In Pictures

Capturing East Harlem in the 80s

A man dances on bin Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez

The New York neighbourhood of East Harlem, or El Barrio, has long been the home of many of the city's Latino population.

Journalist Ed Morales describes it as the place "where hip-hop and salsa trumps classical, prime real estate gives way to inner city".

Joseph Rodriguez's photographs from the 1980s capture the vibrancy of the area's communities, while providing glimpses into the darker undercurrents of social issues such as drug addiction, poverty and homelessness.

A girl laughs Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
A group on the stoop Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
A little girl Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
East Harlem buildings Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez

These images were born out of a collaborative university project in which Rodriguez and his fellow students attempted to protect the tenants of buildings in the neighbourhood that were threatened with gentrification.

Under their tutor, the writer and curator Fred Ritchin, the students made black-and-white photographs for court cases showing how landlords had let residential buildings deteriorate so that they could be renovated and then rented to wealthier outsiders.

After the project ended, Rodriguez stayed with the communities, shooting their lives in colour, capturing their richness.

A boy in the pool Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
Protests in East Harlem Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
A child in a cot Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
A group of young men in suits Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez

"There is an enormous amount of love in these photographs. And pain. And pride. And resiliency. And a sense that things can get better," Ritchin says about his students' images.

Rodriguez captures the everyday life of the neighbourhood. Groups of young men sit on a stoop listening to a boombox or children play in a paddling pool. Another boy emerges from Jefferson Pool, where many families from El Barrio visited in the summer.

"This was a very hard, very poor, very tough block at the time," he remembers about this photograph, "but what's important to me is the sense of dignity that these boys have by putting on a suit.

"The boy on the left can't even afford a tie but he still wears a suit. This is where I started to understand what the word 'respect' means to people."

A tattooed back Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
A family in bed Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
Boys in Puerto Rico hats Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
Children play in the pool Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez
A view of the street Image copyright Joseph Rodriguez

Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the '80s by Joseph Rodriguez is published by powerHouse Books. The images will be exhibited at the Bronx Documentary Centre in New York until 14 January.