Shot over five years, Joseph Rodriguez’s newly re-released book, Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ‘80s, was the first body of work that the now world-renowned photographer ever made. Growing out of a group project undertaken as part of his scholarship year at the International Centre of Photography, the work captures a community facing the challenges of poverty, violence, drugs, and gentrification. Driven by his own Puerto Rican New York roots and his struggles with drug addiction and the criminal system, Rodriguez’s commitment to showing the beauty and resilience of East Harlem gave the project a depth and complexity he felt was lacking in mainstream depictions of America’s inner-city communities in the 80s. VICE spoke with Rodriguez about the book’s origins, the persistent relevance of the issues it explores, and the importance of not forgetting what it’s like to be a kid.
VICE: How did a Brooklyn native like you start photographing East Harlem in the 80s?
Joseph Rodriguez: As teenagers we used to go up there to get high. The thing is, when you were hanging out on the block, music was everywhere. The place had a soft spot in many people’s hearts in part because of that song "Spanish Harlem" by Ben E. King. But there were plenty of other songs, too. We listened to these great salsa musicians on the street, Tito Puente and Willie Colón, and so on. This area was like the capital of Spanish America. We would be hanging out, drinking beer, smoking a little weed, looking at all these pretty girls. It was a little like a West Side Story thing, without wanting to romanticize it too much.
So when did the photographic work there come into play?
In terms of doing anything serious about this place, it wasn't until later, when I went to the International Centre of Photography on a scholarship. I was stressed, I had no money, had no film. This was in 84–85. Bruce Davidson had done a very famous book called East 100th Street, and the community wanted him to come back and photograph the area again, as it was undergoing some gentrification, all while some people there were still living like animals. Bruce was busy, but he talked to Fred Ritchin—who was my teacher and who writes the afterword of the book—and said, "Why don't you let your students go up there and try and photograph the gentrification?" So we went. We had students from Iran, France, Canada—all of us doing a group project in East Harlem. We made our first multimedia project there with black-and-white slides and audio recordings.
How did you feel about that early work you did there?
I was still very green, and I didn't make the photographs I wanted to. Once I graduated, I started working for a photo agency called Black Star. I was working as a photo researcher, going through the archives and looking at the work of amazing photographers—James Nachtwey being one of them. I was hungry! Hungry in the way any artist would be when they feel they aren’t good enough. That pushed me to work on my weekends up there. After a full year of working full time in the week, driving a cab on weekends, but coming up here in my own time to shoot two rolls of film a week, I told Black Star I was going to quit. When they asked why, I showed them the work, and my editor Howard Chapnick, took my slides, loaded them into a carousel, and started shopping them around. He took them to everybody, eventually National Geographic became interested, and that's how this work continued. I used National Geographic not as an assignment, but as a grant: You want to give me free film? Give me all the Kodachrome you want!
The work in El Barrio spans five years. Was part of that a reaction to how you felt communities like this were being depicted photographically? Was it a willful effort to not stop by, make a few photos, then leave?
It had to do with a very simple thing. When we grew up here in the city, all we ever heard about the community was that it was bad. We heard about babies being thrown off roofs, overdoses, and violence against the police… That’s what we grew up with. I decided very early on that there was more to this place than drugs and death. That was the drive for me more than feeling specifically like other photographers weren’t spending enough time there.
Did your decision to depict the community with balance hinder your efforts to sell the work?
Everyone wanted me to shoot the dark side, and at that time of course there really was a serious problem in the community with drugs—and also, of course, this period was the beginning of AIDS. There’s two photos of that in the book: to me the strongest is the one of the African American sitting on the bed with all those doctors around him who had come in from all over, just staring at him. Then there’s the other of the baby in a hospital on the bed watching Gilligan’s Island on TV. He died after his dad just died upstairs. So this was serious stuff.
But where I found the balance, was understanding what it’s like to come from this world, being an ex-heroin addict myself, having been to Riker’s Island a couple times. When you are born below the curb, you are going to be looking up . I have students from all over the world that probably had a better start in life than me, and they immediately start off by looking down. Not because they are bad people, but because photographers often do that—they look for the hard stuff. Even with photographers I really respected, I had a problem with it when they shot a whole book on drugs and you’d never see a photo of a father or a mother. Man, I know what a drug addict is. Not all drug addicts beat their kids. I wasn’t seeing that other side of it. This project was about providing that balance.
Does the book take on an added weight in the context of New York in 2017?
The work is relevant right now. Yeah, it’s the 1980s, maybe the fashion’s changed, but all the issues are the same. Take gentrification—it’s happening right here. We are in the epicenter of it right now. There’s a photo in the book of Good Friday. Passionate Catholics come out and pray. But this was not just a typical Good Friday, they were going from church to church, and they used each as a platform to talk about the issues that mattered: teen pregnancy, crack, housing.
I think the book is relevant in terms of how America is right now. This could be Baltimore, this could be a lot of places, but it happens to be Spanish Harlem. It has to do with how people are represented, and how I felt I was represented in the media back in the day, how I dealt with the criminal justice system.
Take this picture here from Johnny Colón's East Harlem School of Music. The kid was from the Bronx, and he came down there to learn to play music. It was beautiful. It gave kids a sense that they could do something that maybe didn’t fit the typical Northern European schooling model. I wanted to show that, to show that we were more than they told us we were.
That seems a universal facet of your work: You want to offer a counterpoint to the predominant news angle, and to especially show young people with honesty.
I never forgot what it was like to be young. That is it—that’s Joseph Rodriguez, 100 percent. I am 66 years old, and I can still kick it with somebody who’s 15. Things have changed in terms of music, or phones, or whatever, but being young is being young. Honoring that, and respecting that journey, that’s how I get close to people.
I am going back to LA soon to revisit my work there—it’s become a sort of trilogy. First was East Side Stories, then there was Juvenile, which looked at what happens when these kids get locked up, and now we're looking at these same people who are now parents, who have done all this time. I don’t really do ‘photojournalism’ any more. The work is more social anthropology. What’s important to people, why do they do these things? When I pick up the camera, it’s not about, "Woah, you look cool in your new sneakers." People look at my photos of these LA guys in their big pants, but they don’t know what that takes. That’s three hours of work, bro! I was there one time on a Friday night, three hours getting ready, one guy ironed his underwear. I said, "What’s up with that?" and he said "If I get busted, I go tp prison, I want to look clean in my underwear when they take my clothes off me." And you know what? I respect that, and understanding that way of growing up and understanding young people helped me working in LA. It helped me in New York, or in Malmö with Muslim youth there.
You have to listen to people. When you learn to spend time with people, you actually capture something.
You can see Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the '80s at the Bronx Documentary Center now.