How Mike Kamber, co-founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, hopes to educate a new generation of photographers
Exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center. All images provided by Mike Kamber.
By Les Neuhaus
Les Neuhaus is a former foreign correspondent, having covered events across East and Central Africa, and the Middle East. He now works as a freelance reporter from his home in the Tampa Bay area. Follow him on Twitter @LesNeuhaus.
The Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) was co-founded in 2011 by Mike Kamber, an award winning, multi-media photojournalist who has worked in conflict, post-conflict and humanitarian crisis zones in countries across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East. Contracted by The New York Times, he covered events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan, Nigeria, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and much more. Interestingly, he has also been published in nearly every major magazine across the U.S. and Europe.
Kamber, 52, has worked in the media since the 1980s and recently taught at Columbia University. He took time to speak by telephone to Images and Voices of Hope recently about the BDC and his work promoting photography and video in the Bronx community.
Les Neuhaus: What inspired you to open the BDC? How did it come about?
Mike Kamber: My friend Tim Hetherington and I had talked about a place like this for years – a place that could educate promising photojournalists and filmmakers to help usher in a whole new generation of photographers. Following Tim’s death, some friends inspired me to go through with this. It was really Tim’s death that pushed me to do this. It was basically some volunteers and myself that opened it up.
Editor’s note: Tim Hetherington died in Misrata, Libya, in April 2011, with Chris Hondros, during an intense battle for control of the strategic city along the Mediterranean coastline.
Neuhaus: As far as the building goes, how did you go about acquiring it?
Kamber: I got the building at the height of the recession through a neighborhood investment renewal program. I had money saved up from working for years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Neuhaus: How does the BDC differ from the flashy galleries in Manhattan?
Kamber: Well, first we’re a not-for-profit and we’re not here to sell pictures for a lot of money. I mean, if you think about it, more pictures are being created in one day now around the world than were created in one year in 1970. It’s overwhelming. So we’re not here to charge people for expensive classes or images. The per capita income in the Bronx is around $25,000 (a year), so I feel like with a small budget, we accomplish a lot. We’re trying to develop the Bronx for the people who are already living here. I think there’s tremendous talent here in the area.
For myself, when I was young, I was a teenage father, I didn’t have a college education and I didn’t have any access to photography equipment. So many people here with interests in multimedia are not connected to job opportunities, training or to the journalism world, in general. We want to offer that to them. One of the photographers trained by the BDC is Bronx native Edwin Torres. A year after discovering the BDC, Mr. Torres quit his job at an insurance company and is now working regularly as a photographer for The New York Times, Propublica and The Ground Truth Project, as well as for many other publications. I think that’s great – it’s an example of our work in action.
Neuhaus: Can you tell me a little about what educational programs you offer to the Bronx community?
Kamber: We’ve got two after-school programs – one for middle schoolers and one for high schoolers. We have a $20,000 equipment sponsorship by Fuji, so we’re able to put cameras into the hands of students who might not otherwise ever have access to this kind of gear. We charge them $2 a day for equipment rental, which includes a body and a lens, but if they don’t have it, we don’t charge them.
As far as the programs themselves, we focus on teaching reading, media literacy, critical thinking and research. Then we have an adult photo league, which includes about 20 Bronx photographers who are neighborhood residents. A number of them are now working professionally as a result of our program.
Neuhaus: A number of your gallery exhibitions tend to have social justice or humanitarian themes. Is that likely to carry forward into the future of the BDC?
Kamber: Absolutely. It’s what I’m passionate about. It’s what Tim was passionate about. It’s crucial to examine social issues. We mix shows up with local, national and international issues. So definitely – those are themes we’ll always highlight.
Neuhaus: A lot of newer news websites infuse activism with journalism. Do you think that’s the future of media and does the BDC ever mix the two?
Kamber: Of course we embrace new technology, but good journalism is not about diatribes. Good journalism is about fact finding and that’s what we’re training people to do.
Neuhaus: What are the BDC’s long-term goals or are you already meeting them?
Kamber: That’s tricky. We’re already meeting our goals, but we’re trying to grow. Plus, funding will always be an issue and we encourage donations through the website to keep our education programs and other events going. We find the key to success is getting people together in rooms to look at photos and watch documentaries.
Plus, we’re looking to expand to other cities and create similar models. I’m working on a local level to create a small revolution.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.