Project X: The Astoria Project

by Tema Stauffer

Interethnic Encounters: Students in Scott Sternbach’s photography class were invited by a local nonprofit to capture cultural diversity in Queens. This image was used on the cover of the exhibition catalog.

In spring 2013, LaGuardia Community College’s (LAGCC) Gallery of Photographic Arts mounted a student exhibition of 50 black-and-white and photographs representing cultural diversity in Astoria, Queens. The Astoria Project is the result of a unique partnership between LAGCC’s photography department and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, an international research initiative dedicated to the study of diversity in historical and contemporary societies.

Dr. Anna Cieslik, a sociologist and the institute’s project coordinator, was inspired by a local newspaper article featuring Long Island City Works, a 2011 class project that encouraged LAGCC photography students to document working men and women in Long Island City small businesses. In summer 2012, Cieslik approached Scott Sternbach, director of LAGCC’s commercial photo program, with an offer for students to participate in The Astoria Project. She states, “Apart from relying on my photos, I wanted to see the neighborhood through students’ eyes and find out how they perceive the community.” The goal was for students to produce professional-quality, digital photographs for an exhibition to be shown first at their school and then travel to international venues associated with the Max Plank Institute.

For Sternbach, The Astoria Project created a valuable opportunity to get students shooting in the streets and thereby gain professional experience. He states, “For me, getting students out of the classroom and into the field is paramount to learning to be a professional photographer. You can talk all you want about taking photographs, but to actually have to go out and approach strangers in the street, as in this project, immerses students in activities identical to taking on daily future assignments.”

Thirteen students in LAGCC’s photography program contributed photographs to the project, reflecting a colorful mix of local residents and representing various cultures and generations, from children to the elderly. Wandering the streets in small groups at different times of day, they were given artistic license to photograph whomever and whatever caught their eyes on the city streets related to the theme of diversity. Lidiya Kan, a photography major and recent graduate, chose to photograph three workers from the Steinway Piano Factory playing chess during their break and a man in a taxi garage at night. Sternbach says, “They were just asked to express diversity in their own way, whether it was through portraits, mixed environment with portraiture or street scenes.”

For Eddie Santillan, another graduating photo major, working on The Astoria Project was an exciting and enriching experience. Santillan says, “One particular subject I photographed was an Italian immigrant named Casper. Before taking his picture, I sat down and spoke with him—getting to know his story, which was something new for me. After hearing his story, I asked if I could take his portrait and he gladly said yes. Although the conversation was short, you could see the intimacy in Casper’s eyes, which I don’t think would have happened had I not conversed with him. I quickly learned the benefits of getting to know your subject before pressing the shutter button.”

Street Savvy: Lina Reyes learned “a fearlessness with a camera that she never had before,” Sternbach says.

Sternbach mentions Lina Reyes as another student who grew bolder in her ability to approach strangers. “Lina was a very shy student who had issues approaching people in the past,” he says. “She always showed talent but was unable to put it all together. She blossomed during and after the Astoria work. She learned a fearlessness with the camera that she never had before.”

The LAGCC exhibition closed at the end of June 2013, but the same digital files will be printed on location for upcoming exhibitions—first in Goettingen, Germany, the Max Planck Institute’s hometown and later at other research locations in Singapore and Johannesburg.

“I truly believe I’m a better photographer because of this,” says Santillan, who plans to use his photography skills as a research tool in a future anthropology career. “The Astoria Project gave me a first chance to test my skills, which was why it was such a special and rewarding experience.”

An exhibition catalog from The Astoria Project is also available for preview or purchase through Blurb.



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