Photos blend ’80s Bronx and world conflicts
Growing up in rural Maine did little to prepare Mike Kamber for life in the South Bronx—or Baghdad.
But the 50-year-old former Pulitzer Prize nominated photojournalist who founded the Bronx Documentary Center in Melrose in 2011, is steadily becoming a force on the local cultural scene, after serving as the New York Times’ lead photographer covering the war in Iraq.
An exhibition in Mott Haven in August juxtaposed dozens of photographs from Kamber’s stint in Baghdad—and others he snapped while covering conflicts in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, among other countries—with shots he took locally while living in Mott Haven in the 1980s.
At an August 28 talk at BronxArtSpace to wrap up the month-long exhibit, Kamber recounted his experiences in the middle east, and the winding path that brought him back to the neighborhood. He recalled riding with his parents through the South Bronx in the 1970s as a child visiting his immigrant relatives.
“It was returning to prairie,” he recalled of the area 40 years ago.
One of the ’80s Bronx photos Kamber took highlights a church at the corner of Elton Avenue and 158th St. The only other building in view is another church at the far end of the street, with a field of weeds and rubble stretching between them where buildings had once stood before arsonists burned them down. That street is now lined with tidy brick houses.
“I was shocked when I came back to the Bronx,” Kamber told the audience. “In the ‘80s, you couldn’t buy a loaf of bread that wasn’t moldy. In terms of resurgence, I’ll put this up against anyplace in the world.”
Kamber said he learned his trade in the mid ’80s when he moved in with a girlfriend on Willis Avenue, and began studying photography at Parsons School of Design. His first big break, he recalled, was when a publication paid him for a photo essay of a Cypress Avenue building squatters had taken over.
“All these pictures are narratives,” he said, pointing out one he had taken of an Iraqi cleric with his granddaughter lying in his lap. Kamber said Americans seeing the photo of the turban-clad cleric alone would have led them to stereotype the Iraqi as a jihadist, but the presence of the young girl creates a more sympathetic and complex figure for viewers to consider.
Although Kamber admits he was terrified through much of the mission to record what he saw in Iraq, it was the return home that most bothered him.
“I only had to do two things. Take photos and stay alive,” he said of his time overseas. But when he returned to New York, amidst “constant phone calls” and other manifestations of public indifference to the carnage, he became enraged with Americans’ seeming obliviousness to the fact that “there was a war going on.”
Kamber said that the exhibitions, films and workshops offered at the documentary center must resonate with residents or he won’t consider them.
“If we can’t connect it to the lives of people in the Bronx, we don’t do it,” he said.
Carey Clark, visual arts director of The Point CDC and a Mott Haven resident, said the blending of images of the decimated South Bronx of the ‘80s with shots of children, families, and fighters in battle-scarred countries, was poignant.
“The Bronx has a history of conflict,” Clark said. “They’re so inured to it. Many of them, their kids are in the service. You see the relationship. I thought it was brilliant.”
Hunts Point native Edwin Torres, a 23-year-old photographer who volunteers at the Documentary Center, was unsure, at first, what the relation was between the photos reflecting tension and violence in the middle east and Africa, and others of street scenes in neighborhoods near where he grew up.
“When you go to a photography exhibit, you talk about ‘composition,’” Torres said, eyeing a shot of a Somali soldier dozing with his rifle, and a nearby photo of a hardened Bronx biker clad in a decal-saturated leather vest.
“I think he’s trying to grapple with something much deeper,” Torres said. “It’s not even about the photograph.”