The dominant, wide eyes of a young woman stare at passersby and invite them to take a peek into her neighborhood and understand the tale told through photographs.
Betty, a 22-year-old Puerto Rican, is one of the faces in the collection of black-and-white photographs on display in the William T. Kemper Gallery in the K-State Student Union.
A selection of RÃ©gina Monfort’s “Beyond Grand Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.” photo documentary is on display in the gallery in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Monfort said the exhibit’s title signifies that the first image was taken one block past Grand Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. The street is the dividing line between the Italians and Polish and the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.
“The importance of telling a story is that you can open people’s eyes,” she said. “It’s a cultural understanding.”
Monfort said she began taking the photographs in late 1994, when the nine-year project began. The photographs focus on Puerto Rican and Dominican teenagers in the Latin community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section.
In Monfort’s text at the exhibit, the community is described as “another world where youth face the challenge of growing up without the benefit of the area’s progressive gentrification.”
“My photos are about reality, and reality is more often sad than happy,” she said. “What I was interested in showing was the reality of Williamsburg – the innocence – and to show that tenderness can coexist with conflict.”
A CELEBRATION Uriel Estrada, senior in secondary education, is president of Hispanic American Leadership Organization, one of the co sponsors for Hispanic Heritage Month.
He said the exhibit is something all students should see.
“It’s definitely an eye opener for what we don’t see,” he said. “We know about it, but we don’t see it. It’s definitely given us a different viewpoint of some of the struggles that these teenagers may be facing.”
He said the photographs give viewers a different perspective about the poverty in the area.
“From standing here and looking at these photographs, I can see myself in these images,” he said. “It’s about placing yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Beth Bailey, assistant director of the Union, said Monfort wanted an opportunity to show her exhibit at K-State two years ago, but the schedule of events was already full.
Bailey said she gave the idea to Union Program Council members again in the spring, and they decided to use the photographs for Hispanic Heritage Month – Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 – and Community Cultural Harmony Week, which was Sept. 17-21.
Ginny Pape, UPC graduate adviser, said the photographs are part of Monfort’s larger exhibit.
“We wanted to do something that was multicultural,” she said. AN ‘UNBELIEVABLE’ NEIGHBORHOOD Monfort said the people in the neighborhood were second-generation Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who ae now U.S. citizens, =though they value their heritage.
“They’re very attached to their culture and their language, and it’s a very beautiful thing,” she said. “I realized they were living a really tough life.
“It is also infused with moments of joy and celebration, but some kids really fall through the cracks. I think it has a lot to do with the city and the quality of life in the neighborhood.”
Jooyung Park, graduate student in family studies and human services, studied the pictures in the gallery.
Park said she came to K-State from Korea and was surprised to see the content in the photographs – specifically pointing to a picture of children playing with scraps of metal in a park with only dirt and shrubs and graffiti-covered buildings in the background.
“I thought everything in America was rich and good,” she said.
Park said she has not been in the United States long, but she said it was “unbelievable” to see conditions like those in the country.
Park said she liked the photograph of the face of Betty because it was very natural.
A TALE The photographs in the gallery focus on the life of Monica, a young woman in the neighborhood.
A tale is told through pictures of Monica with her family, pictures of her pregnancy, and then pictures of her funeral after she died from a bullet-wound to the head on New Year’s. She was 19 years old.
“It was devastating because we were getting close,” Monfort said. “She had called me asking me when I would come to see her. Obviously, one develops a relationship over a nine-year period.”
In Monfort’s text, she dedicated the exhibit “to people from around the way who have given me their trust, and to Monica who fought back whenever she faced a challenge. R.I.P., Monica.”
Monfort said the youth in the community had to learn to be adults to survive. She said the details in her photographs like physical violence were not statements about the community but simple observations.
“I was showing what I see through the photographs,” she said. “I was invited to come back, because in many ways they show I believe in their uniqueness of human beings, and the nature of their interaction, and more than anything I was convinced to show their story.”
Monfort developed a relationship with several of the people in the neighborhood throughout the duration of her documentary.
“You have to trust people – you have to offer your trust so that they can trust you,” she said. “Otherwise it is going to be a quick in and out dirty story, but I was not interested in that.”
Monfort said things have changed in the neighborhood since she completed her documentary. During the time of her documentary, other communities in the area had been gentrified. In 2003, the Latin community was gentrified like the rest of the area.
The “Beyond Grand Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.” exhibit is in its first showing in the Midwest. “I’m very excited about that,” Monfort said. “I’m hoping that it can travel to other states.”