JoAnn Santangelo is an Austin based photographer whose work documents hidden and marginalized communities. Her bodies of work include Proud to Serve, documenting LGBT veterans, Austin Faces AIDS, images of HIV positive Austin residents, and Austin Seen, showing daily life in Austin communities.  JoAnn works from Falcon 5, her container art space which she encourages people to take advantage of and build a community with. Falcon 5’s first pin-up print swap will be Tuesday, September 17th at 7pm. It is a casual BYOB meetup where people can bring prints for feedback or just to meet other like minded folks. Prints will be swapped at the end of the meeting!

How did you get your start in photography?
I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Boston, and I was one of those kids that was always running around the neighborhood. Perhaps photography was an escape because I was really shy. I hid behind the camera, like a lot of photographers do.

I never thought photo could be a career, so I went to business school but hated it and dropped out. Eventually, I found a camera repair shop that was hiring. I got the job and was working on repairs but in the same building was a photo studio. I would go watch these big photo shoots and think, “this is really cool.” Inspired by these big fashion shoots, I started to assist. I assisted for four years and worked my way up but wasn’t happy. Fashion shoots were fun but not that kind of photography I wanted to be doing, but at the time I didn’t know photojournalism existed.


Then, I met a woman in my neighborhood who called herself a documentary photographer and had all these photo books by people like Eugene Richards and Diane Arbus. I was like, “That’s It!’ That’s what I love.”

Around that time, I came to visit Austin and fell in love with the city and decided to move from Boston. Once in Austin, I just started riding my bike and taking portraits in the street. I did that for about a year and people started saying they were really good. I just thought “yup, this is what I want to do.”


You mentioned discovering Eugene Richards’ photo book, and I know you ended up working with him. How did that come about?
Yup, I did, while I was attending ICP (the International Center of Photography). Working for Eugene was a dream came true. Once that friend showed me Eugene’s book I just became a huge fan. When I was shooting in Austin, I would email Eugene. He didn’t know me, but I emailed him to say that I really admired his work. In the emails, I asked if he’d ever take a look at my work and let me know what he thought. He never responded.

When I moved to New York and went to ICP I saw that Eugene was on the board of directors, so I emailed him again but got no response. However, my shooting class at ICP was with Brian Young who happened to be good friends with Eugene. Young actually printed for Eugene for around 25 years. Eventually, I went up to Young and talked about how much I loved Eugene’s work. So we talk, and Young asked if I’d like to meet Eugene. Literally that next morning… guess who’s standing there! Brian didn’t introduce him to anyone but me. He made Eugene come to ICP to pick up a print.

Eugene had a show the weekend after I met him, so I go and it was packed. I was standing next to him at the coat check and he said, “yeah, you emailed me,” and I said “yeah…” He asked what he could do for me. I asked if he would need an intern, but he said he stopped taking interns a while ago. He ended up saying I should email him and his wife (who works very closely with him) and try to meet up for lunch. So I did, and sure enough we both lived in Brooklyn. We all ended up talking for almost two hours at this dinner, and they explained how they had bad experiences with interns. He eventually said he didn’t have that much work for me, but if I wanted to give it a try he would be willing to take me as an intern. Never did I think when I was writing those emails in Austin that they would have led to that!

 I love NY and Boston but my heart was in Austin

So if you were working with one of your idols and mentors, what brought you back to Austin?
Well, the internship ended after school, and I continued for a month but eventually went on my own. I stayed in NY for a year and a half, but my wife and I left Austin with the intention of coming back. I love NY and Boston but my heart was in Austin. I love the creativity in Austin, and that I can have Falcon 5 (JoAnn’s container gallery space). I consider myself a documentary photojournalist, and you can do that anywhere.

What was the first project you started after collage?
I started with Proud to Serve, documenting gay veterans. I started it in school but continued the project after graduating. It lasted about 2 years.

Was this the project you received funding for through Kickstarter?
I did. It ended up funding a road trip. What happened was I started the project in college, and when I graduated I had documented about 13 veterans. It was hard at first to get the project started; I didn’t know how to find the subjects. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was in the news but not as commonly known as it became. The news took it on about 4 months after I started which made it easier to find people at the rallies. At first I went to DC for a Lift the Ban rally where I met the first four people.

That helped get me connected with people to photograph, but I was in school and had no money to travel. My initial subjects would say, “you have to meet my friend to photograph… but they live in California.” Sometimes they would be closer, like Maryland, so I would borrow cars and drive up and down the East coast.

Then my images from the series got published in The Advocate. I was mentally done with the project by that point, but the article made me feel like I really had to continue this. About a year into the project, I had finished photographing about 25 people.

After some time, I was contacted by the LGB center in NY about my Walking the Block series that they wanted to exhibit during gay pride. They wanted 30 portraits for the exhibit but at that point I had about 16 or 17. It was getting closer to the exhibit and I had all these people who I had contact information of but they were all over the country.

I finally decided to buckle down and go on a road trip to meet these people I’d been in contact with for over a year at that point. Kickstarter had just come out, and I said screw it, I’ll try Kickstarter and got an amazing response.

People in the military were super supportive. This one woman was active military and tweeting it like crazy. The project was funded, and I left for a 30 day road trip. I drove 10,000 miles and photographed 46 veterans. I came back with 65 images and they gave me more space.

The timing was great. The exhibit went up on Veteran’s Day. I edited and printed the images and, a month and a half later, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. It ended up getting picked up by Redux and published all over the world. I also self-published a book because when I was on the road in Alabama, people couldn’t see the exhibit beyond the internet. I knew the basics of InDesign and someone hooked me up with a publisher in Hoboken. I literally designed this thing and the day before the exhibit I picked up 100 books. I sold there but also gave some to the veterans. What was so cool is, they had a panel with all these bigwig Don’t Ask Don’t Tell people. They said Obama needs to see this and so I went up to a woman on the panel and introduced myself. I said I wanted to send a book to Obama. I wanted to make sure he actually got it. So she asked to send two copies to her and she sent me a check and made sure it got into his hands. A few months passed and I emailed her. She said she sorry that  she hadn’t told yet but she personally handed it to Obama and he was very moved by it. And then a month later I got a thank you note from him.

I am sure that’s hung up somewhere!
It’s tacked up on the wall! But yeah, it was a positive experience.

What I do is for social change.

I didn’t realize you self published. I love how you have a trailer space, you self-publish, you use Kickstarter. You are using DIY methods to make it happen.
My whole thing is to make it accessible. What I do is for social change. It is to show people things they see every day, whether they choose not to see it or haven’t been exposed to it. The way to do that is not conventional work. It would have been harder to get this type of thing published. Yes, I could have done it that way, but not in the time frame it had to be done. You’re not going to make any money this way, but that’s not why I do this job! I do this for accessibility and social change.

The reason why I got this trailer was I moved back to Austin after the Proud to Serve project and was a little burnt out. I was also trying to figure out what I was going to do next. So, I contact Aids Services in Austin because I had done volunteer work before and I like the organization. I emailed them and asked if they would be interested in a multimedia project about people in Austin who are HIV positive. They said yes and that it was what they have wanted to do but didn’t know how to do it.

It happened that fast. I spent a year working on that project. We wanted to exhibit it but I thought it would be hard to find a space. Also, they wanted it to open on December 1 for World Aids Day. I thought, “well, why don’t I try to put on a show in an abandoned store front. They used to pop up all over Manhattan.” I spend 2 months contacting spaces that were for rent that didn’t seem to be moving fast. Meanwhile, people were offering spaces for me to use but they were so out of the way. I really wanted it to be central. I needed to be where people could stumble upon it.

Then, I was walking on Town Lake, and I saw the Falcon container. I figured, why not put the show in a container. I contacted them and talked to them about my plans. I asked about donations for sponsorship and they were up for it. I just needed a place to put it.  Then, this other woman had a space over near where progress coffee is. Another subject knew her and put us in contact. I was hesitant because I found this container and I really liked that idea. During the meeting she was saying I could put the work here but I couldn’t play video during certain times. But that was the whole point of the project, for people to hear the voice. I mentioned the container and said I just need a place to put it and she took me out to where an unsuccessful food trailer lot was out front. It had electrical boxes already and she explained she owned this lot and offered me to put Falcon 5 there. I was like, “No Way!” It was exactly what I wanted. She said I could stay there as long as I wanted.

A lot of people came. People would stumble across with no idea what it was and it really opened their eyes. A lot of responses were that they never thought about it but they realized they probably knew someone with HIV.

Do you think the audience views the work differently depending on the space?
The container brings different groups of people. A traditional gallery can be a bit of a highbrow scene. I had a lot of older people come in to the container and viewed the work as more rugged.  One lady said, “you go to a lot of seedy places.” I’ve never had anyone tell me that before. Definitely not when it was at the gallery. Maybe the container takes the posh off it.

How do you like working in multimedia and how does it differ from your still work?
Doing just still imagery, it is quieter, in every sense of the word. You get to view it at your own pace. I like the pure imagery of it. I don’t think adding sound should be a necessary thing. I think the work should stand well on its own. Sound can accent it. I think it is a way to enhance, bring things to life…. my main thing is bring in their voices.

Now I do video because, ASA wanted it. So I figured it out. For the last year, I worked for the Sustainable Food Center. I started adding B roll, interviews with the farmers, but also visit them on the farm to just document what they do. That’s a whole new arena. It enhances and adds a new level both as project and work wise. I don’t want to be a film maker but this really is a short documentary. But still, what I learned is I will need an assistant and postproduction. You’re adding more and giving more but as an artist it adds a lot. I do prefer still work for my personal projects. I still shoot film… someone said, “woah, you still shoot film” and response was, “I shoot film for my heart and digital for money.”

What film camera do you shoot with?
The Nikon F11. It’s the first professional camera I’ve ever had. I bought it in 1999 when I worked at the camera store. I was leaving that job soon and I just had to buy it. The night I bought it, I just put it with my pillow and I said to my, then partner, “where are you sleeping tonight?” It was my baby, it is still my baby. I still have the same 28mm lens I used when I rode my bike every day when I first moved here.

Anything you really wanted to speak about that I didn’t cover?
What I would want people to know is I have a vision with this gallery space. That’s why the next show is going to be a group show. I am meeting with another photographer to make this more of a community space. After I graduated, we would have meetings because we missed the critiques from school. It’s such a loner career. You spend a lot of time by yourself and its hard to get your work out there, especially in the physical sense. That’s the other thing, everyone keeps their work on there computer. We want to print them out and, maybe monthly, tack them up on the wall and get some feedback and bring on some conversations. Bring a bottle of wine and then trade prints. If someone has an idea for a show to curate, come and talk to me. The only thing is, if it’s your show, you’re in charge of it. It’s your space. If you sell something, it’s yours. I’m not going to take a percentage.

So how should people who are interested contact you?
We have a website for Falcon 5 that will launch by September which is when our first group show will go up. After that it is just going to be open. The meetings should happen before then though!


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