When photographer Valeria Pereira-Howell walked into It’s a Grind in Signal Hill, I was immediately taken aback by her smile. It wasn’t her perfect teeth, though she’s worked as a dentist for more than 20 years. Her smile struck me to be so much like her photos, warm and full of life.
Pereira-Howell owns ZenMind Photography, which she started three years ago after capturing some of her favorite moments with her son Zen, 8, who she calls the inspiration for her photography (as well as the namesake).
She describes her work as an expression of self-love, “for a better me,” and has embarked on a 365-day project, taking at least one photo a day for a year. Today is day 135.
Along the way, Pereira-Howell has been documenting her progress in her blog zenmindphotography.com . Using social media, she has been connecting with other photographers, sharing support and ideas through groups like Photographers Ignite. During moments of self-doubt, she said these communities have been invaluable.
Armed with her Canon 5D, which she calls her baby, Pereira-Howell has committed herself to capturing both the lightness and darkness of life.
It is evident in her work how deeply she cares for family. Pereira-Howell, her husband, Jeff, and their son welcomed Natalia into their family two years ago from Colombia. She turns 14 next week.
I know you said that your son played a central role in your photography. Will you describe his influence in your work?
Yes, my son was the reason I started taking photos. At first, I just wanted to capture him growing up, like every other mother, but during the process I noticed that he was giving me more than just cute pictures, he was giving me his essence. So I started an album on my Orkut back then called ZenMind, just to share with my family and friends in Brazil. People noticed and complimented my work, even saying that they could feel how happy or sad, or whatever he was. So I noticed that I had something going.
I decided to learn more about photography, met some amazing photographers, and learned about 365 Projects, Sunday Scavenger Hunt, and I did them all. It made me feel good, and it gave me something very exciting to do, because we all know that being a mom can be very boring and lonely sometimes. Yes, I said it.
My son Zen gives me what no one else could give me so far. He is so connected with himself in a way that the camera does not bother him. He always acts like I am not there, so I can capture who he is– the true him. That’s what I love about him, and that’s what I take from him when it comes to my photography. I want to show the feeling. I am trying to get the same with other people and also in my still-life [photos].
What do you want the world to know about you through your images?
That’s a hard one. I guess that my message is “keep it simple” because life is a very complex animal. If I cannot feel happiness with what I am doing, then it is time to move on. My work as a photographer will never be complete. I will always second-guess myself, critique myself, but I am learning how to be gentle with myself. I want the world to know that no matter what I do with my art, I will be enjoying the process, and I will be sharing my heart and soul with every single click.
How has your practice changed over time?
Well, I started pretty much not knowing anything about what I was doing. Everything was set to automatic. I’m learning the camera, the manual and lighting, things like that.
What kind of camera do you use?
I use a Canon 5D. It’s my baby. It’s my baby.
How do you handle artist’s block?
Yes, I have my inspiration book, and I write down things. The more you do it, the more ideas come to you. I always I have my little book with me so if I have ideas I can write it down, so even if I don’t do it right away, in the future, if I’m out of ideas, I go back to it.
What do you think your life would be like if for some reason you couldn’t create art?
Oh, boring. Very boring. It’s a creative life. So many hours of my day are devoted to learning more about photography, so I can understand a little bit more about myself and these things. So, yeah, totally boring.
Why do you think it is important for artists to have a community amongst themselves?
I did this 365 Project, which is very personal. Some people just don’t understand. There were some photos even my husband said, “Don’t put them up– they’re too personal.” And I told him this is how it is when you do your art, your writing, your music. It’s your inside that you are putting out. That’s why I stopped last year, while I was going through a dark phase. But this year I said, “No, I’m going to put it out there.” I’ve valued the support of other photographers online saying, “Just do it. Open your heart. It’s okay.” They also teach you when you need to learn something.
How important is realism for you in your artwork?
For me, it’s very important.
Why do you think it’s important for us to see realistic representations of our world in an artistic way?
I think magazines are creating this false imaging, and that’s how we grow up [believing] that we need to have the best hair, the best smile, the best whatever it is. Otherwise, we are not good enough. Just be real and be happy. That’s perfection. Beauty comes in different shapes and colors. I try to put my soul in it, and I hope people see it. This is who I am, and this is what I like.
Why does photography make you feel happy?
It makes you pause life. It’s just you and the camera and whatever you have in front of you. I like that.
To view more of Pereira-Howell’s work, visit zenmindphotography.com .