In The Mix

05/01/2023 02:06 AM By Lisa Anderson
The Arts
Tommy Cuevas
Tommy Cuevas
Story by Jodi Anderson • Photo by Joshua Jacobs

In The Mix

Street Photographer Captures Unfiltered Moments

Self-described extrovert Tommy Cuevas admits that, after many years of doing street photography, he still gets nervous approaching people. “It’s a hard thing to get over.” 

He cites two French street photographers as his idols: American-born William Klein (1926-2020) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). “[Bresson] is generally more distance, so he uses a telephoto lens to grab people. Then, Klein was right up in your face. He used very wide-angled lenses. And I found out that they used the same exact camera. They gave each other their cameras. But you can see the radical difference,” Tommy notes. “I’m trying to be more like Klein, now, where I’m getting more into it. And that is intimidating as anything! You wind up talking to people, so that’s good.”

Tommy, whose parents divorced when he was young, spent his formative years on Long Island, receiving his first camera at the age of 9. “It was a 35mm point-and-shoot, and I just loved taking photos. I just took photos all the time of just the most random things. I got nicer and nicer film cameras. Then, digital came around, and I got one of the very, very first digital cameras that ever came out. It was a Casio QV-11.”

Culture Shock

When he was 15, Tommy and his mother, who had become a successful real estate agent, moved to a more affluent neighborhood in Tarpon Springs, Florida. For a kid who grew up poor and on the “wrong side of the tracks,” the move was a culture shock. “It was a good shock in a lot of ways. It was eye-opening in a lot of ways,” he says. “But I wound up finding my own niche of people. I’m just so fascinated by people. I want to know people’s stories. I just liked talking and meeting people.”

Tommy began his professional photography career in Ybor City, taking photos of events in different venues. “That’s a trial by fire, when it comes to photography. And I started doing bars and clubs and got paid to do that. It just became a passion of mine, especially capturing people.”

Eventually, Tommy—who describes himself as “super nerdy” and knowing more about Star Trek than is good for him—got into IT. That is how he met his now fiancée Shaun, an application developer. “I moved to IT business consulting, and she had to back up all the BS I told customers.” 

When they got together, Shaun was newly divorced and living with her kids in a nice house in Ocala. Tommy had a dog and a “crappy apartment.” He decided to move. That was seven years ago. “When I first came here, I think Infinite [Ale Works] just opened up. We walked around town. It was at a time where everything was closed up, boarded up. And just to see how it grew in that time was absolutely jaw-dropping to me.”

Tommy admits that finding his place in the community was tough at first. “There wasn’t a large, young, liberal group down here. A lot of [people] were a lot older than me. And then I joined the YPO [Young Professionals of Ocala], and then I went to my first YPO [gathering] at The Keep.” He met the owners, who started introducing him to people. “I met pretty much all my friends through Mark and Megan and the YPO, so I’m extremely thankful to them.”

Security Blanket

“I call my cameras security blankets a lot of times,” Tommy grins. “I always have a camera on me. I have three today. I have two film cameras and a digital. I started doing my [own] processing, and it’s a lot easier than it used to be. You don’t need a dark room anymore to do it.”

Tommy does most of his work in camera, rarely touching up photos later. “It’s interesting to see what people are like in unfiltered moments. I don’t do portraits. I like people in their serious moments. I like people in their non-serious moments. I like when people are just like real people.

“Going back to one of my favorite photographers, Klein,” Tommy continues. “His whole thing was that he got into the mix of it. I’m trying to do more of that. Recently, I did a show at the Mutiny, where I took a couple of photos inside the crowd with a wide-angle lens, black-and-white photos. No one notices you when the band’s playing.”

Tommy uses photography to handle his depression and anxiety. “To me, photography is a lot of therapy. I went to therapy my entire life. I found that photography is a good outlet, if I need time to myself or if I need a reason to be somewhere or I just need to get out. It’s really been a lifesaver for me.”

This photographer can be glimpsed wandering the streets of Ocala. Tommy loves when people come up to him to ask about his camera or request a photo, so make sure to say “Hi!” the next time you see him. 
Learn More

Watch the full interview on YouTube. It airs May 12, 2023.
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