Bronx Documentary Center Uses Photojournalism to Drive Social Change

The way we see the world has a direct impact on social movements and shifts. In recent decades, photography has played a pivotal role in broadening our perceptions of reality and igniting the struggle for environmental justice. This is evident in everything from shocking shots of melting ice caps to images of homes ravaged by flooding in Mumbai. Columbia University‘s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) hosted a Q&A with the Bronx Documentary Center to discuss the role of photography in promoting widespread social change (BDC). Community-based documentary approaches and education are used to investigate critical topics and propel social change at the BDC, a local non-profit gallery and educational facility. Below you can find quotes and photographs from the program’s director and the youth participants on environmental justice and youth empowerment.

Part 1: Q&a With Michael Kamber, Bronx Documentary Center Director

Mike Kamber (Michael Kamber) has been a journalist for over 25 years. He was the first person in the paper’s history to regularly submit multimedia content, including still images, moving images, and written articles. Kamber established the Bronx Documentary Center in 2011, an educational hub for promoting constructive social change via photography and cinema.

What Originally Drew You to the Camera?

My mom took pictures, so I grew up in that world. One of her projects involved interviewing former patients of mental health facilities in Maine and recording their stories. I learned early on about the influence of photography from her work since it was credited with helping change legislation in Maine. Like you, I came of age during the turbulent 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum and the Vietnam War was in full swing. These movements greatly influenced the potential of filmmaking as a window to the soul and a tool for social transformation.

What Motivated You to Begin the Bronx Documentary Center?

The American experience is fundamentally tied to photojournalism, but it shouldn’t cost as much as it does. That’s why I felt it was important to make these resources available to the youth and local community of the Bronx. It’s a great opportunity to show your appreciation for the neighborhood and meet new people.

Walk us through the guiding principles of the BDC’s “Trump Revolution” exhibition.

Our goal is to strike a balance between the community’s interests and the information they need to know. Our guiding idea runs counter to the trend in photography these days of making a political statement with every shot. I think it’s important to let the work speak for itself and provoke thought in the audience. Our “Trump Revolution” show was inspired by the idea that the current political climate in the United States represents a sea change. Since this is a moment of great change, we attempted to include a wide range of topics, such as Indian reservations, immigration, and climate change. Our photographers from all over the country are looking into how Trump is changing the country and documenting those changes visually. The display includes a useful river chronology that illustrates the Trump administration’s unraveling of years of environmental progress.

How Can We Further Environmental Justice While Increasing Access and Equity for Marginalized Communities?

It’s not as hard as it would appear; the world’s top and middle classes need to be reached first and foremost. They are responsible for the vast majority of resource consumption and waste. They need to ration out their supplies and spread the wealth around.

Second, I think we have the tools and infrastructure to start making changes right away. Transitioning to renewable energy sources is urgently required, and low-income neighborhoods should be the primary recipients. Instead of waiting a century, we can accomplish this right now. Using renewable energy and resources is not a zero-sum game; it does not imply displacing coal miners in West Virginia but rather retraining them for greater employment opportunities.

Thirdly, many individuals are oblivious to the role they play in causing global warming. Some people have wasteful behaviors that they don’t even realize they have. I once visited a middle-class family’s home in Florida and noticed that the air conditioning was on full blast, even when no one was present. It would be much easier to make widespread reforms if every American was aware of and educated on these concerns.

BDC’s “Women’s Film Series” showcases stories collected from the Bronx and shared by women documentary filmmakers to highlight neglected voices in local venues. This photo was taken at last year’s Women’s Film Series, which was the fifth in the series.

How Can We Further Environmental Justice While Increasing Access and Equity for Marginalized Communities?

  • Learn the ropes of the job.
  • Read a great deal. I think William Finnegan’s Deep East Texas is a great example of how to integrate into a new community by asking questions and recording people’s responses.
  • Pick up some of the local tongues, like French and Spanish.
  • Last but not least, education and attentive listening are crucial.

Part 2: Q&a With Bronx Documentary Center Student Participants

Students in middle school and high school can participate in the Bronx Junior Photo League, a free photography and journalism program. In it, high schoolers from the Bronx use photography, writing, and research to delve into social justice concerns as part of their preparation for higher education and the workforce. The program offers opportunities for life-changing international travel, meetings with famous photographers from around the world, and tours of important museums and news organizations. Students and their families take part in a variety of college preparation activities, including one-on-one advising, workshops on applying for financial aid, and campus visits.

Bronx Documentary Center

Pamela Rozon

How Has the Camera Lens Impacted the Way You See Your Community?

Having my similarities with my neighborhood captured on film was an eye-opening experience. I am usually the one to stay home on my own. The BDC, however, shifted that. Because of my social anxiety, it was challenging to capture the shots I wanted when I first had to step out among strangers and start talking to them and taking their pictures. But I realized how much in common I have with the locals. We’re all from low-income backgrounds and working hard to make ends meet. Having conversations with and taking pictures of random people going about their days was freeing. I’m grateful to the BDC for highlighting the splendor of my neighborhood via the lens of a camera, which has helped me feel more like a part of my community.

How Have You Used Photojournalism to Reveal the Realities Faced by Your Communities?

I have utilized photography to highlight the Bronx’s natural beauty and the importance of preserving it. The mental repercussions of the coronavirus were recently the subject of a photo essay I created. Since I know nothing about aesthetic photography, I set out to create photos that can be interpreted in various ways. Having to do my project with the support of BDC’s experienced photographers was incredibly exciting. And I felt like I was expanding my photographic horizons. In my opinion, the project was fruitful. Ultimately, I hope to dispel negative notions about the Bronx through my art.

Having my similarities with my neighborhood captured on film was an eye-opening experience. I am usually the one to stay home on my own. The BDC, however, shifted that. Because of my social anxiety, it was challenging to capture the shots I wanted when I first had to step out among strangers and start talking to them and taking their pictures. But I realized how much in common I have with the locals. We’re all from low-income backgrounds and working hard to make ends meet. Having conversations with and taking pictures of random people going about their days was really freeing. I’m grateful to the BDC for highlighting the splendor of my neighborhood via the lens of a camera, which has helped me feel more like a part of my community.

How Have You Used Photojournalism to Reveal the Realities Faced by Your Communities?

I have utilized photography to highlight the Bronx’s natural beauty and the importance of preserving it. The mental repercussions of the coronavirus were recently the subject of a photo essay I created. Since I know nothing about aesthetic photography, I set out to create photos that can be interpreted in various ways. Having to do my own project with the support of BDC’s experienced photographers was incredibly exciting. And I felt like I was actually expanding my photographic horizons. In my opinion, the project was fruitful. Ultimately, I hope to dispel negative notions about the Bronx through my art.

In Your Opinion, How Can We Further Amplify Youth Perspectives?

The greatest course of action is to provide young people with exposure to as many viewpoints as possible. They become more empathetic and tolerant when they are exposed to many ways of life, beliefs, and people. Further, by exposing young people to a variety of personalities and perspectives, you foster a group of future leaders who will work to make the world a better, more peaceful place. Moreover, expanding access to options like study abroad and career-focused programs for young people from low-income backgrounds will help them become more empathetic and self-reliant.

What Do You Hope to Accomplish in the Near Future?

I hope to pursue a career in photojournalism in order to raise public consciousness about important societal issues and encourage people to take action. At this point, I am most at ease with environmental photography, a genre that has always intrigued me as a photographer because of how stunningly beautiful its subjects are. I’d love to do a documentary about human rights or the environment and one day hopefully work for National Geographic. I am confident that, with the BDC’s assistance, I will be able to realize my objective.

Tell Us About Some of the Photos You’re Sharing With Us

Since I am equally enthusiastic about environmental and aesthetic photography, I made sure to archive both sorts. I have taken all of my nature photographs in the City, where most people would be startled to encounter such intimate glimpses of nature, to demonstrate that beauty can be found anywhere. The bird image, for instance, was discovered on a bush outside a modest house on a busy street. While the bustle of city life keeps people on the go, nature remains serene. It’s because of this that I’m able to remain calm when snapping the photos in question. For me, taking photos of the environment is a form of meditation that allows me to slow down and appreciate my surroundings.

Photographically, I use symbolism and other visual devices to convey my innermost thoughts and feelings through my artistic photography. A picture of my hand by a light fixture represents my want for a return to normalcy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Overall, I’m looking forward to expanding my photographic knowledge and skillset so that I may continue using photography as a means of self- and interpersonal expression.

Gianni Zambrano

How Did You Become Involved With Bdc?

I decided to get involved with BDC because I thought it was going to be a great opportunity for me to move out of my comfort zone and try new things. It was a method for me to get comfortable with chatting with individuals, being open to asking questions, and asking for images. But the essential thing was that I have always enjoyed photography. I think it’s a fantastic way of expressing ourselves. Knowing that I was able to master new photographic techniques and I would be able to grasp photography in greater depth caught my interest.

How Has the Camera Lens Impacted the Way You See Your Community?

Because of the camera, I take a more in-depth look at my neighborhood than I used to. I’ve learned to appreciate the little things in life by paying close attention to the environment around me, the people who live here, and the everyday transformations that occur in the natural world.

In Your Opinion, How Can We Further Amplify Youth Perspectives?

We may further magnify young people’s voices by engaging them in BDC-style programs or other activities that pique their interest (e.g., visual art, musical performance). Involvement in and optimism about such activities, as well as increased awareness of their surroundings, can benefit young people.

What Do You Hope to Accomplish in the Near Future?

My long-term goals include completing my degree, landing a good job, and giving back to the community that has supported me.

Describe One of Your Favorite Photos and Why You Selected It for the Junior League Exhibition?

My dog’s name is Princess, and this is her. It’s been four years since we legally adopted her into the family. This is a picture of me since I identify with the royal ideal. She is dedicated to her family, takes pride in her work, and is willing to go the extra mile for them. Though diminutive in stature, her influence is not.

Photography and social change are intricately interwoven, as seen by these interviews from the Bronx Documentary Center and the vast growth of social media and technology. We hope that readers and academics can get valuable insights from these points of view as individuals and communities adopt creative and visual approaches to create change in the time of COVID-19 and beyond. Visit this link to learn more about the Bronx Junior Photo League Exhibition now on display at the BDC.

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