Local Photographers Take Back the South Bronx

Alena Maschke
Feb 21, 2017 · 4 min read

The New York Times recently named the South Bronx one of its top places to visit in 2017. At the Bronx Documentary Center, photographers of all ages are able to develop and exhibit their work in an effort to promote local perspectives.

Ed Alvarez describes himself as a ‘first-generation Nuyorican,”. Alvarez is one of 18 photographers featured in the first book released by the Bronx Photo League, an organization that fosters local photographers in the diverse borough.

The book focuses on Jerome Avenue, a local business hub, and offers an intimate perspective on the community from the inside.

“l feel like Bronx photographers should be the ones documenting our community, because we can show the triumphant side, the good side,” Alvarez said.

“l feel like Bronx photographers should be the ones documenting our community, because we can show the triumphant side, the good side,” Alvarez said.

The Bronx Photo League is one of several projects established by the BDC, a community and art space in the South Bronx. Located on Cortland Avenue and 150th Street, the center hosts exhibitions, workshops and events with a special focus on the medium of photography.

Full of black-and-white portraits, ‘Jerome Ave’ presents an intimate perspective of the community. The book was named one of the best photography books of 2016 by American Photo.

Showing the borough through the eyes of its residents was the main objective of the book. Local artists, like Alvarez, are critical the way many outside photographers who come to the Bronx approach their community.

“Don’t just come in here with your camera, and say I wanna take pictures of poor kids in the South Bronx and make some money off of that. Or the prostitutes. No. I take personal offense to that,” Alvarez said.

Instead, he said, photographers interested in documenting the Bronx should come and get to know the community first.

The center also hosts an after school program for middle and high school students.

Two mothers, who had several of their children participate in the programs came to the center to speak at a panel discussion about poverty last month.

One of them, Mariam Kone, who emigrated to the Bronx from Mali in 1990, was skeptical at first. But after her daughter brought home the fifth flyer begging to join the program, Kone caved in. “I was a very young mother. If you have two little girls, you gotta watch out for them.”

She didn’t want her children running around the neighborhood, where she feared they would get involved with gangs or crime. Now, both of her daughters are at the center almost every day. Both are part of the center’s photography programs for students, and regularly participate in workshops or volunteer at events, like the launch of ‘Jerome Ave’.

Despite a large pool of volunteers, the BDC still has bills to pay, especially after expanding their after-school program to high school students.

The printing of ‘Jerome Ave’ as well as the workshops, equipment and events that were part of the process were financed through a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.

The center is now in its second year of funding by the NEA, but securing these funds has not been without its challenges for its small team.

“We’re very committed to respond to the needs of our community,” said Kelli Scarr, Director of Grants and Foundation Relations at the BDC.

“We’re very committed to respond to the needs of our community,” said Kelli Scarr, Director of Grants and Foundation Relations at the BDC. “Being responsive is not really something that goes along very well with applying 18 months in advance,” she adds.

In order to maintain their flexibility, the BDC is driving in funds from a group of foundations to finance its programming, such as their after-school photography classes.

“We just applied to six or seven completely new foundations,” says Scarr, “a lot of work behind the scenes goes into fundraising.”

As a small neighborhood organization, the BDC maintains and nurtures its roots in the South Bronx. Many of its community members can be found at every event, either as volunteers or as guests.

This includes the speakers they choose for their panels, who are often local residents like Mariam Kone.

“We really think that the people in the community are the real experts,” Kamber said.

Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center emphasizes the organization’s focus on developing and supporting local talent, and giving Bronx residents an opportunity to share their experiences. “We really think that the people in the community are the real experts,” Kamber said.

Interested in more?

Bronx

Bronx Documentary Center, 614 Courtlandt Ave, Bronx, NY 10451

Queens

Knockdown Center, 52–19 Flushing Ave, Maspeth, NY 11378

Set in an old door factory, the Knockdown Center hosts food events, exhibitions and music shows in their 50,000 square feet venue. The atrium is home to a bar which is used for performance pieces and parties.

Brooklyn

MAYDAY

Community Space: 176 St. Nicholas Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11237

Bar & Cafe: 214 Starr Street, Brooklyn, NY 11237

Mayday and its bar venue Starr Bar offer a space for grassroots organizations to come together, host fundraiser parties and plan political events. It also hosts various events by and for artists, building a bridge between artists, organizers and the community.

Manhattan

El Museo del Barrio, 1230 5th Ave, New York, NY 10029

El Museo del Barrio is located in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood, also called “El Barrio” or Spanish Harlem. The museum’s events and exhibitions reflects the neighborhood’s strong Latin@ influence and history. They also publish podcasts and offers activity cards for visitors exploring the neighborhood.

Alena Maschke

Written by

#csj17 student. bronx resident. data journalist in training.

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