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Making Art, Making Money
Destiny Nicole Frasqueri

From ages 2 to 9, I lived with my grandmother in an artsy and free-thinking household. In the 1st grade, I was enrolled in a violin program that my public school offered. A few years before that, my older brother José was featured in a documentary about that same violin program. My grandmother became friends with the film’s director, producer, and funder. Through them, she got to know other people who made their living in the arts.

Even though my grandmother was cultured and had friends in the arts, we were still Puerto Ricans living in the ghetto in Harlem. Many Latinos from the ghetto feel limited to what’s right around. They are kept ignorant, not by choice, but by years of social and economic oppression. There are some people who never leave Harlem, who don’t know what the world is like outside of their neighborhood.

My grandmother was not like that. Though she didn’t work in the arts, herself—she was a nurse’s aide—she encouraged our interests and nurtured our artistic development. She enrolled my brother, the violinist and budding intellectual, in the Manhattan School of Music and bought him a lot of books. My sister was an artist, so she gave her art supplies and enrolled her in art classes. I was always interested in fashion and art, so she got me paper dolls, design books, and magazines.

I also started writing as a small child. I’d spend hours in elementary school typing furiously away on short stories. My favorite character was Zooey Witicker, a preteen witch attending her first year at a boarding school for the magically gifted. I made her just like me—a small girl with a dead mother who was psychically gifted and a loner. Writing was all I wanted to do. I’d tune out the other lessons in math or science to secretly write my book.

My grandmother died when I was in the 4th grade. Soon after that, my teacher wrote in my progress report that I was becoming introverted and that she could see me as an adult, “sitting at my computer and typing my memoirs.” At recess, I’d stay in to work on my stories instead of going outside to play. I did have friends, but I always felt alone and different from the other kids.

Blinded to My Potential

Though I lost my mother, and then my grandmother, too young, I still feel lucky. My grandmother had wanted me to pursue my interests. And she taught my siblings and me to believe in our talent and potential and to dream beyond the neighborhood. I got to see these friends of my grandmother’s make lives for themselves through their art. And they got paid; it wasn’t just a hobby. That had a big impact on me.

image by Destiny Frasqueri

But after my grandmother died, I spent the next eight years with an adoptive mother who abused and belittled me. The abuse distorted my view of my abilities and my possibilities. Being run down year after year convinced me that I wouldn’t amount to anything. My “mother” told me, “You’re nothing special” and beat me. My self-esteem shriveled. She also enrolled me in a Catholic school that did not encourage creativity.

Still, my interest in the arts never died. I took photo and video classes in summer camp when I was 10. When I was 13, I asked for a digital camera for my birthday—and I’ve been taking pictures ever since. (A few are shown here.) At 15, I discovered the controversial, perverse work of Terry Richardson, Richard Kern, and other edgy, sexual photographers. I was drawn to strange and sexual art, which reflected how I saw myself.

At 16, I escaped my adoptive mother’s home and finally got to live with my father, who is loving but financially unstable. I was free from abuse, but now I had to make money. I became a peer sexual health educator for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). I found the job on a bulletin board at my school. While most kids were just hanging out, I prided myself on working. I liked the routine and sense of accomplishment the job gave to my otherwise crazy life.

I also transferred into an arts high school, which fit me much better and encouraged my artistic ambitions. Part of me always knew that I loved art, but in my adoptive home everything that I liked or wanted to pursue had been put down. I’d been blinded to my potential.

Telling Stories With Art

Later in the year, my school had a special opportunity in which the students could participate in an all-day elective for an entire week. I chose mixed-media art and got to spend the entire week working on my piece.

My time in the art studio was heavenly and therapeutic. When I saw my art displayed in the school’s hallway, I felt accomplished and proud of myself. I realized my heart was in telling stories through my art.

image by Destiny Frasqueri

That summer after 11th grade I was accepted into Represent magazine’s summer workshop. Toward the end of the workshop, Represent organized a special trip for us to Condé Nast, a huge publishing firm that puts out Vogue, Glamour, and other magazines. A lawyer and a human resources executive there talked to the group about jobs in the publishing world.

I was really inspired by the things they said, and I saw a clearer path to what I wanted to do. After the meeting, I took my stipend from the summer workshop and bought myself a laptop so I could blog about fashion, music, and art.

Club Kid Getting Paid

I began to find ways to get paid for fun things that gave me opportunities to network with other artistic people. A big part of my social life was New York City’s underground club scene. I met some party promoters who began to hire me to go-go dance or host at their parties.

I saw that what divides the younger party kids from the older ones is often an involvement in the arts, and I was bridging a gap between the two. Sometimes I’d be a regular club kid, just going out with my friends, but most of the time I was making new contacts and finding new ways to get paid and to get my photographs seen. It often took people by surprise to learn that I was only 17.

I met recording artist Maluca Mala at a rave where I was hosting and she was performing. We became friends, and she invited me to work with her. In the last year, I’ve been choosing the content for her blog—photography, video performances, information on her shows. I also help with her styling, and photograph and film her live shows. I learned a little video editing and so I’ll edit footage of her live shows and post it on her blog.

I’ve also dressed models at a fashion show and done magazine archiving. I went on tour photographing the DJ group, GHE2O GOTHIK for two weeks, and had some of my photos published on the online version of the magazine FADER. Meanwhile, I also worked in retail, did a series of odd jobs, kept writing at Represent, and worked on a novel.

image by Destiny Frasqueri

Always a Photographer

But no matter what else I was doing, I always took photos. I mostly shot people who inspired me in the places I grew up—East Harlem, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the Bronx. I photographed women I grew up with and newer friends. I call them my muses, meaning they inspire me.

I photograph teen mothers, runaways, and ex-cons in dirty stairwells and project hallways. The photographs aren’t pretty by conventional standards, but they’re beautiful to me. They show struggle, pain, youth, poverty, crime, and beauty. They reflect my life and my culture.

Most of my photographs aren’t planned. I’m hanging out with these people and if I see an expression that strikes me, I’ll say, “Stay like that and look at me,” and that’s how I capture the vulnerability or other emotion that struck me.

I showed these pictures on my Facebook page, and that led to 16 of my photographs being included in a group gallery show. To my delight, one of my pieces was hung next to work by Worm Carnevale, a photographer I’d admired since my early teens.

I’ll never forget the gallery opening. A lot of people told me they liked my work, and I felt very proud of myself. I didn’t sell anything, but I felt very accomplished as an artist.

Planning My Artistic Future

The art world is a hustle. You have to be talented and unique. You have to make an impression on people, make the right contacts, and be at the right place at the right time. This has worked for me pretty well so far. I’ve gotten paid to dance the night away. I met one of my favorite film directors, Harmony Korine. I was recently featured in a fashion editorial about New York City youth for Depesha magazine, shot by one of my favorite photographers, Victoria Janashvili. It’s a fickle world, but it’s where I belong.

That feeling of belonging is especially important to me. As a foster kid, I haven’t had a steady home, and for the last three years, I’ve been treading along the edge of poverty. Maintaining stability is hard. I’ve just got to stay focused, and keep learning and creating. I’m confident I can make it work, and part of that confidence is because I got myself out of my abuser’s home when I was 16. Everything I’ve done that I’m proud of started when I found the courage to leave.

These days, I work odd jobs here and there to maintain my living situation, and I plan to learn construction and how to be a building superintendent. Those jobs could support me financially and allow me to also focus on my art. Creating art makes me feel whole. I’m sharing my soul and vision, hoping people can connect to it and see what I see, hear what I hear, and read what I feel.

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