So much for the old adage about Puerto-Ricans and Dominicans despising one another. Quiet as kept, it’s quite the contrary. Case in point: my admiration and respect for documentary photographer and Born in the Bronx lensman Joe Conzo, Jr. In the late ’70s, Conzo captured some of the earliest moments of hip-hop, classic salsa (his dad was the late master percussionist Tito Puentes’ confidant), and the urban lifeways of the Bronx in the early ’80s (his late grandmother Dr. Evelina Antonetty was revered as the “Hell lady of the Bronx” by some and “The mother of the Puerto-Rican community” by others). But the laundry list of accolades and achievements isn’t what endears him to so many princes and paupers, alike. It’s Joe Conzo’s humility, cool head and ability to get up when he has fallen—literally and figuratively—that makes me admire him. For that is what life is about: cultivating good character, what the Yoruba/Lukumi’s call iwa pele. Here, Joe, a veteran New York City Fire Department EMT worker reveals what scares him, surviving 9/11, and who his heroes are. ~ Raquel Cepeda.
What is your motto? I have two: And this too shall pass and You can’t keep it unless you give it away.
What is your favorite virtue in a person? Honesty and compassion for others.
What’s been the most indelible moment in your life so far? I have so many: the birth of my son; celebrating my first year of being drug-free, 17 years ago!; surviving 9/11.
A true marker of a person’s character is their compassion for mankind.
The one thing hardly anyone knows about me is I’m a big wuss! I talk a good game but in actuality, I have a bleeding heart.
What is your idea of misery? Loneliness and isolation.
What do you least admire in yourself? My desire to save the entire world and the frustration of not being able to. I have to find happiness helping one person at a time.
The photographer Sebastião Salgado said that one photographs with all their ideology. What do you photograph with? Realism and honesty, compassion and respect. I will not take your picture if you don’t want me to.
If you were not yourself, who would you like to be? Jamel Shabazz! This man has so much compassion even after spending so many years in the hallways of hell (the Correction Department).
Who are your heroes in real life? My mother and father, and my late grandmother.
What is your present state of mind? Tired and frustrated but optimistic and hopeful.
* photograph courtesy Joe Conzo.