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Photography has a way of communicating ideas and emotions in ways that words alone don’t always achieve. Fortunately, both The Oaklandside and Berkeleyside employ full-time photojournalists—Amir Aziz and Ximena Natera, respectively—whose images add layers of meaning to our stories and deepen their impact.
Since last June, both have been participating in a fellowship with CatchLight, a nonprofit media and social justice organization supporting photographers working in journalism and the arts. Each month they meet to share and discuss their work with a cohort of other professional photographers, photo editors, and advisors.
Catchlight advisor Mabel Jimenez recently sat down with Aziz and Natera to talk about their creative processes and look back at some of their favorite photos of 2022. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is it you find most inspiring about photography?
Amir: Photography has its own language and it allows me to convey stories that words can’t always tell. Sometimes, emotion and communication come through pictures better than they can through words. I’m inspired by the way photography uses visuals to convey emotion in stories.
Ximena: I got to know the world through images. And I remember being wowed by it. My first memory of the sea is not me looking at the sea, but looking at videos of the sea. In some weird and amazing way, I am now part of this group of people who are helping build this world through images. My photographs are being looked at by people the same way that I looked at pictures. I am very grateful for that.
Oakland and Berkeley are very different, and you have very different relationships with those places. Amir, as a person who was born and raised in Oakland, what does it mean for you to photograph the city?
Being born and raised in Oakland, and photographing Oakland, means everything. Being familiar with the land and people gives me the insight to dig deep into the stories I’m photographing. It also allows me to document the town during a time when we’re seeing rapid changes. I think it’s important to capture the history of the people and culture within the city for now, and for the future.
Has documenting Oakland as a photographer changed the way you relate to your city?
Being a photojournalist has changed the way I relate to the community by asking more questions, being more inquisitive, talking to more strangers, and just seeing everyone as part of this larger story. And I’m just as much a part of that story as I am someone who’s documenting it.
You’ve mentioned that you grew up with these iconic images from San Francisco and that people generally know what SF looks like—but that there isn’t the same collective visual understanding of Oakland. How are you tackling that in your work?
San Francisco has its skyline with the Golden Gate Bridge, the Salesforce tower, etcetera. Oakland, to be represented in that way visually, requires a deeper dive into everyday icons that represent the culture of the city. I’d say those icons are the way we dress, the way we talk, the way our music sounds, and how we enjoy those things.
One time, around 2015, I noticed that JetBlue was using a photo of San Francisco in their app for the Oakland airport. I wrote to them on Twitter and said, hey, I see you have a photo of Alcatraz as your thumbnail for Oakland. They eventually changed it—like a year later. But you’re just left with this awareness that people think Oakland isn’t its own destination. I think I’m tackling that in my work by talking to people and understanding what our visual iconography is, and bringing it to the front. San Francisco has the landscape that identifies it, and Oakland has the people.
Ximena, you’re from Mexico City and have also worked in New York. Both places are very different from Berkeley. How did being a photojournalist in those cities prepare you for covering Berkeley?
I was nervous to come to Berkeley because I don’t have the relationships that Amir or some of the other reporters have with the cities they cover. But for me, being a photographer has always been a way to open doors and engage with the world. When I moved from Mexico to New York as a student, and then as a worker, I was very conscious that I was a migrant in a new place. What allowed me to feel part of the U.S. was photographing places and people to understand their relationship with this country.
My work as a photojournalist has always been very focused on people. Even if the topic has a national scope, I like to tell stories through people’s experiences. My work here is a continuation of that. I’m documenting the city through its teachers, musicians, employees, and local politicians. These stories have allowed me to make Berkeley feel like home, too.
Let’s get into your favorite stories of this year. Amir, yours was a block party in deep East Oakland. And when I look at those images, they’re particularly immersive—I feel the energy there. Can you talk about why this was your favorite?
It was the first-ever East Oakland Futures Fest—a celebration of Oakland culture, but in deep East Oakland, which is often excluded from coverage. It’s a highly populated Black and brown community with a lot of challenges in education, income disparities. I think a lot of these types of stories of celebration in Oakland just don’t get the spotlight hey deserve.
Another added element was that this actually took place on 90th Avenue, the street I grew up on. My mom went to high school and graduated in that neighborhood, and my aunt went to the same school. Next door is the Youth Uprising center that I used to go to as a child, all within a three-block radius. So it was great to be out there talking with folks. A lot of the people in the photographs, I know personally. Like “Champ” who co-founded the Scrapper bike team—which is another piece of Oakland’s cultural iconography, right?
These people, some of these are my family. Some are people that just live in the area. Some are people I’ve worked with in the arts community. So I’m honored to add their story, this celebration, to the discussion about this area of Oakland. To me, it just hit all the marks—telling a story about a local community that doesn’t get enough attention, and amplifying voices. And to have the personal connection just added to it that much more.
Ximena, you also picked a celebration, among other photos. Why?
I think as photographers we know and reproduce a lot of visual cues of struggle and hardship, and I think our visual vocabulary for happiness is smaller. What does happiness looks like? Fred Ritchin, the legendary dean at the International Center of Photography often says that when we think of happiness, we think of babies smiling, but beyond that, we don’t have many cues.
There’s a photograph of a couple, he is dressed as a bee, and she as a flower, they walked by me, giggling and looking very in love. When I asked them for a photo, they said yes but both of them got stiff, which is very normal; getting your photo taken is weird. The amazing moment that they were having was gone and I don’t know how but I screamed at the top of my lungs: “Nuzzle the flower!” They both laughed and, his name is Kevin, he instantly grabbed her and put his face on hers. And the flower, Kinjal, has a huge smile and they are looking at each other. It was so fast that the photograph is slightly off. The framing is not great. But it’s definitely one of my favorite photos ever.
I did a lot of assignments that I loved, but I love these photographs. And I loved photographing them because people were just so happy. I am always looking for images of delight.
Let’s talk about the challenges. Amir, you photographed a story about a hawk that’s living above a hospital in Oakland. Why was it challenging?
The story was about red-tail hawks nesting at Highland Hospital. Our news editor, Darwin BondGraham, wrote the story. I actually don’t photograph animals a lot other than my cat on my iPhone, and I knew this would require a long lens. So I used my 200mm lens and thought it would be fine. Then when we get to the hospital, first of all, we don’t know where this animal is. So we’re kind of just waiting around to find it. It was a game of patience; it had to show itself to us. So it finally showed up, way over there, on top of some other buildings—this is a large hospital campus. So we’re going through buildings, trying to find the highest vantage points, and sometimes, by the time we got to a vantage point, the bird had already left and gone to another building that I can’t see. So it was a lot of chasing. And I realized on this shoot that I actually needed another lens—maybe a 600 millimeter or an extender to get up to 400 millimeters—and I ended up buying the extender the next day, just to never be in that predicament again.
When I first heard about the story, I thought, yeah! I want a front-face Hawk picture, staring right at me. Like the way people photograph animals on safaris, like a cheetah staring right at you. And it did not turn out that way at all. I’m not disappointed. It was just a lesson learned, that birds don’t want you to see them. We ended up leading off the story with a photo where there’s a shadow because shadows are amazing and they make every picture better.
Ximena, is there a story that stands out to you as being the most challenging?
The most complicated story was about two young brothers, Jazy and Angel Sotelo Garcia, who both died in a shooting at a birthday party. Young people dying from gun violence is horrendous and absurd and painful.
We discussed a lot about how we would cover this story, what we were trying to say and why. I think the same questions went to the photography. We talked to the family throughout the process, always asking: Is it okay to photograph? Is it okay if we show up? And people can, you know, say no at any moment, and that’s totally fine. I think that’s how we managed to do it. Being very clear about the fact that we are documenting and investigating. Being in the faces of people who are going through the worst time of their lives—that has to be dealt with with a lot of care.
What do you want to focus on in 2023?
Amir: I want to do more visual reporting on education, there’s a lot there to cover. Also, in the arts and culture space, there are more events happening outdoors and indoors. Just seeing Oakland kind of get back into its art scene is really great to see. We’ll also have a new mayor, so I’m already thinking about how I might go about capturing their first 100 days.
Ximena: My goal for next year is to bring more people into the photographs of our stories. There are a lot of pressing issues that are difficult to convey in photos like housing and development, environmental issues, the drought. I want to bring the people who are either working to fix it or suffering because of it into the center of our stories visually. So that’s my goal, getting into as many people’s homes as possible, being able to have a coffee and make a good portrait. And more dogs and more animals in my photographs for sure.