Life is an adventure for Camera Operator Wylda Bayrón. Since 2005, the New York-based camera operator has divided her time between work on television series and indie films and traveling the world creating stunning images of tribal peoples.
“My real job pays for my dream job. It’s pretty cool!” said Bayrón, who worked with Director of Photography Tim Ives on the FX series “Fosse/Verdon,” about the collaboration between choreographer Bob Fosse and his muse and wife, dancer Gwen Verdon. “In New York, it’s the envy of the town. Not only do we get to recreate scenes from ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Sweet Charity,’ but it’s all interiors, beautiful period sets.”
Bayrón had previously worked with Ives on the HBO series “Girls” and NBC’s “Manifest.” Her director of photography credits include “Orange is the New Black” and “Madame Secretary” while she’s served as camera operator on “The Good Fight” and “Amy Schumer Live at the Apollo.” It’s the culmination of a childhood dream.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, where her father was a lighting and sound engineer for a theater, Bayrón often found herself wrangling cables and watching rehearsals, which “inspired me to want to tell stories.” A music video she created won her a scholarship to Syracuse University where she gravitated to cinematography. By graduation she had shot a feature and several shorts, enough to land her a paying job as a loader on an indie film in New York City.
“As with life, in cinematography you learn by filling in the blanks,” Bayrón said. “You observe, learn and apply.”
Things changed in 2005 when she got hired as a camera assistant for a film shooting in Singapore. She asked the production if her ticket back could be one week after production wrapped, so she could spend a week exploring Malaysia. That week turned into an 18-month solo trek through Papua New Guinea, with its world heritage sites and 850 ethnic tribes. Bayrón discovered an artistic calling “connecting with people through a lens” while focusing on still images instead of video.
“Video takes a team. I was by myself, and really enjoyed the instant-messaging of the still image,” she said. “There’s something magical and contemplative that only stills give. The viewer is not being told how to feel by music or the next image. It’s just them and the image and their emotions do what they do.”
For the next decade Bayrón arranged her schedule so she could work for six months then hit the road, dividing her time between well-paid work with the likes of Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey and Cyndi Lauper and adventures to the far corners of the earth, living with Chimbu tribespeople and other ethnic minorities.
“The more remote and unique,” she says, “the better.”
Bayrón traces her interest in ethnic tribes to her family’s cultural heritage. Her first name, which rhymes with “Hilda,” prompted her friends to coin the slogan, “into the Wylderness!” With barely more than a Canon 5D Mark II, her cell phone and a solar charger, Bayrón has documented the peoples of more than 30 countries on six continents – all but Antarctica. Her art is called ethnography, the research of living cultures through social relations. She embeds with each group she photographs, staying in their homes and learning the language.
“The minute I land in a country there are 25 phrases I immediately learn, and eventually I’ll add 25 more – enough to get around and have a fun conversation about family and food,” Bayrón said. “And that opens the kingdom. Once they hear you say those first words, their hearts open up, their eyes open up, and they let you in.”
It’s effort well-rewarded. Bayrón’s images have won several prizes and she is now represented by the Andrew Baker Gallery in Australia, where 50 of her handmade platinum palladium prints recently hung as a one-woman show. In June, the Musée de la Castre in Cannes, France featured 40 of her works, printed as large as 6’x4’, in a show called “Heroes and Spirits of New Guinea.”
“The Taino people of Puerto Rico were decimated with colonialism. What’s left are words, some objects, but no living culture of my people,” Bayrón said. “In places in the world lucky enough to still have tribal cultures, I wanted to do my part to document that. It’s a way of exploring my past while getting to make art that lasts forever. It’s really been a beautiful journey.”