For Charissa Soriano, photography isn’t just about taking great pictures. It’s about building community and creating social change, understanding the lives of real people.
Soriano has seen photographs throughout her life, but one of the first experiences that really resonated with her was a collaborative documentary photography project by Susan Meiselas at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2018, in which Meiselas displayed the writing of her collaborators alongside photographs of them.
“I didn’t know back then that photographers could or would do that, and I found it fascinating,” said Soriano. “I want to be the kind of photographer that’s thoughtful about working with individuals and communities in telling their stories, empowering them in the process.”
Since starting to take photographs in high school, Soriano has been mostly self-taught, growing in her craft through practice and observing the images of other photographers.
Later, Soriano befriended other photographers in college. “I learned to create better pictures with them especially when we would document events like weddings and birthdays together,” she said.
Photography, Soriano discovered, doesn’t have to be solitary. It’s helpful for her friends and mentors to look at her work to provide honest critique and feedback on what the work might be missing and what could be improved.
After college, Soriano earned a Master of Communication in Communities and Networks from University of Washington in 2020.
“Empathetic communication, intentional collaboration, and community building are three of the main takeaways for me from my graduate program at the University of Washington,” she said. “All of these lessons feed into my journalistic ethics because it prioritizes the people that I meet, interview, and photograph.”
Being open to learning and surprises has proven important to Soriano, who said that empathetic communication is a reminder to actively listen to other people, allowing stories to collaboratively unfold rather than inflexibly sticking to her initial research.
Collaboration is key. “I can learn from their own ideas on how to photograph certain scenes or develop my project,” Soriano said. “Conversations can lead to better change and a healthier community.”
Soriano now strives to shift her perspective outward.
“I’ve learned that photography is less about me and more about the people or places that I document through my camera,” she said. “It grounds me to why I’m a photographer, and that is to uplift people, change unjust systems, and build communities for the future that we desire.”
In her first professional role, Soriano served as a Project Documentation Specialist for International Organization for Migration (IOM), an organization part of the United Nations System. She worked on a project that involved visiting communities in the Philippines that are vulnerable to natural disasters. There, Soriano had nuanced climate conversations with locals, the takeaways of which she reported back to her team.
This assignment fomented Soriano’s love for documentary photography.
“Documentary photographers pitch story ideas, conduct research, meet with community members, learn how to actively listen, create images, edit and sequence photos, write, coordinate and collaborate with coworkers, and so forth,” she said. “It’s a ton of work, but I realized that it’s the kind that I love and want to continue doing.”
Soriano would like to remain in the U.S. and recently told her story to The Seattle Times about trying unsuccessfully to obtain an H-1B visa.
“It was the Optional Practical Training or OPT through my F-1 visa, or student visa, that enabled me to work in the U.S. for three years after graduating in 2020,” she said. “I’m currently working to get another type of visa called the O-1 visa as a photographer.”
In the meantime, she is currently pitching to publications in the U.S., seeking assignments in the Philippines, and creating independent projects as well. “Last year I made a zine called Multitudes to show the multiple layers that women have,” she shared. “I showcased it for the first time at The Pioneer Collective during the Belltown Art Walk in October 2022, and once again at Reclaim Clay Collective during the Chinatown International District Art Walk last August.”
In Soriano’s bio on her website, she emphasizes providing “space and healing to people often ignored or forgotten” by society. “I don’t want to be extractive in the way I approach my work,” she said. “Rather, I want to be life-giving.”
She aims to draw attention to those who have received little of it. “I want people to feel seen and valued and expect to be treated that way,” she elaborated. “I want their time with me to be healing because they were given the proper safe space to share their story, to use their voice.”
Going forward, Soriano will be sharing updates on Instagram and working on some new projects. She is currently working on two long-term documentary photo projects, one of them being centered around the Filipino community in the U.S.