Family Swank: Elissa Salas

The 18-year-old photographer teaches us about Meliorism

Name: Elissa Salas
Age: 18
Sign: Cancer
Swank: Photographer
Be inspired:


Before meeting this talented and down-to-earth young woman, the only thing I knew about her hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts was that it was home to Robert Goulet(thank you, Will Ferrell) and many, many Dominicans. Capturing moments of her life through black-and-white portraiture, Elissa Salas— the Dominican-American Bay Stater photographer— shoots with such depth that makes you forget that she is only 18-years-old. In this week’s Family Swank, Elissa tells us about the magic behind developing film, why it’s necessary for people to get off their phones and connect with nature, and being able to kick it with the boys. 

Mass Appeal: How old were you when you picked up your first camera?

Elissa Salas: I was nine years old; my brother took me to a shop where I picked out my first film camera, and that’s how I started.

MA: You grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts and moved to New York City to attend Parsons this fall. How have your surroundings inspired and informed your work?

ES: It’s very slow paced in Lawrence. It took time to become familiar with what I liked to photograph; it ended up being graffiti and the old factory mills. However, in New York City, I’m totally inspired by all the people and different cultures.

MA: A lot of your photography is shot in black-and-white. What does black-and-white photography capture that color doesn’t?

ES: Black-and-white shows the grime. I’ve learned to love rural environments through the camera. Although I shoot in color as well, nothing can distract my subject in black-and-white.

MA: In the Dominican community, where we both hail, there’s this stigma regarding embracing one’s natural hair in the mainstream, although I see more and more of us embracing it. And yet, it seems that on Spanish-language television, the only women deemed beautiful have straight, fried hair, and European features. What’s your take on that?

ES: I applaud those who embrace their natural hair. Growing up people of my own culture would tell me to straighten my hair or “tame” it. I don’t agree with that so I do my own thing. My niece sees me with my hair like this and she wants it the same way; if I’m impacting the people around me, then I’m good. The mainstream is shit anyway.

MA: You’ve been featured on both sides of the camera: do you prefer shooting or being shot?

ES: I prefer to shoot just because I know how I’d like the photos to come out, but I enjoy being on the other end as well. I’m a big part of my life, so I like capturing myself too.

MA: Choose one: digital photography or film? Why?

ES: Film. It always surprises me after it’s developed. Digital is cool but it doesn’t have the same feel. I like the natural fades, tones, and distortions.


MA: In June, you had a solo show, “Meliorism,” at El Taller bookstore and café in your hometown. What’s the science behind the name of the show. How was that experience?

ES: I transferred my photographs of portraits onto slabs of tree trunks. I wanted to connect my audience to the natural world, a place I feel people are slowly drifting away from, since they are more concerned with what’s happening on their phone. Meliorism means that the world can be better with human effort. I believe that in order to become better people, we have to connect with our roots.

MA: Last year you were featured in Jesse Boykins III’s project “Love Apparatus,” in which you talk about chaos, being a woman, and positivity. How would you define love? 

ES: Love is genuine. It’s the same as hate; they’re on opposite sides of the same spectrum. If you know hate, you know love. The difference is the energy it brings to you and the people around you.

MA: Would you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

ES: I believe I am; I don’t let my gender define my abilities.

MA: Is there any artist, in any medium, you would like to collaborate with on a project?

ES: I like working with my friends whom I’ve grown with that are also artists; they’re the first I’ve collaborated with on projects. I am open to collab with anyone who has a tasteful vision. I don’t care if you have a following or not, or whatever, as long as your passionate.

MA: What have been the two most important lessons your craft has taught you so far?

ES: Plan ahead! I’m very spontaneous and everything seems to tie together last minute. It almost feels out of my control, but it works out. l’ve also learned to be patient: inspiration comes and goes… as an artist, you can’t rush creativity.

MA: I feel that. Aside from photography, do you think you’ll ever delve into any other creative areas?

ES: For a while, I created some mix media pieces that I really enjoyed. I was cutting and pasting photographs from magazines and making new images. After a while, I stopped because I don’t really like working with something that’s not mine, even though I recreated these images to portray a new story. In the future I will continue to touch base with sculpture, writing, and filming.

MA: You’ll be majoring in photojournalism at Parsons. With that said, what are three places you would like your photography to take you and why?

ES: I would like to go to Egypt, Japan, and discover low-key places. I’m interested in all cultures. I want to see everything and share my perspective with others.


Hit Djali up on Instagram (@djalibc) if you think you’ve got swank! 

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