Resilience and Resistance: Environmental Justice & the Documentary Camera Lens

In early November 2020, the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz, New York held a public program on Art in the Environment of Resistance. The Museum is a component of SUNY New Paltz and exhibits works by well-known artists from the Hudson Valley, as well as worldwide. The Museum’s Sara Bedrick Gallery is the site of an exhibition through November 22, 2020 curated by Juanita Lanzo and Stephanie A. Lindquist. The exhibition, Dos Mundos: (Re) Constructing Narratives, is a compilation of works by 12 artist recipients of En Foco’s photography fellowships.

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Nervous laughs over imminent election results announcements, doom-scrolling, and sleep deprived restlessness opened the program. Student speakers shared narratives about systemic exclusion of disenfranchised immigrants, issues outlined by artist Saul Flores and Jazmine Remache. Flores identified himself as a “first-gen” who is enamored with the resilience of immigrant “rejectees” who maintain an environment centered on hope. Remache shared the emotional and visual meaning of border wall murals as centric to how a disadvantaged people connect through art, which she cited as “very important to the community right now.”

Featured presenter Danny Ramon Peralta spoke about his work as a black and white documentary photographer which he says took on meaning when he began to understand the connections between expression and the larger community he wished to uphold. Wanting to conduct a conversation about environmental justice, Peralta said he looks to use art as a call to action. With a photographic career that began in 2000, Peralta’s search for the meaning of exile began in the Dominican Republic where he captured images of individuals, friends, and family somewhat trapped with one foot in multiple worlds. On his mind was critical thought, inequality, and justice combined with overriding questions about the background and lifestyle stories of his ancestors.

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Environmental human impact often centers around pain, personalities, and perceptions. Peralta reflects on the by-gone days of photographic documentation efforts opposed to modern day do-it-yourself social media chronicles. His photographs seek the trauma of personal stories, which Peralta says he currently shares as a black man in America. Worries about deportation, concerns about the Opioid epidemic, and thoughts about flipping the community’s cultural assets helped Peralta to see the possibilities for paths of counter-narratives. Outreach to sex-workers, drug users, and the discarded helped him to embrace the powerful display of human compassion and empathy, which humanized his photographs in an impactful way.

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As an environmental justice leader, Peralta considers the power of the camera. Remache added photography is a skill that is also a lesser recognized empathy tool, especially after the experience of so much loss. Pictures bring healing for the families and communities of those that have passed in unique ways in Latino communities. Flores added that it is difficult to reconcile the oddities and realities of the appearance of those taking drugs especially if they seem outwardly happy and healthy. The camera allows a critical lens of what is transpiring, often in contradiction to stories of strung-out drug devastation. Perhaps interpersonal radical love is not as interesting as depressive “violence porn” media commentaries.

Peralta described his process as being extended multi-year, often three to five years in length, if not longer. He currently observes not only the displacement of people (like New York legend ‘Percy Pete’) and culture (especially in the South Bronx) but also of buildings. If a space gets lost, where do the artists meet, where does the preservation of culture go? He shared image slides of gatherings of people and artwork in spaces “owned” by narrative. When a community claims space but does not legally own it, there is a different type of displacement that occurs in terms of transience. Ownership may be in the eye of the holder, but the exhausting and overriding question is always, “Where are you going to go?”

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Peralta and group closed with jokes about the deep meaning of Chipotle eateries amid the multitude of Bronx restaurants. Comments about how photography is changing from hard-core splitting journalism to much more creative and definition-bending Instagram images pointed to future possibilities. When Peralta switched from photography as the focus of his artistic practice to a concentration on subject-matter, he began exploring other mediums. His recent watercolors of asthma inhalers are helping him define what it is to pursue critical issues in community-based environmental justice through the vehicle of artistic activism. He believes it is important to think about art as “art and what else?” And he asks, “What is art facilitating?” Having the freedom and presence to explore these questions can help us all find the true meaning of place and placement.

Artists featured in the Dos Mundos exhibition include: Damarys Alvarez | Laylah Amatullah Barrayn | Tau Battice | Yu-Chen Chiu | Anthony Hamboussi | Daesha Harris | Erika Morillo | Danny Ramon Peralta | Antonio Pulgarin | Roger Richardson | Cinthia Santos-Briones | Aaron Turner 

Shauna Lee Lange of Sacrosanct Gallery: Art & Environment exhibits and writes about art and environment. Based out of Florida, she is a leading voice for environmental art, eco art, natural sciences art, and climate crisis or climate change art. #peralta #photography #documentary #environmentaljustice #newyork #dosmundos #resilience #resistance #displacement #immigration