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10 Questions for… Rhynna Santos, Member, Bronx Photo League & Exhibitor in the Jerome Ave. Workers Project

The Jerome Ave Workers Project, an ambitious multimedia exhibition, opens this Saturday in an area of the Bronx that will likely be unrecognizable in five years. Photographer Rhynna Santos explains what it’s all about and why we should pay attention.

Jerome Avenue Workers Project Photo Exhibition is presented by Bronx Photo League and Bronx Documentary Center. There will be an opening reception on Saturday, October 3rd, from 5-8PM at Vasquez Muffler, 1275 Jerome Avenue, Bronx, NY 10452 (#4 train to 167th Street, please note this is not at the BDC’s gallery). The exhibition is on view October 3-18, Monday-Saturday 4–7PM, Sundays 11AM-2PM. Free and open to the public.

Here are 10 Questions for Rhynna Santos:

Laura James | What is the Bronx Photo League?

Rhynna Santos | The Bronx Photo League is a group of 16 photographers who are committed to documenting social issues; we’re working to present a balanced and nuanced image of the Bronx and the changes in our borough. The Jerome Avenue Workers Project is the Photo League’s first major exhibition. We would like for people to leave the exhibition feeling more informed about what is currently happening in the Bronx.

LJ | What is it like collaborating with a large group of photographers?

RS | Doing a show of this size and scope with such a large group was incredibly challenging. The portraits in the exhibit were shot on Kodak Tri-X negative film with Hasselblad cameras and lenses. Only a few of our members actually had their own Hasselblads, so we had to share the cameras we had and we had to work in groups. At first we would go out shooting on different days of the week at different times of day, but by the end of the project, many of us were going out every single day. This allowed us to shoot with different group members. This is where team work came in; working with a large group can be good because you are dealing with people with diverse skill sets. Someone was great with lighting, while the other was great with talking to the subject. It was the quintessential collaborative experience.

LJ | What is the Jerome Ave. Worker’s Project about and why is it important?

RS | This exhibition documents and celebrates the workers and trades people of Jerome Avenue, one of New York City’s few remaining working class neighborhoods where many still make a living in small shops and factories, or repairing automobiles. The city is considering a plan to rezone two miles along Jerome Ave and speculation and rising rents are already evident. If passed, the rezoning will lead to the construction of housing units, but also, many believe, to the end of a proud culture of industry and work in this last bastion of New York City’s working class.

LJ | How long did the process take and what was the overall experience like for you?

RS | The initial idea for the project was presented in late spring and we began shooting at the beginning of the summer. In total from beginning to end, the process took four months.

I was very excited to tackle such an important topic as gentrification and displacement in the Bronx. For me, photography is a political exercise, giving a voice to working class people that are usually ignored. The fast pace of the process was very challenging. I was one of the BPL members that had never worked with a Hasselblad before. Shooting on film with a vintage camera is a complete different animal than shooting digitally. We would do drills on how to load and unload film. They say you learn from making mistakes…so I learned a lot because I made a lot of mistakes. But I can say I now feel a lot more confident shooting a vintage camera and look forward to using the Hasselblad again. Besides shooting portraits with Hasselblad cameras, we also shot detail shots digitally. The photos in this article are a collection of some of the photos I shot with my digital camera.

LJ | What was your most memorable experience while photographing on Jerome Ave?

RS | I have to say I had two incredible memorable experiences while doing the Jerome Ave. Workers Project. The first was while doing an interview with one of my subjects. He is from Mexico and has been living and working in the Bronx for over 11 years, and during this time he has not been able to see his family. He explained that his American Dream has yet to come true because he has not been able to reunite with his family here in the United States, and teared up as he spoke about his daughters. I was blown away by his openness. And this was a common story I heard from most of the workers I interviewed, one of work and sacrifice. The second most impactful event during this experience was watching Mike Kamber (BDC Director) develop prints in the darkroom. He is truly a master at what he does. Magic was happening in that darkroom!

LJ | What was the overall reaction of the workers to being photographed?

RS | It was a mixture of reaction. A large number of workers were very open and welcoming to us. They expressed gratitude for bringing attention to this issue. Some were not so open, which was completely understandable. Some were undocumented and fearful of being photographed. For others, it took several visits for us to persuade them to be part of the project. I think after seeing us day after day hitting the pavement we were able to garner their respect.

LJ | Did you ever feel like you were intruding on the workers?

RS | When you do documentary photography you have to fight those instincts of feeling intrusive because you are there to get the story. If they said yes, you were in. But we did do a lot of waiting. These people worked a lot. Jerome is a busy commercial area and we would photograph between costumer visits.

LJ | Was there a moment when it struck you, “This might all be gone soon?”

RS | Yes, that realization hit me when photographing an evening church service at an auto glass shop. Seeing how this space was used for more than just auto repair, how truly special this area is and the strong spirit of the people who work, live and worship here. How often do you get to see something like that? And how sad it would be if this wouldn’t be able to continue.

LJ | Is there any hope in saving these businesses and homes? If so, what can the public do to help?

RS | The city has not confirmed the two mile rezoning plan yet but from the evidence of the raising rents in the area, it is obvious that change is coming to the neighborhood. This is why community involvement is so important. The organization Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision is a group formed after the city’s rezoning plan was announced. They believe “the planning process needs to be participatory” and the city should only “build 100% of affordable housing for our community.” Their next meeting is Wednesday, September 30th, 7-9pm at LPAC (Latino Pastoral Action Center) 14 West 170th Street, Corner of Jerome Ave.

LJ | Tell us something about yourself.

RS | I was born in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico and currently living in Bronx, New York. I graduated from UCLA in 2007. Since then I have worked with a number of Bronx based organizations including Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center, Bronx Art Space and Bronx Documentary Center. In my photography I depict the everyday life, geographies, emotions and realities of people of color in the Bronx. I have exhibited work in Curate NYC 2013, Access to Art 2014 and Bronx X Bronx 2014. I am currently a member of the Bronx Photo League at the Bronx Documentary Center and curator of the Instagram feed Everyday Bronx.