Operation IMPACT is an annual NYPD program that takes the youngest, most untested officers in the department and sends them to the most violent and dangerous neighborhoods of New York City for a crash course in becoming a policeman. The Photoletariat had the chance to hear from photographer and former NYPD Police Officer Antonio Bolfo. Having gone through the Operation IMPACT program himself, Bolfo decided to photograph one group of rookie IMPACT officers in the South Bronx.
The Photoletariat: What were you doing before you became a photographer?
Antonio Bolfo: I went to Rhode Island School of Design and was traditionally trained in drawing, painting, and sculpting. I ended up majoring in Film and Animation and went on to become senior animator at Harmonix, the videogame development company that created the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. I worked there for 4 years until I was tired of the corporate art world. Since I spent my whole life doing art, I decided to take a drastically different path and joined the New York City Police Department. I was assigned to the South Bronx Housing Projects and patrolled there as a beat cop for a couple of years until I was accepted into the ICP photojournalism school.
TP: Which photographers have influenced you?
AB: Many of the greats for sure, like Josef Koudelka, Bruce Davidson, Eugene Richards, Helmut Newton, Tom Stoddart, and Guy Bourdiin. But many other young photographers are also very inspiring as well, just look over your shoulder and there is amazing work being produced. I also look at a lot of painters and illustrators for inspiration. Photography is the study of light, so who better than to study the master of light himself, Caravaggio? I also love Rembrandt, Kramskoy, Viktor Vasnetsov, Alan Lee, and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto.
TP: Describe your project about Operation IMPACT.
AB: With the current economic crisis forcing the NYPD to slash overall budgets, the number of officers and supporting resources for IMPACT have been dwindling steadily. Despite this, the brass at IMPACT have demanded an increase in arrests, asking fewer officers to do more with less than ever before. This project highlights one IMPACT unit, consisting of thirty rookies assigned to the Mott Haven housing projects in the South Bronx, one of the most notorious neighborhoods in America. Despite their raw status and overburdened workloads, this unit leads the city in arrests and have somehow caused crime to plummet to record lows. But the focus on arrests comes at a price: destroying community policing, which causes a tense relationship between the neighborhood’s beleaguered residents and the over-strained cops.
TP: How long did you spend photographing the NYPD?
AB: I spent two years on and off photographing Operation IMPACT. For most of the project I was either in school doing school specific assignments or in Haiti covering the earthquake disaster, so I tried to fit Operation IMPACT in when I could.
TP: What brief did you give yourself when you started the NYPD work? Did the brief change overtime?
AB: I really liked the story of Operation IMPACT in general: how new, inexperienced cops get sent to the most dangerous places, places where a cop really should know what he is doing. But I kept an open mind to how different officers respond in their own way. I too went through the IMPACT program, but I was hesitant to apply my own thoughts of my own personal experiences to my subjects. We are all different people and I wanted to treat them as individuals, not simply as vessels to illustrate my own perceptions.
TP: How did the police officers respond to your presence?
AB: In the beginning they felt a bit weird and uneasy. Legally they were not allowed to turn me away, but I also didn’t want to be annoying or a nuisance. At first if they felt too uncomfortable with me then I would leave and come back another day. Little by little, conversation after conversation, they slowly opened up. I was very upfront and honest about my intentions, and I think that went a long way in gaining their trust. I think if you are truly honest, people can read that. On the other hand, if you are dishonest and have ulterior motives, I think people can read that too.
TP: The work was recently shown in France. How did people react to the work?
AB: People reacted very positively, which was a great relief. I was very worried that people would view the story as propaganda because of my background in law enforcement. But fortunately that was not the case. People showed a lot of empathy to the officers, which was quite surprising to me because I am used to people hating the police, since New York is a very anti-cop city. Operation IMPACT is not a political statement but a human story of individuals who choose to be police officers in a very dangerous place. And I am pleased that message came across.
TP: What kind of image of New York did you think your work portrays?
AB: Although my story takes place in a tiny neighborhood, I think it is a testament to the universal problems in the other ghettos of New York City. There is definitely something wrong with New York City and its inability to fight poverty despite it being the richest city in America. Times Square may not be a center of prostitution anymore, but poverty, drugs, and gang violence are still a very realistic part of New York City.
TP: What other major assignments have you done?
AB: I have covered the Haitian earthquake aftermath extensively. I have been there 4 times and have photographed for numerous publications there. So I would say that my coverage of Haiti is quite significant. I have only been out of photography school for one year so I am constantly looking for my next project.
TP: You work for Getty. Could you explain to people a little bit about the relationship between a photographer and an agency?
AB: An agency helps put your name out there and helps to get you work. In return, they take a portion of the money you get from an assignment that they helped set up for you. That is the business plan in a nutshell. On a personal level, the editors at an agency can really be a source of support, especially for young, emerging photographers. At Reportage by Getty Images, Christina Cahill, Annick Shen, and Lauren Steel have been incredibly supportive of me for the past year and helped me understand the business and what it means to navigate this tricky industry.
TP: What advice would you give to people who went to get into photojournalism?
AB: You really have to know why you want to become a photographer. The road ahead is very tough and it is critical that you hold on to the reason you are making pictures. Be honest with your desires, your goals, and your definition of success. Do not give up too easily, nothing worth doing is easy. And you have to love your work. If you do not love your own work, how do you expect other people to like it?
TP: A lot of photojournalists are now also shooting video, is this something that you do? If so, any tips you’d like to share.
AB: I have a college degree in film and animation and have experience in motion picture story telling. I shoot video when clients request it and make my own small documentaries. I just completed a 10 minute documentary on Haiti reconstruction that is on the Reportage by Getty Images website. Video/film-making/multimedia (whatever you want to call it) is a completely different medium than still photography, and people need to approach it as such. It is an art that has existed for almost as long as still photography, and there are people who use it incredibly effectively to tell amazing stories. As the photo industry and film industry start to overlap, as it is, established film makers are going to start picking up jobs from news organization. Still photographers need to be prepared for that. The HD video bodies, like the 5D Mark II and D3s, are just tools. Knowing how to shoot video is not enough, you have to know how to tell a good story using the video.