Photographer trains lens on Mott Haven Youth

The focus of photographer Sarah Blesener’s photo essay soon became not just about 15-year-old Chavi Leon, her original subject, but expanded to include the lives of six Mott Haven teenagers who became each other’s family of choice and who, like any other group of kids their age, experienced the ever-changing symptoms of adolescence.

Sarah Blesener first came to Mott Haven to take a few pictures of a 15-year-old local teenager, a friend of a friend, hoping to fulfill an assignment for a class. But within weeks, what started as a project for her photography degree became an in-depth look at boyhood, friendship and the South Bronx.

“When I first met him he thought it was just a photo-shoot, but when I explained to him what I wanted to do with the project, we clicked immediately. As time went by, it became so easy to work with him,” said Blesener.

The focus of the photo essay soon became not just about 15-year-old Chavi Leon, her original subject, but expanded to include the lives of six Mott Haven teenagers who became each other’s family of choice and who, like any other group of kids their age, experienced the ever-changing symptoms of adolescence.

Unlike other photo essays of what it’s like to grow up in the low-income areas of the city, which so often portray troubled teenagers who drop out of school to join gangs, this project captured the universality of boyhood in a place known for being the most at-risk community for youth.

The work challenges and destroys stereotypes associated with youths residing in the South Bronx, shedding a brighter light on the life of teenagers who, like anyone else, have high hopes and aspirations for their future.

“From the beginning I didn’t want the essay to be dramatic, but I wanted to draw attention to how they all have really high hopes and dreams and most times it is really hard to make them happen,” said Blesener.

Viewers of the photographs learn that Leon attends Mass two to three times a week, plays both the guitar and the violin and plans to become a bachata – traditional music from the Dominican Republicsinger once he graduates from high school. Leon is confident in his talents and clear-sighted in his ambitions.

“If the music thing doesn’t work out, I’ll become an electrical engineer. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll become a mechanical engineer. If that doesn’t work out I’ll be a video game designer,” said Leon.

Leon lives with his parents and his older brother who all immigrated from the Dominican Republic. His mother came first in 1992 and his dad followed  in 2000. Leon is the first US-born citizen in his family and attends High School for Violin and Dance.

His friends in the photo project all go to different high schools, but they all have manage to stay close due to the proximity of their homes and the experiences they shared while growing up.

Most of the photo sessions resulted in a series of pictures of the group laughing hysterically while lying on the floor, teenagers swinging baseball bats in Heritage Field, or, more frequently, teenagers glued in front of the TV playing video games.

Blesener also gave all the boys disposable cameras and asked them to take photos of how they live or anything they thought could reflect their personalities. The result was a black and white collection of photos of family members and nature that complimented the photos that Blesener had already taken.

“By illustrating what is really going on from their perspective, we can break a lot of stereotypes and understand each other,” said Blesener. “A lot of people see Chavi and his friends and don’t think they are people to look up to.”

Blesener, a graduate student in documentary photography at the International Center of Photography, started taking pictures of Leon and his group of friends as a school project in January 2016. When she presented the project in April of the same year, it got her an Alexia Student Award for Excellence, which is a grant to enable college student photographers to produce substantial bodies of work that promote world peace and cultural understanding.

According to a study done by Measure of America, a non-profit social science research organization, neighborhoods in the South Bronx such as Melrose, Port Morris, Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point have the highest rate of disconnected youth – young people between the ages of 16 and 24 not working or attending school – in the five boroughs.

When Blesener first approached Leon for the project, his parents were resistant to the idea, but she quickly became part of their lives and started attending most of the important moments in Leon’s life. From his concerts at church and in school, to Fourth of July barbecues to Easter, Blesener shadowed Leon for a whole year, capturing milestones and average moments alike, but also capturing the support he received from his group of friends and family. If anything, that is what becomes evident in the photos.

About two months ago while Blesener was waiting for Leon outside of his building, two people close to her age approached her to make sure she knew what she was doing. “You know you’re in the projects, right?” asked one of the men who approached Blesener. She was annoyed, but understood why they were asking. Though Blesener has been going to the neighborhood in a regular basis for a whole year, she said she still feels like an intruder.

“I can’t pretend that I understand what Chavi has to go through,” said Blesener. “But I can spend a lot of time with him and get a glimpse of his surroundings.”

Though Blesener has already presented her project, she wants to turn it into a long-term photo documentary and shadow Leon and his friends until they graduate from high school. She has no idea what could become of the project, nor do her subjects, but as of now they are all in for the experience.

“Things are difficult here,” says Leon, “but I want people to know that I have a group of friends who are helping each other overcome all the obstacles. We’re just trying to do what we do.”