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Street photography hits Harlem's Polo Grounds

Parsons grad Ashley Wu shares her portfolio series on the community centre she mentors at in the third of our Class of 2014

In the third of our Class of 2014 series we're moving on from last week's RISD grad and back to New York, casting the spotlight on Parsons graduate Ashley Wu. Parsons has long been ahead of the game when it comes to creative education (they were the first school in the US to offer courses in fashion design and graphic design), which is why Ashley, a would-be Art History and Philosophy major, ditched her original degree and took up her childhood hobby of photography full-time. "I knew that I didn’t want to spend the next four years solely on classroom-based work” Ashley told us. “After visiting a friend in the fashion department at Parsons, I decided to apply for the photography course. It was very spontaneous and last minute.” It was whilst taking a sociology course on the side that she began mentoring at the New York Polo Grounds community centre which inspired her graduate portfolio, Uptown Kids. We caught up with Ashley to talk Harlem pride, the racial and social inequalities she's seen first-hand and the disparate nature of New York.

Tell us a little about how Parsons fits into your photography story so far? 

Ashley Wu: Parsons was actually the only school I applied to because of their direct-entry program they had at the time. I told myself that if I were accepted, it would be what I’m meant to do. After getting into Parsons, I never doubted it was where I belonged. Being in New York also played a huge role in my decision.

How have you found your time there?

Ashley Wu: My professors since my first semester at Parsons taught me to be critical of my own work and to question the reasons why I made photographs. It's been a great place to be for me since I knew I wanted to get as much out of the program as possible. No school can really teach you anything unless you want to work for it and go the extra mile to seek it out for yourself though.

Your Uptown Kids series – how did this come about? Tell us a bit more about the student mentor aspect?

Ashley Wu: During my time at Parsons, I tried to take as many classes at Eugene Lang (the New School University’s liberal arts college) as possible. In my junior year, I decided to take a class called “Youth Mentoring in the City” with Judy Pryor-Ramirez and Tracy Garcia-Mitchell – two of the greatest professors I ever had, anywhere. The year-long sociology course was based on immersing us in public housing community centers as student mentors throughout the five boroughs – I chose to mentor at Polo Grounds. At that time in my photography career at Parsons, I had had a sort of creative lull. I'd been shooting street photography for two years and found myself frustrated with the boundaries of the genre. Even if I engaged with my subjects through conversations and reoccurring encounters, I was still unable to feel a truly deep connection. I knew after my first class with Judy and Tracy that I would focus my senior thesis on my experience at Polo Grounds, even if I didn’t know what to expect.

”I love seeing how proud people from Harlem are of being FROM Harlem” – Ashley Wu

What themes did you bring out out in the series?

Ashley Wu: Social and racial inequalities in New York City public housing complexes. Beyond that, we were stimulated to learn ways that we could be good mentors towards the kids, I decided to continue my mentorship at Polo Grounds throughout my senior year on my own. After a year of photographing the kids with my 35mm camera, I began to reach the same obstacle that I'd found in shooting street photography. The voice of the kids was missing and so were the personal emotions that I had started to feel about our growing relationships. I realized after several critiques in my photography seminar that it was impossible to authentically contextualize Polo Grounds as a place and even more important, as a community. The first goal I set for myself was to solely document the growth of our relationship. As the work grew, it became about exploring our differences and how our differences do or don't dictate our relationship as people. The Cornerstone Mentoring Program which I'm a part of, along with the Young Men’s Initiative, was developed and targeted to help young men of color in the city. I began to grow hyper-aware of the inequalities that existed for this so-called group that programs like ours urgently try to support. I wanted to show that our kids weren’t troubled youth like some might assume if they saw them on the street. They’re just kids. It is and it isn’t that simple. New York, is in some ways, a very disparate city – being at Polo Grounds taught me this. Although certain things like city infrastructure tie us together, social inequality is still alarmingly present. I have yet to find the best way to voice our experience together, but trying everything I can is very important for me.

Were there any particularly inspiring stories that you came across when you were shooting at the Polo Grounds?

After two years, which in the long run seems like a very short period of time, the kids have shared a lot about their lives with me. What inspires me the most is that even if they’ve experienced more traumatic events than some adults might in their life’s entirety, the kids find humor and excitement in everyday life. Watching them grow through the most rapidly developing stages of their lives has taught me to be hopeful for humanity.

What do you like most about shooting in Harlem?

Ashley Wu: I like the challenge of feeling different and confronting that difference, and in turn, finding that surface and material differences among people don’t amount to much. I often have simple encounters with new kids I meet on the street who will say to me, “Hey, are you Chinese? I’ve never seen a Chinese person before!" It’s the strangest thing because it’s such an innocent question and yet kind of alarming at the same time. Then I’d see them for the second time the week after and it wouldn’t even matter anymore. I find that sometimes people nowadays let initial surface differences like these separate them from each other. I also love seeing how proud people from Harlem are of being FROM Harlem.

If you could shoot anywhere in the US where would that be and why?

Ashley Wu: Right now, New York and Polo Grounds has my attention and commitment, but I do think that one day I’d like to go to New Orleans or Texas, mostly because they seem so different from anything I’ve ever been familiar with having grown up in mega-cities my whole life.

Would you describe your work as photojournalism? 

Ashley Wu: It definitely incorporates some aspects of photojournalism in that I’m trying to tell a story through it, yeah.

Who inspires you from the photojournalism world?

Ashley Wu: I haven’t followed any particular photojournalist’s work, but some reportage-based photographers who I admire are Bruce Davidson, W. Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, and Walker Evans.

Who is challenging the status quo of photography for you right now?

Ashley Wu: I recently saw a book that I found thought-provoking by Mikhael Subotzky. The project is called Ponte City and was, in a few ways, similar to what I’m trying to achieve at Polo Grounds. I didn’t get a chance to see the exhibition, but the book did a lot for me. I do find myself looking into the future and wanting to do much more than just a photography project at Polo Grounds. I haven’t figured out if it will be a documentary film or actually helping in some way to develop the community centre, maybe both. Taryn Simon is someone whose work I greatly admire. Her content and the different frameworks in which she executes her work are very stimulating and engaging. Photography is definitely the most prominent component of my work at Polo Grounds right now besides just being a mentor. I’d like to see myself merging all my roles someday, as an artist, a mentor, a photographer, and potential community activist. Theaster Gates is an artist who performs many roles and I respect what he does immensely. Hank Willis Thomas also challenges the status quo of photography in the various ways he engages with photography and maximizes its capabilities through text and appropriation.