May 27, 2014
By Noreen O'Donnell
A group of seventh- and eighth-graders ventured out to photograph the neighborhood around their Bronx school and returned with pictures of marigolds and food carts, men at a barbershop and a majestic church.
There were no photos of guns or gangs. And graffiti doesn't appear menacing, but instead acts as a vibrant background for a couple with a baby carriage.
This is daily life in the Bronx for the students from Immaculate Conception School on East 151st Street, and they are on assignment to capture it.
"People say that the Bronx is a dirty place," said 14-year-old Isis Negron, who recently photographed a flower shop. "You're able to see flowers, you're able to see plants, you see people in a happy atmosphere, you're able to think that, 'Hmm, maybe this isn't such a bad place after all.' "
The students' photography project is part of an after-school program called Everyday Bronx, an outgrowth of a similar endeavor called Everyday Africa. Started by two journalists, Austin Merrill and Peter DiCampo, that popular Instagram feed of images shot on mobile phones shows a continent not just of conflict, poverty, disease and safaris, but also of wedding anniversary celebrations and roadside cafes.
"Bad things are happening—there's no way around that," said Mr. Merrill, a legal-affairs editor at Vanity Fair magazine. "We're not trying to ignore that stuff. It's an attempt to provide some context."
The same could be said for the Bronx, the journalists believe. The borough remains poor, with 31% of the population living below the poverty level, compared with 21% for New York City as a whole, according to 2012 Census figures. But while there have been more than 20 murders there this year, the borough's crime rate has plummeted over the last two decades, falling 74% since 1990.
Indeed, the young photographers see both sides of their community. Isis remembers a boy beaten to death beneath her kitchen window. Another eighth-grader, Amelia Cardona, recalls the trash, the vulgar graffiti and the smell of urine in the elevators where she first lived after moving from Puerto Rico last year.
But when Isis and Amelia looked for photos of the Bronx on the Internet during one of the early sessions, they thought it was unfair that the negative images overwhelmed the positive ones.
Amelia summed it up: "We have guns, we have gangs and we have a zoo." And she would rather focus on the zoo or bustling areas of Third Avenue.
"It looks busy, it looks vibrant, alive," she said. "I wanted people to see that the Bronx has a lot of business. It has a lot of people and it's booming, really. That's what I wanted my picture to emphasize."
Fourteen-year-old Georgianna Oyola took photos at the flower shop with Isis, drawn by its bright colors.
"I thought to myself, 'Wow, something so pretty in the Bronx,' " she said. "It would be the last thing someone would expect in the Bronx since the Bronx is stereotyped to be violent and dangerous, when in reality it's like any other place. There are good parts and bad parts."
The sessions, attended by between 15 and 20 students, are held across the street from the school at the Bronx Documentary Center, founded in 2011 as a space where photojournalists, artists, filmmakers, critics and educators could come together.
The students meet once a week to take photographs, critique their work and hear from professionals such as Russell Frederick, a photographer who has worked for Magnum Photos and the Associated Press and is a member of Kamoinge, a collective of 25 African-American photographers based in New York. For 15 years, he has been chronicling Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood that has attracted attention for its murders and robberies but rarely for its families.
"I like that we've got kids out there engaged and exploring the community," said the center's founder, photojournalist Michael Kamber. "The community loves seeing the kids out on the street, photographing."
One afternoon, Isis, Amelia, Francisco Martinez and Ramon Centeno were taking pictures of faces: of Centeno's mother and sister at Immaculate Conception School; of Maria Quesada after Francisco bought an ice from her Delicioso Coco Helado cart. On Third Avenue, the security guard at Foot Locker demurred but the owner of Yvette Jewelers, Sal Mosseri, agreed.
"It's a beautiful thing," he said of Everyday Bronx. "Very nice."
The program is a collaboration of Everyday Africa, the Bronx Documentary Center and the Learning About Multimedia Project, or the Lamp. It is supported by grants from the Open Society Foundations and the Pulitzer Center.
A shorter program was introduced in the Chicago schools in December, and eventually the organizers would like to be able to replicate it in cities elsewhere.
The Lamp's executive director, Derrick Charles Vito, hopes the students will see how media affects how they view their world, and also know that they can change it.
Sister Patrice Owens, the school's principal, believes Everyday Bronx will help her students to see the good around them. "I think it will help them to break down some of the stereotypes that they hear," she said. "I think they hear a lot of negative things."