Written by Hrag Vartanian for The Laundromat Project
Carlos Martinez was born in Pereira, Colombia, in the heart of that nation’s coffee growing region. His family lived in New York in the 1970s, the following decade they returned to Colombia, during which time Carlos was born. After growing up in Colombia, Carlos has relocated to New York, and he has lived in the city for about a decade, in the process becoming a citizen though he refrains from using the term “American.” He says, the term denotes a type of imperialism that lays claim to the entire New World. He prefers to identify himself as a Colombia immigrant to the United States.
As much as he feels part of the rich diversity of New York, his curiosity is piqued by Jackson Heights in particular, as it is the multicultural crossroads of Queens, which is the country’s most diverse county. His current art project, “Photo Booth Without Borders,” emerges from his interest to transgress barriers that divide communities and people. The project is comprised of a portable photo studio that migrates to the numerous laundromats in Jackson Heights, where it is used as a setting to record the faces and stories of locals.
After a number of architectural experiments to create his pop-up photo studio, on September 18, 2009, Carlos set up shop next to a pop-up park created for Park(ing) Day in America — an environmental event that transforms parking spaces around the country into temporary green lots. Placed on top of what normally served as street parking was a small patch of sod, a bench, a patio umbrella, and a round table with stools, all spruced up by house plants.He posted an unassuming sign on a parking meter that explained his art project to passersby in a commanding tone: “People will share their stories using a portable photo booth-meets-confessional stationed at different laundromats in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the United States.”Nestled beside this makeshift green zone, which was chistened “Stone Soup Park” for the day, Carlos finished setting the scene for his work. It was poetic that the park itself was named after a children’s story about the power of community to make a dream a reality. There were 55 one-day parkettes in New York that Friday but “Stone Soup Park” was the only one in Queens. Fifty-five dreams for a greener New York and the bulk of them in Manhattan.It was a warm summer morning and people started approaching Carlos to tell him their stories and have their pictures taken. I stood by the curtain and I was trying not to pry though I’m sure I did. I looked away while I positioned my ear to overhear their conversations, I felt like I was in a Catholic Church confessional.
Carlos hauled an old trunk to the site and it served as a seat for the interviewees. It made the space feel simultaneously old and theatrical, like a battered prop on a stage. There were women with children, a Spanish-language journalist who was eager to take part, and single young professionals who gushed about the creativity of the endeavor. Some were immigrants, many hailed from families that were only a generation old in America, and others were less forthcoming. “Real estate becomes a very important commodity,” one female interviewee said. “I feel like you have to have a baby to live here,” a thirty something Asian-American woman joked. While a young mom with a baby girl used the term “Best of both worlds.” At least one interview was in Spanish, which frustrated my eavesdropping.
It didn’t surprise me that Carlos had chosen Jackson Heights as the site for his project. It felt easy to speak to people here. He confessed to me he lives just beyond the borders of the neighborhood. That geographical objectivity, I imagine, gives him more insight into this place. It reminded me of his photo booth, both part of the streetscape but removed, at once isolating and embracing.
The outside of the photo booth was draped in black and the curtain was detailed with red trimming. Drawn back, the curtain revealed a green and white floral print inside. This burst of color felt unexpected, like the lining of a very special jewelry box, which made it feel a little magical, like he was about to pull a rabbit out of his camera.
The first man he interviewed was selected from the crowd that had gathered around to witness this green miracle on 37th Avenue. The older white man was dressed in military khakis and drove a three-wheeled bicycle that had a wire basket in the back. In the carrier, his white-haired poodle was standing at attention.
Surprisingly, the man used gestures and half-comprehensible words to let Carlos know that he couldn’t speak clearly. Carlos thanked the man for his time, took his photo (the man never dismounted his bike), and passed it to him as a memento.
Migrating Photo Booth
After the success of Park(ing) Day, Carlos altered his booth to make it more portable so that he could visit multiple laundromats in one day. On Sunday, October 18, he pared down the structure so that it was only a trunk and a backdrop. Gone was the sense of privacy and in its place a more open setting that felt more vulnerable to the street. In this simplified booth, he discovered that people were less likely to linger but they still sat down to have a photo taken.
When people were reluctant to participate, he coaxed them with the offer of a free photograph. Even with this carrot, the artist noticed some people never budged. He wondered if they were undocumented and were afraid that the project was an Immigration & Naturalization Services ploy. Even those who agreed to the interview often preferred that only their children be photographed as they themselves stood safely outside the frame.
The dozens of stories he collected represent a snapshot of life in Jackson Heights. But even in that diversity he recognizes that some communities shied away, including South Asians, which are a large and visible slice of the neighborhood. The interviews themselves are themselves varied. One Cuban immigrant who started in English, but continued in Spanish, surprised him by spewing racist and homophobic things. He spoke about a nostalgia for the past, when, he explained, things were better. This sense of nostalgia, without any obvious bigotry, was shared by many longtime residents of Jackson Heights that spoke to Carlos, though most interviewees preferred to speak about their love of a community that embraced everyone, regardless of their cultural heritage or identity.
Expanding the Focus
The seed for “The Photo Booth Without Borders” grew from Carlos’ interest in environmental and social justice. In spring 2009, he worked with a group of teenage ex-convicts in New York who were given cameras and educated about the power of images. At first the group was disinterested and apathetic, but by the end of the two-month workshop, they had changed their attitude and behavior, all empowered by the camera. Carlos also worked with a National Geographic photographer Ed Kashi one weekend to explore the power of photography to advocate for environmental justice in the South Bronx. “I like to explore the disparities. Why some people have more than others. Why are poor neighborhoods more environmentally polluted?” Carlos explained about the experience.
In the Jackson Heights project, he’s erased many of the environmental differences by, as he describes it, “faking a space.” While urban noise seeps into his audio interviews, his subjects are removed from the environment and placed against a backdrop.
Carlos has ambitious plans for his photo booth. In December, he plans to travel to Colombia and tap into an established network of youth environmental activists in order to work with low income students. He is planning to teach a photo workshop and empower those youth to collect local stories. Carlos feels there is great power in being able to collect and share personal narratives. “I want to teach them how to research local problems because the same people have solutions–more than politicians–they know better,” he says.
Read the original article here.