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Once More, With Feeling: Jose Cano’s Life-Affirming Portraits

Once More, With Feeling: Jose Cano’s Life-Affirming Portraits

After a decade working in Thailand, Jose Cano made a list of places in the world he wanted to live in — and Nelson came out on top. There, he began making theatrical portraits, inspired by the colours and religious motifs of his childhood in Spain, and his early career in fashion photography.

At the beginning of last year, drawn by Cano’s style, a Christchurch woman booked a portrait session. She’d just had a double mastectomy, and she wanted to feel beautiful again.

It reminded Cano of a previous project — he’d worked for a non-profit creating portraits of women living with HIV/Aids which brought out the women’s beauty, allowing them to see themselves anew.

He had the idea of turning it into a new series — one he’d photograph pro bono, for women in his local community — picturing cancer survivors as warriors. “When you are attacked by a terrible illness you tend to have low self-esteem,” he says. “You make somebody that has gone through such a traumatic process beautiful again — it’s so rewarding.”

© Jose Cano

Henna artists to create jewellery-like designs on body and head, and Cano creates costumes in collaboration with his subjects. For a recent shoot, he watched YouTube videos from special-effects companies such as Weta Workshop to learn how to mould foam into body armour.

Knowing that his subjects aren’t accustomed to being in front of a camera, he shoots tethered, so that he can show them the pictures as he shoots. After seeing the first few, he says, their confidence grows. “And this is when they begin to flourish,” he says.

Eliciting the strong poses and stern expressions from his subjects is a combination of building their confidence, and setting the scene with music. Cano carefully selects his soundtrack — instrumental music, often film scores that verge on epic or heroic themes.

© Jose Cano

The series is unified by its theme and colour tones: “Probably because I’m Spanish, I come from the Mediterranean, I like warm tones,” he says.

It also encapsulates the values he holds as a photographer. “It keeps balance to my work, in the sense that I don’t just want to do commercial work, I want to do work that makes me feel good.”

The series is part of a subject he’s been continuously exploring — putting together life’s ugliness and beauty, hardship and joy, into a single photograph. “I love to do beautiful portraiture,” he says, “but I want my work to have value for society. That’s where I found this middle point.”

Photographer’s website: josegcano.com

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