The first time I met Donna Guerreros was seven years ago. She was photographing a comedy show I was on. We spent the spare time before my set snapping pics in the graffiti-covered bathroom. It wasn’t until much later, after our friendship had developed, that I found out she had a secret day job working as a registered nurse case manager for rare cancers at the largest cancer hospital in the city. It blew apart everything I thought I knew about her.
By day, she’s helping people during the worst time of their lives, and then at night, Donna plays the cool-girl photog as she’s welcomed into the hippest parts of NYC. And yet, her double life makes perfect sense: this is a person who’s ready to get down and dirty no matter what the environment is.
Tonight, I’m digging into this duality by following Donna from the hospital to multiple photo shoots to try to wrap my head around how she manages it all.
In the few minutes I wait in the lobby of the hospital, I see multiple patients being wheeled on beds out the door heading to hospice. Donna’s told me this is what she does, but only now does it really click how heavy her day-to-day actually is.
Thankfully, I don’t have to wait too long before Donna comes down the escalator in her white lab coat, grinning, sticking her tongue out, and holding up two peace signs. It felt like she had opened the windows and let the air in. She gives me a big hug, wipes something off the chair next to me, and takes a seat.
“I hope that wasn’t part of somebody’s body,” she says of whatever she wiped off the chair. She’s joking, I hope.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“Two people died,” she says, and then the weight of it appears in her eyes. “I’ll probably cry about that in the cab. One of them was 35.”
We leave the hospital and get in a cab and head downtown.
“So, where are we going? What are we doing?” I ask.
Donna tells me we’re going to shoot photos of two women for a project she’s working on. The project tells the stories of women who are striking out on their own to pursue their dreams of starting their own businesses. She’s titled it “The Donnas,” partly because it’s her name, but also because in Italian it means “The Women.”
“First we’re going to meet up with Sarah,” says Donna. “She’s part of the family who owns Raffetto’s Pasta, and the next generation that will be taking over the business. From there we’re gonna head to Ariel’s — she’s one of the GMs at Scarr’s Pizza and a writer — and we’ll do some portraits of her at the pizza shop after hours.”
“Is this your typical schedule?” I ask.
Donna laughs. “Trying to do a hundred things at once? Yeah, pretty much. I don’t have that many hours during the week ‘cause I work ‘til five, so I have to cram stuff in after work or shoot on the weekends.”
Donna takes out a paper towel she stole from the hospital bathroom, cleans the mirror in her makeup bag, and begins her transition from nurse to night owl.
“This is the hard part,” she says, as she carefully lines her lips in a bright red as the cab jostles down the FDR.
“I’ve been very fascinated by the struggle that women in the restaurant industry have had to go through,” Donna says. “And now, we’re at this nice position where women are making their mark. I want to photograph that, document that. I’m really interested in their motivation. Especially people who started in a different industry but decided to do this. Why do you wake up to make bread? Why did you leave finance to go open a burger shop? What drove you to do that? And it’s really inspiring to me because I’m trying to do two things, so to hear someone else’s story, and why they get out of bed, how they keep going, it’s very inspiring.”
We exit the cab in the Lower East Side because we have a little time before the first shoot, so we walk to Raffetto’s. On the way Donna points out all the women-owned businesses.
“I can’t wait to get out of these clothes,” she says. “I’ve been in them since 5:30 this morning.”
I ask Donna how she decompresses between her day and night gigs.
“Usually I’ll watch a video of someone making bread. There’s a guy on YouTube who makes three course meals for his cats. I still haven’t really dealt with the deaths... I’ll probably do that on the way to Ariel’s.”
Sarah, our first subject, lives above the shop and meets us on the sidewalk to let us in. She and Donna hug like they were high school BFFs, but this is only the second time they’ve met.
The second we walk in, we’re hit with the most amazing smells, and there are a million things to look at. Rows of fresh pasta and prepared dishes line the wall. Behind the counter, dried pasta lives in glass-front drawers. Photos of three generations of pasta-makers are hung on the wooden walls. Beyond that, you can see straight to the back, where they keep the flour and prep tables, so you know whatever you’re eating came from exactly ten feet away. This place has all the old-world charm developers in Williamsburg would pay millions to recreate.
“I want you to be like a rock star,” Donna tells Sarah, on her way to the bathroom to finally change out of her day clothes. When she comes back, I ask Donna what the plan is.
“We’ll figure that out. I always have some ideas, but I try not to pin myself down too much so I can work together with who I’m shooting in case they have ideas. I don’t want to tell them what they have to do.”
While Donna sets up lights, Sarah feeds me rosemary chicken pasta, and I’m telling you, it’s gnarly delicious. They’ve got Drake pumping through the speakers, and we eat everything in the store. It’s as much a hang as a photo shoot, but on the sly Donna never stops working. One second she has food in her mouth, and the next it’s “Sarah, look at me” and the snapping of her camera.
Donna wants to shoot Sarah with the family’s century-old pasta-cutting machine, but first she makes Sarah teach her how to use it, so she’ll know what the shots should look like.
“Okay, now get on the machine... like, really sexy,” Donna tells Sarah.
Donna’s subjects are not models. She has to direct them and make them feel comfortable in front of a camera. Her ability to earn her subjects’ trust is what sets her apart. It’s a mix of humility, confidence, and love, skills she’s honed at the hospital, where she makes people feel as comfortable as possible.
Sarah cuts pasta just like her grandparents did 100 years ago, only slightly more glamorously, with her hair and makeup done and wearing a sparkly dress. Her hands are covered in semolina as she holds up two handfuls of fresh linguini.
“I want people to see how insanely gorgeous and beautiful she is, and how this next generation of owners is doing everything. Pop-up dinners at night... the food during the day… the Instagram. This next era is more than the white lab coat [worn by the Raffetto’s staff]. It’s the hip hop music. We’re not having the dinner parties our parents had. She’s a badass but she still throws down dinner like nonna.”
“Oh my god, you have to look,” Donna tells Sarah, showing her some shots on her camera.
Sarah shrieks, “I am so loving this!” and they hug while jumping up and down.
We arrive at Scarr’s, an ultra-hip pizza shop with retro get-a-slice-after-school vibes, but much warmer, with lots of dark wood and hip-hop paraphernalia everywhere you look.
We’re here to take photos of Ariel, Scarr’s GM, who’s trying to break into a writing career. The place is still too packed for a proper photo shoot, so we’re forced to eat a bunch of pizza while we wait.
Donna gestures to my table.
“These are from a bowling alley in New Jersey. I know way too much about this. Did I tell you how Ariel and I met? I was here eating pizza and she broke her leg open.”
Donna explains that she took photos of Ariel’s leg and sent them to her hospital’s wound care specialist, then brought Ariel back to her apartment to properly dress it.
The crowd has cleared out, and Donna sets up shots while the rest of the world is going to sleep. Once some lights are up, Donna announces she’s taking over as DJ and plugs in her own phone to play Ariana Grande. It isn’t until then that I realize we’d been listening to men all night. Not that it matters, but it kinda does.
Donna grabs a bunch of empty pizza boxes from the front of the store and arranges them all over the table, giving Ariel a sort of queen-of-the-fort vibe.
Donna says, “I just want a photo of how I see her, ‘cause a lot of the time you shoot your friends really well because you know how you see them and how they look best.”
“What are you working on these days?” Donna asks Ariel, who’s posed in the corner of the restaurant with her notebook.
“I’m writing about my mom, so...” Ariel trails off.
“So, a little emo?”
Donna has a great mind for remembering past conversations, which allows her to communicate in an emotional shorthand.
“Close your eyes,” Donna says. She grabs Ariel’s shoulders and shimmies her to loosen her up.
“You ready, girl?”
Donna sets Ariel up on the back of those bowling alley tables and starts giving meticulous direction. “Take your left foot and move back... the other way. Better. And now lean. And pull the elbow back… yes, and your hand closer to the thing…. yeah, perfect.”
Donna has her totally posed, and yet, she’s more natural than when she was unposed.
“Did I take you away from your man tonight?” Donna asks.
“Nah, I already made out with him today,” Ariel replies.
Donna’s question gets her laughing, and then: snap snap snap.
Donna finally wraps the shoot, somehow still full of energy. Throughout the night I kept thinking about her patients that died and how that might be affecting her. Now that the night’s work is over, it feels safe to ask.
“Tonight was actually a good distraction, ‘cause I kept moving, and this is happening, so I needed to shift gears mentally,” Donna says. “But am I going to lay in bed tomorrow for a bit, listen to Fenne Lily and Fionn Regan and let myself be sad? Probably. But for now, you need to be ‘on,’ channel it into something creative.”
As she packs up the rest of her gear, I ask Donna why she pushes herself so hard. Earlier she said she likes to know what drives people, so I want to know what drives her.
“I like the behind-the-scenes of someone’s process because so many people don’t realize how much goes into something. Like at a restaurant we enjoy the food. Or fashion week… the clothes, wearing them, dressing up. But there are weeks, months, sometimes years that go into that one thing and that’s what interests me. That’s what I want to capture.”
Donna helps Ariel close up the shop, which involves a lot of intricate gate-locking. As we walk away, Donna remembers Scarr’s has a walk-up window. She looks at me.
“Shoot, I want to get one of her in that.”
Myka Fox is a very cool writer, comedian, and radio personality in NYC currently staffed at Comedy Central. Every Friday night you can see her live as host of the very cool comedy show “Live From Outer Space” at the Cobra Club. She also serves as a ghostwriter for several celebrity Twitter and Instagram accounts, she’d say who but then they’d stop paying her so you’re just going to have to take her word for it. But trust her, they are very, very cool. Future employers, please do not follow Myka on Twitter or Instagram.