Award-winning photographer and writer Alfonso Neal’s new exhibit, Struggle and Hope: Documenting Modern America, will be displayed at Greenfield’s LAVA Center for the Arts from May 20-21, 2022.  

The exhibit is part of the LAVA Center’s Social Justice in the Arts and Media series, and features photographs accompanied by written and recorded testimonies of Neal’s subjects. The project spans seven years of social justice movements throughout the United States and Mexico. 

Zydalis Bauer joined Neal at the LAVA Center to learn more about the exhibition and Neal’s career.  

Learn more about the venue hosting Neal’s exhibit, the LAVA Center in Greenfield, in a digital extra story. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: We’re coming to you today from Springfield’s South End, an area known far and wide for its Italian culture, food, and heritage, but our next story takes us north to the Franklin County city of Greenfield.

On May 20th and 21st, award-winning photographer and writer Alfonso Neal’s new exhibit entitled “Struggle and Hope” Documenting Modern America,” will be on display in Greenfield as part of the LAVA Center’s Social Justice in the Arts and Media series. The exhibition will feature photographs accompanied by the written and recorded voices of Neal’s subjects and spans seven years of social justice movements throughout the United States and Mexico.

I joined Neal at the LAVA Center to learn more about his work.

Alfonso Neal, Photojournalist: I was working as a union organizer in St. Louis in 2014, and in August was when Michael Brown was murdered and everything just happened.

And it was a moment in my lifetime that I never thought I would be experiencing. You know, it was something that I’d read about in history books. It was — it was very much a part of what I had learned about the history here in the US, but never something that I thought would be repeating itself. I thought we had already gotten past that. So, I had no choice but to be present for it.

And while organizing and working with folks in that community, I just decided to pick up my camera again and start taking photos. And it just continued in that way.

Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned, you know, like, you didn’t realize history was going to be repeating itself. And I had spoken to you a little earlier and said when I was viewing these photos, it took me a second to realize that these weren’t from 30, 40, 50 years ago. These were relatively recent.

And so, in these photos there are four intersectional themes that are featured. Can you talk to me about those and how they present themselves throughout the exhibit?

Alfonso Neal: Yeah. So, the four themes are: the Black Lives Matter movement, the crisis at the southern border, the UAW strike, and low wage workers.

Zydalis Bauer: And how do we see all of those movements kind of talk through your photos?

Alfonso Neal: I would say through the photos we can see the intersectionality of how all of these struggles are connected and how everyone is fighting to improve their lives, to find that level of dignity and respect, whether it be in the community through work, mitigating police violence, through ending it — to be completely honest — and creating ways in which we, as a society and a culture, work to mutually benefit each other.

You know, looking at the fight for Black lives and the crisis at the southern border, you know, we’re dealing with folks who are really struggling to improve where they are at, socially and economically, because we are seeing that not only are domestic policies impacting these — these folks, but also international policy, which is causing some of this — this tension as well as with the UAW, you know, the fear of work being outsourced to some of these countries.

You know, for example, in the southern border crisis, you know, workers went out on strike because they don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want it to be taken apart piecemeal and shipped to Mexico, where they will continue to exploit the workers there. And then again, with low wage workers, a lot of Black Americans, as well as recent immigrants here, are low wage workers, unfortunately. And they deserve dignity and respect and a living wage.

So really, it’s this theme of how at the end of the day, you can’t separate one issue from the other, because they are all one and the same and they make up the fabrics of our society and the areas that we really need to focus on and improve.

Zydalis Bauer: I know, also, that a passion of yours is balancing the nuance of words with visual imagery, and this exhibit will do just that. Accompanying each black and white photo will be written and recorded stories of the individuals that are featured.

So, tell me why that really draws you and what it adds to this exhibit.

Alfonso Neal: I think it complements each other. I think it balances it out. One doesn’t overshadow the other, but rather gives you a clear picture of the entire situation or of the moment that was occurring.

You look at the black and white photo, you can take your time and you can see the emotions. You can see what is happening in that. And then you can read about it to kind of sort of let that sink in. But then you can hear it. And you can hear it and you can hear the pain, the hope, the struggles, the experiences and the personal histories. And to me, that’s something that has to go together, you know, in documenting any movement or any period.

You know, we have to be able to have these records for the next generation to be able to reflect upon, you know? And sometimes words and images apart from each other or sounds won’t mean the same thing.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, let’s talk about the black and white photos for a second. There’s 20 of them featured in this exhibit.

Why did you choose to go black and white. What does it add to the story?

Alfonso Neal: So for me, the reason I shoot primarily in black and white is…because it takes away distractions. I have nothing against shooting color photos or anything, but, you know, it’s very shiny. It’s very much you look at the colorful images and then you are…in the moment looking at the photo and then you’re out of the moment just as quickly.

When it comes to being black and white, you think to yourself, “Oh, is this moment present? Did this moment happened a long time ago?”

And it also forces you to take your time in reading the image, because it’s not going to be — instantaneously going to make sense. It’s not going to be, “Oh, I saw the photo. I’m going to look away.” It’s going to be, “I see this photo. I see the pain, I see the hope, I see the struggle, I see the moment.”

Let me stare at it for a little bit longer and look around at what else is happening in that scene, you know, looking past the main subject.

Zydalis Bauer: And speaking of scene, the images, one of the ones that stood out for me, it was a mother and daughter in Mexico outside a temporary home. And it just — they seem so normal just standing there, you know, having a moment.

But you can just tell the situation was far from normal. Is there an image or images that speak to you the most from this exhibit? And if so, why?

Alfonso Neal: I would say there are two images speak to me the most. The first one was taken in Nogales, Mexico, right on the border with Arizona. And it’s a mother and a little boy staring through the barbed wire fences at the border crossing. And it was something that I wasn’t looking for. It just was there, as I was walking by, and I took a photo of it. But it was the — just the look that the little boy was giving me, something that just made me feel like that could have been myself.

You know, my family emigrated from Central America to the United States in the late 60s You know, they were very lucky at that time, US Immigration was easier to navigate. It wasn’t as difficult as it is now. And I was thinking had they waited ten, 20 years for me to exist, to be born, I would be that little boy on that other side, wondering what comes next. Is there a future?

And then, the second image is of an unnamed Black activist, right in the first few weeks of Ferguson, staring at a very intimidating line of riot police. And it is just that one lone individual in the middle street staring at those police. And for me, it was a visual representation of how…monumental this challenge is, to figure out how do we dismantle systemic racism and police brutality in a way that will benefit the community that’s most affected by it? And, you know, it just — you know, it does feel like just one person fighting against an entire machine.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, this is really heavy subject matter that you’re covering and even, like you said, has a personal connection to you.

How do you manage the emotions that you feel while you are in these moments, documenting these things.

Alfonso Neal: In the moment, I don’t really feel a lot of the emotion, because I’m very much trying to be almost like a fly on the wall. You know, I am not trying to interject myself into the moment because it’s not about me. It’s about everyone else but me.

But usually after it happens, and you go back and you hear the testimony or the recordings, you start to transcribe it. Then you start editing photos. For me, I just get this overwhelming weight on my shoulders because it is very personal for me and it is something that I really never thought I would be experiencing.

But then, I’m also really happy that I’m able to feel all of these emotions: anger, sadness, pain, shame for what has happened. Because it reminds me that throughout all we’re — we’re human beings, that we feel. And that’s an important thing to be able to do.

Zydalis Bauer: And even that balance of emotions that you’re speaking about, your work has that balance. You like to talk about life’s struggles and victories.

Tell me, what do you feel as the purpose of your art?

Alfonso Neal, t: Purpose of my art, I would say, you know, I — I don’t know…what folks will think about these photographs or these words or the recordings in 20, 30 years.

But my hope is that they will learn something from it. They will take a lesson away from it, or just like I did looking at some of the old photographers who were documenting the Great Depression, you know, how do we learn from what has happened in the past to not repeat these same mistakes?

I’m not trying to be…overtly political in any way. I’m just trying to document the reality of life. And what folks take away from that is on an individual level.

But regardless of what they take away, I hope they feel something.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, what are your next steps for this exhibit in particular?

Alfonso Neal: So, next steps? What I would love to see happen after the exhibit is to be able to take these words, these images, these recordings, and put it into a book for future generations to be able to read, reflect, see hear about what happened during these, you now, during this period.

And be able to kind of sort of give that to the public record, just as, you know, the Farm Security Administration gave the photographs and writings and recordings to the public record so we could learn from it together.