photo © Fernando Decillis
Hailing from Uruguay, and settling in Atlanta at age 10, Fernando Decillis took up photography as a career after his immigration status prevented him from attending college on a football scholarship. Maybe the visual deities had a better plan for Fernando as he’s now an award-winning photographer working with yards of famous clients. In 2018, he took first place in two different APA National Awards categories: Celebrity/Musician and Documentary/Editorial. Typically, the same person won’t be selected for first place in two fields for the same year. I’m told Fernando’s scores were so high, they couldn’t be ignored.
Fernando certainly has a gold-star formula for depicting all types of people. On his website, he showcases an instantly noticeable and exceptional style of portrait and storytelling photography. But this is what is more noticeable: As you go through the images it’s clear he has photographed superstars, and while many photographers would lead with a prominent “CELEBRITY” tag, Fernando doesn’t even list celebrity as a specialty. Instead, the farm worker, the protestor, the kids—and Matthew McConaughey—are all presented equally. I felt an immediate yearning to know more about who is behind this lens.
How were you introduced to photography and when did you begin to take it seriously as a way to make a living?
When I was 21, I was going to Borders and picking up photography books. That’s when the learning process started, but I’m still learning (he laughs). I’m more of a “show me how to do it” person than a “read about it” person, so I wanted to take classes. I signed up for an intro to photography class at Showcase, a local camera store in Atlanta.
There, I learned how to work a 35mm camera from photographer David Knox. Then, I took a second class with him. At the end of that class, David asked me what I was doing with my life. I wasn’t sure. I had no clue photography could be a career. He suggested that I think about making photography my career. I don’t remember if I thought this to myself or if I said it to him, but I remember thinking, “How in the world can I make a living taking pictures?”
Was there another occupation you were drawn to before this?
My life plan coming out of high school was to go to college on a football scholarship. I was a kicker for my high school football team, and I was lucky to have a coach who really believed in my ability. He made a reel and submitted it to all kinds of universities; scouts came to our games to watch me kick. As a result, I received letters of interest and scholarship offers from some universities.
Back then, DACA wasn’t a thing. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is an immigration option for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16.) During the admissions process for the school I chose, I was told that as an illegal alien, I was not eligible for an athletic scholarship. I moved to the US with my parents when I was 10 and they applied for their papers as soon as they got here, but as a minor, I had to wait for their citizenship to be granted before I could apply. Their legal residency with a path to citizenship came through right around the time I was graduating from high school. Mine would take another five years. I felt like I missed my opportunity to go to college.
A year went by after the photography classes and I kept thinking about what David Knox said. I went on taking pictures with the little knowledge that I had. I’d shoot portraits of my family and fashion stories with my friends. I kept reading photography books. On the suggestion of a friend, I checked out Portfolio Center’s photography program. Then, finally, my residency came through. The first thing I did was go to Portfolio Center to square away my funding for their two-year program in photography.
Wow. I’m continually amazed at how life-changing these delays can be. What was the experience like for you at Portfolio Center?
Walking into the halls and seeing the other students’ work was so intimidating. I thought I would never be able to make pictures like this. Self-doubt set in deep. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I guess I’m still not sure how it’s going.
Portfolio Center taught me how to follow through with assignments. I had to execute my ideas. I couldn’t afford to wait until everything was perfect—I had to problem solve on a timeline to make images and accept the outcome. I learned about the history of photography and was introduced to some of my favorite photographers. I got to put what I was doing naturally into a bigger context and dive deeper into the aesthetics that interest me. All the teachers were working professionals. It was really inspiring to learn from people who made a career doing what I was learning. I knew they knew what they were talking about.