On December 21, 1987, hundreds of Black protesters took over the Jay Street–Borough Hall station, flooding onto one of the central tracks to prevent passage of the A train. An image by photographer Ricky Flores shows demonstrators standing calm and determined in the track bed, packing it to the station’s end, with many more lining the platform edge. The opposite platform has just a few commuters and a pair of cops, blurry and at a distance.
The event was a “Day of Outrage” for which activists, including Sonny Carson and a young Reverend Al Sharpton, had called after learning of the verdict in the Howard Beach case. In that notorious incident, an African-American man, Michael Griffith, died after being hit by a car as he was chased by white men following a standoff on Cross Bay Boulevard. The photograph simmers with the protesters’ barely contained fury. It is an instant rewind to an unruly time in the city, when many crises — from police brutality to AIDS to wars in Central America — burned at once, sparking clashes, street actions, and near-daily demonstrations.
Yet this image by Flores, a Bronx-raised Puerto Rican who was then a young freelancer, had not been published nor exhibited until now. It appears today in “Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City, 1980–2000,” an exhilarating show that gathers work from 38 documentary photographers who straddled the line between journalism and activism, heading out to shoot the latest incident, selling what they could (often to the Voice), and consigning the rest to their archives.
The exhibition is a multimedia affair: Some 200 photographs are viewable online (at whosestreets.photo), and a handsome catalog features one image for each photographer. But it’s best to visit the show at the Bronx Documentary Center, where 66 photos are on exhibit and others have been blown up and wheatpasted onto walls nearby. The South Bronx, after all, was contested terrain in those days — both a facile metaphor for blight and the wellspring of tenant, environmental, and Latino movements — and is again now, as gentrification gains steam. At least two images in the show were taken nearby. One, by Edwin Pagan, is from a 1990 rally against a medical-waste incinerator that contributed to the local asthma crisis: A child wears a mask linked to a ventilator that his grandmother carries, while men behind them portage a coffin covered with posters. Another, from 1988 and by Mike Kamber, depicts residents stringing barbed wire, resisting eviction from the abandoned building they had taken over on Cypress Avenue.
Kamber, a former Voice reporter, is the founder of the BDC, which he established as a nonprofit education and community center after returning to the city in 2011 following years spent as a war photographer. In the 1980s, however, he lived in the Bronx and was part of the loose but like-minded network of photographers who hopped around the city, faced off with cops and suspicious activists, and hustled freelance gigs to get by. “We came up together, we looked at each other’s film, we worked in each other’s darkrooms,” Kamber says, reeling off names — Flores, Les Stone, Catherine Smith, Linda Rosier, Andrew Lichtenstein — that appear in the show. Voice staff photographers James Hamilton and Sylvia Plachy, also featured, were among their mentors.
The work was direct and energetic, and so was the visual language it produced. “A lot of photos are taken at a very wide angle, like inches from the subject,” Kamber says. “Very few were done with a telephoto lens. The photos don’t look like the ones I used to see in the New York Times. These are more intimate. A lot of the photographers considered themselves activists, or were young and in-your-face.” Confrontation is everywhere: In images from Bensonhurst and Howard Beach counter-demonstrations, white men hurl watermelons and raise middle fingers. In 1991 in Crown Heights, Rosier captures a Hasidic man holding another back from facing off with a Black man. An image from 1989 by Tracy Litt has a passel of cops pinning down a skinhead in Tompkins Square Park. A car burns in a 1992 image by Flores from Washington Heights, after demonstrations against the fatal police shooting of Jose Garcia, a Dominican immigrant.
The joy of protest is also on the menu, and so is imagination: The photographs function as a kind of time-lapse pageant featuring ACT UP, the Women’s Action Coalition, Lesbian Avengers, the Million Youth March, squatters on the Lower East Side. Operation Rescue and the Aryan Nations appear as well. Many protests evinced a street-theater genius, as when the Toxic Avengers disrupted the New York City Marathon in 1992; Smith captures them standing in masks beside a trio of belching smokestacks they’d set along the route in then-working-class Williamsburg.
“Whose Streets?” serves partly as a work of memory. It is testimony to a period of ferment that is moving out of the rearview and into history, from the Reagan era to the eve of 9-11 — in city terms, the Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani administrations. For the school and youth groups that visit the BDC, the benefit is insight into their own surroundings. “This is the history of New York, and the photos become the entry point to talk about what’s changed and what hasn’t,” Kamber says.
There is inevitably a parallel, too, between the hectic activism of that time and the surge that is apparent now. “The civil disobedience and street theater are very relevant to today,” says Rochester Institute of Technology historian Tamar Carroll, who curated the show along with former Voice photo editor Meg Handler. Carroll’s research on social movements in New York focuses on work across identity groups: for instance, how feminist anti-nuclear activists helped train ACT UP in civil disobedience, or the collaboration between white middle-class social workers and working-class Latina mothers. With coalition-building back on the agenda, the shows offers inspiration, but also caution. “The images about police brutality and racism are some of the most discouraging,” Carroll says, “because of the sheer repetition of young men of color that died at the hands of the police in the 1980s and 1990s, and how Black Lives Matter has had to raise attention to the same thing.”
Since the period that “Whose Streets?” documents, visual culture has changed radically, with the digital revolution and its torrents of images flooding social media in real time. But photographers still have a major part to play in movements, maybe more than ever. “We’re saying to young photographers, here’s what we did when we were your age,” says Handler, the co-curator. “Now it’s your responsibility, and it’s still ours, to go out and use our cameras. That’s our form of activism — to go out and make pictures.”