In the 1980's and 1990's, New York City was home to growing social unrest over issues ranging from the city's rapidly gentrifying landscape, police brutality and strained race relations, to international conflicts like the war in Iraq. During this period, countless photographers captured its spirit of protest: moments of violent confrontation like the Tompkins Square Park and Crown Heights riots, as well as the more sanctioned, organized demonstrations, instances of non-violent civil disobedience and elaborate, often-costumed street theatre. Meg Handler, former photo editor of The Village Voice, historian Tamar Carroll, and Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center recently curated Whose Streets? Our Street! New York City: 1980-2000, an exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center up through March 5, 2017, which includes the work of more than thirty-eight photojournalists who covered protest in NYC between 1980 and 2000. I spoke with Handler and Carroll to learn more about the exhibition and its increasing relevance today.
Jon Feinstein: I imagine the exhibition was conceived long before the 2016 presidential election. Do the results and impending presidency change your outlook on its thesis?
Tamar Carroll: Yes, we began conceiving of the exhibit in 2014, as I was finalizing my book, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism, and contacting photographers, including Meg Handler, to ask if I could include their photographs in my book. Meg suggested that it would make a great exhibition, and we began working together on in. The Black Lives Matter movement and the 2016 presidential election made this content even more relevant.
Jon Feinstein: How did you select specific photographers for this exhibition?
Meg Handler: I selected photographers that I had photographed with in the streets in the early 1990s, as well as photographers who I assigned to shoot these topics while I was editing at The Village Voice. They are a group of photographers who blended activism with their photographic practice; they are progressive thinkers.
Jon Feinstein: Meg -- my understanding is that you moved to Chicago years ago, after being ingrained in NYC culture for years as The Village Voice's photo editor. Does this change your outlook on NYC activism and its history?
Meg Handler: Living in Chicago hasn’t necessarily changed my outlook on these decades in New York. It definitely make me more nostalgic for them though. Mostly because Chicago as a city has a different vibe. The activism community is quite vital in Chicago, and I have enjoyed photographing it, with ease. In my experience the police have been fairly easy to deal with, mostly in terms of our freedom of movement. I should add though, my experiences shooting in Chicago start after the massive anti-NATO demonstrations in 2012, where things got very violent not only for protestors but for the press as well.
Jon Feinstein: Why 1980-2000 specifically?
Tamar Carroll: There was great documentary photography made during these decades, but a lot of it had not been exhibited, so this was a great opportunity to put those images before the public.
Jon Feinstein: Given this timeline, the exhibition largely covers "pre-digital" / pre-social media photography. How do you think this exhibition or your curatorial practice might be different if it began with work made in 2000?
Meg Handler: From a curatorial perspective, I think my selections would have been different. This was very much a group effort in that, I relied on photographers to send me what they felt was relevant in their archives, based on our description of the show. I think if we did the show starting in 2000 much of the work, would have already been seen. Either on personal websites or via social media
Jon Feinstein: This covers a range of protests in NYC. What's the overarching goal/ message of the exhibition as a whole?
Meg Handler: This is a call to action to younger photographers to get back out there and start shooting. With social media, we can share this work more easily today. We are needed.
Tamar Carroll: We also hope viewers will be inspired by the creativity and tenacity of activists in the 1980s and 1990s, and appreciate their contributions to many long-term struggles for social justice extending over decades into the present.
About the Curators:
Meg Handler is Editor at Large for Reading The Pictures. She is the former photo editor of The Village Voice. Following The Voice, Meg worked at U.S. News & World Report, Blender, New York Magazine, COLORS and Polaris Images. She has edited a number of books, including the monograph, Phil Stern: A Life’s Work, PAPARAZZI by Peter Howe, Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 80’s, and DETROIT UNBROKEN DOWN by Dave Jordano. After 20 years of immersion in the photography business, and having worked with some of the great photographers in New York and abroad, Meg now lives in Chicago. Meg received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from The Rochester Institute of Technology.
Tamar Caroll is an Assistant Professor of History at Rochester Institute of Technology and the Program Director of Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree co-sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, and the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing & Information Sciences. Her book, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism, examines the history and legacy of three path-breaking social movements in New York City from the 1950s through the 1990s. She conducted more than fifty oral history interviews while researching this book; She also drew on organizational and personal archives, newspapers, films, posters, and photographs to bring these stories of activism to life. Tamar grew up in Andover, Massachusetts and studied history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She received her PhD in history at the University of Michigan and was Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in U.S. History at Cornell University before joining the faculty at RIT, where she is also affiliated with the Museum Studies and Women's and Gender Studies programs.
Michael Kamber has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. Between 2002 and 2012 he worked for The New York Times covering conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, the Sudan, Somalia, the Congo and many other countries. He has also worked as a writer and videographer for The New York Times, which twice nominated Kamber’s work for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 2011, he founded the Bronx Documentary Center, an educational space dedicated to education and social change through photography and film.