As part of a student project at the International Center of Photography, Sarah Blesener began documenting the lives of five teenagers from the South Bronx. Nearly two years later, she continues to photograph them, in particular Chavier (Chavi), a violin student at the High School for Violin and Dance (shown at right).
Chavi lives in Mott Haven, and it’s the most at-risk community for youth in New York. It routinely receives negative attention. All of the headlines about Mott Haven are about the murders that are happening, and the drugs. I wanted to find out what it was like to grow up there, beyond stereotypes and headline news. Chavi and four of his friends go to different schools, but they live on the same block in three different project buildings. They’ve been friends since they were very young and together have formed a kind of surrogate family. One of the first things Chavi told me was that when he can’t afford food or he’s had a hard day, his friends will buy him lunch or dinner. They help and support him. That kind of mature, intense relationship is something unique to adolescence and is special when you’re 14 years old. I decided to call the project ‘Haven,’ because that’s what I found in a community like Mott Haven. It’s not necessarily the best community for kids to grow up in, but these kids have made their own kind of safe haven.
When I first started, I didn’t imagine Chavi being my main character, but I soon realized he was exceptional. We do a lot of interviews, and he’s articulate and well spoken about feeling stuck in his environment. Most of his friends and family have spent time in jail, including one of his brothers, who just got out. Chavi feels a lot of negativity around being where he’s from, and that’s why he chose music. He wants to become a famous bachata player and thinks it’ll be his ticket out of where he lives. Because of that, he is careful not to mess up, not to get in trouble or anything. He wants to go to college, but he’s not sure where yet. The whole game changed when New York began offering free tuition to select students. He’s not sure if he’ll get in, but if so, he wants to study music.
People are always surprised to see him playing the violin. Photographic series like this make me realize you can’t put anyone in a box—you can’t put a label on anyone. People are many things at the same time.
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