Photography student seeks to blend commercial success, personal expression

GVL / Courtesy - David Astudillo Benavides   
Photo from “Bogotá was featured in a student galley in Calder

GVL / Courtesy – David Astudillo Benavides Photo from “Bogotá” was featured in a student galley in Calder

Jenny Adkins

Life after graduating with a film and video or photography degree involves one of two paths: working personally or commercially. For Grand Valley State University junior David Astudillo Benavides, his dream is to find the rare instances where those paths converge to create a future full of both commercial success and personal enjoyment.

Astudillo Benavides, a film and video major and photography minor, has used his craft as a lens to express himself, but with a professional life ahead of him, his aim is to discover how to satisfy both his own interests and his career. Originally from Venezuela, he said wedding photography and other events may be less enjoyable than personal projects, but they begin to explore how the paths of work and pleasure intersect. 

“I do enjoy being on events, like photographing people and weddings in Venezuela,” Astudillo Benavides said. “I just hope that through my expression of art, people will say, ‘I want to work with this guy.’”

After being sponsored by a family to move to Michigan and attend GVSU, Astudillo Benavides right away became an active member in the visual arts community, said Stafford Smith, associate professor of photography at GVSU. Through school and work, Astudillo Benavides found his opportunity to make videos for Grand Rapids Ballet, where he said expression successfully met commercial use. 

“The ballet is something that has a lot of art and expression in it, and when they saw my work, they said this is the kind of art (they’re) looking for, even though it’s going toward commercial purposes,” Astudillo Benavides said. 

Despite his life in Allendale, Astudillo Benavides said he still has strong ties to Venezuela. It was on the beaches there that he started taking photos on his phone, and his grandfather, who is passionate about photography himself, told Astudillo Benavides that he was an artist.

“I was taking pictures and I discovered Instagram filters, but I didn’t post anything on Instagram—I just used it to edit,” Astudillo Benavides said. “I was trying different angles and playing with proportion and size. I showed it to my grandfather, and he goes, ‘You are a photographer.’ That statement attached in me an identity, a connection to photography.”

Astudillo Benavides said in his pursuit of self-expression, his collection of photos titled “Mariposa” captures the struggles of young Venezuelans like himself. He said his character, “Maria,” represents a narrative of struggle in a country where there are few economic and social opportunities for young men and women.

“(‘Mariposa’) comments on a social level,” Astudillo Benavides said. “It’s very symbolic. It’s not a documentary, but it’s more of a fictional, staged symbolic representation of the youth in Venezuela … in the midst of this social and economic crisis.”

It’s this level of commitment outside the classroom that Smith believes separates Astudillo Benavides from other artists. Smith said the ability to create on your own and stand out comes with grit, a trait Astudillo Benavides displays in his classes.

“If you’re asked for a minimum requirement of three prints and you should spend nine hours on it, then you should do (double that),” Smith said. “It takes a lot of energy, but if you constantly exceed expectations, you will do very well. If you do the minimum or what everybody else does, then you’re just like everybody else.”

Smith also said creative degrees at GVSU should be about personal expression, not a “job-training program.” He described a shift in mentality that students need to move from thought-provoking work to commercial pieces, two areas that often don’t blend together. 

“The big difference between art and commercial (work) is that art challenges the norms and commercial art confirms them,” Smith said. “So, the two almost never meet. There are exceptions, but it’s extremely rare.”

Despite the challenges, Astudillo Benavides is determined to be defined by work that represents him, not the societal norms that commercial work provides. 

“When I have a solid portfolio, it will be composed of (expressive) art in film and photography,” Astudillo Benavides said. “I don’t do this for the sake of money but for the sake of my expression and the way I feel.”