An Interview With Photographer Manuel Rivera-Ortiz
"Home By The Road," Pushkar, India.
India’s economy is booming enviably (seven percent yearly between 2000 and 2003 alone), and it has fast become a choice destination for the off shoring of jobs for international conglomerates. However, the gap between the rich and the poor in India has also become more pronounced. More than 40 percent of the population is still illiterate in India; some 700 million, roughly two-thirds of the total population, do not have access to adequate sanitation. Nearly 400 million here make due with inadequate health care, no shelter and contaminated water. In October 2005 the World Bank warned that India was on the edge of “an era of severe water scarcity” affecting especially the millions living on less than $2 USD a day. And each year some 2.1 million children under the age of five die due to unclean water. Recently this scarcity of clean drinkable water has brought about terrible hardships upon the Indian people regardless of economic status.
As a young man, Manuel Rivera-Ortiz immigrated from Guyama, Puerto Rico to the US. Once here, he and his family joined relatives in a large Puerto Rican migrant community. They lived and worked throughout New England and New York State. During his time in Holyoke, MA he took part in a summer program run through an organization called The Massachusetts Migrant Education. There he was introduced to the world of photography.
His latest collection, titled “Manuel Rivera-Ortiz: India, opens at El Museo on Friday, January 26th and runs through March 9th. Interview follows:
Rivera-Ortiz is a gifted and respected photographer. His works have appeared in galleries all over the world and are part of the permanent collection at the George Eastman International Museum of Photography. His photo essays focus on the plight of the poor in third world countries. His past shows have included pictures from all over the world, some of which include Turkey, Kenya, and Thailand. His images of Cuba caused National En Foco, Inc. to grant him the New Works Photography award.
When I received the press release for the opening, I was taken aback by the child peering out at me from my glowing computer screen. The composition of the photo, in combination with its compelling subject matter, made me want to know about Rivera-Ortiz. We emailed each other back and forth for awhile, so for his ease (and mine) I sent him a list of questions, looking for his WNY connection, what has inspired him to pursue this subject matter, and how he feels his work reflects his own experiences. Part of that “interview” appears here. It has been edited for length.
BRM: Is there a connection between the topic of your work and WNY?
Rivera-Ortiz: The topic of my work has everything to do with my life growing up in extreme poverty. They say that you need to picture what you know or write what you are familiar with—at least that's what I think they (whoever they may be) should say. The topic of poverty, people struggling, in my case as the son of a migrant father who barely made enough to feed his family of four at the time by working in farms in Western NY, is all connected.
When I am in India I gravitate to the poor and forgotten; in the fields I love photographing the workers who eek out a living and a little bit of food from the earth. All of this has everything to do with this area, as Western New York has many people working in the fields as migrant families.
BRM: Is there anything in particular you want to impart to your viewer?
Rivera-Ortiz: Anyone who comes to see one of my shows must first agree to be good to themselves, this is very important. After that they must agree that no matter how tough life gets for them here in Western New York, it can always get worse, much worse. Life is pretty rough for the nearly 400 million people in India who still live on $2 USD or less a day-they are mostly what this show is about.
In America by comparison, the children of the poor may not have access to the latest Dolce & Gabbana or Armani suit, but they at least predominantly have shelter, even though it may not be a castle but it is a warm place to rest and recuperate. So many of the children I come across in such countries as India live and sleep with their families on the street covered by a tarp or a piece of plastic or cardboard. They cry themselves to sleep at night from hunger.
We are very lucky to be living in the U.S. and not there under similar conditions in a country like India, even if being poor here means living simply. If we as people can remember this much from seeing one of my shows, then we are already well on the way toward progress in my opinion.
BRM: Why is showing the plight of poverty such a large part of your work?
Rivera-Ortiz: Showing poverty is such a large part of my work because another thing that I am finding is that for me personally, doing this work helps me in trying to come to grips with my own upbringing and all that occurred during that time. Basically, this work to me is a sort of time for reflection, a pseudo inventory of "this is your life," a way to try to accept the concept of what was so inevitable. Does this make sense? It makes me sad to relive it all every time I get behind the camera even though I call my work "A Celebration of Life" and of the living albeit in poverty—yes it does! Maybe by doing this work and putting my name on the front line, like a science project, will also afford me the opportunity to embarked into a very special opportunity to show that growing up poor doesn't have to mean being unworthy or forgettable. This is a very important lesson for those who propagate such narrow minded universally accepted inaccuracies about poverty.
BRM: Besides the obvious (food, shelter, clothing, power, etc.) what similarities do you see between America's impoverished and those in third world countries?
Rivera-Ortiz: The similarities are many. Begin, for instance, with the amount of time and effort it takes for a poor person to provide the basic necessities for their family. I was talking to an acquaintance of mine the other day by phone about how immediately putting food on the table for him in Cleveland by working three jobs has caused him to not be able to fulfill the educational needs of his three children. Because of a lack of time, he can’t fill out the simple papers the school needs to get his half Japanese children that recently moved to the US into school, and his wife speaks no English. He cried on the phone. This is one similarity; the amount of time it takes to provide is threefold for families whom have to make due with very little.
Another similarity, and this is a huge one, is the drive factor for children who come from poverty. Children from poor households learn to have very low expectations of themselves and their future because they believe that the world around them doesn't expect much from them either. In India, children of the lower castes are taught still today that once poor always poor so they don't think to become doctors or lawyers because their last name may not be Gupta or whatever other typically higher caste name there may be in India.
Likewise, in the US the children of the poor (white, black, Latino) typically grow up feeling disenfranchised, forgotten and thus end up living a pseudo expected, unspoken life of underachievement. Welfare suddenly seems a great choice, dropping out of school an obvious career move because they grew up in the bad part of town and who would even notice if they fall through the crack anyway. All of this suddenly has a role to play in the continuing of this disparate cycle worlds apart.
Then there is this: Even when someone from the lower financial caste in, say America, "makes it," then there is this other barrier of old money vs. new money, social status, respected family names vs. unsavory familial relations or even ethnic background that makes the entire journey of achievement suddenly turn sour and seemingly not have been worth the while.
My question here is why do we humans keep doing this to each other or to ourselves? Why do we think so little about the role of humanity and of kindness? In my opinion, if we believe in a higher being, there is only one God and he/she is neither you nor me. The sooner we begin this process of healing as people, all people, the sooner we can begin to live a mutual life free from innuendo, hurt, judgment and need.
BRM: The differences?
Rivera-Ortiz: Unlike India with its caste system, in the West we have opportunity. In the US we can buy comfort or clean water as needed. In India they cannot even when they do have the money as the country right now is going through a terrible drought as they are in other places around the world such as Australia as I understand it. We are a bit spoiled here no matter how much money we have or don't have.
I really hope people will enjoy seeing "Manuel Rivera-Ortiz: India" there at El Museo. I really hope that those that do feel comfortable and free to contact me and share their stories, ideas or suggestions, do. I too do not ever pretend operate in a vacuum. This work is done on all of our behalf.
"Hope 7: PBKOJP," Zura, India, 2005.
This woman and her family all live in this tiny one-room housing unit—No. 7, which is not much larger than can be seen from this picture. In this one-room they keep all of their worldly processions, sleep, eat and entertain visitors. Constructed much the same way as schoolyards are in Caribbean nations—by making one long, flat building and dividing it up into four or five attached square rooms, this community has several such structures all facing a center courtyard where children play supervised. Paschim Banga Krira-O-Janakalyan Parishad (PBKOJP—Reach The Goal Try Heart & Soul, est. 1986), the builder of this project, is an Irish organization that started its activities in the urban areas of India in 1999. The group’s special interest is in helping street and working children, sex workers and their children, platform children and the children of other marginalized sections of society. The group continues to help the needy of India even today.
The opening of "Manuel Rivera-Ortiz: India" takes place on Friday, January 26th at El Museo from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m., donations for the museum will be kindly accepted. More photographs and information about Manuel Rivera-Ortiz can be found on his website www.rivera-ortiz.com.