Artist Jose Ibarra Rizo captures the dignity of Georgia’s immigrants

His shared history informs the sensitive portrayals of his subjects.
An image by Jose Ibarra Rizo is projected through July 31 on Reverb hotel at 89 Centennial Olympic Park Drive in Atlanta for the outdoor digital art exhibition "Of the Fantastic: Extraordinary ATL." 
(Courtesy of Arts & Entertainment Atlanta)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

An image by Jose Ibarra Rizo is projected through July 31 on Reverb hotel at 89 Centennial Olympic Park Drive in Atlanta for the outdoor digital art exhibition "Of the Fantastic: Extraordinary ATL." (Courtesy of Arts & Entertainment Atlanta)

In the color photograph “Rose Grower,” a middle-aged man with a carefully groomed mustache stands on his glowing, green summer lawn. He wears a cowboy hat and neat but rumpled clothes. Behind him, taller than he is, a hedge of red roses and pink and white crape myrtle frame his body like a mink stole. The showy beauty of the flowers is picked up by the pink and red in his striped shirt. He’s taken a break — perhaps an unwelcome one, if his mildly surly expression is any indication — from tending his garden. In his right hand he holds a cloth bag filled with insecticide. He’s a retiree from Gainesville’s poultry industry, enjoying his golden years tending his roses.

The image was taken by José Ibarra Rizo, born in Guanajuato, Mexico, but raised in Gainesville, the place where he also photographs most of his subjects. Like a true native son, he’s only strayed as far as Milledgeville to study painting and drawing at Georgia College and State University, the first in his family to graduate from college. At 30 he’s created an emotionally loaded body of work centered on Atlanta’s immigrant population of first- and second-generation Mexicans, Hondurans, El Salvadorans, Guatemalans.

"Rose Grower" by Jose Ibarra Rizo
(Courtesy of Jose Ibarra Rizo)

Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

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Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

“Ultimately, the idea is to humanize the experience” of migration, says Rizo of his portraits.

His subjects are varied in age and interest, but they share common features, like the universally guarded expressions they often wear or the protective way they turn their bodies away from Rizo’s gaze. All of his subjects are also shot outside, which gives his portraits a romantic quality.

“What you’ll find in Gainesville is green open spaces. That’s one thing that I love about Georgia,” says Rizo. “I’ve been to plenty of other places. But how green this place is: That really speaks to me.”

In one image, two beautiful teenagers, dopey in love, embrace. Limbeth has perfect nails and glimmering skin; Karim wears an Atlanta Braves cap with the gold foil label still attached. In another photograph, a quartet of skateboarders hold their decks like shields, eyes hooded and chins thrust forward in gestures of preteen angst. In “Benito,” a young man in a neon yellow T-shirt (“highlighter colors,” Rizo calls those work-crew shades) faces away from the camera, his expression distant and dreamy. There’s a verse from Colossians ― “Whatever you do work at it with your heart” — on his shirt and graphic shapes cut into his ink black hair.

The images are a reminder of how genuinely exotic Georgia can be in that collision of lush green spaces and people of every type and nationality carving out individual dreams, digging their heels into the same red clay. It’s a place filled with unknown stories. Rizo allows us to ponder the beguiling mystery of other people’s lives.

"Sk8ers" by Jose Ibarra Rizo.
(Courtesy of Jose Ibarra Rizo)

Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

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Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

Rizo has shown his work at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia and Mint gallery, where he is a Leap Year Residency artist with his own studio space. He’s also the inaugural winner of a Mint and Atlanta Celebrates Photography fellowship awarded to an emerging Atlanta photographer.

His work will be featured alongside Demetri Burke’s at the new contemporary gallery NicholsAtlanta in July and is currently on view in the group show “Of the Fantastic: Extraordinary ATL,” an outdoor exhibition of digital signs from Arts & Entertainment Atlanta curated by Lauren Jackson Harris.

The show addresses the uniqueness of Atlanta despite gentrification and corporate self-promotion, as seen through the eyes of the city’s artists. The show features Rizo’s portrait “Giovanni” of a young man with a chainsaw standing next to his wood carving of a howling wolf. The piece appears at the Reverb Hotel by Hard Rock.

Rizo has the reflex Southerner’s tendency to pepper his conversation with “ma’ams” until you tell him not to. His parents Amelia and J. Dolores Ibarra both work in Gainesville’s poultry industry. Like so much of the immigrant community in Atlanta, they perform the invisible labor that brings food to our tables or gets our roads and sidewalks built.

Through his photographs Rizo wants to acknowledge and validate immigrants in the South. He will see an interesting person like an aspiring fashion model at a Chamblee apartment complex and ask to take pictures. Sometimes his subjects are resistant, not clear on his mission. Other times things fall into place and taking the photographs is easy because his subjects want to be seen.

But there’s a weight in taking the photographs, in representing a community that Rizo identifies with and respects.

“How do you share in a manner that’s honest? Because ultimately, I want to tell their story. I don’t think I’ll ever do it perfectly. But there is a responsibility, right? These people, I owe it to these people, to do it in a manner that honors them and honors their stories.”

Georgia photographer Jose Ibarra Rizo.
(Courtesy of Jose Ibarra Rizo)

Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

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Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

But it’s also Rizo’s story. “A lot of it is so much about my own personal identity. I’m constantly being challenged on what it feels to be a Mexican male. "

Rizo came to Gainesville with his mother from Guanajuato when he was 7, after his father scraped together enough money to hire a coyote.

“It’s always, like, I had one life and then I began another,” he says, thinking back to that journey. “I have very few memories of Mexico, but the ones that I do, you know, they’re very vivid.”

He remembers saying goodbye to his grandmother and then never seeing her again.

He remembers being as quiet as he could manage, lying in tall grass, hiding from border patrol agents, and getting into one of two Suburbans to be whisked away from the border. When the other Suburban was detained, its occupants captured, Rizo knew there was something of luck or fate in his odyssey. He remembers Amelia hiding money in the sole of his shoe to protect it from the thieves who eventually accosted and then robbed the migrants.

After being undocumented for five years, Rizo and his mother became citizens.

The unspoken bargain of the American dream is that if you are lucky enough to become a citizen, you become an American. And yet, Rizo’s work attests to a strange circumstance that often accompanies migration: a terminal restlessness and limbo where belonging isn’t instantly conferred with citizenship.

It’s the same sense of never fully belonging that some Black Americans have used to describe their experience, in which their presence, especially in public spaces, is scrutinized and questioned.

“I really do embrace that in between,” he says. As a result, he calls his contemplative portrait series “Somewhere In Between.”

His mentor Michael James O’Brien says this is a significant moment in photography’s history, defined by who is holding the camera and who is telling the story.

“Having queer and black and brown and female perspectives is critical right now,” says O’Brien, chair of the Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta’s photography department.

"Limbeth & Karim Forever" (2021).
(Courtesy of Jose Ibarra Rizo)

Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

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Credit: Jose Ibarra Rizo

“In talking to younger people, I emphasize that these voices were missing from these conversations even 10 years ago, and we cannot take anything for granted. Jose is willing to go deeper and deeper as well as wider in presenting a clear view of what he knows best — his own story and that of the people he knows. Sensitivity allows access.”

But sometimes it’s the things closest to an artist that can also be the most difficult to capture.

For Rizo, his biggest artistic challenge might be photographing the person who means the most to him, his protector and advocate: his mother, Amelia. How to render how hard she has worked and what she has sacrificed?

“I want to photograph her right after she gets off work. But it has to be in a way that elevates her,” he says.

That crushing weight again.

“How do I do that?”


“Of the Fantastic: Extraordinary ATL.” Through July 31. Free. Digital billboards at Reverb Hotel by Hard Rock, 89 Centennial Olympic Park Drive NW; Peachtree Center, 235 Peachtree St. NE; and Margaret Mitchell Square, 140 Peachtree St. NE.

Expanding Narratives: José Ibarra Rizo and Demetri Burke.” July 21-Aug. 26. By appointment only. Free. NicholsAtlanta gallery, 1080 W. Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta. 404-458-6131,