It’s Time to Show Up

It’s Time to Show Up

Photographer Christine Suarez on political engagement for all.

Christine Suarez (half of photographic duo Daemian + Christine) could, if it weren’t uncouth, boast of her impressive list of fashion editorial and commercial clients from Glamour to Teen Vogue, W Magazine, Interview Magazine, Estee Lauder, Louis Vuitton, and Nina Ricci. Suarez has a talent for transforming the mundane into an expression of luxury and enduring style. But, she has some other things on her mind right now.

More than an arbiter of style, her ability to envision what could be instead of accepting what is, not only inspires her photography but her fight for justice and change in the political arena. She is a passionate political volunteer with an unwavering belief that people influence social, cultural, and political change — if only we’d participate with the same vigor that we complain. Last week she texted me to say she’d sent 3000 texts in one day to mobilize voters for the midterms. “How?” I asked. “Text banking!” she replied. What?! Curious, excited, and desperate to escape the persistent fear that this is our future, I asked to see her the next day to talk about the evolution of the fashion industry, whether fashion is political, and understand what on earth text banking is.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where did you grow up?

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey.

When did you move to New York?

I moved to New York after living in San Francisco and LA, and I think around 2004.

What inspired you to move to New York from California?

I was working in fashion photography in LA, and business-wise it made more sense to be in New York.

Did you always want to be a fashion photographer?

No. Honestly, I didn’t even know that was going to be an opportunity for me. I was working as a producer first, and then doing art direction, and then it wasn’t until I was with Daemian that it was even a thought for me.


You are half of a photographic duo, with Daemian Smith, and a romantic couple. How did you decide to team up professionally, and what do you think are some of the advantages of working as a team?

We were a couple first, and we started doing some small projects together, and it was organic, one thing led to the next, and one day we just looked at each other and said, “Yeah, I guess, let’s just do this together.” In terms of an advantage, one thing is that we have an easy division of labor, so just from a practical standpoint, that makes things really easy, and we have a built-in support system. From a relationship point of view, just given how tough this business is, it’s really nice at the end of the day to look at somebody who knows exactly what your work is. It makes it that much more rewarding and extraordinary.

You’ve worked in the fashion industry for nearly 20 years, how do you think the fashion industry has changed in recent times?

It’s changed from the perspective of... there is so much more fashion. We went from, you know, two seasons to what seems like endless seasons, endless products, the constant need for not only more products but more imagery, more content, more ways to engage with people, so the whole system is just more and faster.

Have these changes had an impact on the way you work as a photographer or your creative process? You made me think of the recent acceptance statement by Martin Margiela at the Belgian Fashion Awards where he explained that the “overgowing demands of trade” and “the overdose of information on social media” led to his departure from the industry. We’ve seen other designers, publicly or privately implode and burn out from the endless demand to create. Is this something that you can relate to?

It affects us on set that way because brands need so much more, and they are either working on the same budgets or less. They need us to be able to work smarter or work faster and deliver imagery that can span multiple clients and uses, so you have to think about it differently.

I guess that’s an opportunity in some ways, it doesn’t have to be negative necessarily.

No, I don’t think it’s necessarily negative. You don’t have as much time, or the luxury of time, to really think and dream in the way that we may have five or ten years ago.

I can relate to that. So, I didn’t just want to talk to you about fashion. We’ve known each other a long time, and I’d say that almost equal to your passion for fashion is your passion for politics. Before we get into the political work that you do I’d love to know; do you think fashion is political?

I think that it can be. For example, look at Nike and its relationship with Colin Kaepernick; look at brands that are trying to be more ethically, morally, and environmentally conscious. Brands have a greater opportunity to encourage political conversation, even if it’s not about a specific candidate. They have an opportunity to have practices that are more reflective of their customer base. So, if customers have a particular interest, whether it is the environment, treating employees fairly, or whether equal pay for men and women, companies have the opportunity not only to do those things but also to talk about them.

It feels like companies have an opportunity right now to fill a void in addressing these issues when our government isn’t...

Absolutely, because we can do things privately, that aren’t reflected by our government. I think fashion is political in that way, but I think there is also an opportunity to be a lot more political. There is an opportunity for all the players in fashion, whether that’s an actual brand, whether that’s people who work for fashion companies, whether that’s people who work in magazines… look at Teen Vogue, it’s a great example, using this [time as an] opportunity to talk to young people about political issues that matter to them. There is a great opportunity for influencers... look at stylists like Karla Welch, who is using her platform to engage people. Look at Rihanna, look at Taylor Swift … these are opportunities but there are also a lot of influencers who have disappointed me in terms of their silence. I don’t expect everybody to be as politically engaged as myself or to know every issue or even support a particular candidate, but I think that if you can use your platform simply to remind people to register to vote… it’s huge.

It’s clear you’ve always loved fashion, so have you always been politically active?

Yes, I’ve always been politically active from before I could vote. In high school, I was the president of our environmental group, and just that inspired me to be vocal. The first campaign that I remember being active in was Bill Clinton’s, and I wasn’t even able to vote yet.

What did you do for the campaign?

That was the first time I went to a local campaign office and made posters, like handmade posters.

You were flexing your art director muscles already, combining your fashion skillset and your political passion from the get-go! Ok, so you worked on the Clinton campaign, and then fast forward a little bit, I know that you volunteered for Obama. Can you describe what you did?

Yes, that’s right. So, [volunteering for] Obama, was the first time I was like “this is very easy to get involved.” Prior to Obama, from my experience, it was a little harder, you had to kind of seek out a local campaign office, we didn’t have the social media tools we have now. One of the first things I did was phone banking from home, I was mainly organizing myself through Moveon.org. It was so easy that a friend, Dake Gonzales, and I organized a group phone bank called, “Holla for Obama!”. We invited friends and advertised on MoveOn.org and organized over 50 people to get together and make over 1600 calls to Florida! Then someone from MoveOn reached out to me and said: “Hey, would you want to go further?”

And I said yes, sure! What do you need? Dake and I organized a busload of people to go door to door in Pennsylvania to canvass.

What is phone banking from home? You’re not just calling random people, I hope …

Phone banking from home is where you utilize a website. Currently I’m using something called indivisible.org, and I also like flippable.org, you sign up, and that website basically gives you phone numbers and a script, to contact voters, and it’s different all the time. Sometimes you’re asking voters questions about issues that are important to them, something related to a specific candidate. Other times it's just things like “Do you know where to vote?,” or “Are you registered to vote?” So it can be different each time, it’s just about voter engagement.

Ok. So let’s look at the upcoming midterms, I know that you’ve been working hard on voter outreach. Firstly, why are the midterms so important?

Well firstly, you do not want to feel like you did in 2016. Secondly, they are important because they are not as glamorous as the presidential election, but they are equally, if not more important, because you are electing people not only at the federal level but also on the state level, all the way down to the local level.

It’s also important because there is a reason the House, the Senate, and your local state government, look the way they do, right? They predominantly look white, male and older. And that is because those are the people that vote. Predominantly, you have people that are over the age of 60 and white, that vote. And you are never going to see yourself reflected in government if you don’t participate in it.

You have to participate in the change that you want. If you sat back in 2016 because you thought there was no way that Trump was going to win, don’t think that it can’t happen again. It is not in the bag.

What are some of the things that you’ve been doing to reach voters, for the midterms?

Again, this year, just like I was doing back in 2008, I do phone banking at home, it’s very easy, and since then, it’s even easier. The technology has caught up to make things so seamless for people, so the main thing I do is phone bank from home and text from home.

Texting sounds pretty easy? What happens? Who are you texting?

You go to one of these websites.  I’m using Vote Save America at the moment, you’ll sign up or you’ll download an app, then the app gives you the phone numbers to text with a script. So, for instance, you can be asking voters: “Have you voted?” “Do you need help registering to vote?” or “Do you need a ride to vote?”. It is amazing how many people need your assistance, whether it’s that they have been purged from their voter rolls in their state, and they need help knowing how to navigate that system, to someone who would say like I know who I’m going to vote for Governor or for State Senator, but I need more information about the local races. So, it can just be sending them a link to a website so they can see which candidate they might want to vote for.

You’ve been politically engaged for a long time, so it’s probably a little bit easier for you. For me, I want to jump in and get involved, but I don’t even like calling people I know, far less a total stranger, so I think there could be some people that are nervous about the idea of it. What advice would you give to them, and me?

Firstly, I would say, it’s totally normal to be nervous. Secondly, while I’m experienced at doing this now, I wasn’t always, and I’m a regular person. I’m not a politician. I’ve never run for office. I have, I think, a decent command of the issues, but I’m not a genius. That stuff doesn’t matter. It’s like jumping in the pool and the first three phone call you make will suck. It’s fine. The more you make, the easier it gets. Don’t let fear keep you at home, and don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough. You don’t have to be great at this. That’s not the point. The point is to engage people, and to mobilize people.

Also, don’t feel like you have to give all your time to this. If you can give one hour of your time, that’s a lot. If you can give an hour, three times a week, that’s great. If you can give one Saturday afternoon, that’s great. Again, don’t let some perfect situation get in the way of your participation.

Aside from trying to get out voters who are already registered Democrats, you also speak and text with Republican voters, people who, from an ideological and geographical stance, you wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to speak to.  Have you been surprised by any of these interactions?

Yes. Because, for one, we can all sit in our social media echo-chambers, but when you talk to people, that is a real human connection. And when you actually speak to someone, it’s a lot harder to otherize that person. It’s a lot harder to look at that person as your political foe.

Just yesterday, I was phone banking to get some voters in Georgia out to vote for Stacy Abrams, and I just happened to reach a woman who told me she was African American. She said she would like to vote for Stacy because she would like to see someone like herself reflected in government, but she is a Trump supporter. She made it clear that while she doesn’t like Trump in all he does, she believes in stronger immigration policies. In that instance, it would have been very easy for me to just yell at her and say, “How could you like Trump?!” So what I try to do, is to find a way to talk to somebody. I said to her, “Well I can see why your immigration views would be potentially in conflict in voting for Stacy, but at the same time, your vote for your governor is going to have little or no effect on the wall being built. This is an opportunity to vote for someone, especially at your state level, that reflects you.”

And she said to me, “Well… that’s a good point and I’ll think about that,” but she also said that she didn’t want to disappoint Trump. So, sometimes your phone calls are heartbreakers. But I hope that, because I engaged someone civilly, that was the takeaway for her. And even if she doesn’t vote the way I’d like her to, I hope I gave her something to think about. At the end of the day, I just want people to vote.

It’s interesting because everything you are describing, even though texting is not as intimate as speaking on the phone, and speaking on the phone isn’t as intimate as canvassing, they are still a different beast than just commenting on Instagram. But, I think everyone feels active, when we march, we vote, we share articles, we share podcasts…we feel busy, so it feels like we are doing a lot.

It’s also a lot about the false sense of accomplishment

But it’s not the same as voter outreach, or voting.

It’s not the same, and we have done all that. We have expressed our disappointment, we’ve marched, we’ve called our senators, we’ve cried, but outrage is never enough, and you can’t just sit in your bubble of disappointment and anger. You have to fight for the change that you want. And the best way to do that is to engage voters because what might seem easy to us, isn’t necessarily easy for someone else. To navigate voter registration, an absentee ballot, what kind of ID they might need to vote, where the polling station is… it’s not easy for everyone. That’s when we come in. To help make that process easier and less confusing for people. You have to remember that there are a lot of people who feel disenfranchised, or who feel like their vote doesn’t matter. Well, it matters because some of these races are going to come down to a couple of hundred votes.

I come across many potential voters who have given up on the democratic process. They don’t see a point in voting themselves, let alone engaging other voters, even though they feel strongly about a political issue. What would you say to those people?

It feels that way right now, particularly when you have the majority of the country that wants sensible gun reform [for example]. The majority of the country did not think that Brett Kavanaugh, even before the allegations of sexual assault, was the right person for the Supreme Court. So it can feel like the majority of the country wants certain reforms, but that our voices are silenced. Part of that is because we have a government that doesn’t reflect us. But, I think, you have to put that aside, because at the end of the day, if you go out and you vote, that’s all you have left. And if you don’t exercise that right…

Then it’s difficult to listen to you complain...

Well, it can be infuriating that, you know, I have been disappointed in my own circle of friends who I know are politically engaged, and know the issues, but are not phone banking. They are not text banking. It’s disappointing.

It goes back to what you said earlier, if you look at the numbers, the people who are showing up, especially at the midterms, are the people who are getting the government that they want.

Exactly. So, again, you have to be part of the change. There are so many people in this country who are truly silenced. Whether that is through poverty, or voter suppression, or people who just are sort of out of the system. They don’t have the same tools you and I do. So it is our responsibility to be their voice. And if you are eligible to vote, and you don’t, you are doing yourself and all of those people a major disservice.

Words: Laura Jones

Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon

Fashion Images : Daemian + Christine

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