DARIEN — Isabel Castro’s first passion was photography. Not journalism, not producing, not filming — photography.
Born in Mexico City and a Darien resident since her elementary school years, Castro remembers taking her mother’s Canon AE 1 camera as she traveled with her family and feeling “empowered” as she captured moments through the lens.
“I was always very curious from a young age,” Castro, 28, said. “I took up photography at age 12 and it gave me an excuse to explore different people and places in situations that I normally wouldn’t be in.”
One of those situations turned out to be that of LGBT immigrants who were seeking asylum in the United States. A family friend who worked as an immigration lawyer made an offhand comment about the precarious situation of LGBT asylum seekers and Castro was immediately hooked.
“One of my biggest strengths and weaknesses is that I become obsessed,” Castro, the now Brooklyn resident, said. “I read asylum law and became very interested in LGBT communities. I wanted to go out and meet them myself and I had no intention other than I was a very curious person.”
While her plan was originally to construct a photo essay on the topic for her thesis project at New York University, Castro realized the project demanded a different type of medium: video.
“As much as I loved photography, listening and hearing these stories showed me they were a lot more nuanced than what photography could capture. It motivated me to pursue a documentary and in this four-year long exploration, I fell in love with documentary filming,” Castro said.
Katrina Sorrentino, a fellow producer and filmmaker, developed a friendship with Castro when they studied abroad in Cuba in 2010. Sorrentino was amazed when Castro showed her the footage from the LGBT project.
“I thought the footage was incredible and we decided to work on the documentary and that started the long process of filmmaking and fundraising,” Sorrentino said.
That four-year long project culminated in a feature-length film titled “Crossing Over” distributed by Univision and Pivot (Participant Media) and won a 2015 GLAAD Media Award (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for the best documentary film in Spanish.
Both Castro and Sorrentino admitted that the process of filming and fundraising was exhausting, and at times money was uncertain, but that the final project was well worth all their efforts.
From 2014 to 2017, Castro was an associate producer and eventually producer at VICE Media a setting that allowed her to explore the video storytelling format further. As a producer, Castro helped launch VICE News tonight on HBO covering civil rights and policy. Her work on series ranging from the use of synthetic heroin in the United States and sea life facing extinction have been nominated for Emmy Awards.
“I learned a lot as there were a wide array of stories. It taught me how to learn, how to read and a lot about storytelling. I still have a lot to learn but I’m a very aesthetic person and I want to continue as an independent filmmaker,” Castro said.
Even with years of experience and awards under her belt, Castro continues to push herself at work, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated environment.
“One of the single most frustrating things about production is how difficult it is to be a woman in production. There’s not many cinematographers in that space and when a majority are white dudes that film, you start to get increasingly frustrated. I only have myself to blame and learn how to shoot better and that’s where I’m at now, I’m motivated,” Castro said.
As a Mexican immigrant growing up in Darien, Castro said she always felt accepted in the community and welcomed the friends who were curious about her country of origin and culture. It’s in this context, Castro said, that she acquired a unique perspective that she has developed ever since her work in “Crossing Over.”
“I have a lot of empathy for the spectrum of beliefs that I think are currently very antagonistic right now,” Castro said. “The thing that impacted me the most was seeing how hard my parents worked to provide me with opportunities that others took for granted. I think it’s a good reason that motivated me to pursue storytelling because I think it’s an integral part of bridging gaps between people’s understandings.”
In the Trump era, Castro has also dedicated her efforts as a producer in a documentary project titled “America Uprising” that chronicles the waves of social protest throughout the country ranging from women’s rights to migrant farmworkers. Though Castro is no longer producing with “America Uprising,” she continues to assist with outreach and distribution.
And despite the sleep deprivation, gut-wrenching stories and uncertainty that the profession of journalism and filmmaking entail, Castro is set on pursuing the career. Her current project, once again alongside Sorrentino, chronicles the life of a mixed-status family.
“The most exciting and challenging thing about journalism is that I feel sometimes pulled in a million directions. I hear and see something that will send me down a rabbit hole and it’s an insane privilege to be able to make a living from those rabbit holes but it can be emotionally taxing as well,” Castro said.