David González (The New York Times) focuses on the abandoned Lola Rodríguez de Tió High School in Carolina, Puerto Rico—in the context of the island’s economic collapse—and the bittersweet inspiration it brought to photographer Jesus Emmanuel Rodriguez Pichardo.
Thick tropical vegetation chokes the atrium and garden at the Lola Rodríguez de Tió High School in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Inside, the place is bereft of souls: The walls have holes where scavengers ripped out wiring and pipes, shafts of sunlight slice into the darkness inside classrooms where books, keyboards and pictures are strewn about haphazardly. This decay has been slowly erasing the physical space since the school closed in 2014, another casualty of Puerto Rico’s economic collapse.
This heartbreaking scene is enough to take a cue from Steely Dan and never go back to your old school. But for Jesus Emmanuel Rodriguez Pichardo, who graduated here before moving to New York, it triggered intense emotions that kept him coming back to the deserted campus. During an extended stay earlier this year, he made the empty rooms and overgrown yards into a backdrop for large-format portraits of the place and the people who worked and studied there. The images speak to the immediate, emotional bond they had for it. But the shuttered school is a symbol in the larger drama that has played out in recent years as people educated here — and other schools on the island — have fled to New York or Florida.
“Why are these schools abandoned?” said Mr. Rodriguez Pichardo, 35, who goes by Jesus Emmanuel professionally. “They protect us from hurricanes if you have to be evacuated from your home. They are polling places. They are big and they are abandoned. Why not convert them into something with the community? It’s a lack of respect when you leave it closed and abandoned.”
This is Mr. Rodriguez Pichardo’s first project, though he has been taking pictures since he was 10. He moved to New York in 2004 for adventure, eventually finding a job at a hotel. But a back injury left him unable to work, so he returned to Puerto Rico in 2009. The following year, he lost an arm after a car he was in fell into a gully. In time, he returned to New York and settled in the Bronx, where he joined the Bronx Photo League at the Bronx Documentary Center.
He was among the photographers who worked on the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, a process that got him into shooting medium format film. More recently, he started futzing around with a 4-by-5 view camera, which he had hoped to use for the league’s next project, on public housing. To gain experience for that, he took the camera with him on an extended visit to Puerto Rico in the spring of this year.
He thought he would photograph friends and neighbors, but he learned that they — like so many others — had left the island in search of better opportunities (a siren song that historically has lured millions to New York and elsewhere on the United States mainland.) It struck him that perhaps he could look at the effects of the economic calamity by doing portraits of the people who studied and worked at the high school, from which he graduated in 1999.
“I got there and saw it abandoned, vandalized, destroyed,” he said. “Quickly I thought like a photographer. There were photographic elements like light and shade that would look good in large format. So I decided to photograph at the abandoned school. I thought I could do some portraits inside. When I told my friends about my idea, everyone decided to help me.”
Schools mean a lot to people in Puerto Rico, and the Lola Rodríguez de Tió High School stirred strong emotions among those who had spent time there. Named for a distinguished 19th-century poet, abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights, it was a big school that offered students academic and vocational curriculums, as well as classes and services for students with special needs or developmental disabilities. It was something touched upon by several of his subjects, whom he asked to share a moment or memory from their time there.
“Everybody spoke about how beautiful it was,” Mr. Rodriguez Pichardo said. “To see a school where you find a community of students you never had before, it showed you how to share with others. It changed people’s lives.” [. . .]