These Candid Photographs of Spanish Harlem Reveal the People at Its Heart

To coincide with his exhibition at Cologne's Galerie Bene Taschen, we catch up with Joseph Rodriguez to discover more about his poignant '80s snapshots of El Barrio.

Saturday Night Cards, 1987

Joseph Rodriguez firmly believes that photography saved his life. “Without it I probably would have shot somebody, or I’d be in prison — that’s just the world I came from.” Brooklyn born and raised, the seminal photographer has devoted his career to social documentary, cultivating his pervasive image-making style in the process. His photographs tell of another America, and of those neglected by the American Dream — from the so-called hoodlums of L.A’s East Side gangs, to the “lifers” at the liberty of the U.S. prison system.

Riffing on the poignant intimacy he admired in the work of his photographic forefathers, Bill Brandt and Chris Killip among them, Rodriguez has birthed his own approach to social documentation that’s at once self-conscious and irrevocably humanist. It’s one that’s proved capable of encapsulating the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the incomprehensible aftermath of 9/11, but it’s Rodriguez’s pictures of Spanish Harlem — New York’s oldest barrio — that seem to be the most prolific.

Taken in the ‘80s, just after he left school — and currently on display at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne — Rodriguez’s arresting images of this nucleus of Latino culture were the product of a five-year homecoming for the photographer. Spanish Harlem played a pivotal role in Rodriguez’s formative years: it was the site of his uncle’s candy store, as well as many a fond childhood memory shared with his cousin. “We went there for the music and the girls,” he remembers. “We’d hang out and eat food and just be New York City teenagers, you know?” But for all its fruitful offerings — the salsa, the hip hop, the picante cuisine — the trials of life in Spanish Harlem were glaringly obvious and frequently documented in the media, albeit in an exaggerated manner. “It was always written about in the same way,” Rodriguez explains, “and these articles tainted people’s view of it.”

Bible Class, 1987

The overarching picture of the district commonly known as El Barrio was one of crime, violence and drugs, fuelled by the sweeping generalisations of journalists at the time; even a later press release for Rodriguez’s earlier photobook of the series talks of the “plague of addiction” and “ravages of poverty” that apparently characterised Spanish Harlem back then. It’s this kind of sensationalised language that contributes to the sense of othering and ultimately marginalisation that Rodriguez desperately sought to subvert. “I wanted to use the camera to show that there was much much more,” he explains. The resulting images are a back-to-the-roots exploration of the district and a lesson in the bonafide power of owning your own story. “I’m Puerto Rican,” Rodriguez explains, “so I understood their food, their religion, the struggles with poverty, the sense of family.”

This stark intimacy shines through in Rodriguez’s photographs, a closeness that clearly stems from the time and genuine care he has invested in Spanish Harlem and its communities. “I spent a lot of time sitting with the families at their kitchen tables, doing homework with their children, going to the grocery store…” Rodriguez remembers. “It was five years of photographing — not five days, not five weeks — so you build relationships with people.” Its thanks to these off-camera moments that the stereotypes surrounding Spanish Harlem give way to a sense of hope, family, strength and unity; through images like Cindy, in which an endearingly gap-toothed girl with an ice lolly grins contagiously at the camera, Rodriguez resets the balance. “These are our school teachers, our factory workers, our taxi drivers, you know — it’s a working class community, it’s not just a bunch of people on the dole.” This is something Rodriguez’s photographs constantly reassert — that humans are a product of their own experience, their society, their culture and education. It’s a key facet of his oeuvre, appealing to our humanist core and exposing the real people behind their demonised tabloid existence.

Cindy, 1988

Of course Rodriguez photographs touch upon the darker side of existence too, an inevitability and, moreover, moral obligation of a photographer so subservient to the humanist cause. Dwayne Smoking Crack, for example, captures the harrowing normalcy of drugs on the street. The poverty and hardship is subtle, but prevalent in domestic images taken in family homes, but his photographs, more than anything, demonstrate hope, and strength as kids play in the street and families gather round the table to play cards.

It’s been over three decades since Rodriguez first lensed the communities in Spanish Harlem, but the images still speak volumes. “We’re still dealing with the same issues,” he asserts. “If you’re brown or black in America you’ve got to work five times as hard as any white person. Gentrification is running rampant up there.” It’s unfortunate that the enduring resonance of such depictions boils down to history repeating itself, but it’s this that motivates Rodriguez to keep taking pictures, because people have a dire need to look back and learn from the past. “All I’m trying to do is give the ‘other’ a voice. I’m not naive, I know I can’t change the world, but through my photography I have a platform.”

Spanish Harlem by Joseph Rodriguez is at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne until 21st July. The photobook of the works, published by powerHouse Books, is available online.

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