Viewfinder: How did you first learn about VISTA?
Rico: I was a senior at Florida State University and had majored in photography. Based on the politics of the era, I had to make a life choice – be drafted or find alternative service. I was very much opposed to the war in Vietnam, so I researched my options and VISTA was my first choice. I sent in an application and was accepted.
VF: What did Pre-Service Orientation (PSO) look like in 1969?
Rico: I grew up in rural southwest GA on a farm and went to a segregated high school. For the first two weeks or VISTA Training, they had us stay with African-American families in the ghettos of Atlanta, Georgia. This was a completely new experience for me - eating and spending time with a black family. That just wasn't part of the social fabric of rural southwest Georgia in the 1960's. It was an eye opener right off the bat. It couldn't have been more different if they had dropped me in the middle of Turkey.
The other 30 VISTAs in my training were from all over the U.S. At the beginning, we knew that our training group would be sent to same place. We just didn't know where.
We soon learned we would be serving in South Florida. I had a van – an old VW with a 36 horsepower engine - so I drove several of us down to Broward County.
VF: What was your assignment?
Rico: I had brought camera equipment with me even though I didn't know what I would be doing; at the time I was shooting with a Leica M3 and a Hasselblad 500 EL. When we first arrived, it would be awhile before we figured out our projects. We spent the first few weeks understanding our new environment, learning how things worked, and discovering what opportunities there were for VISTAs in the community.
After two or three weeks, I knew what I wanted to do. I went to our directors and talked them into letting me do photography. They had never had someone be a photographer as their VISTA assignment. My proposal was to document the lives and times of my fellow VISTAs and their projects as well as providing local agencies with my photographic skills.
Soon I was working with agencies taking staff photos and covering events. I also taught a photography class at the local Boys Club.
VF: What were your living conditions like?
Rico: Since VISTAs are supposed to live where they serve, four of us found a small concrete and stucco house in Collier City. At the time, this community was made up of poor African-American families that were either on welfare or worked in the hospitality industry.
We were given allowances for gas and housing along with a small stipend. I remember the last few days before we got paid, everyone was hungry. When we did get paid, we would splurge and go out for burgers.
VF: What was it like serving in the political climate of the late '60's?
Rico: It was not unusual to hear that 100-150 American soldiers were killed each day in Vietnam. The newspapers ran photos daily of the dead on the front page. This inspired a lot of political and youth activism. There were often demonstrations in Miami against the war and I documented those. And there was much controversy over the demonstrating.
Of course it was against the law for us as VISTAs to demonstrate. But we did it anyway. We had to.
We heard about the big march in Washington, DC and we decided to go. We piled in my VW van and used masking tape to put peace signs and messages on the die of the van. This was all in secret because we could have gotten kicked out of VISTA.
VF: What was your most memorable project as a VISTA?
Rico: We were living near migrant camps and I really wanted to photograph the workers. This was risky because the farmers would definitely not approve of revealing the conditions the migrant workers were living in.
I worked with OMICA, Organized Migrants In Community Action, one of the first migrant organizations in Florida. I went to the director's house to ask if he could make arrangements for me to visit one of the camps.
A couple of days later, I met with the father of a migrant family who was involved with OMICA. He drove me into the camp and I remember seeing shotguns, chain link barbed wire fences, and no trespassing signs along the way. I had to duck in my seat as we drove into the migrant camp.
It was an extensive morning shoot with one of the migrant families. They were living in extreme poverty – crowded conditions, extremely poor sanitary facilities – multiple family members sharing one room.
VF: How did you get the community to open up and let you photograph them?
Rico: Children are usually uninhibited so it was fairly easy taking their pictures. Many of them had never had their pictures taken by a professional photographer. I would visit grammar schools and daycare centers for photo shoots. I was allowed to dress however I liked so here was this skinny white guy with long hair and combat boots taking their pictures. They giggled and laughed and just opened up.
VF: How do you think the arts play a role in service?
Rico: You can inspire people through art. You never know what you're going to get – and it can be greatness beyond belief. Art is part of life and VISTA is supporting that life and culture within a community.
There is no doubt that VISTA supports art and artists as part of service. I live in Rhode Island now and there is a VISTA assigned to AS220, a non-profit community arts space in downtown Providence.
VF: What did you get out of serving?
Rico: I got to put myself in the shoes of people that had less than I did. I realized that people from all over U.S. could have similar themes of unity and purpose in what we wanted to do. We experienced physical and emotional environments that we never had before. Serving changed everyone's lives.
Without VISTA, I would have been a different person. I felt like a "born again" human being. VISTA was created to not only change the lives of people in the community, but also for the VISTAs.
Even though I hate mandated things, I almost feel that mandated service would be a good thing for America today.
VF: How did serving as a VISTA shape your life and career?
Rico: After VISTA, I went back to the farm I grew up on in Georgia. I was very depressed. Some of the VISTAs I served with lived in Boston and they encouraged me to move up there. After six months, I met my life-long partner and started working with the Cambridge Photo Workshop. We moved into a brownstone neighborhood and I started getting involved with historic preservation. I continued along those lines - mostly centered around photo and historic preservation. Cherishing the past protects the future.
VF: What inspired you to put together VISTA Redux?
Rico: I had been carrying the negatives around with me all my life. After discovering how easy it was to scan images and view them in daylight with computers and not in a dark room, I spent the past few years categorizing and scanning the images. About 80% of the images that I had shot I had never seen. It was a rediscovery.
Living in Newport, RI, I went to the curator of the Newport Art Museum to see if she would be interested in an exhibition. Two weeks later, she called to say they wanted to do it.
VF: What advice do you have for current VISTAs?
Rico: Listening to the community is more important than the bureaucracy. Be supportive of your fellow VISTAs. They can be going through a crisis within their own life while serving so help them when they need help.
The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. I think it's important to continue to have documentation of what VISTAs do. When VISTAs leave, it would be great to have photographs of what they did. And those who served can be remembered together.
VF: Any final thoughts?
Rico: I love the idea of the V pin. I wear it all the time and when people ask what it is, I get to say I served as a VISTA. Being a VISTA alum, that's pretty nice.