Stephanie Ramones of Contigo Photos + Films
Stephanie Ramones of Contigo Photos + Films strives to create an inclusive, open, and free environment by welcoming opportunities to tell all stories. Contigo, which translates from Spanish to “With You,” was formed by salsa dancers. Stephanie is active in the Latin dance world, both as a salsa dancer, photographer, and videographer.
We discussed how the wedding industry could learn a lot from the Latin dance community in terms of values. We also dissected ways to unpack our privileges while unlearning, ideas on making businesses more inclusive to neurodivergent folks, and how COVID-19 has directly affected Stephanie’s community.
Shannon: What are the diversity challenges you face, within your business or as an individual?
Stephanie: The biggest challenge I face is learning to deal with being uncomfortable with people that don’t believe the same things I believe. Personally, as a white-passing , cisgender, immigrant Latina in a hetero-presenting interracial relationship, Christian, sometimes I’m forced to deal with a lot of bigotry head on. It’s really easy for me to get angry and lash out at intolerant people and that can get me in a lot of trouble. I’ve had to learn to acknowledge that it’s a privilege to be able to get angry, because that’s not really an option for my SO, some of my friends, and a lot of folks that aren’t passing. Business-wise, I think I struggle with what a lot of other folks struggle with, it’s just constantly making sure you’re out there in diverse circles and not to silo yourself.
Shannon: Absolutely. I think it’s so powerful to acknowledge and unpack our privileges while unlearning. Discomfort is necessary for social justice growth, so the fact that you find yourself uncomfortable shows that you care enough to make change. What worries me most is when I see people being silent, which in my opinion, makes them complicit. I just attended a racial + social justice workshop by Ericka Hart and Ebony Donnelly. At the end of the session, they said, “We are all anti-black. How are you undoing yours?” It was powerful and made me sit with it and take notes about tangible things I could be doing better. But the knowledge I learned means nothing if I don’t do anything with it. What are some examples of what unlearning looks like to you?
Stephanie: I agree 100% and love the work Ericka Hart has put out, her work has guided me a lot in this realm as well.
This isn’t something I have a succinct response to, so bear with me as I work through it. Unlearning for me, starts with silence and mindfulness. As a kid, I was kind of an argumentative know-it-all (I was a competitive debater in high school, that should tell you a lot), and when I first started studying philosophy and psychology in college, I learned the minute you say “I don’t know” instead of trying to bullshit an answer, you open yourself up to a lot more answers. The problem I feel like I see now, is that American individualistic, white-centric culture values having an answer for everything more than just listening.
Additionally, I’ve had to make sure that as long as the system continues to benefit me, even indirectly, that I’m problematic and I have to be active in deconstructing that. You’re in a vulnerable position when you’re learning and unlearning, there’s going to be pain and discomfort there. But it’s nowhere near the pain of oppression and the intergenerational trauma. Accepting that and being mindful of the emotions and judgments that come up before I speak, has helped me unlearn a lot.
The reason I gave that answer was more because I’ve noticed myself automatically trying to educate (especially the screaming into the void that is social media comment wars) doesn’t seem to be really effective. A big part of being an ally to me is making sure I try to fill a need for the communities. I try not to come in pushing what I think the community needs. Sometimes they need me to be angry and/or put my body on the line. And other times I’ve learned that they need me to be calm and put in the work on using mental energy to try to talk to people who are harming the community.
For example, I learned that for me to unlearn, I had to step away sometimes when I felt my emotions run high and was feeling defensive. I try to give others that opportunity (it doesn’t always work). I know that for me, when I’m speaking in support of communities I’m not a part of, it’s a privilege to do that and it comes with the responsibility that I play the long game of trying to affect change. I try to stay calm to allow the folks from those communities I’m not a part of the freedom to be angry. I know for me, there’s issues that directly affect me and my community and I can’t be calm (ie: immigration or very currently, COVID-19 and protecting vulnerable people). So I appreciate people who allow me to be angry and still do the work to shift the conversation.
In sum, it’s complicated. This answer is probably all over the place, and I’m not an expert on navigating it, especially on days when I just don’t have the spoons for it. (And honestly, times like these have made me question what actually is working or not. COVID-19 has been tough on a lot of internal resources.)
Shannon: What is your experience with working with LGBTQ+ clients?
Stephanie: They’re both just like any other client and not. You’re gonna have your awkward clients, your private clients, your extroverted clients, your introverts. Can’t really put them all in a monolith. However, LGBTQ+ do face their own unique set of challenges that hetero-cis do not face.
Shannon: If you have a physical business space, how have you made it accessible to the community (for disabled people, neurodivergent people, and LGBTQ+ people)?
Stephanie: Virtual business space-wise, I am working on being more accessible to disabled and neurodivergent people by making sure my website, media, and social are accessible by all communities. I’m also trying to be more active in asking about the needs of folks included in the wedding. So for example, asking if there will be people that are highly sensitive to flash or lights.
Shannon: I really appreciate you saying that. There are many ways I could be doing better in every aspect of my business, but especially accessibility. I need to create a safer space for susceptible individuals who are neurodivergent and could be triggered by flashing or flickering. I’ve been approached in the past regarding family members to be mindful of, due to the fact that flash could cause seizures. But you’ve motivated me to add it as a question in my questionnaire, so I don’t put the weight of the burden on those who are most affected with issues like photosensitivity.
Stephanie: Yeah, it can be difficult to come up with all of the what if’s. If I’m being honest, I mainly learned about things like flash because my first ever paid photography gig was for a PA autism conference and I was informed. Then my niece and nephew were later diagnosed with autism and other conditions and it opened a lot of info to me. I do have to say, that most people will tell you ahead of time, but by asking first, you relieve a bit of burden of starting an awkward conversation for them.
Shannon: What are some tangible actions you’re taking as a wedding vendor to be more inclusive of underrepresented communities, without tokenizing them?
Stephanie: I think one of the biggest actions that isn’t said enough is about making yourself an active ally in these communities and also acknowledging when something just isn’t your expertise. You can’t be mad that you don’t have any Black people in your portfolio if you can’t publicly say “Black Lives Matter” or be mad about not having gay weddings while you don’t “believe” in gay marriage. If it’s a type of wedding/event I’m not normally doing, I try to be as transparent as possible with leads about that. I’ve seen so many photographers royally mess up interracial couples photos and miss important aspects of ceremonies because they just failed to be transparent and educate themselves.
For LGBTQ+ particularly, I’m very conscious of privacy. In the past, I’ve encountered quite a few that ask for their images not to be public. I know of a lot of other vendors that would charge for this, but I personally don’t.
It’s really frustrating hearing how some other vendors get so upset that a client won’t let them blog about their wedding because they “needed the diversity” in their portfolio. It just sounds like they’re treating these communities like Pokemon and they gotta catch ’em all.
Shannon: You’re really active in the dance community, both as a salsa dancer and videographer. I recently had a client confide in me about how difficult it’s been planning a bilingual wedding. She mentioned how there’s a gap in the industry and in a city like Philadelphia, it shouldn’t be such a challenge to try to find bilingual DJs or officiants, or ways to make weddings more bilingual inclusive. I tried to find Spanish speaking second shooters and assistants in local wedding photography Facebook groups, but barely received any responses. I know bilingual photographers are out there (readers might not know, Spanish is your first language), and yet it feels like there’s a lack of visibility or awareness in Philadelphia’s wedding community versus the city’s dance or film communities. And that is undoubtedly my own fault, for being stuck inside self-made silos. What are some things the Philadelphia wedding industry could learn from the local, thriving dance community?
Stephanie: Dance world is kind of complex and I could go on for a long time discussing that and the sociological dynamics. The Latin dance community is street dance based (vs ballroom and even within our communities there are people who focus more on performing and competing and others more on social dancing), so Latin dance might mean something different to different people. For me, I dance Salsa, Bachata, and Merengue. There are some other smaller style groups that are around the scene, which aren’t from Latin America or the Caribbean that are around: Zouk, Kizomba, and Latin hustle. Salsa music itself came from the interaction of Jazz musicians and Afro-Caribbean-based musicians who recently immigrated to NYC. So by nature, it’s pretty culturally inclusive. Also, we’re bilingual inclusive mainly because most people in the community acknowledge the music was in Spanish first.
Anyway, back to your original question, there’s definitely not visibility in the mainstream wedding industry for other cultures, mainly because we don’t always fit the “high price point.” There’s plenty of photographers and videographers from these communities who are bilingual, but they may not be getting the same opportunities to advance the technical skills that are valued in the mainstream wedding photography and videography world. This kind of relates to how Latin dance really started becoming “big” because people from other communities came in, loved it, and made their place in it. Unfortunately, that has debatably led to a few of the people being most visible in the community not necessarily being the most representative of it.
There aren’t gatekeepers, like publications, and there are opportunities for people to travel, compete, and perform at all levels, which builds the community. Everyone can dance with one another, beginners and pros, people who don’t speak the same language, and different gender identities and sexual orientations (I have to say, this is recent). The mainstream wedding industry sometimes values aesthetics over inclusion and community. We all have to dance together at the end of the day.
[Editor’s note: Stephanie’s award-winning short, Santo, a dance narrative on domestic violence, is available to watch here on Vimeo. The piece was directed, written, and produced by Stephanie Ramones.]
Shannon: What’s your favorite part about working in the Philadelphia wedding industry?
Stephanie: That there’s a space for everyone and it’s very easy to have a diverse group around you if you’re inclusive.
Shannon: What are you listening to?
Stephanie: A lot from Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s YouTube channel. Her channel focuses on living at the intersection of being LGBTQ+ and with disability and chronic illness.
Shannon: What’s a pop-culture plug you’d like to share?
Stephanie: Just finishing Here For It by R. Eric Thomas (whose wedding I shot a while back). I love his book so much and am so happy for him.
Shannon: Who are some of your favorite Instagram follows?