Last summer a few researchers decided they needed a helping hand.
So the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity asked LaGuardia Community College commercial photography students to take images depicting the diversity of Astoria for a study of the neighborhood.
“They were working on this project about diversity and they were completely unsuccessful with their photographs,” Scott Sternbach, director of LGCC’s commercial photography program, said.
Now, the 50 photographs in what became the “Astoria Project” are being displayed at the college through June before it travels to Europe, Asia and Africa.
Max Planck Institute project coordinator Anna Cieslik had read articles about the college’s LIC Works project, a collection of photographs the students had captured of small businesses in Long Island City. The two projects in a way went hand in hand, so she decided to reach out to Sternbach for some help.
But beyond just needing a professional touch, Cieslik was curious about the process behind the photographs. She will be interviewing the photographers on why they took certain images later this spring.
“Apart from relying on my photos, I wanted to see the neighborhood through students’ eyes, and find out how they perceive their neighborhood,” Cieslek said.
The group wasn’t given many guidelines, but instead simply told to show diversity in their own way, Sternbach said.
So off they went.
There are pictures of men and women on the track in Astoria Park, a Sikh in his turban, a man at a taxi stand at night, a woman walking by a grocery store with Middle Eastern foods, couples strolling the streets, people working, playing chess, waiting for the bus — a little bit of everything.
“There were so many different people on just one block,” student photographer Lina Reyes said.
The students said it was a balancing act between approaching their subjects and hearing their stories — such as the retired man who likes to play bocce ball all day or the Steinway Piano Factory employee who escaped Croatia through Italy to seek refuge in the United States — or simply capturing a candid moment of individuals going about their daily lives.
“You have to have a little courage and sacrifice some of your comfort,” photographer Marta Wojcik said. “You know it’s a beautiful project and worth it.”
Some of the photographers were chastised by Astorians weary of having their business or themselves captured on film, but for the most part people were happy to help.
For example, Reyes was chased by an older lady only to find a man wearing a fan T-shirt of her favorite Spanish-language band, that was happy to pose.
“You can’t talk to everyone,” Wojcik said. “You could lose who moment.”
Commercial photography graduate Youngkyu Park and current student Alvaro Imbrett decided to combine their talents to take studio-like portraits of joggers at the Astoria Park track during the evening. Posing the subjects and taking the shots with a large-format camera were Imbrett’s jobs, while Park did the composing, adjusted the lighting and retouched the final images. Assisting the duo was fellow classmate Olga Cherkasova.
“The biggest challenge was removing ourselves from our comfort zone to experience and manage things outside the norm,” said Imbrett. “There was no studio, there were no models selected and being on location on an active track was quite challenging.”
They overcame the obstacles, and the results are striking images.
“They are pure, artistic portraits,” said Park. “Coming through in each photo is the runner’s character and personality.”
The 50 photographs in the exhibition will be in the LaGuardia Gallery of Photographic Arts on the third floor of the College’s B-building at 30-20 Thomson Ave. The viewing hours are Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The photographs will also be published in a book.