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Capturing East Harlem in the 80s

A man dances on binImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez

The New York neighbourhood of East Harlem, or El Barrio, has long been the home of many of the city’s Latino population.

Journalist Ed Morales describes it as the place “where hip-hop and salsa trumps classical, prime real estate gives way to inner city”.

Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs from the 1980s capture the vibrancy of the area’s communities, while providing glimpses into the darker undercurrents of social issues such as drug addiction, poverty and homelessness.

A girl laughsImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
A group on the stoopImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
A little girlImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
East Harlem buildingsImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
Capturing East Harlem in the 80s
Capturing East Harlem in the 80s

These images were born out of a collaborative university project in which Rodriguez and his fellow students attempted to protect the tenants of buildings in the neighbourhood that were threatened with gentrification.

Under their tutor, the writer and curator Fred Ritchin, the students made black-and-white photographs for court cases showing how landlords had let residential buildings deteriorate so that they could be renovated and then rented to wealthier outsiders.

After the project ended, Rodriguez stayed with the communities, shooting their lives in colour, capturing their richness.

A boy in the poolImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
Protests in East HarlemImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
A child in a cotImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
A group of young men in suitsImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez

“There is an enormous amount of love in these photographs. And pain. And pride. And resiliency. And a sense that things can get better,” Ritchin says about his students’ images.

Rodriguez captures the everyday life of the neighbourhood. Groups of young men sit on a stoop listening to a boombox or children play in a paddling pool. Another boy emerges from Jefferson Pool, where many families from El Barrio visited in the summer.

“This was a very hard, very poor, very tough block at the time,” he remembers about this photograph, “but what’s important to me is the sense of dignity that these boys have by putting on a suit.

“The boy on the left can’t even afford a tie but he still wears a suit. This is where I started to understand what the word ‘respect’ means to people.”

A tattooed backImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
A family in bedImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
Boys in Puerto Rico hatsImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
Children play in the poolImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez
A view of the streetImage copyrightJoseph Rodriguez

Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ’80s by Joseph Rodriguez is published by powerHouse Books. The images will be exhibited at the Bronx Documentary Centre in New York until 14 January.

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