“When you first move to New York,” says artist Sol Aramendi, “… you’re in a kind of imaginary space between your home country and here. Photography can help you arrive to the city … [and] grow a sense of belonging.”1
For years Sol Aramendi has worked with immigrant communities in Queens in the intersections of immigration, labor rights, and art. In her ongoing series, Project Luz, she uses photography as a tool for empowerment by developing workshops for immigrant communities to document and share their personal and collective stories. Aramendi developed Project Luz in 2004 in response to the ways in which immigrants have been isolated by the city—both by its increasingly anti-immigrant policies as well as their historical depiction in the media. As they engage with the city through photography and reimagine their place within it, participants of Project Luz workshops begin to reclaim their own narratives and take ownership over their city. In other words, New York City starts to feel a little more like home.
At one of the workshops Aramendi hosted for union workers and day laborers in construction, workers described wage theft—the denial of rightfully owed salary or benefits—as the biggest challenge they faced. After working long hours in often dangerous conditions (and usually without a contract or agency to protect them), they described that it’s common to not be paid the full amount they are entitled to, or to not be paid at all. Aramendi continued to facilitate discussions between workers and organizers through New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) in Queens, and learned that since most day laborers are undocumented immigrants, they rarely report their exploitative employers in fear of being deported or detained. From these discussions about the need for leverage and accountability emerged the idea for an app.
For over two years Aramendi collaborated with day laborers, artists, labor organizers, lawyers, and app developers to create [email protected] (Spanish for laborer with the gender inclusive @ symbol.). [email protected] lets laborers photograph the license plates of exploitative contractors to warn other workers, and record critical information to recover withheld pay. The app also connects workers to labor-rights groups and lawyers. Most importantly, workers can use all of these features anonymously, which encourages them to report exploitative employers without fear of retaliation.
[email protected] is the product of a dynamic collaboration between experts across seemingly disparate fields and mediums—a “social sculpture” of sorts, constructed by their coming together. Many features of the app, particularly the ability to photograph and communicate with other laborers, were ideas that came from the workers themselves. In describing the artistry of the app, Aramendi tells Artsy, “For me, the artwork is the whole two years of the project, with all the relationships.”2 Aramendi created a space for open dialogues that allowed for the project to be shaped entirely by the priorities of the workers. This critical malleability ignites a new way of looking at a problem—which is, arguably, the very purpose of art.
Aramendi recently spoke at an immigration summit for cultural organizations hosted by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Art Space Sanctuary, and No Longer Empty. The event was a rare moment of artists, cultural workers, activists, and city officials coming together to consider ways they can collaborate and share resources to protect and serve immigrant New Yorkers. While they addressed the limitations and shortcomings of the role that cultural institutions can play in these efforts, a thread that ran through their discussions was the critical role that artists must play in the struggle for a more equitable city. As communities all across New York are facing increasingly rapid gentrification, displacement, and anti-immigrant policies, there is a clear need to amplify their voices and establish counter-narratives. Several artists at the event, including Aramendi, discussed working more closely with community groups to elevate their voices and to find practical, alternative solutions to the challenges they face. Considering Aramendi’s work in the context of this larger strategic action reveals the potential for art to build momentum in movements for change. In the ways that Project Luz forms spaces for immigrants to reimagine and experiment with how they see their future in the city, it also creates a platform that can be reshaped according to their priorities—an essential level of flexibility—that perhaps only art can activate. Of course, collaborations of this depth take the time and resources that most communities don’t have. Yet even through the process of grappling with these challenges and sharing resources across networks, communities are building solidarity—a powerful form of resistance in itself.
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Despite the potential of this burgeoning movement and successes so far, it can still be hard not to feel defeated by the crushing weight of the changes to the city. But as we’ve seen, New Yorkers continue to persist. Perhaps they do so because the alternative to resisting is a reality that we cannot accept, let alone even imagine. But even this “we have no choice” outlook isn’t quite satisfying. Given the tenacity with which artists and communities are coming together, there’s something much stronger at work. In James Baldwin’s essay, “The Creative Process,” he unravels the relationship between the artist and their city, considering the artist’s role as an “incorrigible disturber of the peace.” He writes:
Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, do what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.3
Artists today are responding to the painful and unjust realities of the city, which is perhaps all a part of the “lover’s war” that Baldwin describes. Perhaps then, it’s not only out of rage and frustration that New Yorkers persist. But rather, it’s a deep love for the city that drives their fierce desire to protect and make it better.
- “The Stories of Our Community: Sol Aramendi,” PBS, October 21, 2012.
- Isaac Kaplan, “This Artist-Designed App Helps Day Laborers Fight Wage Theft,” Artsy, December 6, 2016.
- Originally published in Creative America (Ridge Press, 1962), reprinted in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (1998), and The Price of a Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948 – 1985 (1985).