There’s a shot that shows a man on the dark street outside a Melrose church, his upturned face lit only by the soft yellow light from a passing car. Another captures a cop bathed in the pink glow of a neon sign, looking past the camera while on patrol. In another, a woman in a lavish red headdress is showered with dollar bills during a West African bridal party.
These are some of the New York City moments captured by the lenses of the Bronx Junior Photo League, a group of high school students who study photography every week at the Bronx Documentary Center in Melrose, and then spend much of their free time behind the viewfinder. They have used their cameras to document the lives they see around them, and to make sense of their own. And they have spent hours honing their craft, learning the technical elements of photography and developing an eye for composition. Now, their work has been recognized on a national level.
This month, five local students from the league received Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a prestigious national competition founded in 1923 by the Alliance for Artists and Writers and judged by a panel of renown visual and literary artists. In the words of the organization, panelists look for “originality, technical skill and the emergence of a personal voice or vision.” The organization received more than 300,000 entries.
Mitchell Dennis, Fanta Diop and Janet Lozano won a Gold Key Award for their photos and videos; Chloe Rodriguez, Diop and Lozano won Silver Key Awards, and honorable mention went to Angie Avendano and Rodriguez. From now until May 28, the work of the Gold Key winners from across the country will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Across the board, their photos are detailed and intimate, seeking those “decisive moments” as the famed photojournalist Henri Cartier Bresson called it. But the students have all used their art to look inwards as well as out.
“It helps me understand the world better,” said Mitchell Dennis, 18 and a senior at the Bronx High School for the Visual Arts near Pelham Parkway. “There’s so much power in being able to tell stories. You can take something you’ve been thinking about and you can use photography to sort of figure it out.”
Dennis, who lives in Soundview, has been taking pictures for the past two years, and met the director of the Bronx Documentary Center by chance on a downtown 5 train, where they struck up a conversation about photography. He prefers to shoot portraits, and tries to capture moments in real life – hanging out, school life, on the street. It’s always terrifying to approach people he says, but in the end it’s worth it.
“The camera – it kind of opens that door and lets you know this person,” said Dennis. “It gives you permission to get to know something or someone you couldn’t otherwise.”
Chloe Rodriguez started young – in sixth grade – in a program at her school, which is just across the street from the documentary center. Growing up here, she said, she was afraid of the Mott Haven streets, and wouldn’t go anywhere without her mother. Three years later, she says she now relishes approaching people.
“The camera opened my eyes,” said Rodriguez, 15 and a ninth grader at the High School for Art and Design in Manhattan. “There are nice people here. And there’s hope for this area. “
Rodriguez said she sees a future for herself in photography long term, but for now she is focused on saving for a new camera. She shoots with her grandfather’s Canon or one of the center’s Fujifilm XT1s. Dennis shoots film and digital, and was gifted a Canon AE1 by Bronx Photo League photographer David Delgado, one of the students’ many mentors.
Both young photographers want to continue using their art to show the rest of the world their world, here in the Bronx – a place they say is perceived as dangerous.
“Through photos you can show people it’s not like that at all,” said Dennis. “You can show the moments we all share. I feel sort of proud that I can do that with photography.” And, Dennis said, he’ll be doing it for a long time too. His motto? “Eat, sleep, shoot.”