Photo by Q. Sakamaki
“I tried to photograph an officer who grabbed a girl by her ponytail and dragged her through the middle of the street; she was just wearing a thin tank top, and the ground she was pulled over was covered in glittering broken glass. As soon as I took out my camera, I was tackled by another cop in full riot gear and my equipment was broken. This behavior by the police and the atmosphere it created felt very similar to what I would later witness photographing in the deadly conflict zones of Haiti, Burma, Iraq, and Palestine; these were places where people felt intense fear and anger toward oppressors and occupiers.” —Q. Sakamaki
Tompkins Square Park
Book Launch and 20th Anniversary Commemoration
Wednesday, August 6, 2008, 6:30-8:30PM
The powerHouse Arena, 37 Main Street, Brooklyn
Slide show and Q&A with Q. Sakamaki, 7PM & 8PM
Q. Sakamaki remembers the Tompkins Square Park movement sparked by the police riot that occurred in the park on August 6, 1988. New York City’s downtown art scene was disappearing, as gentrification and expensive rents forced artists out of the neighborhood. AIDS was an epidemic, and the homeless were multiplying, squatting in condemned buildings, or living in parks. There were activists who often protested this change, which resulted in numerous clashes with the New York City Police Department. Ultimately, it was the simple need for affordable housing that was at stake. Sakamaki, a Lower East Side resident, witnessed the neighborhood’s tumultuous transformation, and is the focus of his latest book, Tompkins Square Park.
Originally from Japan, at 26 Sakamaki left his native country to become a great photographer. “In Japan, there is no diversity,” he says. “It is very commercially oriented. It’s getting boring, and now the US is getting like that.”
Upon arriving to New York City, Sakamaki remembers, “I felt that this was my hometown right away. It’s so mixed. I love it.” He was attracted to the downtown subculture and situated himself in the center of the radical, creative whirlwind of the Lower East Side. But politics and the economy would soon change the face of his neighborhood.
“Gentrification is not completely black and white,” Sakamaki says. “Some is good, and it might be a natural way of developing human society. It’s everywhere, but if it happens too quickly and if it ignores the suffering of the needy, it creates a negative impact, like the spread of globalization or Americanization.”
While Sakamaki considers himself an “outsider,” giving him an objective eye to document the struggles in war-torn lands like Afghanistan and Iraq, the Tompkins Square Park movement was one instance when this was not the case. Sakamaki was a fixture of the neighborhood and movement, yet strangely the conflicts he has experienced overseas are very similar to what was happening in his own backyard.
As the Tompkins Square Park movement unfolded before you, how did you feel?
I thought it was very New York, since so many different types of people stood up and united for a social, political aim or movement. And I felt it was very exciting and humane.
What was your approach in photographing these events?
I was hanging out with the homeless people in the park, as much as I could, sometimes bringing food to them, and sometimes spending the night, especially during a possible raid by the NYPD. I would first become friends with the homeless and activists, then photographed them, although not always.
Where did you position yourself during the clashes between activists and police?
Nearly always I was in the middle of the action or the frontline.
What were you looking to capture?
To document the human drama of people who faced drastic gentrification and were often harassed by the authorities during the era of the Tompkins Square Park movement. I tried to photograph all of the movement, including the scenes of the community landscape to the energetic subculture scenes, but I also tried more to focus on the emotional moments as human documentary.
Twenty years after the Tompkins Square Park police riot of August 6, how do you feel about the area of Alphabet City in the Lower East Side, where newcomers are more likely to call it the East Village?
Totally different. The community was the center of New York’s downtown cultural scenes, which were unlike anything else. Now most of them have gone. I often feel like I live in Japan.
Interview Courtesy of PowerHouse Books