Gabriel Ponte Fleary, a world class photographer
By Juan Manuel Londoño Moreno
We met Gabriel during a documentary workshop at a film festival in New York City. His passion for telling stories through the visual arts soon came to the fore during the talk. He arrived at the workshop accompanied by his mother and a sign language interpreter. The support of the family that drove him to pursue his dreams was evident.
This article contains some of Gabriel's favorite work, that we wanted to share with you.
How did you get to Rochester?
Originally, I came to the Bronx from Venezuela. I was studying English, and it took me more or less four years to perfect the language. When I felt I could use English comfortably, I decided to apply to La Guardia College in Queens.
I decided to study photography. After I graduated, I wanted to continue with my bachelors. I arrived in 2016 and graduated in 2018. I like Rochester because it's quiet, it has the largest deaf community in the United States, it's not like New York.
Tell me a little about your family and that decision to come to New York.
I wanted to come here since I was little. I have family here in the United States, and from time to time I would travel with my mother on vacation. In Venezuela, support for the deaf community is terrible. I graduated from school in 2009. I grew up there, but I never had services, an interpreter, nothing. It went well for me because I was 11 years in the same school, the teachers and classmates knew me. In college, things were a little more complicated.
I didn't do well in college, I missed several classes. My mom used to tell me, “I don't want you to be a failure, I want you to be successful and get ahead”. I was unsure what to do. I saw Gallaudet in a book and I showed my mom “Look there is a university for the deaf”. We consulted with my uncle, but at that time Gallaudet didn't have a very good reputation, he told me that they had a lot of people and several couldn't get a job, so we decided it was better to go to a university for listeners.
My family told me that I could go to Miami, that they would help me. However, my uncle who lives in the Bronx told me to move in with him. He gave me a room in his house, in his apartment, and told me not to worry about anything. That was how I got to the Bronx.
Cardinal: I've always wanted to take a picture of a cardinal. This was the first time I could. I love cardinals, they are among the most beautiful birds in the world.
It was a family effort
You know how we Latinos are, families are always together.
Since 2021, Gabriel lives with his mother and sister in his own house. After 8 years without living together, they now enjoy a strengthened relationship, where friendship, cooperation and delicious Venezuelan food are never lacking. Gabriel told us that at his house, they often eat cachapa, empanadas and other classics of Venezuelan gastronomy.
What is Rochester's deaf community like?
What a good question. It is the largest in the USA. Deaf people are everywhere, in the supermarket, in the store, on the street. Many people know sign language. It is used in restaurants and shops. The people know what CODA is, and there are many opportunities for the deaf community.
There are also several events that are held monthly, such as improvisation and poetry in ASL.
Does that impact you when you are in other parts of the USA?
An interesting fact is that the airport here is adapted to be accessible to the deaf. They installed lights of different colors on it. A red light means we're waiting, a green one means we're boarding. We have that visual aid.
When I travel I feel that people, since they are not used to deaf people, get awkward, uncomfortable. I'm already used to it. I grew up in that world, I know how they see us.
Now let's move on to you and your visual and cinematic exploration. You made a small commercial for Coca-Cola, how did you get into the world of photography?
My mother told me that when I was on her tummy, she knew that I was going to be the next Latino Steven Spielberg (laughs).
When I was growing up, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I made up my mind to be a filmmaker in Venezuela, but there aren't many opportunities there. I tried to study communication, but the university I wanted did not accept me. My dad worked in television for many years doing post-production, so part of it is genetics. When I moved to the USA, I started from scratch, not knowing what to do.
To send dollars to Venezuela, which were highly prized, he had to pick a career chosen by the government. Of everything I saw, there were only 2 that I liked, photography and modern languages. I like languages. But as a deaf person, I didn't think I could be very successful in the latter, so I picked photography.
From the first class I fell in love with photography, I think it was something I had inside. My colleagues told me that it was an art that benefited from my deafness, that I captured the world differently, “You take photos that we don't see”.
The Coca-Cola commercial was a competition. A tough competition, with more than 500 scripts. They sent an email and I said, it doesn't matter, I'm very busy right now. One or two weeks later a colleague wrote me and suggested that we record together, I have an idea with the deaf community that would be nice. We met, he explained his idea to me, he showed me the script and I presented him with a different idea.
After a very long and stressful process, we were in front of a panel of executives, Coca Cola-AMC, Disney, etc. They ended up voting for our idea because it seemed like something they had never seen before.
Do you think that your deafness affects your artistic vision?
The deaf are more visual, we have more peripheral vision and more attention to detail, we have to be more alert to our surroundings: When I am walking through the city my mind takes a picture of everything.
Stones: I love the serenity, balance and peace this picture displays. The contrast in this picture is peaceful.
How important is representation in the media for the deaf community?
It is a world of listeners. We have had to fight to have adequate representation. In cinema, you are represented as something exotic, something that does not exist.
It also happens with Latinos. In the movies they show you as drug traffickers, as low-level people, never as presidents, successful people. That's something I'd like to help change.
Usually, we have to fight two or three times more than a normal person to achieve the same thing. At least in the Super Bowl, a recent example, they put the person doing the sign language for 2 or 3 seconds, while the spotlight it was always on the singer. To see the performers, you had to use another device, another website. I wish both the singer and the performer could share the stage.
Gabriel mentioned here that he currently recognizes that he has many different identities. In his work, he tries to reflect his identities as a Latino, as an immigrant, and as a Christian man.
Dreams to fulfill?
I would like to be the first deaf Latino to win an Oscar.
Revolution: I made this collage in honor of my country and the fight against dictatorship
What else do you miss from Venezuela?
The culture, my people. The culture here is very different. This is a very individualistic city. Latinos are warm, we are loving, we support each other, that hurt me.
How has your work with Dicapta been so far?
So far with Dicapta I have made videos teaching ASL of some basic phrases, I also helped with feedback and some observations on educational videos. I would like to do a project with Dicapta as a partner, to have a better accessibility in my videos. I would like to learn how to make my films more accessible.