State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Bronx Documentary Center Uses Photojournalism to Drive Social Change

This Q&A is part of an ongoing initiative by the communications team at the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity to highlight the work of practitioners, community members, and academics working on sustainability and environmental justice

building in the bronx
The Bronx Documentary Center

Social movements and changes are profoundly connected to our perceptions of reality. Photography —  from startling photos of melting ice caps to images of homes battered by flooding in Mumbai — has played a powerful role in expanding our perceptions of reality and catalyzing the push for environmental justice in recent decades. Recognizing that grassroots organizations and individuals are using photography to drive large-scale changes, Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) conducted a Q & A with the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC). The BDC is a local non-profit gallery and educational space that uses community-based documentary practices and education to explore vital issues and to drive social change. Below are voices and photos from the director and youth participants on environmental justice and youth empowerment.

Note: The Bronx Documentary Center owns all photo rights.

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

Michael Kamber headshot
Michael Kamber, director of the Bronx Documentary Center

Michael Kamber, who goes by Mike, has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. He was the first person in the New York Times’ history to routinely file photos, videos and written articles to the paper. In 2011, Kamber founded the Bronx Documentary Center, an educational space dedicated to positive social change through photography and film.

What originally drew you to the camera ?

My mother was a photographer. One of her projects revolved around capturing stories about mental health institutions in Maine from the perspectives of the patients’ experiences. Her photos were credited with changing laws in Maine and that taught me early on the power of photojournalism. I also grew up in the 60s, a time of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests. These movements really informed the ability of the camera as a way to the heart, a way to change the consciousness of the country.

What motivated you to begin the Bronx Documentary Center?

Photojournalism is at the heart of the American experience and these experiences should not cost as much as they do. That was the main reason why I wanted to offer these skills to youth and community in the Bronx. It’s a way of giving back and being a part of the community.

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

factory and smoke
A PVC factory in Louisiana, photographed by Stacy Kranitz for the Trump Revolution Exhibit

We try to see what is important and relevant to the community and try to balance what they are interested in with what they should know. Our work principle goes against today’s push for photos to be explicitly activistic. I believe in allowing the work to expose the issues and allowing people to reflect on what they see. The thinking behind our exhibition “Trump Revolution” was that America was going through an unparalleled revolution with Trump’s presidency. It’s a time of incredible upheaval and we wanted to cover various aspects that would be affected, from Indian reservations to immigration and climate change. Our photographers across the country are exploring how Trump is transforming the country, and giving evidence of that through photos. As part of the exhibition, there is a good river timeline showing how the Trump administration has dismantled decades of environmental work.

whaler standing on ice
This photo from the Trump Revolution exhibit shows a whale hunger in Point Hope, Alaska. © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR for Fondation Carmignac.

For more information and to check out more from the BDC’s Trump Revolution Exhibit, click here.

How can we further environmental justice while increasing access and equity for marginalized communities?

It is not as complicated as it seems; first and foremost, it’s important to address the upper and middle classes around the world. They are using and destroying the majority of resources. It’s important for them to conserve and redistribute their resources.

Secondly, I believe we have the technology and resources to make immediate change. We need to immediately switch to renewable energy and the immediate beneficiaries need to be low-income communities. We can do this now, not in 100 years. Using renewable energy and resources is not a zero-sum game; it doesn’t mean putting coal miners in West Virginia out of work; it means retraining them for an alternative and better way of working.

Thirdly, a lot of people are not aware of their own contribution to climate change… There are wasteful unconscious habits that I’ve seen. For example, I was down in Florida inside a middle class family home and they were just blasting AC all day even when no one was there. If every American is conscious and educated about these issues, large-scale changes would be much easier.

To amplify marginalized voices in local spaces, BDC features “Women’s Film Series,” stories curated from the Bronx shared by women documentary filmmakers. Photo was taken at the fifth annual Women’s Film Series last year.

crowd of people at film screening
To amplify marginalized voices in local spaces, BDC features “Women’s Film Series,” stories curated from the Bronx shared by women documentary filmmakers. Photo was taken at the fifth annual Women’s Film Series last year. Courtesy Bronx Documentary Center

As we wrap up this interview, what advice would you give to aspiring young people who are interested in photojournalism?

  • Familiarize yourself with the work.
  • Do a lot of reading. I’d recommend Deep East Texas, by William Finnegan; it’s a model for how to come to a new community, listening and capturing people’s stories.
  • Learn other languages spoken by the community members, like French and Spanish.
  • Finally and most importantly is learning and taking the time to listen to people.
library at the Bronx Documentary Center
The Bronx Documentary Center’s Tim Hetherington Photobook Library is one of New York City’s only libraries dedicated to photography. Photo: Bronx Documentary Center

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

The Bronx Junior Photo League is a free photography and journalism program serving middle through high school students. In it, Bronx students use photography, writing, and research to explore social justice issues, preparing them for college and future careers. The program includes visits with internationally renowned photographers, field trips to major cultural institutions and media outlets, and opportunities for life-changing international travel. Students and families participate in extensive college prep programming, including one-on-one counseling, financial aid workshops, and college tours.

Pamela Rozon

How has the camera lens impacted the way you see your community?

hand on face
Photo by Pamela Rozon / Bronx Documentary Center

The camera lens showed me how much in common I have with my community. I tend to be a bit of a loner and stay inside. However, the BDC changed that. I was scared at first, having to speak to others outside and take pictures of people, and since I have social anxiety it was really tricky to get the images I truly wanted. But, I came to see the many similarities I have towards the people in my community. We all come from low income families and are trying to make our way through the everyday struggles of life. It felt liberating speaking to others and photographing their everyday lives. Due to the camera lens, I feel closer to my community and I’m thankful for the BDC for showing me its beauty.

How have you used photojournalism to reveal the realities faced by your communities?

I have used photography to show how beautiful the Bronx is and how we must protect our environment. Recently I did a photo essay on the mental effects of the coronavirus. I never learned about artistic photography so, in order to challenge myself, I wanted to make my images something that can be interpreted in many ways by the viewer. It was really interesting having to do my own project with help from professional photographers from the BDC. I felt like I was truly learning new forms of photography. I see the project as a success. My goal is to continue to artistically showcase the Bronx and get rid of the horrible stereotypes about my community.

We all come from low income families and are trying to make our way through the everyday struggles of life. It felt liberating speaking to others and photographing their everyday lives.

In your opinion, how can we further amplify youth perspectives?

The best thing to do is expose the youth to as many different perspectives as possible. By showing them different cultures, religions, and people, they begin to become more open-minded and kind towards others. Furthermore, by showing the youth different types of people, you create a generation of amazing leaders that will help the world become a much more accepting and peaceful place. Additionally, by giving younger people who come from lower incomes more opportunities, such as study abroad programs or career-oriented programs, it will help make them much more understanding towards other perspectives and simultaneously build their own.

What do you hope to accomplish in the near future?

I want to become a photojournalist and help spread social awareness to certain issues that plague our world, to instill a will for change. So far I feel more comfortable doing environmental photography, something that has interested me since the beginning of my love for photography because nature is just beautiful. I have big dreams of working with National Geographic and maybe potentially creating a documentary about human rights or the environment. With the BDC’s help, I feel like I can definitely complete my goal.

Tell us about some of the photos you’re sharing with us.

hand near light
Photo by Pamela Rozon / Bronx Documentary Center

I collected both my environmental and artistic photography because those are the two types of photography that I am passionate about. Beauty can be found anywhere, which is why all the nature photography I have taken is in the City, where most would be shocked to find such intimate moments of nature. For example, the image of the bird was actually found on a small bush of a small apartment near a busy street. As the loud and overbearing noises of the city keep people in motion, nature still finds peace. That very fact is what keeps me calm as I’m taking those images. Environmental photography is almost like meditation for me, where I can stop and take in my surroundings. My artistic photography is where I express my emotions through symbolism and other forms in my images. An example would be the image of my hand near the light, symbolizing my hope for normalcy during the coronavirus pandemic. Overall I’m excited to keep learning new forms of photography and continue expressing myself and others through it.

bird on a bush
Photo by Pamela Rozon / Bronx Documentary Center

Gianni Zambrano

How did you become involved with BDC?

eye with green eyeshadow and pink background
Photo by Gianni Zambrano  / Bronx Documentary Center

I decided to get involved with BDC because I thought it was going to be a great opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone and try new things. It was a way for me to get comfortable with talking to others, being open to asking questions and asking for photographs. But the main thing was that I have always loved photography. I think it’s a beautiful way of expressing ourselves. Knowing that I was able to learn new photography skills and I would be able to understand photography in more depth caught my eye.

How has the camera lens impacted the way you see your community?

The camera lens impacted the way I see my community because I look at it closer now. I pay attention to the small things around me that are in my neighborhood, the way people interact with each other, and how much nature changes daily.

laundry hanging on line
Photo by Gianni Zambrano / Bronx Documentary Center

In your opinion, how can we further amplify youth perspectives?

We can further amplify youth perspectives by getting them more involved in programs like the BDC or things that catch the youth’s eyes like art, music. These types of things can help youth be more involved and be positive about things and it can help them become aware of the things surrounding them.

What do you hope to accomplish in the near future?

In the near future I hope to finish college, get a job and be able to give back to my community that helped me get to where I would like to be.

Describe one of your favorite photos and why you selected it for the Junior League Exhibition?

This is Princess, she is my dog. She has been officially part of my family for four years. The reason I chose this photo is because I feel like a princess is a representation of myself. She loves hard work, cares for and protects her loved ones. She may be small but she’s powerful.

dog walking through a yard
Photo by Gianni Zambrano / Bronx Documentary Center

This series of interviews from the Bronx Documentary Center, coupled with the widespread proliferation of social media and technology, show that photography and social change are inextricably linked. As Individuals and local communities take on creative and visual methodologies to drive change, in times of COVID-19 and beyond, we hope that these perspectives carry important takeaways for readers and scholars. For more information and to check out more from the BDC’s Bronx Junior Photo League Exhibition, click here.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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