Since opening its doors five years ago, Bronx Documentary Center, a non-profit gallery and educational space, has become a vital site of community collaboration and engagement. Through programs like the Bronx Photo League and the Bronx Junior Photo League, the Center is cultivating the next generation of documentarians.
As part of their exhibition of Fabio Bucciarelli’s The Dream, Bronx Documentary Center is hosting a screening of Return to Homs (POV 2015) on March 24th at 7pm, followed by a Q&A via Skype with director Talal Derki. More information here.
We asked Michael Kamber, founder and director, seven questions about his vision for the Center and its place in the Bronx community.
What inspired you to open the BDC, and why in the South Bronx?
Five years ago, both myself and my good friend Tim Hetherington had been working as photojournalists around the world and frequently training local photographers in Africa and the Middle East. We both thought that there was a need for a low-cost or free program which provided this type of training here in the US. There’s a real disparity in journalism and photojournalism; the bottom line is that, as with most education, the training goes to those who can afford what are often very expensive programs. We wanted a level playing field and a non-profit devoted to documentary studies seemed the way to do it.
The BDC was, to a large degree, a somewhat dream until Tim’s death in Libya in 2011. We simply did not have the money. When Tim was killed, some friends came to me and said, “You know what you have to do now, right? You have to open that center that you and Tim talked about.” I had lived in the South Bronx for many years and was connected to this neighborhood which is why we ended up here. And there are dozens of places in the rest of NYC where one can see film and photography. The Bronx is woefully underserved. The BDC sits in the poorest congressional district in America–four or five subway stops from the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. This is a paradox, but also an opportunity. We are drawing speakers, presenters and volunteers from all over New York City and taking our students on field trips to the New York Times, the International Center for Photography and elsewhere.
Your background is in photography and journalism, including covering many conflicts abroad. How have these experiences informed the BDC’s work?
With my journalistic background, I’m a believer in journalism and photojournalism as a means of evidence, of educating the public, of establishing facts upon which the public can build with debate and discussion. For me, the real conversation that needs to be had in America is this fact-based conversation. It seems pretty simple, but it’s something we’re seeing less and less of lately. At the beginning of the day the most important thing is to get the facts right: that’s what good journalists do and that’s our guiding ethos at the BDC. On another level, I covered conflicts for over a decade. Now, I’m back in my own country in my own neighborhood where the level of violence is far too high. I’m interested in exploring and trying to help stop violence in all its forms. Part of what we’re doing at the BDC is looking at how to help prevent violence by spreading knowledge and strengthening communities.
What led you to feature this month’s “The Dream” photography exhibition by Fabio Bucciarelli?
We are showing Fabio Bucciarelli’s refugee photos this month; he has spent five years covering the refugee crisis in Europe as well as the conflicts in Syria, Libya and beyond. He understands the dynamics of this refugee crisis – the real context and origins of it – as well as anybody I know. And his photos are an extraordinary chance to understand what’s happening in this part of the world. Simply put, it’s an opportunity for education, discussion and debate about this important topic.
The BDC’s website states that “Too often, documentary work is done in poor communities and presented for a small audience elsewhere.” How does the BDC aim to change this trend? What has the community’s response been to the BDC?
Over the past five years, we have trained scores of photographers–both high school age and adults. The BDC created the Bronx Photo League which consists of 20 adult Bronx photographers who are working on long-term projects here in our borough. These projects are being exhibited and presented to literally thousands of viewers here in the Bronx and beyond. I feel strongly that anybody should be able to go anywhere and make documentary work but there must also be a strong representation of a community by the people who live there, who grew up there, who have family there. The problem was never that the Bronx has not been covered by the media. The problem was that the Bronx was rarely covered in a balanced and nuanced way. We are changing that. We also have had enormous success with the Bronx photographers that we have trained. They have worked at the New York Times, the Daily News, Newsday, Propublica, the BBC and beyond. David ‘Dee’ Delgado, one of our main volunteers over the past five years, was formerly a troubled youth. He has since become an excellent photographer and just got a full-time staff photographer position at the Riverdale Press, a Pulitzer Prize-winning small paper here in the north Bronx. I think that says a lot.
The community’s response to the BDC has been tremendous. Our events have been packed almost since we opened our doors and people in our community take pride in our presence here. Ask anyone in our neighborhood, they will tell you.
BDC features a rich and eclectic mix of photography exhibits, documentary films and new media. What benefits do you see in this kind of cross-disciplinary programming?
I think cross disciplinary programming – as long as it comes from a relatively coherent point of view – is crucial to understanding what’s going on in the world. I started out 30 years ago as a photojournalist, but I’m not college educated. My understanding of the world came, to a large part, through reading constantly. And also, seeing documentary films. One can’t just exist in one medium, today or ever. Reading the work of John Didion or watching the films of Albert Maysles while looking at the photos of Gordon Parks – now that’s a well-rounded education. That’s why we stress writing, photography and film at the BDC.
Given that the BDC aims to focus on topics that affect the community and engage in conversations that apply to the community, are there social issues you see coming up again and again? Have any of the documentaries screened by the BDC resonated with the community in unexpected ways?
I think the topics that we see coming up again and again are the topics being discussed all over America. Our Bronx community is trying to solve problems in education, healthcare, immigration and violence. Those are the big four. You could add criminal justice, though that is related to violence of course. I think part of what we do that is interesting, is we are mixing in documentary work from the South Bronx with documentary work from all over America and around the world. People see a connection to what is going on here with what is going on in California, or in China or in Africa and beyond.
All of our programming is discussion based, so whenever we show the film, there’s always a Q&A with the audience. This has really created some extraordinary discussions and I think lies at the heart of our mission. It’s one thing to see a movie. It’s another thing to see a movie and engage in a debate and discussion with the filmmaker and other community members–to create connections and build coalitions. Documentary film in particular is an excellent starting point for that to happen.
What role does educational programming play in the BDC’s mission? What effect do you hope this programming will have in changing the landscape of photography and documentary film?
We are doing more and more educational programming. We now have afterschool programs for middle schoolers and high schoolers and it’s increasingly becoming a central part of our mission. This may seem grandiose, but we aim to turn out some of the best prepared young journalists and documentarians in America. And frankly, if none of them choose journalism as a career, that’s ok. They will still be critical thinkers and citizens who understand the media, international relations, community building and more. That is central to our goals.
For more information about the Bronx Documentary Center and the screening of Return to Homs on March 24th, visit their website at bronxdoc.org.