Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Bronx Documentary Center

The Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) opened in 2011 as an exhibition and educational space dedicated to the promotion of photography and film as a means to achieve social change.

The BDC is free to the public and it offers students, the local community and New Yorkers in general an opportunity to meet and engage with leading journalists, photographers, and filmmakers. Its goal, stated on its web page, is to stimulate discussion and promote "peace and social progress."

Bronx Documentary Center, 614 Courtlandt Avenue, The Bronx, NYC

Bronx Documentary Center, Attendees with Ben Fernandez, The 60s: Decade of Change show, May-July 2014,  The Bronx, NYC

The photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. (see above) was taken by Benedict J. Fernandez. This blow-up was placed in the BDC's window for the exhibition of Fernandez's documentary photography from the 1960s. Dr. King's image remained in the BDC window for most of 2014, and for obvious reasons.

In his brief thirteen years as the leader of America's Civil Rights Movement, Dr, King achieved major successes in regard to  eliminating racial segregation and voter discrimination and to promoting racial equality. He also organized the Poor People's Campaign of 1968 to champion the economic rights of all Americans. 

This 1968 Campaign, carried out by Ralph Abernathy after Dr. King's assassination, was truly a multi-racial effort. And so, Dr. King's prominent image is particularly relevant to this South Bronx street corner in the Melrose area. Melrose, according to the latest census data, is the "most impoverished" area of New York City. Moreover, the same census data asserts that the Bronx is the  "most diverse area in the country."  Dr. King may have been born and brought up in Atlanta, but surely his work has earned him a special place in the Bronx.

Bronx Documentary Center, Opening, Seis del Sur: Dispatches from Home show, January-March 2013,  The Bronx, NYC

The large crowd seen in this photograph typifies the attendance at BDC exhibition openings. These openings always draw from a large and diverse community; they offer clear evidence of how successful BDC is by its own standards. As it states on its web page, "Too often, documentary work is done in poor communities and presented for a small audience elsewhere. The BDC is committed to changing this dynamic and has become a bridge for cultural exchange in the Bronx and beyond."

Bronx Documentary Center, Mike Kamber, Founder/Executive Director, The Bronx, NYC

The driving force behind the BDC is its Executive Director, Michael Kamber. An award-winning photojournalist himself, Kamber lived in the Bronx in the 1980s. He then worked in the field for over twenty-five years, eventually covering the Iraq War for the New York Times as a writer and photographer from 2003-2012. 

I recommend this very revealing interview of him which appeared in 2013 in the magazine, Aperture.  The photograph above was taken at the start of the 2013 Gentrification Conference, another recurring event sponsored by the BDC.

Mike Kamber, Portraits of Survival show, 2013, Bronx Art Space, 305 East 140th Street, The Bronx, NYC

Here are four photographs by Michael Kamber from a show of his work at the Bronx Art Space, located about fourteen blocks south of the BDC. 

From left-to-right, these photos show a man sleeping with an assault rifle under his head (Somalia, ca. 2007);  four women in burqas (Afghanistan, ca. 2010);  an Air Force Veteran wearing a vest of identifying patches and a cap reading "Vets Don't Forget" (Bronx, 2011);  a man on a cot with amputated leg (Iraq, 2008). For more examples of Kamber's photography, see his web page. Also, go here to read some of his articles for the New York Times.  

Bronx Documentary Center, Window Shrine,  The Bronx, NYC: Steven Sotloff [left]; Tim Hetherington [center]; James Foley [right]

Bronx Documentary Center, Window Shrine,  The Bronx, NYC: Tim Hetherington [left]; Steven Sotloff [center]; James Foley [right]

The easternmost window of the BDC exhibition space has become a permanent shrine memorializing war photojournalists and colleagues of Mike Kamber. The British-American photographer, Tim Hetherington, was an especially close friend of Kamber's, and the two of them had once discussed the idea of jointly opening a gallery and educational center for photography. Sadly, on April 20, 2011, Hetherington was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Misurata while covering the Libyan conflict.

The BDC inaugurated its new space in the fall of 2011 with a show  of never-before seen photos by Tim Hetherington titled Visions: Tim Hetherington.  The show was selected from the final 40 undeveloped rolls of Tim's film, given by the family to Mike Kamber.

The photograph of Hetherington initiated this window shrine. Two others would follow two years later.  James Foley was beheaded by ISIS in Syria in August of 2014.  Steven Sotloff met with the same, horrific fate in September, two weeks later.

Bronx Documentary Center, Seis del Sur: Dispatches from Home show, January-March 2013,  The Bronx, NYC

Here is an installation view of an exhibition of the work of six Bronx photographers who documented the South Bronx in the late 1970s-early 1980s--the period of its worst urban decay.  For more images of this exhibition, see my blog post of January 31, 2013, "THE SOUTH BRONX: Seen Through the Eyes of 'Seis del Sur'."

Bronx Documentary Center, Wall Descriptor, Carlos Javier Ortiz: We All We Got show, January-March 2015,  The Bronx, NYC

Carlos Javier Ortiz, Cry, 2008, Carlos Javier Ortiz: We All We Got show, Bronx Documentary Center, The Bronx, NYC

Carlos Ortiz, a documentary photographer and filmmaker, is drawn to the subjects of urban life, race, poverty and gun violence. This show--We All We Got--focuses on youth violence during an eight year period (2006-2013) in Chicago and Philadelphia.

In the photograph directly above, we see the mother of Fakhur Uddin on the ground, weeping uncontrollably, as police investigate.  Her 20-year old son, a college student, was found inside the family's store in Germantown, PA, bound with duct tape and shot in the back of his head.

Bronx Documentary Center, Viewer, The 60s: Decade of Change show, May-July 2014,  The Bronx, NYC

Here, from another exhibition, a viewer reflects on some of the photographs of Benedict J. Fernandez, born in East Harlem in 1936 to a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother. 

The mix of friends in his Harlem neighborhood--Jews, Muslims, African-Americans--awakened Ben to the fact, in his words, "that here were people that had no choice and were being taken advantage of and they did not accept that.... I decided I needed to do the same thing." 

"My photographs became my protest," he recalled.

Bronx Documentary Center, Guest with MLK, The 60s: Decade of Change show, May-July 2014,  The Bronx, NYC

Ben Fernandez met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967 and became a frequent guest at Dr. King's Atlanta home. Also, he covered the Poor People's Campaign in Washington (mentioned earlier), among several others from this period of 1960s unrest.

Ben Fernandez, May 2014, Bronx Documentary Center, The 60s: Decade of Change show, The Bronx, NYC

Here, Ben Fernandez answers questions and discusses one of his prints during the opening of his show. The exhibition contains both some of his vintage prints as well as never-before-seen prints from his archived negatives.

For more on Ben Fernandez, I recommend that you open his web page and read the appreciation of him written by David C. Levy, who had been the Executive Dean at the Parsons School of Design before becoming the Director of the Corcoran Museum. It offers keen insights into the inspiration and creative rebellion of this important photographer.

Albert Maysles (with MC Danielle Jackson), Outdoor screening of Gimme Shelter, Bronx Documentary Center, August 7, 2014
Another aspect of the BDC is its free documentary film screenings. In the summer, these are shown in its back yard. Screenings take place every Saturday and often bring in the film's directors or producers to participate in public discussions of their work. 

Here we see the pioneering documentarian/cinematographer/film director, Albert Maysles, answering questions about Gimme Shelter, his film about the 1969 Rolling Stones American tour. Seven months after coming to the Bronx for this event, Albert Maysles died at the age of 88

How appropriate that one of Albert Maysles last public appearances was at the Bronx Documentary Center. His work perfectly captures the spirit that the BDC seeks inculcate in and disseminate to the younger generation of Bronx photographers. 

To quote him:

As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality....and the closer I adhere to reality, the more honest and authentic my tales.  After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.

Bronx Documentary Center, Cover of National Review (October 1, 2012), Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography show, June-August 2015, The Bronx, NYC

This final photograph illustrates one way in which the BDC works to make this world a better place.  This exhibition, which will remain on view until August 2, 2015, holds an ethical magnifying glass directly over the heart of the documenters of "reality:" our newspapers and news magazines.

Titled Altered Images, this exhibit selects well-known images from the earliest history of photojournalism to the present day, all of which are revealed to have been altered, staged or faked. As James Estrin writes in his review for the New York Times, "there is enough material to leave many news organizations red-faced."

The National Review ought to be among the most red-faced of the lot, as it published an image ostensibly taken of Barack Obama as he addressed the Democratic Convention in September, 2012.  Its image shows Obama looking out at a sea of blue placards displaying the word "ABORTION."  What Obama really saw that early September day in Charlotte, North Carolina were placards displaying the word "FORWARD."

So, here, a major news magazine unveiled its conservative, partisan stripes in a most egregious manner and, in the process, it did an unforgivable disservice to Reuters news agency (to which this photograph is attributed) by altering the original. No longer is this news. Nor is it even adulterated or sweetened news. With this alteration, it has become deceitful propaganda.

I will let Mike Kamber, a respected photojournalist in his own right, have the last word on this. "Mr. Kamber proudly admits" (writes James Estrin in his Times article) "that he is from 'the old school' and sees good journalism as the front line of democracy. The public must have faith in the veracity of photojournalists, he said."

Amen to that, and amen to all that Michael Kamber's tutelage and energy are bringing to the Bronx and New York City.

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