As a longtime foreign news photographer and documentary filmmaker, Mike Kamber has been to all parts of the world, from Iraq to Somalia, but he said the one place that has fascinated him the most is the Bronx.
Kamber, 54, has lived on and off in the borough since 1986 and he said he’s always been taken in by the borough’s history, diversity and, most importantly, its residents.
“It takes 10 minutes to walk to the corner because you have to say hello to everyone. People ask about your family,” said Kamber, a Maine native and former New York Times photographer.
What the borough did lack, according to Kamber, was an adequate space for up-and-coming photographers to hone their skills and show off their work, so in 2011 he decided to create one.
When the Bronx Documentary Center opened at 614 Courtlandt Ave., Kamber said it was just one desk in an abandoned building and a group of volunteers. Since then it has set up a gallery space, a dark room and editing machines, and it serves more than 100 students from the borough.
“I’ve met a lot of photographers who have the ambition and desire, but they didn’t have the money for it,” he said. “We’re just trying to level the playing field.”
Kamber and fellow photographers who work at the nonprofit have provided several free programs, including after-school and summer classes for middle and high school students, open workshops and portfolio critiques for the community and senior citizen courses during the fall, winter and spring.
“At the core of the program, it’s about telling stories and getting the facts right,” he said.
This spring, the center expanded its mission and began offering documentary film training. Four film fellows — who are young adults from the area — have been going through extensive training on various aspects of the filmmaking process from cinematography to sound.
Kamber said several special guests have stopped by the center to help those fellows with their preparation, including Joshua Marston, Jeremiah Zagar and Eugene Richards.
“These guys are getting training by the best,” Kamber said.
Although the fellows all have their own subjects, they all have a Bronx focus, such as one that is following a Bronx poetry team. Kamber said he feels their personal connection to the neighborhood will make the films resonate stronger.
“When movies are made about the Bronx, they’re made for consumption elsewhere. We’re making movies for consumption in the Bronx,” he said. “These are positive stories.”
The up-and-coming filmmakers have already received some good attention. Last week, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. provided the center with $100,000 in capital funds for the film fellows program.
Kamber said he plans on updating their filming equipment — some of the cameras are more than eight years old — and editing stations for their post-production work.
Kamber said he hopes the films can help spread a positive image of the Bronx to audiences worldwide and, more importantly, encourage other borough artists to pursue their dreams behind the viewfinder. The audience, he said, is already waiting for them.
“It’s been incredibly supportive,” he said of community response to the center. “They’re proud that there is something like this.”