Anyone who has ever struggled to find the connection between life and art need look no further than Milton Rogovin.
In the days following the death of the famed social documentary photographer on Jan. 18, we were treated to a flood of images that poured from Rogovin's camera across a long and productive career.
In addition to the strength of their composition and raw emotion of the men and women Rogovin captured on film, the images reminded us of the single and unchanging goal of his life's work: to put a human face on the pressing problems of poverty and inequality in Buffalo and around the globe.
And now that Rogovin's death has had a chance to sink in, it seems like a good time to reflect on the lessons of his work -- and how well we've learned them.
Today, the problems of social injustice and economic inequality in Buffalo are as bad as, if not worse than, when Rogovin first ventured into the city's East Side to take photographs of storefront churches in the late 1950s. The stark and raw images from that first series show Buffalonians rejoicing inside small and dimly lit spaces, preachers gesticulating forcefully, children singing or clapping or falling asleep in their mothers' arms. You can see the lines on the faces of the worshippers, and their humanity practically gushes out of the frame.
Less than a decade later, the civil rights movement came to fruition, in some part because of the work of photographers like Rogovin, who showed Americans that there could be no justifiable reason to discriminate against fellow human beings on the basis of their race.
But today, in the minds of most Western New Yorkers and plenty of Buffalonians, the city's sprawling East Side remains a complete abstraction. It's an immense section of Buffalo where few nonresidents ever venture, sealed off from the rest of the city by the barely permeable boundary of Main Street and bisected by the Kensington Expressway. It's a place as foreign to their understanding as Siberia, as real to most of us as Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Many of those who don't live on the East Side -- faced with its crushing poverty, its violent crime and the broken education system that serves it -- would prefer to pretend that it did not exist. And that's exactly how we've been treating the place for its decades of decline, an approach that has helped Buffalo solidify its position as the third-poorest major city in the United States.
Driving through parts of the East Side, for those who haven't done it lately, is eerily like passing through the devastated streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. Of course, the sheer visuals can be misleading, because many strong and vibrant neighborhoods -- the same kinds of communities Rogovin captured during his career around the world -- continue to thrive. Even so, huge swaths of the East Side are undeniably in a bad way. They are the stepchildren we hide during hockey tournaments, who don't show up in Convention and Visitors Bureau videos -- the symptoms of a disease so widespread we've stopped trying to cure it.
But even late into his life, Rogovin didn't stop. He knew that by showing us the faces of the poor -- "the forgotten ones," as he often put it -- he made their plight more difficult to ignore and their humanity impossible to deny.
When we see the faces of actual people living actual lives in actual neighborhoods, it becomes harder to suggest sending them to work camps in decommissioned prisons in order to teach them proper hygiene, as gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino suggested during last year's surreal campaign. Or to attempt to close down after-school programs that provide life-saving activities to at-risk children, to deny poor families access to health clinics or suggest the elimination of vision coverage, as Erie County Executive Chris Collins has done. With the sort of empathy and knowledge a Rogovin photo provides, it becomes easier to gather the public will necessary to confront the root problems of poverty -- our broken education system, for one. It also becomes possible to scrape off the persistent plaque of institutional racism that still clings stubbornly to the arteries of power in this region.
The first and perhaps most important step in fixing the manifold problems that face Buffalo's poorer neighborhoods is making people care about them, investing the entire region in finding a real and lasting solution.
We have a long way to go on that front. But Rogovin's work points us in the right direction.