Drawing inspiration from the South Bronx

Osaretin Ugiagbe shoots from the hip. The Nigerian-born photographer holds a camera near his waist as he navigates 149th Street in the South Bronx, snapping photos of unknowing passersby mid-sentence, mid-purchase, mid-chew. Crowds on the snow-coated corridor thicken as they approach The Hub—a nickname for this part of the neighborhood, which pulses with nail salons, Latin American restaurants, and mobile phone stores. Pedestrians grab onto one another for support as they tiptoe through the lakes of slush and slop at each intersection. Ugiagbe is at once among them but also not; his leisurely gait disguises quick flicks of his wrists and clicks of his camera.

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The underlying hypothesis behind Ugiagbe’s style is that capturing candid slices of life would be impossible should he shoot through a viewfinder. His work is more a product of improvisation, as he typically skirts traditional stories with a beginning, middle, and end in favor of whomever or whatever he comes across during walks on his lunch break from administrative work at Lincoln Medical Center. Nearly every day around noon, that’s where you’ll find him.

“This is life—this is my life, in a sense,” says the 28-year-old, who began taking photographs in 2011. A portion of his three-year project, South Bronx Special, was featured in a borough-themed exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center in September and October. “I’m here, I’m there, and I witnessed this. You’re here with me. You saw this with me. This is it.”

His father immigrated to the New York neighborhood in 1996, and Ugiagbe followed six years later with his mother and four sisters. For decades, the area has displayed chronic symptoms of the American urban crisis: racial segregation, rampant poverty, and slash-and-burn renewal efforts. Ugiagbe spent his teenage years wanting to get out—indeed, he now lives in another part of the borough. Yet he has found himself continually drawn back to the neighborhood, first for community college and now to work.

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Neighborhood residents have long worried that gentrification could bring transient newcomers and rising rents to their streets, though such fears have yet to fully materialize as they have elsewhere in the city. Ugiagbe, for his part, wants to record life there—right now—regardless of what happens next.

Nevertheless, the shadow of change in the South Bronx holds the potential to disturb the photographer’s sense of self. After all, the neighborhood is Ugiagbe’s corner of the city—his corner of America. The purpose of his work isn’t so much to illustrate an evolving New York, but to portray his New York. “Because after all,” Ugiagbe says, “there’s always this self-consciousness about being someone else, especially if you’re from somewhere else.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. This story was published in the March/April 2015 issue of CJR with the headline, "On the corner."