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In 2015, the year after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., Ruddy Roye, a Brooklyn-based documentary photographer, set out to travel through low-income neighborhoods to photograph predominantly African-American men and women whose lives are “a testimony,” in his words, to the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
The images on view at the Leica Store DC—a portion of a larger series viewable at his website—blend despair with quiet signs of hope.
Some images come off as a bit heavy-handed, such as the homeless man in Manhattan standing in the shadow of a storefront with a large image of a male fashion model, or the downtrodden-looking man in Bed-Stuy posed too carefully between wall-mural portraits of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
More often, though, Roye leverages the demoralization of his subjects more sensitively, and powerfully.
In one, an older, bearded man in Newark, N.J., wanders amid urban clutter, but Roye captures the man’s unexpectedly gentle caress of his paper coffee cup. In another, Roye photographs a tender, fatherly moment as a man explains something to a boy.
In Camden, N.J., Roye photographs four boys at play, chasing each other in zigzagging fashion—a spark of life in the trash-strewn wasteland they presumably call home. And in Newark, Roye artfully captures the shuttered storefront of a Christian ministry (oddly featuring Hebrew letters and Jewish symbols) that opens onto two linear streetscapes on either side.
The exhibit’s biggest weakness is a lack of context about the images. Roye did record the stories of many of his subjects; he included many in supplemental links on his website, and they can be compelling reading. The gallery exhibit suffers from the lack of such explanatory material.
Perhaps the most notable theme in the exhibition is that, for all the justification Roye’s subjects would have to feel aggrieved, many of them are nonetheless pictured alongside or wearing their country’s symbols.
For instance, a man loading a truck in Brooklyn wears a jacket with a huge American flag on the back; a wall in a run-down Newark neighborhood sports an amateur rendering of another large flag; and a man seated in Bed-Stuy sports gear that advertises both “Brooklyn” and “USA,” seemingly with pride. Perhaps these signs of patriotism are mere habit, or simply what’s cheaply available in clothing. But if nothing else, it serves to heighten the contrast between America in its ideals and its reality.
At the Leica Store DC, 977 F St. NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 787-5900. Mon-Sat 11-6 (Thu and Fri to 7)