In many cultures, willow trees are considered symbols of resilience and compassion. They harbor those who seek privacy; rather than split or break, their branches bounce back from heavy snowfall or wind. It is fitting then that a willow graces the cover of Al J Thompson’s first monograph, Remnants Of An Exodus.
Within the project, Thompson documents the community of Spring Valley, New York, once home to a thriving Caribbean immigrant population that in recent years has seen its numbers decrease dramatically. This demographic change has been the result of economic hardship, political maneuvering, and gentrification. The 1980s escalation and enforcement of the War on Drugs, corruption in local government, as well as an influx of wealthier residents have disproportionately affected Spring Valley’s Black community.
Remnants Of An Exodus, published this year by Gnomic Book, takes Spring Valley Memorial Park as its main stage, presenting landscapes, portraits, and detail shots to flesh out a sense of community that works against any typical, simplified representations of the ‘victims’ of gentrification.
We often hear the term gentrification bandied about as a buzzword. It is an existential as well as financial threat to communities of color across the United States, but rare is the occasion where it is treated with a complexity that moves beyond the term ‘victim’. Thompson, who was born and spent his early years in Jamaica, returns to the first American community of his youth to show who in essence remains, and to challenge the viewer to look more deeply. An essay by Shane Rocheleau, Gathering Remnants, closes the book with a broader look at the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of civil rights struggles in American history.
In 55 black and white photographs Thompson manages to create a full, complex view of his subject. The images do not shy away from the harsh, difficult views of decay and upheaval; rather they pair them with the truth of lives being lived against the backdrop of a space in flux. In speaking of Spring Valley, Thompson notes that there is “a dystopia within the community but there is also hope”.
There are photographs that walk a line between formalism and abstraction, a spindly crack in the pavement that brings to mind an aerial view of the course of a river or the wet patch on a playground’s blacktop that reflects the sun like liquid mercury. These more detail oriented images create an aura of the space as if the viewer could reach out and trace the crack or feel the humidity left in the air after summer rain. The willow tree reappears later on, its branches caught in a gust of wind.
It is in the portraits though that Thompson’s work truly sings. A shirtless, muscular man tilts his head ever so slightly, the vulnerability in that small gesture speaking volumes. A shirt raised above floral pants where two hands frame a belly are met by the light brush of a third, echoing back to the hand of a woman resting on the flowered skirt against her thigh. The theme returns in an image of two young children, observing the viewer, as an adult’s hand lays protectively around their shoulders. Some portraits show reserve and at points guardedness. There are flashes of laughter. And yet the overarching emotions are tenderness and connection. This type of relationship to the community, the landscape, the work itself was summed up by Thompson when he told me that “a lot of these images are my favorites, each of them are my babies but I can’t love one more than the other. They are a part of me.”
Thompson’s photographs depict the intersection of remnants. They document the coexistence of the people and places of Spring Valley alongside the memory of all that has gone.
— Magali Duzant