New York City

August 2003

by Ricky Flores

Every once in a while an opportunity presents itself to re-evaluate your work and find a way to communicate your life experience to someone who is just starting out in the business. It’s an opportunity to re-examine why you decided that photojournalism was the career path of your choice and that no other option was acceptable.

For me, photography represented a way to understand what was taking place around me when I was growing up in the South Bronx. I was a young first generation Puerto Rican descendent born at Bellevue Hospital, historically and infamously known for treatment of psychiatric patients.

At the age of five, I lost my father who died of bronchial asthma. Shortly afterward my mother and I moved to the South Bronx. It was a turbulent time. The Young Lords were active in my community but on the decline. Landlords defaulted on their taxes and abandoned their apartment buildings, or burned down the buildings for insurance. Street gangs were the norm where I lived on Fox and Longwood Avenue, and one gang, the Savage Skulls, received national notoriety because of the violent and tragic death of one of a group of brothers at the hands of a rival gang. Anger fueled by our abandonment by the city was commonplace and was expressed by turning over abandoned cars or throwing other debris into the middle of the street and setting it on fire. We could always count on the Fire Department to come, but no one else, and firefighters would continue to have a profound influence on my life. Eventually, troops of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers descended on my neighborhood to try to understand the destruction of an entire community.

In the midst of this I as well always wondered why these things were taking place in my community. As I hit my eighteenth birthday, a friend of mine turned me on to photography and with a small inheritance that I received from the death of my father I was able to purchase my first camera. In the beginning it was natural for me take photographs of my friends and family at their homes, on the streets or at the local businesses. What I didn’t know then was that I was making a historical document about life in the South Bronx from a perspective that was not seen from people from outside of the community.

When I entered Empire State college, I began to re-examine my life as a Puerto Rican man from the South Bronx. I started to realize the importance of my work, documenting life in my community. During that period I benefited from mentoring from several Professors of photography and community activists who were active within my community or within the world of photography. The camera became a tool to understand what was taking place around me. Since that time it has been a means to explore a wide variety of subjects and issues that have caught my attention.

When I was invited along with other professionals to act as supervisory staff for the Latino Reporter, a convention-centered student newspaper for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists which was holding a convention in New York City in June of 2003, I accepted, although at the time I was not entirely clear as to why I did so.

What followed was one of the most intense learning and teaching experiences of my life. For a whole week I worked with Carlos Osorio, a photographer for the Associated Press and four young photojournalists from around the country. We covered a host of issues ranging from street life on 42nd street to life in the surrounding communities from Ground Zero to the Lower East Side to Washington Heights. In the midst of this, New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., addressed a workshop at the convention on "Journalism Ethics and Diversity in the Wake of the Jayson Blair Scandal."

The fallout of the Jayson Blair incident has had a profound impact in newsrooms around the nation. The professionals who staffed and supervised the students felt that we needed to explore the issues of ethics and the impact that the scandal may have on people of color. I struggled with wanting to cover these issues on my own or turning them over to young photographers who wanted to be able to prove themselves capable of the task. . Carlos and I fought with them everyday; we cajoled, tutored, pushed and yelled to make them understand the importance of the opportunity that was being presented to them, and something wonderful then happened, they all came through it in ways that was totally unexpected and breath taking. Through the eyes of the students we received a lesson in Journalism 101. Our paper was called by the New York Post, requesting our student reporter notes on the Sulzberger’s talk. The editor who responded politely and firmly refused and instructed them to pick up a copy of the Latino Reporter the next day. Our paper was displayed and quoted on CSPAN which taped the Sulzberger talk. USA Today ran an article on their lifestyle section on the Latino Reporter.

Although the Jayson Blair scandal has raised questions on how people of color are treated in the newsroom, and whether it was favoritism or maybe lack of support, the general consensus was that this was an individual with a dual life in the major newsroom who self-destructed in a very public way. Color had no role in this incident, only poor management. But the tale remains a cautionary one for those of us who are trying to break into or work within this industry. No issue, angle or slant will be left unexplored if we fail as journalists. Today we write or shoot the lead story; the next day we can very well become the lead.

I look at that week with a sense of profound pride that the future of our industry is in good hands. Our small band of photojournalists and journalists clearly understand why they are in the business, one that is often left thankless and belittled by our very own. They share a mission and purpose for doing what we do on a daily basis. More importantly they see real value in the work, despite the damage that commercial news ventures have been doing to our industry. I walked away wanting to influence those of us who have not had the opportunity to take the chance and share knowledge with those that are coming up. The rewards and the stakes are great: we either let future photojournalists capitulate to the needs of large corporate newspapers and magazines or we instill in them a sense of mission and a vision of how the world really is and how it should be.

© Ricky Flores

Ricky Flores is staff photographer at The Journal News, Westchester, New York.



Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist