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Esteemed author and cultural critic Ilan Stavans, will be writing a series of ten essays specifically for our photographic journal, Nueva Luz and our blog. ‘The Democratic Eye’ is the first article in the ‘Picturing Diversity’ series, which will later become a book on photography. In discussing how the medium has changed, Stavans challenges assumptions on how society sees the world and how we view each other. It is a pleasure to be able to bring this exciting series to our readers.

For Part 1-A of this article, please visit : Part 1-A:The Democratic Eye

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In Rita Rivera’s photograph of the legendary baseball pitcher Mariano Rivera, a formerly exotic face is now graceful, classy. There is a severity to Rivera’s expression, a resignation. He poses in front of the photographer, not to be subdued, to be imprisoned, but to showcase his demeanor. There is no arrogance, no threat. If this is fame, he says, I’m undisturbed. What matters isn’t how I look but what I do. The player’s stoicism is a lesson. He is neither arrogant nor condescending. He simply affirms himself though his representation.

Rita Rivera, Mariano Rivera, Closing Pitcher for The New York Yankees, Latinos in Major League Baseball series, 2002/2013. Selenium toned gelatin silver print, 14 x 11"

Rita Rivera, Mariano Rivera, Closing Pitcher for The New York Yankees, Latinos in Major League Baseball series, 2002/2013. Selenium toned gelatin silver print, 14 x 11″

The democratic eye approaches its theme with decorum only when its subject demands it. For the most part, that eye is restless, mendacious, critical, even condescending. It stops at nothing. Its basic tenant is the demystification of reality. Look at Bradford Robotham’s marvelous image, The Kiss. The couple in it makes a fool of themselves. Isn’t that what people do before the camera nowadays? Happiness is skin-deep: everyone smiles, everyone kisses. These characters could be descendants of Diane Arbus’ circus: while they aren’t freaks, they are unrefined, trashy. This is how we live life today, they say, without etiquette. One might argue, of course, that a summer day on the beach is just an outlet for folks to relax, be silly, to let their hair down. And that if we don’t take context or the artist’s intent into account, aren’t we doing what we’re accusing condescending photographers of doing? Robotham doesn’t look down at his subjects. His eye is that of an anthropologist: he is objective, clear-minded, leaving it to the viewer to judge.

The effect is numbing. It implies a fostering of relativity. Truth is spelled with a lower-case t. Clarity has opened the door to the nuance of minorities, to complex degrees of shade. Everything is deemed notable. And memorable, too. People used to create albums of their lives with a set number of images. Today that effort is done less curatorialy, and more haphazardly. A sheer accumulation of images becomes a shareable past, one to be paraded on by friends. It is a selective pass, fluid, malleable.  Plus, it is easy to manipulate that past. All it takes is manipulating the photographic content: the sunset might be presented in sharper tones, a person’s face less tragic, more upbeat. And, should the landscape be deemed inappropriate, it takes nothing to refurbish it. The world, as it is, only constitutes a draft.

Bradford Robotham, The Kiss, Coney Island series, 2008. Archival pigment print, 19 x24"

Bradford Robotham, The Kiss, Coney Island series, 2008. Archival pigment print, 19 x24″

What has all this democracy, this pluralism done to us? It has made us unruffled, relaxed, blasé to the point of ignorance. And it has brought down our defenses. The effect is a cheapening of experience. Timidity is seldom an issue anymore: to be on camera is to be real and to be left out of a photograph is to be ignored, to lack significance, to be as good as dead. Worse, pictures constantly stress the performative qualities of our social interaction, making us rude, aggressive, nervously flamboyant, uncontained.

Life is a party orchestrated so that photographs will be taken. It isn’t bad to be fake anymore, to become impostors, to exist in a permanent state of pretense. We are all actors. We are always being asked to be in shape, to display happiness, to joyful. Smile and hide your belly. To be depressed is to be non-photogenic.

In its egalitarianism, in its classlessness, photography makes us reflections of ourselves. It isn’t interested in eternity. Instead, it loves the normal, the average, the dull. We are all unique in our difference, it clamors.

Next Article, Picturing Diversity: I Am Stereotype (part 2-a).

Ilan Stavans, one of today’s preeminent essayists, cultural critics, and translators, is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College-Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish (2003), Love and Language (2007), and Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years (2010), Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots (Rutgers, 2012), and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic, 2012, with Steve Sheinkin). He is the editor of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (2003), the 3-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories (2004), Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (2009), The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), and The FSG Books of 20th-Century Latin American Poetry (2011), and a guest writer for Nueva Luz, volume 10#1 (2004).

Rita Rivera is a NY based photographer, photo editor and awardee of En Foco’s first New Works program in 2001. Her recent book with writer Rafael Hermoso is Speak English! The Rise of Latinos in Baseball, Kent State University Press, 2013.

Bradford Robotham has been photographing the Coney Island area since 1998, and featured that work in an En Foco Touring Gallery exhibition in 2013. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Robotham was an assistant to John Coplans for over eight years, and lives and works in NYC.

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Esteemed author and cultural critic Ilan Stavans, will be writing a series of ten essays specifically for our photographic journal, Nueva Luz and our blog. ‘The Democratic Eye’ is the first article in the Picturing Diversity series, which will later become a book on photography. In discussing how the medium has changed, Stavans challenges assumptions on how society sees the world and how we view each other. It is a pleasure to be able to bring this exciting series to our readers. 

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Cover of Nueva Luz vol. 18#2. Photo © Ayana Jackson

Cover of Nueva Luz vol. 18#2. Photo © Ayana Jackson

Photography has become mundane. It is no longer an art. It has stopped delivering an aesthetic judgment. Instead, it stresses the banal. That banality is our joie de vivre: nothing is exceptional, everything is worth a picture. Ordinariness is cool.

There used to be a peculiar synergy between the “I” behind the camera and the camera’s eye. That synergy was a synonym of elitism. The photographer used to have a trained eye. The “I” made visual decisions and the eye was its conduit, its tool, its bridge. Sometimes the decisions were accidental. Click, click, click: one among the hundreds perhaps thousands of these reproductions, hold a secret. There is magic in that secret. It was a mysterious, an instinctual choice.

The camera lucida was an optic device invented by Johanness Kepler (Dioptrice, 1611) that allows artists to superimpose an image on a surface, thus having a better perspective on the object they sought to portray. The strategy serves as a metaphor: to photograph was to inject meaning, to superimpose a layer of meaning on reality. In 1980, French thinker Roland Barthes, in La chambre claire, eloquently meditated on what makes photography snap. A few years earlier, Susan Sontag, in her collection On Photography, released in 1977, established the parameters to rethink it in aesthetic, social, and ideological terms. To see an image is to set the mind in motion. It is our duty to trace that motion: Who are we when photographed? And how do photographs transform us?

Once upon a time, we left photographers to the task of patiently, selectively freezing the river of time, of isolating a sight, an emotion, of say that what matters is often beyond the surface, inscribed in the essence of things. Taking a picture was like crafting a narrative: it had depth, complexity. We trusted the craftsman’s choice, grateful for trumpeting a moment above others, for makings us differentiate between seeing and looking, between looking and observing, between observing and understanding. Truth in photography was about clarity, about light as well as lightness. Truth was spelled with a capital T.

Nothing like it remains. We have allowed ourselves to be bombarded with images. A succession of pictures overwhelms our consciousness. They come at all times, in all sorts of shapes, mercilessly, unimpeded. For non-artists, the use of technology makes them artistic, yet the images are sheer merchandise. The commitment to devote oneself to photography as a career, to make a successful profession out of it, is non-sustainable. Everyone is a photographer now. The camera’s eye has become ubiquitous. That eye is in phones today, in laptops, in iPads. It requires no formal education. My intent is not to diss but to describe: photography is more important than ever as well as more unrestricted, egalitarian, even uncensored. We all are guilty of trafficking with images, of abusing the “I.” The masses are in control and control is in the hands of the masses. There is no longer anything sacred, selective, or unique anymore about freezing time, about search for the essence of things. The medium has the message. Photography has finally become democratic.

And pluralistic, too. There used to be a relationship based on power between the professional photographer and that which was photographed. Perspectives meant control: to capture someone in a picture was also to arrest their self, to govern them, to control them. That control—that power—belongs to all. It isn’t centralized. It has no owner. Is such relationship still in place? The omnipresence of the camera today has reduced its sphere. Some photographers, whose commitment to the trade is unabated, proudly engage in it. And others abuse it. In either case, the relationship matters less than it used to because photography, in nature, has changed. The photographer is no longer a privileged conveyer of visual verity. That verity belongs to every Tom, Dick, Jane, and Alice.

A camera not only is a factory of mementos. It is also a weapon, a subversive tool because pictures are more dangerous than ever. They denounce atrocities, they embarrass governments, they foster revolutions. In the hands of the people, cameras are political instruments. They record, they confront, they reclaim. As a result, control has become uncontrollable. Movements spring around easy-to-send images. Those who once were subjects of photographic fetish have become manufacturers of their own profile.

Each nation has its photographic tradition, defined by its own motifs, its own obsessions. Photographing the nation has been a strategy to build consensus, to create a collective identity, to foster a sense of history. The result is a fracturing of the ancient order. It used to be that white faces projected panache, superiority, durability. They were the sources of beauty, of morality, of civilization. Non-white faces, in contrast, projected vulnerability, primitiveness, exoticism. Ethnographers photographed indigenous populations as a way to record their habits. That equation is no longer viable.

Next, Part 1-B of ‘The Democratic Eye’.

Portrait of Ilan Stavans

Portrait of Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans, one of today’s preeminent essayists, cultural critics, and translators is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five Colege-Fourtieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College. His books include Spanglish (2003), Love and Language (2007) and Gabriel García Marquez: The Early Years (2010), Return to Centro Histórico: A Mexican Jew Looks for his Roots (Rutgers, 2012), and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic, 2012, with Steven Sheinkin). He is the editor of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (2003) Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (2009), The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), and The FSG Books of 20th-Century Latin American Poetry (2011), and a guest writer for Nueva Luz, volume 10#1 (2004).

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David Gonzalez looks back 30 years, to the moment he saw these dancers in a loving embrace in the streets of the South Bronx.

© David Gonzalez, The Dancers 1979

© David Gonzalez, The Dancers 1979

The Dancers is probably my best-known image, yet it sat in my archives – unseen – for 30 years. I was working at En Foco after graduating from Yale, and had gone to a street fair in Mott Haven with Rafael Ramírez to put up a Street Gallery on August 10, 1979 (my 22nd birthday). While we were there, a salsa band started playing, and a couple started dancing. I shot two frames of them.

And then I forgot about the image.

Thirty years later, I started scanning my old negatives, when I came across the image. Mind you, I had printed other shots from that day, but not this one. Of the two frames, one had them where I could see both of the dancers. It ran with a cover story and slide show I did for the Times’ Metropolitan section in late August 2009. The reaction to it was strong and immediate.

To me, this image speaks of a lot of things, especially given what was happening in the Bronx at the time. Here we have a couple, dressed to the nines, dancing in the streets when the outside world saw the South Bronx as irredeemable. Yet there, embracing and dancing to the soundtrack of an unseen band, they remind us how our roots, our culture, nourishes our souls.

One more thing: always go back to your archives. Your older self will discover things your younger self knew enough to shoot, but not necessarily to print. — David Gonzalez, May 28th, 2014

En Foco offers an exclusive limited edition print of The Dancers through it’s Print Collectors Program, so be sure to collect yours soon while the opportunity lasts.

For more information on David Gonzalez and his work, please click here.

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Sama Alshaibi reflects on the headdress her and her mother created together, as well as the historical influence and motivation behind the image, Headdress of the Disinherited, 2004 (published in Nueva Luz 12#1)

Portrait of the Disinherited, 2004.

Portrait of the Disinherited, 2004.

In commemoration of Al Nakba (66 years later), my mother asked me to post this older photograph of mine. I made the hat worn in this photo, in collaboration with my mother. That hat is a sculptural memorial to the exile of 800,000+ Palestinians who fled their homes due to the ensuing war when the state of Israel was created in 1948, known to Palestinians as Al Nekba.

The copper coins were once Palestinian currency and now etched with the visa stamps from my family passports. The hat references the Wuqayat al-durahem, or Smadeh , a “money hat”. This hat was historically presented to Palestinian women engaged to be married as either part of the “bride-price“ or dowry. Wedding headdresses were once an essential part of a Palestinian woman’s attire and a cherished belonging. Few headdresses remained intact after the 1948 war; Palestinian monies were no longer minted and families used the coins, one by one, to survive difficult times.

By substituting the no longer minted Palestinian currency with the markings of visas passport stamps, passport pictures and immigration/naturalization documents collected from my family in exile, I am speaking to the inheritance of an intellectual dowry, the stories of our heritage and culture, without the experience of the events that fundamentally define it.

I also am conceptually alluding to the inheritance of exile and displacement. When you belong to a people without a home, or a home that you are not allowed to reside in, your home is an idea. The hat, and the photographs, serve as a temporal and yet temporary memorial, a makeshift memorial that can be transferred, reshaped, reconstructed and re-imagined in its memory of those exiles who are in a continual state of temporary until they are allowed back to their homes in Palestine. 

–Sama Alshaibi, May 16, 2014

For those of you in love with the blending of photography and culture, subscribe to Nueva Luz HERE so it comes directly to your mailbox three times per year.

Sama’s work was published in Nueva Luz (order that issue HERE), and featured in our Touring Gallery exhibition alongside Myra Greene at Umbrella Arts in 2008.

Learn more about Sama Alshaibi here, and at www.samaalshaibi.com

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According to their press release, the AIPAD Photography Show is one of the world’s most “highly anticipated annual photography events.”  Well, let me tell you – that statement couldn’t be any more accurate.  I’ve been hearing about AIPAD since my days at Aperture Foundation and by word of mouth from photo friends.  So, walking into the Park Avenue Armory where the show was being held, I was excited to see what all the great fuss was about.

aipad2014

Circling around the Armory filled with many different galleries from around the world, it was great to see familiar works by artists like Matthew Pillsbury, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Graciela Iturbide (an En Foco’s alumna). After a while though, I must admit I grew a little tired of seeing so many black-and-white photographs.

So when I saw a ray of color coming from Steven Kasher Gallery, I was ecstatic!

I am a huge fan of graffiti art and urban culture, so seeing Henry Chalfant’s work was absolutely mesmerizing.

 

Top: Henry Chalfant, Skeme Agent, 1982, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013 Middle: Henry Chalfant, Tkid Boozer Stop, 1983, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013 Bottom: Henry Chalfant, Panama Cocaine by Kid Panama, 1980, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013

Top: Henry Chalfant, Skeme Agent, 1982, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013
Middle: Henry Chalfant, Tkid Boozer Stop, 1983, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013 Bottom: Henry Chalfant, Panama Cocaine by Kid Panama, 1980, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013

Henry Chalfant started out as a sculptor in New York in the 1970s but turned to photography and film to do an in-depth study of hip-hop culture and graffiti art. According to the Director of Steven Kasher Gallery, Maya Piergies, and their website – he is one of the foremost authorities on New York subway art, and “other aspects of urban youth culture.”

Henry Chalfant, I Love Zoo York By Ali, 1981, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013

Henry Chalfant, I Love Zoo York By Ali, 1981, Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, printed 2013

At first I thought it was one of Bruce Davidson’s photographs from his Subway series in the late 1970s.  However, they weren’t as gritty and dark.  Chalfant’s series of heavily tagged subway cars are vibrant in color but simple in technique. While his technique is very straightforward, each photograph has its own identity and character.  What I love most are the captions accompanying the photographs.  Each one is named after their street tag names: Kel Min, Sharp Delta, Tkid Booze, 2Near 2Mad 2Wide, or 2Man TNT to name a few.

Chalfant’s photographs are also featured in City Museum of New York’s exhibition called, “City as Canvas: Graffiti Art From the Martin Wong Collection.”  Steven Kasher Gallery also held a self-titled exhibition of Henry Chalfant earlier this year.

Henry Chalfant, Min One in the New Lots train yard

Henry Chalfant, Min One in the New Lots train yard

As I was stepping into the now modernized, clean #6 train on my way back to the Bronx, I smiled to myself wishing that I were stepping into one of Chalfant’s photographed subway cars instead.

AIPAD runs from April 10-13, 2014. For more information on the AIPAD show, panel discussions and other great exhibiting galleries, click here.

For more information on Henry Chalfant, click here.

 

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Weinstein_04

© Sandra Chen Weinstein, Woman of Nablus, from Dignity for Palestine series, 2011

Sandra Chen Weinstein has been interested in foreign affairs and the international community since college. She worked for an American agency and lived in many countries. One of her visits to the Holy Land was with Olive Tree Initiative, academic scholars and businesses, all interested in opening peaceful dialogues and resolution. There, she met with both Israeli and Palestinian officials to begin understanding critical issues between the two perspectives, and has travelled back to Israel many times since to continue documenting life around The Wall.

“Even as a tourist, you can see the conflict between the wealthy Israelis and the Palestinians living in poverty. I was able to walk freely while Palestinian were not.  The Separation wall and divided land has shattered the human tolls economically and their dignity as human living,” Sandra said.

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© Sandra Chen Weinstein, The Cabbie, from Dignity for Palestine series, 2011

The Palestinian community continues to celebrate their heritage, though the struggle is evident. Sandra met many families and was invited as a special guest to attend a wedding and take photographs in Bethlehem.

“As a street photographer, you always consider the decisive moment to photograph, especially in this very personal setting where one must pay respect to their customs” says Sandra.

Though you may be unable to tell from The Party and The Wedding Singers below, there was much uncertainty from the guests towards Sandra; but it didn’t take long for them to open up after hearing what her photographic research was all about.

They were pleased to know that someone from a completely different background took interest in their situation and is now trying to raise awareness for a wider audience to have a better understanding of the hopes of constructive peaceful resolution.

In the wedding reception, traditionally, men and women are in a separated hall to celebrate. All the bride’s relatives and bridesmaids dressed in striking colors and elegant fashion that you rarely see in a Muslim Middle East. Women in Palestine have often demonstrated their endurance and resilience with strong confidence, wisdom and empowerment during hardships.

Weinstein_24

© Sandra Chen Weinstein, The Party, from Dignity for Palestine series, 2011

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© Sandra Chen Weinstein, The Wedding Singers, from Dignity for Palestine series, 2011

“How could one not be emotional when someone comes and force you to move within 48 hours and offers nothing to compensate the lost, and no home to return to – this is not just political, but social. It’s about how we live,” says Sandra.

She walked among homes that had been burnt or demolished, but the most difficult for her to see were the hardships for women and children, with little promise of a brighter future. Resistance was often expressed by covering walls with the art of their reality.

Weinstein_03

© Sandra Chen Weinstein, Ruin and Demolition, from Dignity for Palestine series, 2011

Weinstein_10

© Sandra Chen Weinstein, How Many?, from Dignity for Palestine series, 2011

She went on to document the checkpoints dividing Israel from the West Bank, where she learned that unless one had a permit or family members on the other side, not every Palestinian was free to cross to Israel. “It is as if they are prisoners on their own land.” She says.

Weinstein_07

© Sandra Chen Weinstein, Qalandia Crossing at Checkpoint, from Dignity for Palestine series, 2011

 Sandra intends to continue her series with the hopes that the project will help people to learn and understand the complexities of the life divided by the wall.

Sandra Chen Weinstein‘s exhibition “Women of Arab Spring” will be seen at three venues in conjunction with FotoFest Biennial 2014, Houston, TX, in March and April.

This monthly Members Highlight blog feature is where we interview and share what some of our En Foco members have been creating. To learn more about En Foco’s memberships and how to join, please click here.

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Susana Raab’s compelling photographs were recently published in Nueva LuzOne of our favorites, is a portrait of Jaime Quispe, a young man with a portrait of a woman tattooed on his chest. About the Image describes how this encounter with Quispe was the catalyst to Raab’s own personal awakening.

Jaime Quispe, Playa Agua Dulce, Lima, Peru, 2013, Cholita series, 2013.  Digital C-print, 20 x 24”

Jaime Quispe, Playa Agua Dulce, Lima, Peru, 2013, Cholita series, 2013. Digital C-print, 20 x 24”

I knew before he responded to my question what his answer would be.  Jaime Quispe stood out to me amidst the crowds in the working class Limeño beach of Playa Agua Dulce because of the portrait of the woman tattooed to his chest.  One of the underlying personal themes in Cholita is the nature of human attachments.  I confront my own fears and longing for attachment by visually exploring those of others.

Jaime Quispe had lost his beloved mother and immortalized her on his body. This symbolic fusion of selves reminded me of the ee cumming’s line, “i carry your heart, i carry it in my heart.” All my life, I have longed to know a maternal love that is supportive rather than destructive.  Through Jaime Quispe and the many other Peruvians who have shared fragments of their lives with me, I was finally able to step outside my own protective denial and recognize the losses I have sustained: the first steps towards reconciliation began on that beach with Jaime.    —Susana Raab, Feb 19, 2014

To see more of Raab’s Cholita series and other remarkable photographers in the current issue of Nueva Luz, click here for a free downloadable sampling.

For those of you in love with photography and culture that want to cut to the chase, please subscribe HERE.

Learn more about Susana Raab here, and at susanaraab.com

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