Monday, January 25, 2010

Waitin' on Boombox Season

I’ve always liked the idea of the Man With The Boombox, a sort of traveling messiah whose sole mission is to bring jams to the ears of those he passes in his infinite travels and undefined quests. But up until I moved to Bed-Stuy the MWTB has eluded me. In Philly, or at least in West Philly, the closest thing we had to a boombox presence was the Man With The Duct-Taped Bike, who often taped a small, antennaed radio to his handlebars and broadcast crackling radio waves to anyone who stepped into the small perimeter of audibleness. There was also Omar, who instead of a boombox carried around a CD player with headphones and, occasionally, small computer speakers and played, almost exclusively, Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears to anyone who’d listen. But Omar’s mission was not to bring the jams, but rather to get drunk, and his sharing of Tears for Fears was only a side effect of that eventual goal, usually successfully reached.        

            In Bed-Stuy, however, the boombox, especially in the summer, is like an institution. I’ve watched grown men stand across the street from each other, each with a boombox in hand, blasting music - each his own  – and talking to each other as they did this at competing volumes. What drifted up through my window was like a poorly planned mash-up. And this seemed alright to everybody; all the grannies hanging out on plastic chairs outside the buildings’ entrances and the Always Outside Dudes and whoever else was chillin’ within the blast volume area. There are also the men – and it always seems to be men who devote themselves to the boombox – who carry their stereos in those wheeled cages that people use to haul their groceries and laundry in. They’ll just walk up and down the street trawling their tunes behind them with no discernable destination or business but to spread the jams. . 

            My favorite MWTB, however, is the one that lives 2 floors below me, on Quincy St. He goes by Camelot, though he only tells some this, while others call him Allen. He wears a pair of green pants and a burgundy sweatshirt and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything less or more than this – no t-shirts, no coats in the winter. Camelot is always hanging out or in the hall or outside the building, usually with his boombox. Sometimes, he goes across the street and keeps post in front of the construction site gates, standing much like a British Royal Guard, immobile, eyes focused on distant horizons, stereo in hand. He plays, exclusively, classic rock.

            Camelot’s the nicest dude ever but when I first moved into my building, I thought he was a stoic and unfriendly bastard. It was August, peak of boombox season, and he was hardly ever separated from it. Coming home, I’d see him inevitably stationed under the tree or leaning up on the gate by the entrance or even, sometimes, down the block, and I’d wave or say, “Hello.” He’d look on, unperturbed, feigning as if he hadn’t seen or heard me, standing in a sort of boxer’s stance to be maximally balanced. I was psyched about my new place and ‘hood and he was the only one that didn’t answer to my alacritous hellos! With time I started noticing that he only did this when he had the boombox on him. If I caught him without it, he’d smile all big and goofy and chat with me and generally be super genial.           

            The boombox is serious business and manning it requires focus I can only dream of, it seems. I can’t wait for the warm weather to open up the boombox season. Bring it, Spring!  

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Help Fund Potosi, Bolivia Miners: 5 Centuries Deep

Below is an excerpt from a longer proposal I wrote for the same project, Potosi, Bolivia Miners: 5 Centuries Deep, which I recently posted on KickStarter. I'm trying to raise funds to get this project going, so if you know anyone who may be interested, with some change to spare, spread the word! thanks!

Here is a photo with a miner, taken by my friend Josie, in 2005:

In 2006, I turned in my undergraduate Environmental Science thesis predicting certain doom for the communities that live around the Cerro Rico mine in Potosi, Bolivia. One of my sources predicted that the mine, functioning continuously since 1542, will finally be depleted in 10 years. Though this is true only in part – new technology will permit profitable reworking of tailings as well as exploitation of previously untouched deposits – the conical mine with its manual, anthill-like activity of miners will surely grow quieter as less mineral is left to drag out with the crude methods currently used. Potosi, once the richest city in the world, will have to either embrace the tourism that is already exploding in the city or work out a solution with the international companies vying to mine there and once again, take Potosi’s riches abroad.

The mine’s influence over the years – the tangible riches it produced, the intangible glory it brought to Spain – is mostly gone. And the destitute miners who go into the Cerro Rico mine now, fathers, sons and brothers in a long line of men, may be the generation that will see the mine breathe its last. I want to photograph this particular generation of Cerro Rico miners, possibly the final.

I want the documentation of the miners and the mining community to be threefold – 1.) documentary-style photography of the men in the mines and of the community in general, 2.) formal, black and white portraits, and 3.) to establish a camera distribution so community members can take photos of each other/themselves. The first, I think, is important to show that this place exists, that it exists in this way in the 21st century, and to reveal what happens there, the texture of the place and the people. The second is to give a formality and gravity to the series of images: to take time with a subject, to photograph them head on, to immortalize in the most classic way. The third, which will be the most challenging I believe, is to empower the community to present themselves to the world on their terms – terms to be explored and negotiated with the participating members.

I have been to the Cerro Rico mine twice, both times with Wilfredo Bracamonte, an ex-miner who now gives tours to tourists of the mines. In a recent correspondence he said that he would help me to establish contact with some miners to start off the project, though one mining co-op, the Korimayu, has already extended such an invitation to me. Further, the city is replete with tour guides, many of them ex-miners that I believe I will ask for further assistance once on the ground in Bolivia. Additional routes to explore would be the miners’ market, mining union halls, the mineral processing factories, and to introduce myself to the women who work on the outskirts gleaning bits of mineral by artisanal mining and processing.

I have two personal goals with this project; 1. to document this community and to let them document themselves and 2. to grow as a photographer. The target is to have an exhibit towards the end of the project where both my photos and those taken by community members are displayed for locals and tourists to see in Potosi. I hope to able to incorporate older photos, to be solicited from families or bought in local antique shops, to present a portrait of the city in a historical context, drawing a line between the past and the present and commenting on both the richness of the history and the reality of the present.

I want the project to be ethnographic in methodology, though not strictly academic in scope. Rather, I am interested in reinforcing community and fostering understanding through photography, as well as producing a solid body of photo work. I think this is a particularly relevant time to venture to do this – as mineral reserves in the Cerro Rico wind down and foreign investors start to set up processing centers and operations in and around the mountain to wean profits from poorer ore, the Potosi community will no doubt undergo changes. Martin and Spence (1988), in an essay about photography as therapy, write, “By recording such events [them]selves, particularly by those people who are powerless and marginalized by the dominant stories in circulation a new form of social autobiographical documentation can be put together.”