See Panama photographer Sandra Eleta’s intimate portraits of the community of Portobelo, Colón Province at Coya Restaurant, Mayfair. She tells Kat Hopps more about the photography on show.

How did you get into photography?
It was a natural decision. I studied Fine Arts in Finch College, New York. Photography became a means to connect; I’ve always been a very shy person. While in New York I took some workshops with Ken Heyman who was a decisive person for me because he taught me certain steps to break through with my shyness.

How did you begin photographing in Portobelo?
A man called D’Orcy, who was said to have saved my grandfather’s life, left him his house, which was passed down to my father. I walked in many years later when I was living in New York and had this strong sense of belonging, which I never had had in my life before.

What kinds of photos did you take?
I started photographing midwives but I knew those photos didn’t work. My father appeared with a totally different camera, a 35mm one: it forced me to look through it differently, which meant the rhythm was slower, giving me the space to connect with the person. It changed my way of photographing by bringing the person in and exchanging energies.

How did the community feel about being photographed?
At first, I was the only white person there, and I was living in the house of a dead man… then the children became my connection to the town. Slowly people began to open up but without it being forced – it came naturally.

Parajito, c. 2006. Digital print.

Parajito, c. 2006. Digital print.

Do you have any favourite images?
Putulungo el pulpero (the man holding the octopus) represents a lot of the energy and vitality of the connection with nature. And Pajita: he was a dancer called so because in the old days, Pajita would be the person who would sing from the trees like a bird, meaning the Spaniards were coming – so when he danced he was Pajita. It’s like an existential link to the role of history.

Why are the pictures primarily in black and white?
Every situation calls for a different thing: you can get wrapped up with the colour, but to me it doesn’t have the penetration, power and intimacy of a black and white photograph. I hope I’m able to transmit what I felt when I was photographing: all that warmth, connection and magic.

Why are you exhibiting at Coya?
Rodolfo Milesi of Branding Latin America Group called several times, explaining that Coya was a restaurant that cares about Latin America, and had exhibited Martin Chambi, the 20th century Peruvian photographer. He was a photographer I always loved so I thought it must be an interesting place to be.

Exhibition runs until end of November at Coya Restaurant. 118 Piccadilly W1J 7NW; for info on the artist, visit sandraeleta.com