Latinos In The US: Fashion Photographer John Ruiz Talks About Growing Up In Pablo Escobar's Colombia And Getting To Know Penelope Cruz [EXCLUSIVE]

John Ruiz
Fashion photographer John Ruiz. John Ruiz Photography.

John Ruiz is a Colombian photographer with over 15 years experience in the fashion industry. Born in the U.S. but raised in Colombia by his Colombian mother, John came to the U.S. when he was 18. He has worked for some of the biggest magazines in the world including American Vogue and Playboy and has also worked with some of the biggest names in the industry including Mario Sorrenti, Steven Sebring, Solve Sundsbo, Mark Selliger and many more. John sat down with Latin Times to talk about his experiences in the industry and getting back to his roots.

LT: So where were you born?

JR: Well I was born in the United States; I was born in Hartford Connecticut. My parents are from Colombia; they emigrated in the mid 60s to the US. But I was only there until I was five and then I went back to Colombia where I was raised until I was 18.

LT: When did you come back to the US?

As soon as I finished highschool when I was 18 I decided to come back because I mean I was a US citizen, and my brothers and sisters and my Dad had all moved back to the US.

LT: What was it like growing up in Colombia?

Amazing. I’m so glad I grew up there. I’m very glad I got to see the other half of the world. Growing up around nature, and more humble. We lived a privileged life but my mom mad sure that I got to see how poor people live. I got sent away a lot of times to live with poor people in the jungle for a month. And then we’d come back to the city and go on holiday to Miami so it was a big contrast. So she made sure that I got to live both worlds.

LT: Why did you decide to move?

Well basically at that moment in 1989 in Colombia it started a big war with Pablo Escobar, and I had family and friends that were kidnapped so I just didn’t see a future for me there. Plus at that time you couldn’t have dual citizenship so you had to decide which passport you wanted to keep when you turned 18 so it was pretty obvious to me that I had to move out of Colombia.

LT: And where did you move to?

First Miami, then West Palm Beach, because that’s where my Dad was. I was there for two years and then something terrible happened and I decided to move. I was a pretty spoiled kid coming to live with my Dad. Obviously I was used to having a maid and being taken care of, so that was a big shock for me. Right away when I moved in I had to start working to pay my way because my Dad wouldn’t give me any money. He bought me a used car and he basically said, ‘Here are the keys so you can go to work and make some money.’ So I started working, I worked for two and a half years as a waiter, I worked at a kennel track. Eventually I got into a situation where I got beat up by a bunch of rednecks and so I decided to leave that redneck town. So I moved to Miami and met a girl and started going to college. First I took architecture classes, but after a year I dropped out. A few things happened, I broke up with my girl, and I had classes with her and her new boyfriend so I decided to leave college again for a year while I decided what I wanted to do because architecture was not it. So I started working in production with my cousin who was a producer in Miami Beach and she would call me once in a while to help her out. That sort of stuff, production and photography had always interested me, but I never realized at the time how much money was involved. That you could make a career out of it. So I started working on a production with her and realized that you could have a real career so I joined back college and started taking classes in film and production. Which was horrible. It was really, really basic so after a first semester I was already bored with it. But during that time I met one of my cousin’s clients who was a German photographer who one day came into her house and said he fired his assistant and said he needed someone new and he looked at me and offered me a job. And that was pretty much it. He paid me at the time $150 a day to travel around the world, learn photography and work with beautiful women. So I immediately said yes.

LT: And how much did you know about photography at the time?

Not a lot. I mean my uncle was a photographer so all my life he took photos of us so I knew about f-stops and shutter speeds and maybe some lenses, but that was pretty much it. But as soon as I got the job I started reading and practicing and he gave me a camera and told me to play around with it and he started teaching me, and I worked with him two and a half years and learnt a lot. We traveled all over the world. My first trips to Europe were with him. We used to be on the road forty or fifty days. Then he moved to New York, and I moved to New York with him and he ended up marrying my cousin. But you know, we had our differences and less than a month after we got there we had a big fight and I left. And I started working at a studio called Pier 59 Studios, which at the time they are some of the best studios in the world. By chance I befriended the manager, this German-Spanish guy and he saw me walk out of the studio upset and he offered me a job so I started working there. And that’s how I got plugged in to the photo fashion world in New York.

Fashion advertising, fashion editorials, celebrities, that’s pretty much what I did. In the first few years I alternated between working in art direction, producing and making music videos.

LT: Why is there so much travel involved in photography?

Well, you know, if you’re doing a summer story you need to go where it’s warm. Usually you shoot things on the opposite ends. You shoot summer ads in winter because it takes time to get processed and get everything done. So most of the time in January you go to the Caribbean to shoot all the summer stories. So it’s always the case, you travel to Paris, to London, you travel Mexico, South America, wherever you go.

LT: And what’s your particular area?

I am the technical guy behind the photographer. So I do the lighting with his instructions, you’re there so he doesn’t have to worry about any of the technical elements.

LT: What’s are some of your favorite moments from your travels?

I have lots of fond memories, I’ve been very spoiled. I guess one of the best was a Vogue shoot in Jamaica, with a photographer Arthur Elgort and we were just treated like royalty. We had our own personal masseuse, we had our own private villa, we had butlers, and our PA during the whole shoot was Miss Jamaica.

Another time I was doing a photo-shoot for Playboy.  And we were shooting Rachel Hunter for the cover. So we went to this beautiful place on the Jalisco coast south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. And while we were there, an incident happened and we had a fire and the hotel burnt down so it was pretty intense trying to put out a fire – I’d never really been in a life-threatening situation. But we still managed to finish the shoot.

LT: Who are some your favorite photographers that you’ve worked with?

I think one of my favorite photographers right now is Solve Sundsbo. He’s Norwegian but he works out of London. And he started as an assistant too. And he’s brilliant. There’s another guy that I worked with last year called Bruno Diane, he’s French-Canadian and his work is brilliant.

LT: What’s one of your favorite celebrity encounters?

Definitely, definitely Penelope Cruz. The first time I worked with her was probably like ten years ago now. Back then most of the times I was the only Latino on set. I was the only Spanish-speaking photographer. And as first-assistant to the photographer you get to be up close to the subject or the talent because you got to read the light, and make sure everything is right. And she asked me ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ And I said ‘Of course I speak Spanish.’ So the whole day she only spoke to me in Spanish and she was cracking jokes about the photographer, and nobody else knew what was going on. It was great for me but the photographer didn’t like it very much. She was super funny and friendly. And I worked with her a few times after that and she remembered me perfectly. A very sweet girl, very cool and super funny.

Another very, very funny celebrity is Heidi Klum. She’s super funny, she’s like a comedian, the whole day she is cracking jokes, she’s very funny.

LT: What’s next for you?

I don’t know, honestly. The industry in New York has gotten smaller and smaller because in a way digital brought on this whole onslaught of everybody wanting to be a photographer and they don’t have the technical capabilities. And so the market is flooded. Rates shrunk, and so the big guys who would only do big jobs and turn down small jobs started doing small jobs and so there was nothing for the smaller guys to do. So that made it harder. And, you know, a lot of people, editors from Vogue and other magazines have told me that it’s an industry where you’re expected to live the life you’re selling, and that’s not the lifestyle that I want.

Throughout the last five years or so life brought me back to my roots so I started going back to the earth, the native and being more sustainable and more aware of the beautiful life we can have on this planet. So I’m slowly, slowly becoming aware that I don’t want to be part of that industry anymore and so we’re thinking of moving back to South America and trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle. And still do photography there but try to mix it up with more documentary photography and a lot more causes that can help the planet you know. Do project’s with native communities, and working with NGO’s trying to raise money for causes, trying to save what’s left. I mean obviously there is a big fashion industry in Colombia and I want to tap into that, to pay bills, but also living a more sustainable lifestyle, like living in the country and growing our own fruits and vegetables, you know, less concrete around my life. Being part of the solution instead of the problem. So that’s where I see myself in three or four years.

 

To see more of John's work, visit his website: www.johnruizphotography.com

 

 

 

 

 

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Oscar Lopez is a Brooklyn-based writer. Originally from Mexico, Oscar moved with his family to Australia in 2000. Graduating from the University of Melbourne in 2011 with a BA (Honors) Oscar was awarded the Keith Macartney Scholarship for the Arts, the Louise Homfrey Award and the Hannah Barry Memorial Award. As well as reporting for Latin Times, Oscar's writng has been featured in Newsweek, New York Magazine (nymag.com) and Musee Magazine.