism. Photography is a powerful medium for storytelling primarily because it allows a photographer/author/editor to use complex narrative structures that engage with the formal, material, and symbolic all at the same time. Photographs, regardless of their origin, are simultaneously fact and fiction, with stories powerfully built into their essence. Even an accidental overexposure with little to no information is a record of light striking a photosensitive material as well as an event in some photographer’s life. In other words, all moments in time are decisive moments. Photography has never failed to challenge me to discover the miraculous hidden within the ordinary. Isla de las Palmas is a folktale and a record of time; a story infused with both imagination and reality, which, in most instances, are the actual ingredients of history.


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October 26, 2017

October 26, 2017

October 26, 2017

October 26, 2017

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