On the east wall of the Bronx Documentary Center’s gallery hangs a photograph of Rev. Al Sharpton, the African-American lawyer and activist from Harlem, talking to a group of reporters outside of a lower Manhattan courthouse and with his hands in the air, demanding their attention. In another photograph, a group of Italian residents in Bensonhurst raised watermelons over their heads, and with the subjects’ mouths wide open, a viewer can almost hear the words they are shouting. These are just two images out of the 66 emotional and political charged photos being shown at the Bronx Documentary Center, which is hosting an exhibition titled “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” that “captures ordinary New Yorkers as they rallied, rioted, marched, and demonstrated” in the last two decades of the last century – 1980 to 2000.
The show, gathered from decades-old photographs of a city known for giving birth to all different sorts of activism, was intended to serve as a reminder and celebration of the power of protest, said Mike Kamber, the co-curator, and director of the center. Many of the protests that happened then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, addressed issues that are still being talked about now, such as race relations, police brutality and LGBTQ rights.
While explaining the picture he took of Al Sharpton, Kamber said most young people don’t know what ACT-UP was or even who Al Sharpton is, which is one of the main motives why he wanted to put up the show. “We’re trying to emphasize the importance of education and documentation, and that’s just one thing I think the exhibition could accomplish,” He said. Kamber added that he hopes the show inspires young viewers, by showing them another time not long ago that New Yorkers took to the streets, and reminding them of the issues that were happening before they were born.
Since the Trump administration began, a new wave of protests has taken hold of the city, but Kamber and his fellow curators planned this show well before the new president was elected. And now, the distilled message of the exhibition is one that tells its viewers that this kind of behavior is not new. It also tells them of the power behind photojournalism and protests, and how both have been used in conjunction as a tool in the past when change is desperately needed.
The exhibition showcases photos by more than 38 photojournalists who all focused on New York historical moments of protest. The photos of these demonstrations transmit the same energy and strength that was felt at each of the protests, capturing New Yorkers, who struggled with a variety of social issues including race relations, police brutality, housing and gentrification, AIDS, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, U.S. foreign policy and military actions, environmental and animal rights issues, and education and labor relations.
Carolina Kroon, a former member of the Lesbian Avengers group, a direct action and advocacy group founded in 1992 in New York, contributed a photograph taken of the first annual Dyke March that year. Another photograph that distills the essence of the exhibition is by photographer Ricky Flores, who captured African-American protestors taking over the subway rails at the Jay Street-Borough Hall train station after a black man was killed by a group of white teenagers.
“It is incredibly important to have this kind of exhibition, especially now when there is still so much stuff to be done,” said Kroon. It is this kind of sentiment that Kroon talks about that got so many photojournalists and activists to show their work at the gallery. Kamber hopes visitors – especially young people – will understand that there is a history behind today’s protests.
“Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City, 1980-2000” will be open through March 5 at the Bronx Documentary Center, 614 Courtland Ave.