Being underwater in a confined space, unable to breathe, triggers an instinctual alarm—it’s uncomfortably close to actually drowning. For celebrated Puerto Rican photographer Adál Maldonado, it’s also a biting metaphor for the state of the island today.
In his new series, Puerto Ricans Underwater, Adál presents Boricuas of varying ages, lifestyles and occupations, each of them submerged in a tub, their bodies restricted by its size and their faces obscured beneath the bathwater. The resulting images are subtly eerie and chill-inducing; they evoke the shock and burn of accidentally inhaling water.
But that’s only the first-glance effect. What do these photographs mean in the context of Puerto Rico’s colonial state?
“I think mainly and most importantly, it’s the sense of denial of self-determination by having the federal government sort of impose their agenda on you. That feeling that you get from not being in control of your own life,” Adál says. “That will manifest differently depending on different people…but I would say that’s pretty much it; not having a voice, feeling impotent inside of your own condition.”
Puerto Rico has been controlled by the United States since 1898—that’s nearly 120 years of colonial rule, and a whole slew of transgressions, from stifling trade restrictions to the exploitation of unknowing Puerto Rican women in dangerous early contraceptive testing. The in-progress implementation of the U.S.-appointed Fiscal Control Board—La Junta de Control Fiscal—marks yet another abusive colonial infliction. With the oppressive austerity cuts that await, the weight of Puerto Rico’s American overlords today is undeniably heavy.
Adál notes that he first experimented with the underwater setup about two decades ago. In the ’90s, a combination of two literary works— Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s social critique of racism against black Americans, and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a work on shamanism—led him to create Out of Focus Nuyoricans. Debuted in 1996, the portrait project featured musicians, artists, activists and others making significant contributions to culture.
But before he’d settled on the final out-of-focus effect, Adál tried out the underwater idea—ultimately, though, it was set aside. A few years ago, he recalls, he revisited the concept when taking photos of a visiting friend, Jeannette Betancourt, a Puerto Rican visual artist living in Mexico. It wasn’t until a month-and-a-half ago, however, that he began developing a complete series.
“I was like, oh my God, this happened 20-something years ago, but it seems to be appropriate to what’s happening in Puerto Rico right now,” he says.
Adál’s storied artistic history is rich with political and social commentary. The Nuyoricans series was an outgrowth of a project with the late Pedro Pietri, a founding member of the Nuyorican Movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Together they created El Puerto Rican Embassy, “a mythological state” replete with manifesto, passport and other identifying documents for citizens, as well as a photograph series of its space program, The Coconauts. Pietri penned its Spanglish anthem and founded its church, la Santa Iglesia de la Madre Tomate. In 2004, Harvard University press published the series as a book along with text from Pietri.
After returning to Puerto Rico, he ventured into a similar theme by co-founding Anartistas with poet and writer Rafael Acevedo. Ahead of the election, they launched Anonymous-style videos announcing the candidacy of two members for governor and resident commissioner.
Adál started by seeking out a few friends to participate, planning for only about 20 photos altogether. When he shared the initial images on Facebook, he found himself swamped with messages from people who wanted to participate. He’s up to about 85 people, he says. The final 100 will be included in his 40-year retrospective, slated for a three-fold delivery in March 2017 at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Santurce, in Old San Juan at the Museo del Arsenal, and in a university setting where lectures and conferences will be incorporated.
By not picking the subjects specifically, Adál has allowed the series to progress organically. Each person brings their own idiosyncrasies, their own personality, to the process, which takes place in Adál’s own bathroom.
“Strangers would just approach me on the internet. There’s a slight element of danger, in a way, because you don’t know who you’re going to let into your house,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s kind of interesting too. It’s cool, not knowing people and what they’re going to show up with and…how that image will develop.”
The sessions can be rough on the subjects — relaxing your face while water inevitably goes up your nose isn’t easy.
“Some people will give into the experience; se rinden, you know? Se ahogan out of their own free will. Other people fight and they resist all the way through the end,” he says. “I had another fella came in who said fuck it, I’m just going to have a good time, I don’t care about the political situation of this country, I don’t really give a shit, I’m just going to live my life and have a great time and party all the time. So depending on where you are, you’re going to respond differently to that situation.”