By John Ambrosio
Of all the neighborhoods in New York City to start a gallery, including ultra-chic ones like Chelsea and Williamsburg, Michael Kamber and Danielle Jackson chose a quiet street in the South Bronx, lined with barbershops, bodegas and public housing projects–and they chose it for a reason.
Since 2011, Kamber and Jackson have been the owners, promoters and organizers of the non-profit Bronx Documentary Center, “a first-of-its-kind gallery for documentary photography” located in the working-class South Bronx. The center’s purpose is simple: to bring art and awareness to an area of New York City that otherwise doesn’t get a lot of attention from the mainstream art world.
“We’re passionate about documentary photography and film and had been talking for some years about creating a space where we sort of get documentary photography and film back to more diverse communities,” said Kamber.
Both Jackson and Kamber were connected to the South Bronx before starting the center. Jackson had lived in Bronx briefly after earning her Masters in Africana Studies from New York University and Kamber had lived there for five years during the 80s, but both of their careers had taken them a long way from Courtlandt Avenue.
Prior to starting the gallery, Kamber was a photographer for The New York Times who spent more than 25 years photographing wars in the Middle East and Africa. Kamber is most well known for his photos of the war in Iraq, a collection of which he recently published in a book, Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq.
Jackson was the cultural director of Magnum Photos in New York City and has spoken at museums around the world. Her work both in graduate school and as a curator took her to places as far-flung as Cuba, South Africa and Japan.
Kamber and Jackson met through Jackson’s work with Magnum Photos and, after years of discussing the idea of a documentary photography center in the Bronx, the two found their call to action when a close friend and colleague of theirs died.
“It was something we had discussed with Tim Hetherington, who was a friend of mine and who Danielle knew also,” said Kamber. “Then when Tim was killed in 2011, that was the impetus to really start it up.”
Hetherington, an award-winning conflict photographer and documentarian, was photographing the civil war in Libya in April of 2011 when a mortar blast hit the besieged city of Misrata, killing him and fellow photojournalist Chris Hondros.
Shortly after his death, Kamber and Jackson started the BDC and used Hetherington’s final, then-unpublished photos of the Libyan conflict for their first exhibition, which was displayed from Oct. 2011 to Jan. 2012.
Since then, the Center has hosted a number of documentary photography exhibitions, covering topics including child marriage, the lives of refugees and the history of the Bronx. According to Kamber, the exhibitions are meant to introduce people in the neighborhood to issues that they might otherwise not know about.
“We just try to figure out what people need to know about and what we see happening out there that we think is important and that is relevant to this community,” said Kamber.
In addition to their photography exhibitions, the BDC also regularly holds film screenings, lectures by documentarians and after-school programs for local students, all of which are open to the public. In the process of educating and enriching the community, the center has become a “hub” for the neighborhood, says Jackson.
“Just because of our location and service, people come through all day looking for information about literacy classes in the neighborhood, art classes in the neighborhood,” said Jackson, as she waved to neighbors passing by on the street. “We keep a lot of community information up here so people can come here and know that this is a place where they can get information.”
Jackson added that community building is a big part of their mission.
“Artists, curious people need to be in conversation with others and that’s what we’re able to provide,” said Jackson. “There wasn’t a space for that for people who were doing that kind of work who were situated up here.”
To that end, the center also sponsors weekly photography class, where novice photographers and photojournalists from the community gather to share photos, give feedback and discuss techniques of documentary photography.
One of the photographers who attends these classes, Ed Alvarez, said that the opportunities the BDC has given him have been “unbelievable.”
Like many of his peers at the weekly photo collective meeting, the 46-year-old Bronx resident had little connection to the photography world before the BDC opened and absolutely zero formal training. An office manager and Bronx native, Alvarez said that he became a student and volunteer at the center after a photograph he saw there in Jan. 2012 changed his life.
The picture, Alvarez says, was one of him and his friends that was taken more than 30 years ago by local photographer Ricky Flores and displayed at the BDC as part of the “Seis Del Sur” exhibition. Alvarez first saw Flores’s photos of his old neighborhood on the local news and then visited the photographer’s website, where he perused photos until he found an image of himself that brought him to tears.
“I was 16 years old and there was a lot going on in the Bronx at the time,” said Alvarez. “The Bronx was burning, it was the beginning of AIDS awareness, the Yankees were killing it in the World Series, it was the beginning of hip hop and in my personal life I was a substance abuser. When I saw [the picture] on Ricky’s site, I cried. I got choked up because I know that I did a lot of stupid things, and that I survived the madness.”
After seeing the photograph and reuniting with Flores, Alvarez began showing up regularly at the center, attending gallery openings and film screenings. Almost immediately, Alvarez said the center had changed him.
“For some reason I just started looking at pictures differently,” said Alvarez, gesturing toward the photos on the walls. “By the second week of January, I had some money so I bought my first entry level camera and started taking pictures.”
Alvarez now owns four cameras, is working on creating a website for his portfolio and says that he hopes he could make money as a photographer some day. Most importantly, Alvarez says, the center has opened his eyes to a whole world outside his own.
“Prior to coming here I thought that the only problems that mattered were my own,” said Alvarez. “I’ve gained awareness and so has the community. It’s good; it’s drawing people into this community.”
It’s this exact kind of community-oriented atmosphere that has made the center so popular with people in the neighborhood, said Jackson.
“I think because a lot of volunteers who are involved here live in the neighborhood and because Mike lives upstairs, it’s now become like a neighborly relationship,” said Jackson. “So if people see us all the time every day and not always while we’re working–at the store, at the bank, in the back yard–we know that we’re part of the community.”
Looking toward the future, Kamber and Jackson say that they want to continue doing the same work they’ve been doing, while expanding the scope of their operations.
“We think we’re on the right track and we think that we’re just trying to reach more folks and have a larger impact,” said Kamber.
Their plans for 2014 include four gallery shows, a handful of speaking engagements, dozens of film screenings and the continuation of their photography classes, of course. The center, which is a registered 501 (c) 3, pays for these projects through grants from the Ford Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts and many small donations. To help fundraise, the center recently launched a Kickstarter Campaign, which BDC production assistant Bianca Farrow said was met with a very positive response from the community.
“It’s been a lot of people who’ve been involved in the BDC just by coming to a screening or a workshop or stopping for gallery hours [who have donated],” said Farrow. “Also a ton of people just from the photo and film community that really believed in the work that we do here and spreading the word as well. It’s people giving what they can to support the space, which is really great.”
Less than a month into their fundraising campaign, the BDC met its $30,000 goal thanks to hundreds of supporters.
As for the future of the Bronx itself, Kamber and Jackson say that it’s definitely moving in some unexpected directions.
“[The Bronx is] changing, we’re here in the midst of a change as the city is changing and the demographics are shifting and properties are being built et cetera,” said Jackson. “So we’re really here at the middle of it.”
That change, Kamber said, is marked by the flourishing of cultural centers in the Bronx, like the BDC, the Bronx Arts Alliance and the Bronx Music Heritage Center, which is something few would have anticipated in the Bronx in the 80s, when the South Bronx, the neighborhood where the center now stands, was being ravaged by widespread arson.
“It’s changed dramatically since the 80s, I can tell you that,” said Kamber. “Really, really dramatically, I mean Courtlandt–this neighborhood–25 years ago most of these buildings would have been abandoned.”
The challenge, Jackson says, is ensuring that these changes happen “with respect to the local community”. For their part, the BDC is trying to bring together the established community and new residents and organizations in the South Bronx, which they hope will have a positive impact on the community that they’ve come to call their own.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of environments where people of different socioeconomic backgrounds or races or education can meet on the same level,” said Jackson. “And I think we make that possible. We’re a crossroads.”