David Gonzalez is a journalist at The New York Times. Currently the co-editor of the Lens blog, he also has a biweekly column titled “Side Street” that runs in the Metro Section. As a long-time member of the Metro desk, he frequently local issues affecting the city’s neighborhoods and explores how they reflect the larger social and cultural issues facing American society today.
Winner of a 20008 Distinguished Writing Award from the American Societyof Newspaper Editors for “House Afire,” a three-part series on the life of a struggling Pentecostal church, Gonzalez has also covered the Oklahoma City bombing and the continuing unrest in Haiti. He has received critical acclaim for his vintage photographs from the 1970s and 80s, which were first exhibited with his collective, Los Seis del Sur, a group of six Puerto Rican photographers who documented their neighborhoods in the South Bronx.
He observes: “Depending on when you met me, you either think I am a photographer or a writer. I am a journalist.” He shares with The Click his story of a path that has taken him full circle: from the Bronx and back again, a pad, a pen, and camera in hand.
“I went to Yale in 1975 with the intent of being pre-med. I was the second person in my family to go to college; my brother was the first. I was the son of two people from Puerto Rico who had little education and I was a science nerd.
“Early in my sophomore year I was taking Organic Chemistry. I was doing really well but at one review session in mid-October I began panicking. Nothing made sense. I had slacked off a bit and I panicked when I realized I wasn’t prepared for the test. I made a very rash decision. I decided to drop Organic and not be pre-med. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I figured out how to get a degree: I majored in psychology.
“One day after dinner during my sophomore year, I accompanied a friend to the darkroom and I remember watching the pictures emerge out of the darkness. It was chemistry! I knew chemistry. I was a nerd.
“My friend lent me a camera and I started taking pictures of things. My first photograph was of a squirrel in a tree on campus. I found that photography enabled me to communicate and be somewhat creative. It was a different type of expression. I liked it. I got my first camera, a Petrie FTE. It was the only thing I could afford; I called it: ‘The government cheese of cameras.’ I later got a Pentax MX SLR manual. The 28 became my main lens. I never liked the zoom. I wanted to be close.
“I was abut t graduate when I began looking for a job in March 1979. I was looking at the classifieds at the back of The Association of Hispanic Arts newsletter and saw a listing for a position at En Foco. I went, and was offered a job as the Program Director, a jack-of-all-trades position. The job was great because it gave me access to a professional darkroom 24 hours a day, and it was a five-minute walk from my parents’ house. I wasn’t in it for the money. It paid $110 a week. But I was in an organization dedicated to Latino photographers and teaching photography to kids in public schools in the neighborhood around Charlotte Street, which had been devastated at that time. We took photographs to street fairs and block parties and had exhibitions in libraries, in bank lobbies, anywhere we could.
“When my father fell ill, I had to move out of my family home. My mother would qualify for Section 8 but not if I was living here. I got a job in public relations. By 1981, I wasn’t taking pictures anymore. I was living in Manhattan and my father’s death had thrown me for a loop.
“In 1982, I went to journalism school and did a little bit of photography. I freelanced a bit for a newspaper in Westchester and they let me shoot the stories. Although my photographs had the front page of a Sunday paper, I was more of a writer by then.
“I returned to photography in 1998, when my wife-to-be, Elena, bought me an Olympus digital point and shoot camera. I soon became the Central America/Caribbean Bureau Chief at The New York Times and I was encouraged to take photographs to accompany my stories. I got an Olympus 2020 two-mega-pixel camera. I was paid extra for the photographs, so the camera paid for itself in about two months. I bought every version of the camera that Olympus came out with after that. My photographs from the 2001 El Salvador earthquake were almost a full-page in the Sunday edition of the Times.
“In 2009, I finally unpacked a scanner I had purchased years before, and I began looking through the contact sheets I had made as a young man. I looked at the selections I had made, and the photographs I had passed by. That’s how I found ‘The Dancers.’
“The photographs ran in the paper’s Metropolitan section in August, 2009, and the reactions were strong. I began shooting for the City Room blog and later for my ‘Side Street’ column. It was a childhood dream come true. I’m a good writer, okay, but good photography is really hard. I love photography. I have a lot of appreciation for what other photographers go through.
“My photographs for ‘Side Street’ relate to the column. With me, the idea stews first, the ideas and themes are in my mind, and I think of what the picture could be. The photographs convey the feeling of the story. I think of it in terms of: what is the visual; and what is the mood/tone?
“The picture can set the tone more quickly; you don’t have to read a single word.”