Creating an inclusive portrait of Star Wars fandom

Creating an inclusive portrait of Star Wars fandom
In her ongoing project, Fandom Unbound, photographer Rhynna Santos is creating the community she lacked in her youth.

Documentary photographer Rhynna Santos sparkles with excitement as she thinks back to the first time she saw Star Wars at the movies during her childhood in Puerto Rico. From the first thunderclap of the film’s brash overture, Santos was instantly hooked by epic David and Goliath story set in outer space.

“I couldn't speak English, so I didn't know what people were saying but from the first scene I was visually taken aback, just terrified and excited at the same time,” Santos says. “I completely fell in love with it.”

After Santos’s parents divorced, she moved to California and was immediately confronted by the twin engines of racism and xenophobia. Although the United States has maintained colonial control over Puerto Rico since 1898, its citizens have long been openly treated as second class.

Star Wars, with its Resistance formed against the Empire became an oasis into which Santos could escape; but she remembers, “It was a really lonely experience. I was always ashamed of liking Star Wars because people really bullied me. I didn't want to tell people what a big nerd I really was.”

With the passage of time, the script has flipped as the Star Wars universe has become a beloved franchise the world over. With the arrival of conventions, a new era of fandom emerged. Santos attended her first convention and immediately felt at home. “I began to understand I wasn't the only one that loved Star Wars deep in their heart,” she says.

But the bigotries of the outside world remained. Santos witnessed a plus size woman dressed as Queen Amidala win the annual costume contest amidst an ugly spectacle of fatphobia. Growing up as a plus sized person, she understood the lay of the land and used it to pave her own path, returning the following year with camera in hand, ready to connect her new passion for photography with her secret love of Star Wars.

“I wanted to photograph people like me what I didn't see in fandom, which were plus size women and people of colour. That is where ‘Fandom Unbound’ began,” Santos says. “Then I started doing audio interviews to hear other people's experiences with being rejected within fandom because of being of colour or their size, and also the pain of not being seen and it only but made me even more energy to the project.”

As a lifelong fan, Santos understands Star Wars lore runs deep, its constructs and complexities giving many outsiders a feeling of being seen in a culture that capitalises on erasure and conformity. With the ongoing series “Fandom Unbound,” Santos celebrates people across race, gender, ability, and body type, giving everyone a moment of recognition that possesses unlimited power.

As an adult Santos can now give herself the community she lacked in her youth, and in turn provide for other fans. “I felt like if I don't make these photos, no one else will like,” she says. “These are the photos I wish I had seen as a kid. It would have made a big difference for me.”

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