Paola Franqui doesn’t have your typical photographer’s backstory. She didn’t start taking pictures as a kid after a revered family member handed her an old camera. She never even had big dreams of becoming a photographer. Her story started very simply when she downloaded Instagram, and instantly became fascinated with the art and human emotion she found on the network. Six years later, Franqui is now well known by her Instagram handle, Monaris.
The New Jersey-based street photographer has built a career around capturing candid images of people, playing with light and reflection. But while her degree in sociology and criminal justice suggests a long-standing fascination with people, she started photographing anything and everything that inspired her, with just an iPhone.
“When I started taking photos of humans, of people, I got to a point where I can honestly say that it was street photography that made me fall in love with photography,” she told Digital Trends. “There was something about human emotions, human interactions, and life — everyday moments that people are so used to ignoring that they don’t notice it.”
Franqui, who grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to the United States in her early teens, continued shooting with an iPhone for nearly three years before picking up a dedicated camera — and picking up photography tips using YouTube videos. Her early work used the 16:9 aspect ratio, a format that’s cinematic but unusual with Instagram’s love for square images and portrait mode.
Despite her Instagram success (she has more than 160,000 followers), Franqui says that her photography will always be a work in progress.
“I’m not where I want to be and that’s very inspiring,” Franqui said. “Every time I wake up in the morning, I still have so much to learn and so much to see. That’s what keeps me inspired, the fact that every day that I wake up in the morning, something is different, something has changed. For an artist, that’s very motivating, the fact that life is constantly changing.”
Along with National Geographic photographer Colby Brown, we followed Franqui around the British Virgin Islands during a press event with Adobe (we were guests of Adobe, but all opinion are our own), where she shared with us her backstory, camera techniques, editing processes, and life as an Instagram influencer.
DT: Where did your handle, Monaris, come from?
Franqui: Monaris is my middle name and growing up I actually wanted to change it. I used to ask my mom why she named me Monaris and she would be like, ‘We were sitting one day before you were born with a bunch of friends and one guy said that you should name your daughter Monaris.’ My mom was like, ‘Oh, that’s a good name’ and so that’s where the name came from.
“When people come up to me and ask, if you’re feeling uninspired, what do you do? I tell them, you switch lenses.”
[When] I downloaded Instagram, my name was taken. So, I said, I’m going to use Monaris. After I started posting, people started seeing me as Monaris. ‘Oh, you’re Monaris.’ And now that’s my brand, my website, my business. I embrace it, even my business cards say Monaris. It’s funny how life does that — something that I hated is now something that I love.
You have a very specific style. How did you work to define your style?
I knew that most street photographers shoot 35mm — you see a scene and it’s wide. And I knew that, from the very beginning, I wanted to do something different. I knew that I wanted to do something that I would be remembered by. I started to play with different lenses. I think that lenses are something that’s very important for a photographer. When people come up to me and ask, if you’re feeling uninspired, what do you do? I tell them, you switch lenses. Lenses push you to see a different perspective.
I started switching lenses. I went from a 35 to a 55. I felt that it was good, but not good enough. People are used to seeing the whole scene. I started to focus on one person, incorporating one person in the scene. I didn’t care if you were there and a person was next to you, I wanted to focus on you.
To me, human emotion and organic moments are the most important things about my street photography. I don’t want to say all street photography because every street photographer has a different style. To me, that’s what I want to showcase. I want to focus on human emotion.
“As an artist, you can do whatever — there are no rules, it’s your vision, what you want people to see.”
You walk around and see people every day, but you don’t know what they are going through, you don’t know what they are feeling. In my eyes, if I see a subject and take a photo, I want the other person to imagine, even with just a look, it can be sadness, it can be happiness, but I want to showcase that [feeling]…that’s why my photos are one subject. That, to me, is what I want you to see and to feel.
I want you to think a million stories when you look at my photos. And now, I know what I like so that’s why I keep pushing one subject. All my photos feel like they are sad, but they are not, they are just people living their daily lives. I notice those moments that most people would just walk by, but I notice them.
How does editing play a role in that style and your process overall?
To me, editing is one of my favorite things about the whole journey and process of photography. I can take a photo, and once I go home, and I see it and edit it, that’s when everything comes together. It’s like a puzzle piece is missing and I can just put it together and see the whole picture.
I enjoy editing so much, which is funny because most people don’t, they dread the editing process and they say that a photo shouldn’t be edited as much. To me, it’s the complete opposite. As an artist, you can do whatever you want — there are no rules, it’s your vision, it’s what you want people to see…I enjoy changing a photo, if its green and I want to make it blue, I can do that because it’s the way I see the world and the way that I want people to see my work. I enjoy it. I play music, I make a fresh cup of coffee, and I spend hours editing and I enjoy every single second of it.
How has your style played a role in your career as an Instagrammer?
I’m at a point where people know who I am and I think I have been myself throughout this whole process, with Instagram constantly changing and people just posting things that get likes and engagement. Through all of those years, I’ve stayed true to myself and that’s something I tell everyone going through a phase or doing Instagram as a living.
You have to stay true to yourself — you have to show people who you are. You have to embrace your style, embrace your vision and the way that you see the world. That’s something that I’m very proud of, that I haven’t changed — my style has changed, but my love for photography and humans has not.
I think companies see that. If companies want to hire me to travel [like Adobe], it’s because they want me to take my specific style to that country or that city. I’m getting a lot of invites from all over the world because they want me to do what I do and they never ask me to change. They never say you have to shoot sunrise and sunset because that’s pretty and you have to make this location beautiful, they never say that. They want me to do me in every place that I go to. That’s something to me that’s very beautiful, it’s inspiring, the fact that I don’t have to change my style just to travel the world. I’m not going to change, but the opportunities keep changing because of the way that I am.
What advice would you give to people looking to grow their Instagram influence?
I consider myself a photographer, even though I shoot mostly street photography, I shoot everything. I think photography is the way that you see something. It can be a tree, it can be an animal. I always tell people, shoot everything and find what you are really passionate about and then just keep working toward that.
“On Instagram, it’s important to have tones. You have to have a style of editing, something that’s going to attract people.”
Keep getting better, go out there everyday and take millions of photos. I’m the type of person that can go out for three hours and I’m going to have a thousand photos. I just like to shoot, I like to capture every moment out there. Go out there and the more you do it, the better you become. Your eye is going to change.
Find your voice and stick to it until people start seeing you and recognizing you as an artist. Once you have an audience, you can start shifting to something else, but if you don’t have an audience, you can’t do anything. You need to find your fanatics, your fans, the people that say I know who you are because you do this.
People are like, ‘oh you are Monaris, I love you work.’ I love that, I don’t mind that people recognize me for just my street photography and Instagram because I know who I am. Have that in your mind — you know who you are and your aesthetic.
If people scroll through your page and there’s nothing visually interesting, you’re not going to get a follower, they are just going to go back. On Instagram, it’s important to have tones. You have to have a style of editing, something that’s going to attract people. If you don’t have visual aesthetic, you won’t survive. That’s sad, but it goes back again to editing. If I were to have a page with no edits, I would not be here. It’s sad, but it’s true.
When you are taking someone’s photo, do you talk to them first? How do you approach them?
Every single time that I’m out there, it’s always candid. Ninety-nine percent of the photos, I never ask for permission, I never talk to my subject. I never pose them, because I want to them to be as organic as possible. If something is posed, to me, it’s not real, it’s posing.
After all the years that I’ve been doing street photography, I’ve learned how to work a scene. If I see someone that I want to take a portrait of, I set up, and most of the time, people are going to look at me. Now that my style has developed, I like that they look at me so I wait. At some point, they’ll look, and then I will take it. Then, I smile. I think that a smile goes a long way in street photography. A smile makes them comfortable — you’re not there to make them feel uncomfortable. And then I walk away.
For the most part, everywhere that I’ve been in the world, people react to street photography in a positive way. It has a lot to do with the way that I work and the way that I show them that I’m not doing anything bad, that it’s just a photo, and then I walk away.
Do you think Instagram has lost its original allure?
Instagram is such a big part of the world and humanity and people, people tend to just focus on the app. They just like to post to please other people, and I think it’s important as an artist and as a photographer to just post photos that mean something to you. Post what you love. Embrace the way that you are and the way that you see things. Forget about what people think of you and what people think of your work, if you love it, that should be enough, that should be what’s important. I think people forget that. You need to remind yourself that life is just beautiful and you should just post the type of work that means the most to you.