Inside the World of Rita Aida’s Asbury Park
Asbury Park, New Jersey was once a small tourist destination for families back in the 1960’s. Over the years, it has changed drastically, dealing with the effects of corruption, racial tensions, and economic turmoil. Attractions such as the Empress Hotel, the Convention Hall, and the Casino have been boarded up, leaving the oceanside boardwalk a ghost town of bleak fading memories. Not until recently did Asbury Park receive its much-needed revival.
The east side of the town bustles with upscale housing, restaurants, shops, nightlife, a refurbished boardwalk. A refuge to hipsters, the LGBTQ, and the wealthy, millionaires buy summer condos that overlook the wide, pristine sands and ocean. To reach the beach, though, visitors usually have to cross the west side of the city, where pockets of poverty and crime persist. The original citizens of Asbury who still live here are now feeling the full effects of the gentrification that have taken place here, with displacement causing many to become homeless or struggling to provide for their families.
Rita Aida is a photographer who has worked in Asbury Park for the past seven years capturing the lives of these people. Through her images, Rita hopes to create a narrative that shows the underlying effects that had shifted and split the town in two.
VVP: Photography is a major extension of your creative outlet. How did you first get into photography? What were some of the first photos that you shot?
RA: I first started getting into photography around the age of seventeen, I was always using my dad’s old camera and taking candid photos of nature. I was fascinated with insects and bugs, wildlife... you name it. As I got used to shooting, I started to then explore darker themes such as abandonment; something about the destruction of something that once was whole seemed like a great place to be. I was comfortable in the hurt and darkness. People were the last things I'd ever think I would take an interest in photographing.
VVP: So how did you discover your love of portrait work then?
RA: It was very accidental… it started when I got my own camera and was helping my sister and her friend with her fashion line. She made her own clothes and was like "hey, do you mind shooting my work". I was very doubtful at first but she insisted it would come out great. Apparently, I had an eye for fashion, which I still don't see. However, during the shoot, I would try to take candid ones of her. These I found very enjoyable. You can really catch someone's personality in a shot, and that's what I always try to convey.
VVP: Your current project features shots of the lower income and even homeless citizens of Asbury Park, New Jersey. What first got you inspired to shoot these people?
RA: I have been working in Asbury for over 7 years now. As I continually keep working in the area, you begin to notice the people and places that seem to be changing. The population of homeless people grew dramatically and the area seems to be expanding into all different parts, over and around the train tracks that seem to divide the town between the rich and the poor. It is a good thing to get money but not for the locals who've been here from the beginning.
“That's why I started this project. The number of men, women, and children that don't have a bed to sleep in every night is ridiculous to me. I can not bear to see people begging for money or food, I have a heart and know not every homeless people here due to the stereotyping of drugs.”
The only struggle I have is to reach out to more women and children. I seem to run into a few but hardly enough. The women's shelter in Asbury Park is pretty much nonexistent. They have a male shelter all year round, but the "shelter" for women seems to be seasonal. I have to help, because no one else seems to care or even try to help them. They are real people like everyone else, we all are struggling and need to come together as a community and help out.
VVP: What sort of approaches went into getting your first portrait of these people?
RA: I just usually introduce myself and state why I'm going around with my camera around my neck. I always state the reason why I am talking to them, and trying to get their perspective on the changes taking place in Asbury Park. Most of the locals I talk with are nice, but most say not to photograph them… I even had a few scream at me, but some are very kind.
VVP: What are some of the main problems you have heard from people?
RA: Usually it is a mix of displacement and gentrification... No one can afford to live in the homes being rebuilt, let alone afford to put food on the table. With the divide between the economies within the town, more and more people are losing their income or even their houses due to the increase in rent and various other causes… then these people try to get jobs, many of which who have entered the shelter. However, businesses do not want to hire people without a phone or address or wearing an old suit or dirty clothes. They take one look and then turn the other way. Its sad but true; in this day in age everything is based on appearance first.
VVP: What do you think we can do to raise awareness of these issues?
RA: I think we all should donate to get a shelter going in the near future, if the number of people that visit Asbury Park in a week just donated a dollar, things would happen! The growth rate in the amount of income in Asbury is outstanding, and still growing. Instead of trying to push away the "problem", they can just easily fix it with a building that isn't being used as a shelter. To help clear the streets and hopefully decrease drugs and crime rates too. We have a lot of local soup kitchens but not enough space for people to sleep at night.
“We cannot let these people sleep under the boardwalk; or convention hall, police station, train station, or park benches. They need a real place to put their head down. They need a place to call a home.”
VVP: What do you hope people can take away from this series?
RA: The main take is away is that I want people to see and understand that this is an issue. I want people to be able to look at those who are affected and really empathize with these people, truly appreciate the things that they have in their lives they may take for granted. All the people I have taken photos of have their own stories for which others can relate to and realize that they are real human beings. We are all suffering through something and need support from somewhere. I am here to make their voices heard.
“Carlito”, Rita Aida Parola, April 24, 2018
“Carlito came to me instead of the other way around… it was like he had something to tell me, something before it was too late. He said he was drawn to me because I reminded him of his daughter, which he hasn’t seen much of recently. He had said that over the past few years he wasn’t a good father. He held a lot of regrets, getting caught up in drugs and alcohol. The thrill of robbery kept him locked up for over nine years. He was in and out of rehabilitation programs during this time, always being inspired by religion and God… He had said to me, ‘God had helped me through the toughest times, I wouldn’t be here without him…'
”Scott”, Rita Aida Parola, March 6, 2018
“Scott is one of the many people that have lived in Asbury Park since the 1960s. He has seen his fair share of riots, protests, and fires… Scott has been trying to find shelter for most of his adult life, living underneath the casino before the town buried it with sand. Most of his days are now spent trying to find food. He hopes that one day he can find a job…”
“Scott - Updated”, Rita Aida Parola, 2018
“Ella”, Rita Aida Parola, May 23, 2018
“This is Ella. She has been homeless for over seven years now. Growing up her dad was an alcoholic and her mom had to work the streets just to afford a living. She took up her fair of drugs, but honestly couldn’t see it any other way, it was how she was raised. Very timid and shy, she was hesitant to smile because of her missing teeth, but I know she has a good heart. Unfortunately some good people are born into bad environments…”
“Miss C”, Rita Aida Parola, April 25, 2018
“I met Miss C back in December, where she gave me the warmest smile… seeing her now I can tell she is not doing physically as well as I had hoped. She did manage to find a place to stay, but she is in a lot of pain after getting hit by a car last month. She was in urgent care for a few days but despite the stitches and knee brace, she still tries to look pretty for herself she says.”
“Elvis”, Rita Aida Parola, March 5, 2018
“Untitled”, Rita Aida Parola, May 6, 2018
“I remember when I was younger, all I wanted to be was a librarian. I love reading all the different kind of books, sitting in the quiet room, nothing but my thoughts and the author’s words.”