All photographs by Kayla Reefer

These Photos Celebrate the Beauty of Panama's Afro-Latinx Community

Photographer Kayla Reefer's new series, "Identidad," explores her family's roots in Panama.

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Mar 27 2019, 10:05pm

All photographs by Kayla Reefer

VICE's #BlackLove series celebrates the bonds between Black people through intimate, powerful, and uplifting narratives of love in all its forms. Through these stories, we honor the art, activism, and beauty that grows from black love.

Black people are everywhere, my mother once told me. I was sharing my anxieties about studying abroad in Europe, of sticking out like a sore thumb. In my head, blackness was something that began and ended in America. My history classes only ever talked about the slaves stolen and taken to the Deep South. But my mother was right. The African diaspora reaches far and wide: the Afro-Caribbean communities of London, Black Canadians, Afro-Brazilians, and on and on. The problem is how rarely the wide, far-reaching spectrum of blackness is taught, shown, celebrated, and acknowledged.

Photographer Kayla Reefer grapples with the ramifications of this everyday. She is Afro-Latina, the daughter of Panamanian immigrants. Growing up in California, Reefer talks about feeling the need to prove her heritage and identity to her black and Latinx friends. To show them she is not simply one or the other, but an amalgamation of histories. “Eventually, I learned to embrace both worlds,” she says. “Because they’re both me.”

Sadly, not all Panamanians take ownership of their Afro roots, Reefer says. She once saw a Panama census stating only 9 percent of the country was Afro-Latinx. The small statistic does not match up to Reefer’s reality, the people she sees riding the bus during her visits to the Central-American country, of her family and friends. “That statistic is absolutely not true,” she argues, anger in her voice. “It just feeds into the lack of awareness and knowledge of what an Afro-Latinx person is. There’s this erasure happening.”

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Last year, Reefer visited Panama for the first time in almost five years. While there, she devoted time to photographing her extended family over the course of multiple weeks. The meditative portraits from that sunny, carefree day have resulted in her latest series, Identidad. Reefer strikes an interesting balance with this personal series, the images fit for a gallery and scrapbook. Reefer calls the series a gift to her family, a chance for them to see themselves. “I don’t know if they’ve ever had a their pictures formally taken,” she says. But these photos are also a gift for viewers. The series serves as a powerful example of pride; an attempt to combat the erasure of Afro-Latinx identities in Latin America. Looking at three generations of Reefer's family in one image, everyone grinning from ear to ear, you also have to ask yourself, only 9 percent?

Reefer talked to VICE about familial love, unearthing her family’s past, and the importance of archiving.

VICE: In your artist statement, you talk about wanting to photograph subjects with “profound sensitivity and sincerity.” Can you tell me a little bit more about this thoughtful approach?
Kayla Reefer: For me, especially as a black photographer, seeing how blacks are photographed—it feels like we’re being photographed behind museum glass. It’s very impersonal. I always make it my mission, specifically with black and brown people, to approach my subjects in a way that’s engaging and real as possible. I want to capture their humanity in an all-encompassing way.

How did you decide to photograph your family for Identidad?
I was going through history books and it was very hard for me to find, one, an Afro-Latinx photographer, and, two, photos of Afro-Latinx people. Of course the few photos I found, they were photos of us in the jungle. And the way they were edited made the subjects look extra dirty. There was no beauty to them. The photos felt like they were just probing at us.

So I really made these photos a moment for how my family wanted to be presented to the world. I don’t think a lot of my family members have ever formally had their photo taken. I reached out to all my cousins and aunt. We made a photoshoot of it basically. This was a way for me to connect with them in a way I hadn’t before. They’re in Panama, and I’m in LA. So it’s very hard for me to get out there. Before I went in 2018, when I took these photos, it had been almost five years since I’d last seen them.

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Did you think about the future generations of your family that would see these photos?
We were going through old photos and there were so many gaps. My mother had 12 brothers and sisters. That was another reason for me to start the project—because I didn’t meet my grandparents and a lot of my aunts and uncles, because they passed away before I got to meet them. There were few things left of them. For example, one of my uncles had left his old ID card that we found randomly. Had it not been for that I would have never seen his face. I didn’t want anyone to wonder years from now what my family looked like.

What really sticks out is how much smiling there is in these photos.
I was actually trying to do the photos in a more photojournalistic “don’t smile” kind of way. But then my cousins kept cracking jokes and having a good time. When I looked back on the photos, those were the ones that spoke to me. I loved that they’re happy and joyful. There’s rarely ever any joy or happiness presented in photos of Afro-Latinx people.

How has your understanding of black love expanded over the years?
It’s changed drastically. Even just with understanding black love is not just with a man and woman. It can be a man and a man, a woman with a woman, non-gender conforming, etc.

I think black love is the strongest love that exists. Because we have to love ourselves, in spite of all the bullshit we have to go through everyday. It’s a journey everyday to wake up and live your life and still have a love for yourself that isn’t given to you or shown to you. It’s very hard to find. That’s why black love is the most beautiful thing there is.

Finally, if you had to create a syllabus featuring films, books, and other media that provide strong examples of black love, what would be on that list?
I resonate most with music when I think about black love in its varying ways. These are a few of the songs that come to mind:

  1. Musiq Soulchild - “Just Friends”
  2. Brandy - “Sittin’ Up In My Room”
  3. Lucy Pearl - “Dance Tonight”
  4. Black Star - “Brown Skin Lady”
  5. Pharrell ft. Kanye West - “Number One”
  6. Talib Kweli - “Hot Thing”
  7. Jill Scott - “Slowly Surely”
  8. Anita Baker - “Same Ole Love”
  9. Teddy Pendergrass - “You’re My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration”
  10. Delegation - “Oh Honey”
  11. GQ - “I Do Love You”
  12. Lauryn Hill - “Ex-Factor”
  13. Aaron Neville - “Tell It Like It Is”
  14. Sam Cooke - “You Send Me”
  15. Duke Ellington and John Coltrane - “In a Sentimental Mood”
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