by Caleb Goellner

Hearing Colors: Five Questions with Pro Photographer Jaime Ibarra

Most photographers rely solely on their eyes to bring images to life, but for Jaime Ibarra, his art is also a matter of keeping his ears open. Born with synesthesia, Ibarra has been able to effectively “hear” colors his entire life. He shares this sense with other artists such as Vladimir Nabokov, David Hockney and Duke Ellington. Like these greats, Ibarra’s work is permeated by his other senses. We asked him about how hearing colors affects his work and how he creates images in which the saturation, luminosity and warmth offers a sensory experience even to those without synesthesia.

How do you describe your work?

At the core, I am a portrait photographer. I regularly work with experienced models to accomplish what I do. My aesthetic lies in an ethereal, moody, surrealistic, dream-like, edgy, sensual, provocative, and sometimes other-worldly realm. With all of my artistic endeavors, I enjoy a journey that consists of finding my own path. For me, it is more satisfying to discover things on my own, without the guidance and influence of others.

You describe yourself as a “Photographic Lyricist”. What does this mean?

I have played guitar as far back as I can remember, and have been a professional musician for most of my adult life. It wasn't until my late 30s that I learned I have synesthesia (a neurological condition in which there is a 'crossed wire' between two of the senses), which explained why I hear colors. It was shortly after I learned this that I began my pursuit of photography, in an attempt to dissect and make some personal sense out of the way I perceive colors and sound. My music and my photography compliment each other quite nicely, and together provide the ultimate creative outlet for me. One breeze stirs another. I think that most creative people are creative in more ways than one, and it is very important to have multiple outlets to express that creativity.

What tools do you use to create your images?

For photography, I've always kept a minimal set of gear. At any given time, I have only owned one camera body, along with one lens. I only recently bought a studio light, which I only use to emulate the window light I am so fond of shooting with (when it's 2 a.m. and the sun has clocked out for the day). I am definitely not a gearhead, when it comes to photography. For me, it's not at about equipment. I believe a good image starts in your mind, before you even pick up the camera. The camera is just a tool to externalize the image you have in your head. I've even done shoots with my phone. For post-production, I have a custom-built PC with an Intuos 5. I use Adobe CC, Capture One Pro, and VSCO Lightroom presets (for final polish). The truth is, most of the magic happens in post.

What was the transition from mouse to pen tablet like?

About 3 years ago, my friend Trey Ratcliff (of came over to my house for the first time, looked at my editing setup, and asked 'Where is your pen tablet?’ Embarrassed that I did not own one, I replied 'Oh… it's at the store with the other ones, on a shelf'. He said he was surprised that I did not actually own (or use) one, and I told him that I've just been using a mouse this entire time (over the past 9 years). He instantly told me about all the things that I could do with one — things that were simply not possible with a mouse alone. The next day, I purchased my first Intuos tablet, and began immersing myself in it. Admittedly, it felt 'alien' to me, but after a couple of weeks, I began to attenuate to it nicely. Once it felt comfortable, I began to explore techniques that were not an option with a mouse, and an entire world opened up before me. I haven't looked back, since. The Intuos is an indispensable tool for me now.

Finally, all artists face challenges. How do you overcome them?

Early on (when I was trying to figure out exactly what it was I wanted to shoot), I recall encountering things I did not enjoy, but rather than frustrate myself further with them, I simply moved forward in my explorations. I immediately know what I enjoy producing, and embrace those things fully. Onward and upward, I say.