One image shows an elderly man and two boys posing with spent mortar shells. Another captures a family fleeing a wrecked building, terror etched on their faces. In still another, a young soldier brandishes a machine gun, bullets wrapped around his body.
These full-color photos from the recent civil war in Libya are on display in Mott Haven as part of “Visions: Tim Hetherington,” the inaugural exhibition of the Bronx Documentary Center that opened on October 22, to honor the slain photojournalist and award-winning director of the documentary, “Restrepo,” a feature-length film on a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan.
Some of the photos on display were taken on the fatal day, when Hetherington and his fellow photographer, Chris Hondros, were caught in a crossfire in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Misurata.
The grim images notwithstanding, the center buzzed with energy in anticipation of the opening.
The newly renovated Beaux-Arts building on the corner of Courtlandt Avenue and 151st Street is home to the new center, the first of its kind in the South Bronx, which seeks to educate students through photography and video, while serving as a venue for world-class photojournalists and filmmakers to engage an “underserved” local community.
“Despite his success, Tim never lost sight of the human dynamics behind the violence he documented,” reads the exhibition’s synopsis posted on the wall.
The gallery was the brainchild of Michael Kamber, 48, a New York Times photographers and reporter, to honor his friend, the late Hetherington. ”I came up here with Tim, and we thought this is a community that doesn’t see documentary photography,” said Kamber, 48, who renovated the historic four-story building with financing from Fractured Atlas, a non-profit organization for the arts. “This is the place to build it.”
After the legendary photographer was killed in Libya, Kamber moved back to the Bronx after a 20 year absence, and rushed to finish the first-floor gallery space. The top floor of the building that Kamber bought for $614,000 serves as Kamber’s home.
Sebastian Junger, another award-winning photographer and friend of both Kamber and Hetherington, said the center is an important addition to the community. ”The South Bronx obviously is a community that’s had some tough years in its past and I think it’s just amazing that the photo community has an outpost here,” said the author of the bestseller, The Perfect Storm. “Typically you think of that as being in Manhattan.”
For Kamber, a three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize — twice for photography and once for reporting — it’s his way of enriching his own neighborhood.
“We want to get young people in here,” said Kamber. “We’re going to show them this work and explain them what documentary photography is.”
Aside from welcoming students, Kamber also plans to organize talks about veterans and post-war trauma – two of Hetherington’s most cherished issues.
It took five months of hard work for Kamber and his team to renovate the gallery. Photography students and friends, as well as fellow veterans of the war in Afghanistan pitched in to help.
On opening night, many of New York’s photography aficionados trooped north from Brooklyn and Manhattan for the event. Attendees huddled around the photo installations, while an overflow crowd packed its backyard. Spotted among the hundred or so attendees were veteran South Bronx photojournalists Mel Rosenthal and Ricky Flores, as well as Bronx artist Carey Clark from the community group, The Point.
Lawrence Scott, a 64-year old television producer, said he “fell in love with the concept” of a documentary center and decided to volunteer his time.
“A lot of people that would not normally come to the Bronx would come and realize that it’s a neighborhood just like any place else,” said Scott, who lives nearby.
Fanny Placentia, an 18 year-old Bronx native studying visual arts, said she was excited to learn that a new gallery was opening in her neighborhood. The young brown-haired teenager came with a classmate and their teacher to have a look at the 36-by-30-inch war photographs.
“I don’t have to go to great lengths to get to the center,” said Placentia, who found the exhibition inspiring, even though she had never heard of Hetherington. “It’s right there near my home.”
The photo exhibit runs until Dec. 2, 2011.