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Conflict Photographer and Bronx Gallery Founder Gets His Own Solo Show

By Patrick Wall | August 7, 2013 1:12pm
 Michael Kamber, an award-winning photojournalist and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, will show portraits he took in overseas conflict zones and in the South Bronx.
Michael Kamber, an award-winning photojournalist and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, will show portraits he took in overseas conflict zones and in the South Bronx.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

MELROSE — In battle zones around the world, photojournalist Michael Kamber has captured fighters and bystanders in their most feverish and desperate moments, and sometimes their last.

As the bullets flew, he photographed barefoot soldiers lugging grenade launchers, teenage girls gripping AK-47s and mortally wounded troops who would later lose their limbs or lives.

But over the past decade, as he covered the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Liberia and elsewhere for the New York Times and others, he also created a parallel body of work — portraits of people between battles, not at peace, but not in the chaos of combat either.

“At the end of the day, after I was done shooting the action and the news stories, I would go out and sit with people,” Kamber explained.

 A new photography show features conflict-zone portraits by Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center.
Michael Kamber
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Using a Hasselblad large-format film camera, he took portraits of the people he met: a boy collecting insects at night around a Nigerian oil field, a father and son standing in an Afghan brick factory, a woman in Iraq sitting beside an image of her slain son.

“In almost every photo in this series, people are looking into my eyes, looking into my camera,” he said. “And that’s a different relationship, which I wanted to have.”

Now back in The Bronx, where he opened the nonprofit Bronx Documentary Center two years ago in the building where he lives, he will present 30 of those conflict-zone portraits, along with landscape photos and portraits he has taken in the South Bronx.

The show, to be held at the BronxArtSpace gallery in Mott Haven, will be Kamber’s first solo exhibition after some 25 years as a World Press Photo award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist.

Kamber, who was born in Maine and attended Parsons The New School for Design, first moved to the South Bronx in the mid-80s to live with his girlfriend while he worked a construction job.

After work, and especially during the relative stillness of Sunday mornings, he photographed his neighborhood and neighbors.

“It’s really where I learned to be a photographer,” he said.

He soon became a freelance photojournalist, eventually working in more than 50 countries and publishing photos in major American and European news magazines and newspapers.

During the past decade, he covered more than a dozen conflict zones, including Iraq, where he was the Times’ main Baghdad photographer in 2007, at the height of the war’s bloodshed. He also produced videos and articles for the paper.

A few years ago, Kamber returned to The Bronx and bought the slender redbrick building at 614 Courtlandt Ave., a landmarked site with a long history.

He and another conflict photographer, Tim Hetherington, imagined opening a photo gallery and educational space in the building’s vacant storefront.

“This would be a place, we decided, that was focused not on wealthy collectors, but on disseminating photojournalism and multimedia to the youth and residents of New York City,” Kamber wrote in an online essay.

Then, in April 2011, Hetherington was killed while photographing the Libyan revolution.

That fall, Kamber and a group of volunteers opened the Bronx Documentary Center and, in their first show, exhibited Hetherington’s images from Libya.

Since then, the center has presented a series of acclaimed photography shows and film screenings, embarked on a documentary project with local high school students and hosted workshops — filled with fake blood, smoke and simulated gunfire — that teach life-saving techniques to conflict journalists.

In May, “Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq” was published, an oral and visual account of the war that Kamber spent five years compiling through interviews with 39 friends and colleagues.

“To me, it’s like the unknown and largely unseen history of the war,” Kamber said. “Nothing like it exists.”

The photos in Kamber’s upcoming show, called “Portraits of Survival,” are also mostly unseen.

He took them over the previous decade while overseas and in the past couple years in The Bronx, letting them pile up in boxes, not expecting to publish them right away or perhaps ever.

“You just do what you have to do, not knowing what the outlet will be,” Kamber said. “You just know in your soul that it has to be done.”

A preview of the show at BronxArtSpace (305 E. 140th St.) runs Wednesday, Aug. 7 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. The photos will then be on view at the gallery from Aug. 14 to 30.