Where a Photographer’s Curiosity Became a Two-Year Commitment

Though he grew up just a few miles away, Jonah Markowitz, a photographer and documentarian based in Brooklyn, knew little about the neighborhood of Kensington before 2021. That’s when he noticed, in New York City data from the year before, that an outsize portion of applications for new business licenses came from the area that included Kensington.

So he began to check out the neighborhood, which had been a hub of Bangladeshi life in the city since the 1970s. Mr. Markowitz expected to start a project about economic trends in an immigrant community.

Instead, he spent almost two and a half years visiting the same corner in Kensington, working on a portrait of the quiet transformation of a New York City neighborhood.

Mr. Markowitz’s effort, which was published by the Metro desk this week, provided an intimate look at one of the city’s biggest Bangladeshi communities. With photographs, videos and text, Mr. Markowitz introduced readers to a street corner where newcomers seek work in construction and food delivery, and the Muslim faithful take up nearly an entire city block during Eid al-Fitr services.

“Sometimes we get numb to reorganizing of neighborhoods, of societies around us,” Mr. Markowitz said. “This project is in some way an antidote to that.”

After a few trips to Kensington, Mr. Markowitz pitched the idea to Jeffrey Furticella, a photo editor on the Metro desk. Mr. Furticella said he had a soft spot for stories about New York’s evolution.

“One of my main hopes that I discuss with photographers at the outset is to create a time capsule of a moment,” Mr. Furticella said. “New York is always changing, for better and for worse. Communities evolve, businesses come and go. Nothing lasts forever, and I think one of the great responsibilities of the Metro desk is to provide a historical record of a city that draws global curiosity.”

Mr. Markowitz said his reporting was slow going at first. He was stymied by language and cultural barriers.

“There’s a hesitancy to let outsiders in and, vice versa, there’s a hesitancy for outsiders to spend a lot of time there, frankly,” he said. “It took a fair amount of being present and showing up every day for them to trust that I was invested in the story.”

Mr. Markowitz visited Kensington about 75 times throughout the course of the project. He went to restaurants, private homes and local businesses. He tagged along on delivery rides, attended religious services and observed dance performances, all to glean more insight on the lives, values, worldviews and experiences of those who live in Kensington.

“By spending that amount of time, we were able to explore all these layers,” Mr. Furticella said, “these important themes of labor, the immigrant experience and political influence, of changing norms in a cultural environment where it’s heavily male-dominant, but women are increasingly creating space for themselves.”

Karen Zraick, a reporter on the Metro desk, and Samira Asma-Sadeque, a freelance writer based in New York, provided additional reporting from the neighborhood. Ms. Asma-Sadeque, who is Bangladeshi American, reveled in exploring the everyday routines of the area. “It’s just about a community existing, about daily, ordinary life,” she said. “That is the beauty of it for me.”

After several months of reporting, Mr. Markowitz and Mr. Furticella came up with a clear vision of how to render street scenes in a novel way. Mr. Markowitz used a Phantom high-speed camera, which can capture film at 1,000 frames per second. Just five seconds of footage taken by the Phantom, if slowed to 1,000 frames per second, results in a video that is almost four minutes long. It weighs more than 20 pounds and is typically used in highly controlled environments or in studio settings to record car-crash test footage.

“It’s one of these grail-level tools,” Mr. Furticella said. “It’s a highly unusual use of this camera, to use it in an editorial, storytelling capacity. And it was this fabulous experiment.”

Using the Phantom high-speed on city streets was a photojournalist’s dream, Mr. Markowitz said, because it allowed him to frame unguarded moments with depth and detail. In the digital presentation of the article, a man washing his face and a worshiper bowing in prayer are cinematic backdrops to text rolling down the screen.

Now that the project is complete, Mr. Markowitz plans to make regular visits to Kensington for the food — goat biryani and fuchka are “must have” dishes there, he said — and the friendships he has forged. Many of the families he got to know have even invited him to Bangladesh.

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