In his debut photobook, Al J Thompson returns to Spring Valley, NY, chronicling his observations through melancholy, black-and-white images
Al J Thompson describes his debut photobook as “a multi-layered musical”. Its stage, a grassy park at the centre of Spring Valley. A verdant focal point of the New York City suburb, located in Rockland County, a 40-minute drive upstate from Manhattan, NY. In 1996, Thompson relocated from Jamaica to join his mother in Spring Valley. And the park quickly became the epicentre of his life, as it was for many other members of the then-largely Black community of Caribbean immigrants who populated the area.
However, the park of Thompson’s photobook Remnants of an Exodus is not the same as his youth. Nor is the village of Spring Valley that surrounds it. In 2017, Thompson returned to the area as an adult, having left for college over a decade before. He found the area’s social-fabric to have changed drastically. The eighties crack epidemic, and increasing violence, impacted the community when Thompson was young and continued to affect it. But, there were also other forces at play. Since 2000, a succession of corrupt mayors laid the groundwork for ‘gentrification’, as Thompson has described it. Notably, the growing presence of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews, monopolising and pricing out existing residents, including the Black community, from previously affordable housing.
The situation compelled Thompson to explore it with his camera. And far from documentation, Remnants of an Exodus is a poetic and somewhat melancholy meditation on the village and the park at its centre. “In the project’s infancy, I was photographing in a photojournalistic manner, studying the landscape and demographics,” Thompson reflects. “But, I wanted it to be more personal. When I photograph someone, it’s like I’m photographing myself. So, I threw away all the initial images and began walking around with a film camera to photograph the destruction and construction of homes in colour. But it wasn’t timeless. And I wanted it to be timeless, so I decided to photograph in black-and-white.”
Thompson moved to Spring Valley as a teenager and attended the local high school until his graduation in 1999. Spring Valley Memorial Park was the village’s cultural hub and the place Thompson spent most of his free time, playing basketball and soccer with friends. “I basked myself in the atmosphere and environment,” he says. Thompson attended college, and his relationship with the park distanced. In 2001, the late George O. Darden was elected mayor and launched an urban renewal project, including closing the park for redevelopment. Far from revitalising the area, the Black, Haitian, and Latino population felt new housing and other developments skewed towards benefiting a growing Hasidic population. For instance, Parkview Condominiums — a development bordering Memorial Park and initially supported by federal money — allegedly did not advertise housing outside of the Orthodox Jewish community. The park eventually reopened. But by this time, Thompson was living in the Bronx and commuting to Brooklyn and Manhattan for work. It was only out of curiosity that he returned one day in 2017, and what he observed compelled him to begin work on the project.
Remnants of an Exodus has biblical connotations and describes vestiges of the Spring Valley Thompson once knew. The photographer made all of the photographs in Spring Valley Park, except for two (one of which was taken a block away and the other on Main Street, which borders the green). The final frontier of a community long broken. The images themselves feel like fragments: shards of Thompson’s past and the people he grew up alongside. Shiny new condos peer over the park’s chain-linked fence, while the people amid it gaze into Thompson’s camera: a man looks up, intricate tattoos illustrating his chest; a young woman exhales, smoke obscuring her face; a boyfriend’s palms frame his pregnant, girlfriend’s stomach and, whether intentionally or not, his fingers form a heart.
The aesthetic is not one readily associated with social documentary. But, Thompson does not intend the work to be exclusive documentation of Spring Valley. The darkness and melancholy that pervade the images speak to issues of gentrification nationwide. “I want to raise awareness,” explains Thompson. Remnants of an Exodus expresses the sense of loss and hopelessness that arises from what is a pervasive yet subtle form of discrimination. But, also celebrates the remnants of the culture in which Thompson grew up, scattered throughout the park at Spring Valley’s centre.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.