August 20, 2013
One night in Los Angeles, a sixteen-year-old boy approached photographer Donna De Cesare, saying, “Lady, put me in your book—you can take my picture.” De Cesare recalls the memory of this encounter in Fred Ritchin’s foreword to her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego (University of Texas Press).
The boy did not let up. De Cesare continued her story: “ ‘Am I going to be in your book?’ he asked. ‘I can’t promise that,’ I replied. ‘To make a book takes a lot of pictures and a long time,’ I explained. I told him I couldn’t say for sure, but my best guess was that it would be about three years if all went well. ‘Shit! I won’t be alive by then,’ he responded dejectedly.”
The boy went on to explain that all his homies died before they reached twenty. They were gangbangers. Life on the streets was short, ugly, and violent. The boy didn’t believe he was going to be any different. He, who was never named, is like countless who have come before him, the children lost to a war that has no beginning and no ending because it is played in the shadows, between the borders, and across the Americas. Here are the victims of the War on Drugs: the children.
Donna De Cesare has graciously agreed to discuss her work here. She will speaking at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., on September 11 in conjunction with the War/Photography exhibition currently on view, which. originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and came to D.C. from The Annenberg Space for Photography in LA. After D.C., it will end its tour at the Brooklyn Museum (Oct 29-Feb).
I am particularly interested in the way in which the photographer uses the camera as both a means to connection as well as a means to create distance between the self and the subject. Please talk about how you relate to the use of the camera in your work documenting the victims of the drug war over the past two decades.
What I love most about photographing is precisely the way it can engage a relationship. Looking with the camera is similar to listening attentively. I strive for the same comfort level and connection. I want to be as emotionally close as I can so that I can convey as accurately as possible the feelings I receive from the photographic subject/protagonist.
When I’m working I move between moments of “just looking” to moments of “just listening.” This is the part of the work I find most rewarding. When you achieve great trust with a subject, it begins to approximate the sensation of looking in a mirror. You see the other person looking back at you and recognize their difference, but you move in concert. Some photographers refer to it as a dance. This empathic connection may be charged, but it is also fragile. If a person becomes fearful or distrustful he/she will retreat leaving you with a mask.
There are other situations in which the camera creates distance. It can be a kind of emotional shield. I’m thinking here particularly of the photographs I make at crime scenes or during moments of chaos or commotion. These are complex unfolding situations. The photographer must anticipate and remain attuned to the dynamic interplay of action and reaction within a group.
Pulling back not only allows me to see the overall but sometimes it may also help me examine my own looking as I make ethical choices in the moment. This creates a kind of third eye –not objective, but a looking that is at some remove from the subjective curiosity or intuition of “first person” or the intimacy of “first person” to “second person” exchange.
I need this meta-perspective to negotiate the suffering I witness. It is a vital component of my search for an enlarged sense of truth or meaning in the situations I witness.
The photographer becomes both witness and interpreter of the stories they learn, making the photograph both evidence/proof, as well as a constructed narrative of its own. Please talk about the inherent tension between the act of documenting a subject as difficult as the children who have been victimized by the culture of drugs, gangs, and violence, as well as the way in which the photograph itself becomes a frame by which you can share these stories with people from all walks of life.
Documenting this story challenged me on so many levels. I am always striving for a horizontal relationship with the protagonists of the stories I tell—one that is open, non-judgmental, empathic and which does not deprive subjects of their own agency. At the same time I am conscious that as an adult interacting with children and young people I have power and responsibility as well as a different perspective.
I learned quickly that many things I might take for granted are absent or alien or seemingly impossible for children enveloped by a reality of violence, drugs and gangs. I often felt angry, frustrated, and impotent to make a difference of any kind as I worked. But in the give and take of relationships a safe space develops which may permit some solace and growth for all involved. I try then to convey that enlarged perspective through my photographs.
A photograph can be a forensic record—it records what is visually evident. But I think it is also always a tool of imagination. In freezing the frame it speaks the language of metaphor as well as the language of fact. My mission is to distill what I learn by “being there” in order to enlarge understanding. I aim to reach people who would never choose to enter the places I visit. But I am also always thinking of my subjects. What might they learn if my images could help them recognize their own story, in the photographs of other children who would otherwise be their “enemies?”
When creating Unsettled/Desasosiego, you appear charged with a tremendous task, going through both your own life experiences as well as those you have met over the years, in order to distill a narrative thread that extends beyond time and space to tell the story of the Drug War. Please talk about the most empowering challenge you faced as a photographer and an author to reflect upon your work, and the larger story itself?
When I sat down to write the book I had already produced a website and I had lived with many of these images and stories for a decade or longer. In piecing together the narratives, which form the website Destiny’s Children, I worked consciously with the layers of these testimonies. My approach there was to follow individual life stories of four young people I’d come to know over a period of years. Each story is emblematic as well as idiosyncratic. All make evident how quickly poverty, trauma and misguided social policy contribute to the stigma and marginalization that so many youth face.
Two young people are engulfed by the violence and suffer tragic ends. Despite occasional setbacks, the other two are able to muster inner strength. Each forges a path that defies the expectations of a cynical and selfish social order. I included a timeline with pivotal moments of upheaval in a history binding the US and Latin America. I added hypertext links in the stories, so that the reader could drill down discovering context for the issues that emerge at different points in the protagonists’ lives.
Having done the website why do a book? One reason is that books slow you down and they offer a different tangible encounter. They also are not prey to the pace of changing technology. I designed my website first in html, then in flash and now just a few years later it would require expensive re-coding to make it accessible on tablets and smart phones. As physical objects books have presence, and if well made and cared for, longevity. I knew the book would need a different structure and narrative strategy, but it took me awhile to embrace a first person approach. Putting myself at the center felt awkward at best. And my worst fears involved the many pitfalls–from hubris to sentimentality—in which that choice of voice might become ensnared.
But I kept turning a recurring experience over in my mind. When I give talks about my work, someone in the audience invariably strays from the discussion to ask about me: Weren’t you scared? How did you get them to trust you? Was your life ever threatened? These are not the questions I wanted my work to provoke or engage. At first I found them irritating and at odds with my work’s intent. I was in part trying to reveal how stigmatizing our projections of such fears are for the young people in my photographs.
But as I sat with my discomfort, I realized I had to find a more effective way of highlighting the mechanism of prejudice and the unconscious ways it filters our perceptions and responses to people who don’t fit our norms. I hadn’t always known what I now know. I realized I could take the reader back to my beginning. By invoking the image of a younger less self-aware self, I could use memoir to chart my own path of discovery. The selection of personal anecdotes could move the reader from a small personal story to an insight and a larger collective history marking points of connection across time and space. It was at times painful to relive experiences as I wrote, but as I grew to trust my voice I began to enjoy the process and fell in love with writing again.
We have created a culture of complicity in the Drug War itself, that to me on the outside feels like an extension of the old myths of the frontier, the outlaw, the “cowboys and Indians” where the bad guy was good and the good guy was bad, and the world appropriated this narrative in order to protect the United States government. This could be a huge stretch on my part, so if I am off base, please feel free to reel me in, but what do you see as the reasoning for criminalizing the most disenfranchised populations in the Western hemisphere today?
Your mention of our frontier mythologies of “good guys” and “bad ones” is of course nowhere more evident than in Hollywood movies. And that is perhaps the only place such one-dimensional characters exist. Real human beings are always struggling with the nuances and moral complexities of our choices. But “outlaw” “cowboy” and “indian” myths immortalized in classic westerns nearly always vilified those who in some way resisted “civilizing” colonization. The brutal loss of life, theft of land and displacement suffered is presented as inevitable. I think we need to remember that slavery played a role in the push westward too and that Manifest Destiny was the zeitgeist of that age.
Some legacies die hard. Today the Drug War is colored by similar biases in the guise of “American Exceptionalism.” It has played a significant hegemonic role in US power relations with Latin America—although of late many South American countries are questioning and challenging its premise. One has only to look as far as Mexico to realize that increased militarization has resulted in increased corruption, mayhem and bloodshed with little tangible impact on the expansion of illegal drug markets.
And here at home there is overwhelming evidence that the Drug War is endless and unwinnable. With 5% of the world’s total population, the US has 25% of the world’s imprisoned population placing it at the top of the prison industrial complex. Moreover, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness demonstrates the racialized nature of this deplorable state of affairs—1 out of every 15 black males over age 18 and 1 of every 36 Latino males over the age of 18 is incarcerated in the U.S. compared with 1 of every 106 white males in that age group. As an Urban Institute study recently pointed out, when you factor race into the rapidly expanding chasm between the richest 1% of Americans and everyone else you are left with an inescapable conclusion: we live in a culture that has criminalized poverty at the same time that poverty has surged.
The culture of fear and selfishness dominating our country for well over a decade has hardened our hearts and crippled our minds. We once waged war on poverty. We now wage war on the poor. The real threat to our national values and freedom is these habits of mind and ways of seeing that make this seem inevitable. The children whose lives I’ve documented are caught in this drama. We have made our myopia their tragedy.
With the publication of Unsettled/Desasosiego, what do you hope to achieve by way of creating awareness and inspiring activism? What can we, as individuals, as a group, and as a society do to begin to address and unravel this incredibly complex problem that has claimed so many lives?
I published this book because first and foremost I wanted to restore to the children who are the protagonists in my images and stories the basic humanity and individuality that is denied them when they are seen as “child soldiers,” “gang members,” “migrants” or any other reductive category. Once we are able to connect to their stories, our tendency to dismiss or to excuse our complicity by focusing narrowly on some of their own ill-conceived choices melts away. We can then begin to take in the panoply of factors limiting their options. That is when we face some choices of our own.
We live in a culture that brands and markets products and causes alike. While gestures such as purchasing “fair trade coffee” or donating to relief efforts are certainly good starting points, for putting “your money where your mouth is,” the big issues clamoring for our attention require more.
The Drug War’s human repercussions are an issue “eco-system” where, youth violence prevention, gun safety, criminal justice reform, immigration reform and other concerns meet. Whether one finds direct hands-on work with youth most rewarding or is drawn to policy reform advocacy, there are many points of entry for individual and collective action at the local, national and international level.
In many ways I am cautiously hopeful. The public health paradigm of harm reduction pioneered by academics and activists in violence-affected communities in the 1990s has gained institutional currency even in places that were long resistant. There are indications that the next generation of leadership in Central America has learned the folly of relying exclusively on repression in their approach to gangs. And countries in Latin America have grown skeptical of the US prescription for battling drugs and organized crime. Uruguay’s recent decision to create the world’s first nationally controlled legal marijuana market is a crucial public health experiment to watch.
In this era of instant communication, constant distraction and expectations of quick results, it is easy to feel lost in the forest. Ultimately the message of my book is take your time– look, listen, make connections. Social movements for change need patience and commitment for the long haul. That is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the US Civil Rights Movement. Decide what you can do and commit to it with patience, heart, and faith in collective forward motion.
August 19, 2013
In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.
She asks, “Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.”
He says, “There is nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.
Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.
Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.
—Rumi, The Sunrise Ruby
August 19, 2013
A portrait of the artist is his subject, that which he stands before, for it is through his eye through his mind through the very pressure he asserts at the tip of his finger as he sets forth, that very moment he aims, fires, and shoots, that fraction of a second captured as the shutter clicks, the photographer stands before the Universe, eternally.
It is the photograph that is evidence of his path, a path cut and carved with great swaths of panache and pride, a kind of knowingness that camera creates, that shutter click is really a wink, a tongue placed firmly in cheek, cheekie, all these good things. It is the way we stop time and set it free, releasing the eternal into the Universe, eternally.
Joe Conzo happens, is always happening, wherever he goes be sure to know, there will be scenes, people, stages upon this earth, be it the sidewalks or the streets, be it the performance palaces and the neighborhood parks. Joe is New York, the Bronx to be exact. Born and Bred, represent. A gentleman of the old school, from a time and a place where you stood your ground, because ground is sacred, and from the ashes of flames arose the greatest generation because they fought the war on this here homefront. They stood for the people—our people—and they won.
It’s bigger than hip hop. Hip Hop was born of this. We see it in Joe Conzo, and we see it everywhere he goes. The Hell Lady of the Bronx begat a soul that continues to share of himself, here with Koe Rodriguez for a Thousand Words, with photographs of Paul Newman and Charlie Chase. This is how it was, how it went, almost all of us missed it except Joe, who was there, just as he always is, with a camera in hand, a big smile and kiss, a twinkle in the eye, and a story to tell. Because he knows. Joe Conzo He is the revolution made whole.
August 18, 2013
Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable
—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things.
August 17, 2013
A Thousand Words in every language. A thousand worlds all seeing the same image. The stories captured forever and then—
We behold because what we see is always there when we look. It is in the image that we live forevermore, photographs from the Album of Life, every page a reverie, a memory .. of a shared time and a place that was and is forevermore captured on the page. It is this, the photograph, a vessel of soul, three dimensions transposed into two, the ephemeral made eternal and then—
We print it in a book, print it on the page and hang it on the wall. In this way the photograph is precious for a piece of paper is easily torn. But what holds well, endures and can be born? Cotton. It is a canvas upon which we have created egalitarian style, a casual chic that is all that is great about America. The t-shirt is a space for hopes and dreams as it stands before us to bear witness. It is this, as the billboard of the heart, the the t-shirt is where art becomes love.
Koe Rodriguez launches A Thousand Words, a new line of apparel and home design that showcases the work of New York legends Joe Conzo, Martha Cooper, and Jamel Shabazz. I’ve been waiting for this. That Dondi t-shirt! Cause, I mean, who would have ever thought? I gotta give it up. Props to Koe Rodriguez for having the knowledge and the vision to make this happen. Because it’s what the world’s been needing. Art, sweet, art.
Once upon a time, the trains actually ran, and you could see burners, throw ups, tags, whether you wanted to or not. That was live. Fly handstyles add energy to the mix. Graff is life as art, and everyone’s taken along for the ride. Just like music, block parties, shows around the way, kids inventing the world in which they want to live.
Do It Yourself. That was and it is the ethos by which I was raised, New York in the 70s. We know it, that’s why we create. What else can you do? “Be the change you want to see in the world,” like Rumi said.
August 16, 2013
August 14, 2013
less is more
disappear, be gone
be but a memory i never speak
words never heard, hollow point bullets
never shot, never loaded, never known
empty of all that is you i am
free of the curse
August 13, 2013
Leave everything. Leave Dada. Leave your wife. Leave your mistress.
Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods.
Leave the substance for the shadow.
Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the roads.
What I have loved, whether I have kept it or not, I shall love forever.
Let us not mince words..
the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful,
in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.
Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind
at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future,
the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low,
cease to be perceived as contradictions.’
It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions.
Existence is elsewhere.
Photographs by Joie Iacono
Quotes by André Breton
August 13, 2013
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
lady I swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
-the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
—e.e. cummings, since feeling is first
August 13, 2013
I had been scared of depth,
because depth is without end.
August 12, 2013
Life is a choice, and the choice is our own. We are dealt cards from a deck, cards that we do not control until we hold them in our hands and claim each and every one of them as our own. It is these cards that we are given that we must learn to play—or not play—here and now, each and every single day.
Those cards, once accepted, are fully within our control but it takes a great deal of awareness to fathom, appreciate, and enact the responsibility we hold in our hands—to ourselves and to the world. It is this awareness that helps us master ourselves in order to create the life we want to live. And this life is created by a limitless series of choices we make in the short and long term.
Choice begins in thought, in the perceptions we hold, in the reality that our brains are both limited and limitless, and it is in our brains that we behold: possibility, happiness, success. Not defined by others, but defined by ourselves. Uncompromising. Committed. Authentic. True. We always have choice, and it begins in thought. “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think,” as the Buddha wrote. “When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
But how to purify what has been sullied by dirty feet and dirty hands, by words that have darkened our heart and our soul, by thoughts that are corrupt and relentless as they speak lies to powerlessness? How do we purify that which was and remains pure, that which lies beneath it all? How do we access our truest selves, the authentic essence to which we were born?
We choose hope. We choose faith. We choose love. We choose the unknown over the known and allow ourselves the freedom to discover once again. We return to childhood once more, to all the beauty and horrors it bestowed. We return to the place where we made our break and we learn the context this break created. We learn that context is a choice, and it is ours to make. We choose to stay and remain behind, or open ourselves to a new way.
For the past two years, I’ve been on a path to the center of it all, to where it all began, to what it is, what it was, what it has all been for. For the better part of this time, I believed I had to do it alone. And I went as far as I could, until I could go on more. Then an idea came to me. I could call Ileana Ferreras.
Ileana is a life coach. But to me she is so much more. She is my best friend from high school, a best friend whose friendship came to an end, not once, but twice. Because they say, third time’s the charm. In coming together now, each of us realized as we are, we could leave behind all the negativity that belonged to neither of us but lived in us like a virus until it lived no more.
I know Ileana very well, and she knows me. But it is not this knowledge that connects us so much as our shared commitment to recovery. She has taken this commitment to embark on her journey as a life coach, and it is through the process of healing that she has taught me more than she could ever know.
She has taught me listening, with deep silence and sincerity. Actual hearing, not just what is there but what it means. She has taught me context shift, a massive possibility. I, who was the most extreme absolute black-and-white thinker, am now able to straddle countless shades of grey. She has taught me self-mastery, as in, only I can do this for myself. It is with her guidance, her understanding, and her listening that I can mirror this awareness in and for myself.
I remember in high school, Ileana made a point of claiming her initials: IF. She saw it as all that is possible. She has named her company Imagine & Fulfill. IF… a complete and total beingness to create the most possible of possibilities ever instilled. IF… I agree, then what will come?
What are the dreams held deep in your heart? What is it that only you can do for you? I went to Ileana with a pre-set list of ideas—and one by one I discovered they were not true. And I let them fall away so that the truth could come, and slowly I discover my purpose in life, how to enact it, and the courage to go beyond any limitation I had set upon myself.
Today, as every day this month, I have taken on an assignment to complete the uncompleted pages of my life. Things keep coming up, things that astound me, things that I could not see until Ileana taught me how to open my eyes and look clearly. Now that I see, I can let go. Forgiveness is the art of saying, “I am sorry. I didn’t know.”
I forgive. It’s taken very long. And there is so much to forgive that I shall keep going until there is no more. I recently told someone whose name I no longer write that one must give the skeletons in the closet a proper burial and read them their last rites. I honor the dead. Because they are not dead. They simply transform. And for every skeleton I bury, I can breathe again once more.
There is more to this story, but it has only just begun. There are second acts in American life. If only Fitzgerald stopped drinking long enough to learn…
August 12, 2013
I’m sometimes called a ‘documentary photographer’ but…
a man operating under that definition could take a sly pleasure in the disguise.
Very often I’m doing one thing when I’m thought to be doing another.
I work rather blindly. I have a theory that seems to work with me
that some of the best things you ever do sort of come through you.
You don’t know where you get the impetus and response to what’s before your eyes.
The secret of photography is,
the camera takes on the character and personality of the handler.
Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist,
for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.
Leaving aside the mysteries and the inequities
of human talent, brains, taste, and reputations,
the matter of art in photography may come down to this:
it is the capture and projection of the delights of seeing;
it is the defining of observation full and felt.
With the camera, it’s all or nothing.
You either get what you’re after at once, or what you do has to be worthless.
I don’t think the essence of photography has the hand in it so much.
The essence is done very quietly with a flash of the mind, and with a machine.
Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more.
Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.
Photographs by David Gonzalez
Quotes by Walker Evans
August 11, 2013
On August 11, 1973, Clive Campbell AKA DJ Kool Herc distributed the following flyer around his South Bronx community. Herc would be joined by Coco, Cindy C, Klark K and Timmy T in a seven-hour jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Recreation Room. The “Back To School Jam” would change history as we knew it.
August 8, 2013
Chemistry is you touching my arm and it setting fire to my mind.
—nayyirah waheed, flood
August 7, 2013
She was the primeval ocean and she emerged as herself of herself
and all has come forth through and from her.
She is self existent, and her nature is secret, a mystery to all.
—The Egyptian Book of the Dead