Photography club keeps the art form accessible

Ed Alvarez

Giacomo and David Delgado of the Bronx Photo League at work.

Bronx Photo League holds free exhibitions that focus on life in the borough

After Rhynna Santos moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico at the age of 8, her lifelong fascination with snapping photos of her family took on a different focus.

“In Puerto Rico, we were middle class. In New York, we were poor,” she said. “Accessing photography studios and developing photographs was difficult, expensive.” To a young Santos, not having enough money meant she couldn’t document her life and the lives of her loved ones. “I used to think: we weren’t being recorded,” she said. 

Today, Santos has channeled her discontent into solving the problem. She is one of the facilitators of the Bronx Photo League, a group of 18 Bronx-based photographers dedicated to documenting the borough.

By encouraging photography of Bronx scenes and organizing free exhibitions at which the resulting work is displayed, the group seeks to improve residents’ appreciation of their borough.

“The League addresses photography as a classist pursuit,” said Santos. “We want to nurture talent from the Bronx who lack exposure to the art and who cannot afford photography school.”

Joining the League is free, but applicants have to submit a portfolio for consideration. Members meet weekly at the Bronx Documentary Center in Melrose to practice, critique each other’s work and learn from industry experts who volunteer their time.

The League was founded in 2011, and, according to its members, is the first club in the borough dedicated exclusively to photography.

“Traditionally, photographers in the Bronx had no space to meet up,” said Michael Kamber, co-founder of the Bronx Documentary Center. Kamber, an award-winning New York Times photojournalist, is another League facilitator who shares his considerable experience at group meetings.

Another of the League’s goals is to accurately and responsibly document the Bronx and its people, said Santos.

“Usually, photographers from outside the Bronx come in without an understanding of its ethnic, economic and historical makeup,” she said, adding, “We want to treat our subjects completely.”

The League’s first show, the Jerome Avenue Workers’ Project, opened in October. It documented the faces and concerns of working class residents in the southwestern Bronx neighborhood on the brink of undergoing a major rezoning. Over the summer, the members — most of whom juggle fulltime jobs with photography — shot stark black-and-white portraits of mechanics, storekeepers, food vendors and residents worried about possible displacement.

They fanned out across Jerome Avenue after work and on weekends, taking the time to strike up relationships with residents.

“An 87-year-old third-generation locksmith refused to let me interview him or take his picture,” recounted David Delgado, another group facilitator who lives in Longwood. “I invited myself to breakfast, spending six hours with him before he warmed up. After that, he didn’t let me leave.”

The League held the free exhibition at an auto repair shop on Jerome Avenue, to make it more accessible to the workers themselves.

“The BPL’s project is great,” said Geraldo Rodriguez, 48, a mechanic at the repair shop who was photographed for the project. “We worked hard to clean up this neighborhood and deserve to stay. People now can see that there are honest workers here.”

The exhibition will begin again on Jan. 10 and run for a month, at the New Settlement Community Center in Highbridge, in conjunction with the 3rd Annual Bronx Gentrification Conference. That event attempts to prepare community members to protect themselves from major changes to their neighborhood.

Other projects are in the pipeline. The League is working on publishing a book of photos of the Jerome Avenue project next summer, pushing for more technical classes, and mining for career opportunities for Bronx-based photographers, said Kamber. Discussions are also underway for an exchange program with a photography school in Asia.

“I used to have to commute a long way downtown to get close to photography,” said Santos, who lives in Soundview. “Never in my lifetime did I imagine I’d be able to talk about art or photography 12 minutes from my house.”

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