After establishing successful careers in the field of photojournalism and documentary work, six native Nuyorican (New Yorker and Puerto Rican) photographers, as they refer to themselves, were introduced to one another.
Ricky Flores, Angel Franco, Joe Conzo, Francisco Molina Reyes II, Edwin Pagán, and David Gonzalez, all born and bred in the Bronx, began documenting their communities at an early age. Their attention and lens pointed towards the culture and daily scenes taking place within the urban streets, abandoned buildings, and run-down parks where they lived and played.
The South Bronx, to many, is known for those infamous words said at Yankee Stadium in 1977, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning!”
In the 1960s, the urban decay had begun. Factors such as white flight, landlord abandonment, and economic changes contributed to the shift within the neighborhood. In the 1970s, poverty became more rampant and the media began to take notice, dropping journalists in, an idea dubbed as parachute journalism, to report on the deteriorating New York precinct.
Individually the members of Seis del Sur documented the life that thrived in a community known around the world for an arson epidemic.
One night, all six found themselves at a solo show that Joe Conzo had at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York. By the end of the evening, they were all in agreement that they should do something together.
It started simply, by sharing photographs on their Facebook pages. Gonzalez suggested an activity that was intended to be fun and build their friendship. He called it “photo wars.”
“It was nothing more than putting up a certain kind of photo, lets say, a group of girls jumping rope. Then we too had to put up similar photos in that sort of vein. We started doing that as an exercise and it became pretty fun. It broke the ice,” Pagan explained during a phone interview with ivoh.
They formally met in 2010 and began talking about their work and comparing photographs, quickly realizing that they had been following in each other’s footsteps over the years. “It felt like we were just missing each other,” said Flores, who also spoke with ivoh over the phone.
Pagan even found himself in one of Conzo’s photographs. Back in the day, he had been a spectator in the audience in an early image which captured the rise of hip-hop music, a genre known to have emerged from the Bronx.
What is unique about the collaboration of Seis del Sur is that each of them documented their community, which was the same community, from within.
The group now recognizes the importance of this fact in telling the story of what was really happening in their neighborhood and within the lives of its residents, who endured the trauma of watching the buildings around them systematically abandoned and engulfed in flames. The intimate perspective portrayed through their street photography offers a more truthful rendition of what life was like at that time.
“We knew that our families had a certain level of integrity, because even though we were in the midst of rubble-strewn lots and abandoned buildings, and decimated neighborhoods, we were having the time of our lives,” said Pagan.
Flores, Franco, Conzo, Reyes, Pagan and Gonzalez have created a unique opportunity to get a broad look at what life once was in the streets of the Bronx.
The Bronx Documentary Center was the first institution to bring their combined work together in a gallery space. On the first day of the exhibition, there was a line around the block hours before the doors were set to open.
“It has taken the young people in the community who couldn’t see past their block and has brought them,” Franco, a member of the group said to ivoh. “It was putting hope and belief in themselves and in the community.
Pagan said that for many Bronx residents, “It was like they opened up their family albums.”
The collaboration of Seis del Sur has resulted in a reclamation of identity for the Bronx community. Pagan as well as the rest of the six, recognizes that as insiders, they have shared their narrative and point of view. “When we were doing our work as young men in the South Bronx, as teenagers, and younger than that, we were just photographing the neighborhood.”
“We were more caught up in the craft of photography. I surely wasn’t that political at that age,” Pagan said. “We didn’t know it was going to have the impact it would have then. But, at least we were certain that we were doing something different than when the newspapers came in. Every time they came to do stories, it was always negative. It was always about the worst of the Bronx.”
Franco added onto this idea: “We are in charge of our community and more importantly, we are in charge of the image portrayed of our community. And when you empower a community that way, you can’t take away the good stuff that is coming out of it. And yes, we have to look at the negative stuff, but at the same time, you have the positive.”
When ivoh asked Flores if he thought the collaboration created a body of work which exemplified resilience, he replied “It absolutely is. It takes a certain type of character to hold yourself together. You can go one direction in your life or the other way. And not only to have a life, but to thrive. And we do that as a community and we do that as individuals in the Bronx.”