Born in 1958 in Saint-Brieuc, France, Régina Monfort has lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, since 1992. Her work has appeared in CultureFront, Life magazine, Stress, and the Village Voice. She has exhibited in and her work has been collected by the New York City Subway, the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Yale Art Gallery. Her work is also part of a collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Monfort has presented her work to the community she photographs by producing audio-visual presentations in some of Williamsburg's parks and vacant lots.
Monfort received a prize from the Columbia School of Art and grants from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts. In 1998, her work was nominated in the Human Spirit essay category for the annual Alfred Eisenstaedt Award in Magazine Photography. In 1999, she completed a project at a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, exploring notions of identity, alienation, and belonging in America today.
In late 1994, I began photographing teenagers from the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. Williamsburg is mostly known for its waterfront area and is often referred to as the “new East Village.” Only a few blocks away, beyond Grand Street, is another world where youth face the challenge of growing up without the benefit of the area’s progressive gentrification.
The neighborhood, despite economic despair, possesses a certain social cohesion, a solidarity at times volatile but nevertheless strong. Competition is fierce among the youth. Status is a matter of physical appearance and possessions. I asked a young man why he wanted a diamond-encrusted Rolex watch. He answered: “For the same reason an art collector wants a certain painting.” Initially I was even puzzled by the boys’ claim of their block, their corner. But I soon understood that surviving—much less succeeding—outside these boundaries is not always an option.
For some, the neighborhood is the only world where they can function. Social codes protect one’s prestige and authority. Anger can be valued as a survival tool. Many youth invest their trust in the language of hip-hop, which they feel, and understandably so, is the authoritative voice portraying their world. Growing up too fast, young girls strive to be perceived as women, and early sexual experiences become a desperate quest for love.
My work grows out of the personal relationships I have developed with the young people I photograph. I have come to see the tenderness and vulnerability so often concealed by the tough attitudes necessary to survive in their environment. Through my camera I look at the process of growing up in Latin Williamsburg as it unfolds—with its oddities and contradictions. The camera has, at times, served to validate the lives of some of the young people who feel forgotten. In turn, they have taught me endurance. From Grand Street to Lindsay Park, my lens has found hope as well as frustration. I have been asked, “Why are you here? Nothing is beautiful here!” The photographs are my answer.
I dedicate this exhibition to the people from around the way who have given me their trust, and to Monica who fought back whenever she faced a challenge. RIP, Monica.
—Régina Monfort, June 2001