‘The People That Are Within These Frames’: A Community Offers Self-Portraits

Founded in 2011, the Bronx Documentary Center is a gallery and teaching space in the Melrose neighborhood that offers screenings, exhibitions and education programs in documentary film and photography to members of the local community. The aim, said Bianca Farrow, the center’s education manager, is to help people use photography “as a tool to be confident in themselves, in the stories they have to tell, and creating a community interested in exploring their own histories.”

As part of that mission, the center operates the Bronx Junior Photo League, a nine-month photography and college success program, and the Bronx Senior Photo League, courses for older adults held at senior centers in the borough. Over the last year, the pandemic ruled out in-person instruction. But the center adapted: It offered classes virtually or as phone calls, and sent each student a camera, which they used to document their own lives as the world shifted around them.

Earlier this year, The New York Times asked both the senior and junior leagues to make self-portraits; how they defined self-portrait was up to them. Their photos are included in a year-end exhibition at the gallery, now on display until June 20. For more, visit bronxdoc.org.

Dawn Chaelce Bernardo, 17

“Each day I draw the curtains of the living room window to let the morning light in. Before the pandemic, I did it to nurture the house plants, but I realize that it’s a ritual that nurtures me as well.”

Elena Farciert, 62

“I am an optimist and believe in the power of karma, always remaining grateful for everything I have. These values have guided me through my journey as a Mexican immigrant living in the United States. Taking this class I feel more confident, and photos evoke a lot of emotions in me.”

Alexa Pacheco, 14

“Quarantine forced me to pick apart everything; my community and my joy were stripped away, and I realized a truth I had ignored. Accepting myself as a queer teenager was the only good thing to come out of this.”

Chloe Rodriguez, 18

“Study your surroundings. Study them as if it’s the last time, making sure you won’t forget anything. Study every wrinkle on her face when you make her smile, the sound of her laughter, the way she grips your hand to show her affection.”

Lucki Islam, 18

“I relive my middle school days. Ostracized for my unibrow, my self confidence was compromised. Untamed body hair dying a silent death. Razors, threading, waxing — anything to preserve a beauty that existed beyond physicalities. Womanhood, a place that feels strange no matter how many times I encounter its path.”

Esther Anaya, 68

“Recently I reflect on darker moments, locked doors, and drawn curtains due to the pandemic. I find myself gazing at my baby’s breath thinking about recuperating after surgery and what the future holds for me. Soon, I will leave my shadow behind to finally reach my destination.”

Margaret Floyd, 70

“There’ll soon be an end to Covid-19. While at home, I learned to play the piano to keep busy. My reflection and myself were often my only company. Until I found new friends and adventures in virtual reality.”

Anastasia Cardona, 18

“The world turned upside down; it wasn’t about having fun anymore because it was time to be serious. I couldn’t go outside and have fun with my family like we did before the Covid-19 pandemic. I miss the people that are within these frames.”

Bryan Monge Serrano, 18

“I stand looking at the municipal parking lot the city sold that gave way to gentrification in my community. As I pass this cherished place, I think about the laughter of my family after a Sunday of shopping, something that me and many of my neighbors can no longer enjoy.”

Aminata Kamara, 15

“My name is Aminata, Ami for short. I am 15 and the second-born of four children. I’m quiet and live in my own little bubble. With my photographs, I hope to give other people insight on what it’s like to live in my head and experience thought, image and reflection.”

Virgilio Carballo, 81

“I like to photograph people, nature, sundown, shadows created by celestial bodies and man-made structures. I remember taking my first self-portrait in 1962 in a hotel room in Baltimore. Since that selfie back in 1962, I’ve become aware of the beauty in the world which I took for granted all these years.”

Maxima Valerio, Age 70

“I love photographing my 3-year-old granddaughter, Najimah. I take care of her when her mom has to go to work and day care is closed. It is a blessing to see a child when they are born and see them grow up. The love of a grandmother is double the one of parent and child.”

Dennise Reyes, 17

“I lost my grandpa April, 5th, 2020, due to Covid. Dancing cumbia, zapateados, and to Mexican rock was a way we connected. The way my whole brown family connects. In this picture I’m releasing anger, sadness, and combating my depression with dancing. I know he’s right next to me watching me laugh. Every spin and stomp makes me feel free.”

Alberto García, 17

“I am reflecting on a hard time period in my life when me and my entire family had Covid-19 for about 3 months. I will always remember those long nights, telling myself not to give into the sickness and try to fight it off.”

Virginia Alicea, Age 74

“The coronavirus lockdown tangled itself into my life. During a time of uncertainty, the Serenity Prayer grounded me. I dedicated myself to my crafts and escaped into the stories in my DVD library. Once my friends and I were vaccinated, we drank a cup of coffee together. Planning ahead feels liberating.”

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