Exhibit shows the power of citizen journalism

An exhibit called New Documents that opened at the Bronx Documentary Center last Thursday, highlights the courage of eyewitnesses who helped spark social change by recording history and exposing abuses of power over the years, through photos and video.

By Samali Bikangaga. New Documents
By Samali Bikangaga. A patron views footage on a screen at the New Documents exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center.

Footage shows how, armed with cameras, conscientious citizens can shape history

An exhibit called New Documents that opened at the Bronx Documentary Center last Thursday, highlights the courage of eyewitnesses who helped spark social change by recording history and exposing abuses of power over the years, through photos and video.

About 30 screens in the shape of an iPhone or tablet are mounted inside rectangular spaces carved out of a black wall at the gallery on Courtlandt Avenue in Melrose, as a metaphor for the images consumers of news absorb when they view their screens everyday. Each box shows surveillance footage, dashboard cams and video recordings from around the world, depicting labor abuses, environmental injustice, and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

The footage is arranged in a timeline that begins in 1903, when photographer Alice Seeley Harris documented more than 200 photos depicting the atrocities of King Leopold of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule in The Congo, leading to public pressure that led to a change in power.

Later footage includes the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the 1988 Tompkins Square Park demonstration, catastrophic flooding that crippled parts of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and, most recently, the shooting and killing of Philando Castile by police in Minnesota in July, as depicted on Facebook Live.

Bronx Documentary Center co-founder Danielle Jackson said it is important to honor the brave people who have cast a light on injustice and government inaction, even though they often face personal risk.

“Part of this intersects with our desire for celebrity culture; to be seen, to be known and to be recorded in order to have your own voice and platform,” said Jackson. “I hope it directs people to understand that they can do something of substance by recording and sharing responsibly.”

A team of researchers, interns, volunteers and staff spent several months assembling the materials for the exhibit, by digging through thousands of video clips in news archives, and by speaking with editors, who donated footage from their publications. Michael Kamber, co-director of the Bronx Documentary Center said that about 95 percent of the footage the researchers found included violence, and that the researchers’ challenge was to instead focus on non-violent video footage that helped generate social changes, without the sensationalism.

“Personally, I was part of the traditional media,” said Kamber, who has worked for the Baghdad Bureau of the New York Times . “So it is interesting to see the new citizen journalism. I think that it has created real change in this country.”

About 100 people from across the city filled the gallery for the July 28 opening reception. The exhibit was originally scheduled to open several weeks earlier, but the opening was postponed in the wake of incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota, where video footage shows police officers shooting and killing two black men.

Kamber said he turned down offers from galleries in SoHo and Chelsea to put the exhibit on there instead, because he knows how close to home the subject hits in Melrose, given continuously tense relations between cops and community.

“Police killings of people of color are a kind of abstraction for a lot of people,” said Kamber. “It’s very different if you put it on in Soho or Chelsea and people want to be intellectual about it, whereas here you don’t have a distance to it. It’s peoples lives.”

Sandra Ayala, 43, a nurse at Lincoln Hospital, who attended the opening, said she remembered relations between the police and residents once seemed less strained when she was growing up in Mott Haven, but that relationship has deteriorated.

“It has gotten progressively worse,” said Ayala. “I think there has been a divide for a while, and it has never been addressed.”

In June, about 200 parishioners from South Bronx churches and other residents held a rally in Melrose to demand the 40th Precinct improve communication with the community.

Ayala and her friend Rhynna M. Santos, 44, a photographer and music manager who lives in Soundview, are part of the Bronx Women’s Photo Collective, whose mission is to document life in the borough. Santos said that the spotlight technology can help cast on injustice, as depicted in the exhibit, helps force some accountability on those in power.

“As a person of color, we lived with this reality before there were cell phones,” said Santos. “For us, this is basic. People are going to acknowledge the reality we live.”

New Documents will be at the Bronx Documentary Center through Aug. 28.