“Reimagining James Van Der Zee” Opens at King Library

By Professor Michael Cheers, Associate Professor of Journalism

Thirty-four years after the death of renown photographer James Van Der Zee, the quintessential chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance and the greater Black community from 1906 to 1983, San Jose State University photojournalism students and New York alternative high school photo students met in Harlem last October to take a fresh look at one of America’s most culturally diverse, historically rich, vibrant and iconic, yet ever changing communities.

Students from the Satellite Academy High School and the James Baldwin School, both in Manhattan, participated in this extraordinary project developed by the SJSU School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

"A-Train Reimagined" is among the images captured by students.

“A-Train Reimagined” is among the images captured by students.

Exhibit Opens Feb. 8

Twelve students and their teachers from Satellite Academy are traveling to San Jose for the exhibition opening and reception 4-6 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. One photo student from Boynton High School in San Jose also participated, as did one local community college photo student.

More than 100 of the students’ images on 44 montages and individual portraits will be on display at the library’s second floor exhibition area until March 31. The montages show a kaleidoscope of diverse faces interspersed with a medley of iconic Harlem landmarks and competing cultures.

The project bridged Photo Voice methodology and hip-hop pedagogy. Using Apple-sponsored iPhones and DSLR cameras, the neophyte students canvassed the main boulevards, side streets, back streets, and alleys, capturing the sights and sounds, and the ebb and flow of Harlem through the lens of their innocence and freshness, documenting what they saw and felt.

group photo

Student and faculty participants gather for a group photo in Harlem.

SJSU Journalism Students and Faculty

The four SJSU journalism undergraduate beginning photo students selected were Payje Redmond, Franchesca Natividad, Lovetta Jackson and Savannah Harding.

Michael Cheers, associate professor at San Jose State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, was the lead researcher and facilitator. Juan Serna, SJSU Journalism TV studio manager/engineer served as a bi-lingual field instructor and chief post-production editor.

The project kicked-off Oct. 27, with a two-hour guided, orientation-walking tour of Harlem. The four-day experience ended on Oct. 29.

Janifer Wilson, owner of Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center.

Janifer Wilson, owner of Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center.


Harlem Reimagined

There were Marcus Garveyites and Van Der Zee Harlemites not willing to trade in, sell off or sell out the richness of their heritage. The students saw black vendors smiling at streams of white tourists while selling their wares to anyone because the only color that counts to them is green. They also heard from Janifer Wilson, owner of Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center, in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, thought to be the only black-owned bookstore in Manhattan.

“Change has to happen in order for us to evolve, but the displacement of folk who are grassroots… the people who started these communities, is very disheartening,” Wilson said.

A site partnership was arranged with the prestigious Studio Museum in Harlem, where the students met daily to discuss their work. The museum also is the custodian of an extensive archive of the work of James Van Der Zee.

The exhibition moves to New York in April.