Amanda Björn is an artist and curator interested in the connection between bodies and space. She works in images, music, films, and movement seeking to build relationships with the fragile world around us. She is currently leading photography and art trips for women artists in various locations in Latin America — Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and Panama.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am an artist, first and foremost. I am a photographer, I paint, I make music, and I sing. I grew up in South Florida, near Miami, and then I went to LA for college. I studied art history and photography. I also got my masters. I was in LA for the last eight years basically doing freelance photography work. I was also in a band, making music. About three years ago, I was sort of at this moment where I had been in LA for eight years, and I was like, “OK, I am either going to stay or I am going to do something different,” and then I got this amazing opportunity to go to Cuba to assist this National Geographic photographer, and that just completely shifted my life. I fell in love with the island, the people, and this idea that this job existed, that I could travel, shoot, connect, and teach in some ways. I basically packed everything in my car, drove back to Florida, traveled, and started these photo tours. I have been doing that for the last three years, and I just moved to Miami Beach last August. Now, I am in this moment with the coronavirus of what is next? Are we going to travel soon? Should I do courses online? So, I am reshifting.
What motivates your art? What’s your purpose behind it?
"I think my purpose is, you know, specifically in photography, to create a safe space to witness someone, to hear someone, to see someone, and to create beauty every day."
I would say that storytelling is very much at the heart of it, and human connection. I am interested in body language, shapes, and faces. I think my purpose is, you know, specifically in photography, to create a safe space to witness someone, to hear someone, to see someone, and to create beauty every day. It’s about human connection or to connect with a stranger. I mean, that is at the root of it, I think storytelling is an avenue that I would like to maybe dive deeper in and I think that I would be more focused on documentaries and sticking to one story. So, I am at that moment where I am looking to do more stuff like that.
I know you lead photo and art tours in Latin America, what is the experience that you want your clients to gain from this?
My mom grew up in Guatemala, and I have family in Latin America. I was always getting to go down there to visit family, and my grandmother lived in Guatemala. That experience of going to a place and feeling like it’s a second home, you know, that idea was so important to me. Right now, we are just doing Cuba and Guatemala. We added Mexico City too but those two first places are places that I have done my research on, places that I have investigated, places that I have connections in, and that is everything. I think you have to really know the place you are visiting before you can bring people in. As Americans, we are famous as tourists that barge in, and just take, take, take, and take. There is no exchange between culture, and there is no giving back; it is not reciprocal. That harms the culture that we are visiting, so for my trips, that is key. You are traveling with me who has been there so many times, who has deep friendships and connections with the people that I work with there, the artists that we visit, the models that we photograph, the restaurant owners, and the farmers that we visit. That is everything, and that is sustainable tourism. That is the goal and that is what we should all be striving for.
The art-making component is also very important because if you allow that time on a trip to make art, which I think you don’t always get to do when you travel, and allowing yourself to make art helps you be more present where you are because it creates a pause, and I think it’s so important to make art with another culture. You have Cuban artists working with American artists, and that is the coolest thing for me to see. You just have to let that happen naturally. That is such a beautiful thing that you can’t predict what will happen, you just put people together and just watch [chuckles].
In your opinion, talk about the importance of exposing yourself to the world and other cultures.
"You are letting the same ideas in your head and you are so fearful of the others, and you just become scared of everything else. The way to cut that is to travel and to have those experiences that shift you."
It is how we learn about the world, and it’s how we educate ourselves. I think of all the racism, bigotry, and this dark side of the US that exists in so much of our country, but it’s interesting that it’s predominantly in this sort of area, or squished in between these coasts, and you don’t want to create stereotypes but generally, a lot of those people have not left their bubble, and have not left everything they know. So, you are letting the same ideas in your head and you are so fearful of the others, and you just become scared of everything else. The way to cut that is to travel and to have those experiences that shift you. People will say that traveling is a privilege or a luxury, and I can understand that, you know, you could be a single mother and you cannot buy a plane ticket, but at the same time while you are young, and you do have that freedom, you can find affordable travel. I think it is out there, you have to research a little bit more for it but it is there.
I say this a lot on my trips but you have this tool, the camera, and it is my way to start a conversation with someone, you know, you have to be brave to ask for portraits and get into places. It gets easier if you practice and it leads to the most amazing experiences. For photographers, the camera is a great tool to help you start in that aspect.
If you had to give advice to the younger version of you, what would you say to her?
"Don’t feel guilty for exploring all kinds of art, embrace that fluidity, and just do it all. Do not apologize for wanting to do it all."
I would say, “Breathe, you are doing fine,” [chuckles]. “Don’t feel guilty for exploring all kinds of art, embrace that fluidity, and just do it all. Do not apologize for wanting to do it all.” You know, every day you can wake up and try something different. I think experimenting is so important.
You seem to love what you do for a living, what would you say to someone who feels lost and doesn’t know what their mission in life is?
"You should write a list of 50 people that are doing what you want to be doing, and send them an email saying, 'Listen, can I talk to you for 20 minutes?' 75 percent of them will mostly say yes because people enjoy giving advice and talking."
I would definitely find a good mentor to run through your ideas with, that was very helpful for me to have someone that I could always talk to. I think you have to get out of your own head, and talk your ideas out. Also, visually seeing everything has been key for me. I write down my goals, my dreams, and my plans at least every three months. Visually seeing everything you want to do even if it’s just a list of ten things you are potentially interested in is helpful, just by seeing this. I don’t know why but it works [chuckles]. It’s the law of attraction, you put it out there and the universe is responding. It’s amazing how that works.
I would also say to not overthink it too much, and just build the plane as you fly. With my tours, after that first job I had assisting the National Geographic photographer, I tried to find that job again, and it didn’t exist. I think I wrote to one hundred different photographers, mostly men, and they usually want male photo assistants because they say men can carry heavier things, and then I was just like, “You know what? This job does not exist for me, I am going to create the job for myself.” I had met someone on my first trip to Cuba, so I was going to visit him all the time, and he was also a photographer. He really helped to show me this whole other side of the country. I had people back home asking about Cuba because they knew I was going there a lot, and I realized that I also had Cuban photographers that were interested in what I was doing with my art in America. So I realized I was the bridge between these two communities that were interested in getting to know each other. If you are starting a business, you have to know if what you’re offering is wanted and if what you want to do already exists. Ask yourself how you can work with that person who’s already doing it, and learn from that person. Improvise as you go, and just keep building that momentum.
I really enjoy giving advice to a younger audience because I was given great advice when I was young too. You should write a list of 50 people that are doing what you want to be doing, and send them an email saying, “Listen, can I talk to you for 20 minutes?” 75 percent of them will mostly say yes because people enjoy giving advice and talking. You will get so much valuable information that way. Even if they say no—you know, I’ve had a million people say no to me. You have to get so comfortable with hearing it so it doesn’t become personal. You are just like, “OK, great. Next,” [chuckles]. You will hear rejections, and that is just part of it.
For any inquiries or questions, contact Amanda at:
Upcoming Tour Dates:
Cuba: October 22-27th + Dec 5-10th 2020, March 4-9th 2021.
Guatemala: February 5-10th, 2021.
Mexico City: January 28th-Feb 1st, 2021.