In some ways, every image Jester Bulnes makes is a self-portrait, although the photographer appears in almost none of them. Instead, they enlist friends and online mutuals as their models, promising a free drink or lunch in exchange for a day’s worth of poses. These subjects are styled in clothing from Bulnes’s own closet, a treasure chest filled with fishnets and repurposed denim. The result is a delicate composition that seesaws between exposure and superimposition. A saturated, atmospheric vision of queer Latinx Los Angeles, the images function as both document and diary.
Anyone who wants to see more than the carefully curated selection of images that the 21-year-old photographer posts online will have to invest in a copy of their 2023 debut monograph, DENTRO, which has been championed in publications including Office, Dazed, and Document Journal. Unlike many of their peers, who spend their days happily awash in an endless digital scroll, the rising University of California, Los Angeles senior is committed to the permanence of print. In an era of everyone’s-a-photographer ubiquity, a physical image demands attention—and contributes to a meaningful, enduring archive for a community on the margins.
The Mexican and Salvadoran artist grew up in Downey, a largely immigrant suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles where, they recall, “there were probably like three kids that were gay.” For slight, soft-spoken Bulnes, who didn’t speak Spanish, connection was hard to come by. “Racially, there was this sort of outcasting, and then there was the added layer that I’m queer,” they explain.
At the heart of DENTRO is an emphasis on collaboration, and an urge to show a community at its most truthful. Each image is an act of communion and a mutual process of self-discovery. “I’m less interested in looking for someone that is conventionally beautiful,” says Bulnes. “To me, that’s just not as interesting. I want the weirdness. I want what feels most authentic. I think about myself; I’m not like the hottest person in the world, but I’ve got a little quirk to me.”
With their final year of college looming, the fine art major is puzzling through the questions that arise when academic frameworks meet real-world social politics—like the fear that being a minoritized photographer will impose a taxonomy on their work that will be difficult to escape, or that the subjects they so carefully spotlight might be reduced to a series of identity markers.
“This idea of the muse is really interesting,” they say, mentally flipping through their Rolodex of friends and models. “I tend to document more fem bodies—granted, I’m someone who identifies as nonbinary—but I do sometimes catch myself. Am I objectifying these people? It’s this push and pull. In some ways, I would love for an audience to view me a certain way and think of me as this thing...” They pause, thinking. “But then, is that all I become?"
Want to meet more rising stars? See CULTURED's full list of 2023 Young Photographers here.