Category Archives: Behind the Image

This set of post expands on the complex connections behind creation of individual pictures.

“An Oppositional Black Aesthetic”

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I began shooting this project in color on a DSLR. I chose to convert the images to black and white using a digital image editing program.

I used to believe that the benefits of black and white photography was that it inspires a certain feeling of the classic, a timeless act in motion, the spirit suspended. The notes of black and white photography allows for a less distracted aesthetic experience. The shapes, forms, tones, and the ennui of an image step forward forming a timeless space in which the viewer can choose to engage deeper.  Working in grayscale allows for an easier transition into the surreal. This quality made me fall in love with photography, but what sparks my interest in image making also allows for a certain level of disconnection for the image.

Over time, I changed my mind.  I think the suppression of details that the black and white aesthetic provides, one that I’ve subscribed to since the beginning part of this visual essay, may be antithesis to the my goals for the project. I could not shake this question, am I recreating the stereotypes I claim to be fighting against by using the traditional language of documentary reportage? I need my viewers to connect to the people in the photographs, not pull away and label them as “other.”

Color makes the details of life sing. But for me, there is also something political in returning these digital images to color from black in white. I wanted to move at least one-step away from the stereotypical images of minorities in America, to continue the construction of what bell hooks’ calls the “oppositional black aesthetic.”

“Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construction of an oppositional black aesthetic. In the world before racial integration, there was a constant struggle on the part of black folks to create a counter-hegemonic world of images that would stand as visual resistance, challenging racist images.”   

                –bell hooks, “In Our glory; Photography in Black Life”

One of my stated goals for this project is to confront and challenge the visual stereotypes that shackle African American communities. I began to wonder if color photography would serve the goals of the project in a more direct way.

Reclaiming this historic form of visual resistance motivates me. Concurrently, I want my viewers to see themselves in the lives of the people and communities featured in the pictures. I felt black and white subdues the subtleties of brown skin. Color intensifies it. It breaks the veil of the surreal, reopening a door into to present reality.  It is possible that I projected this worry into my work. Maybe I felt black and white was a less threatening way of confrontation viewers with an uncomfortable message. The more direct approach using the complexity of color is a better way to position the images firmly within the American Dream.

The Sacred Space of Childhood

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The American notion of childhood is one of a space that exists separately from the polluted and tangled business of adult life. In reality, the experience of childhood is as varied as any other on the scale of human existence. But, since World War II this idea that children deserve a chance at an unpolluted childhood has been central to America’s ideology. Our tolerance for the violation of this sacred space is low. The interruption of this space has become an important theme for me in this work.

In searching for visual strategies for this larger incarceration and community project, I wanted to tap into that potential outrage felt by everyday people who deeply believe in an unpolluted childhood space.

I was documenting a day care program run by Friends and Families of Incarcerated People, a D.C. based nonprofit,  that serves children affected by incarceration. The daycare was located in the basement of an apartment building in Southeast D.C.  After a lesson, the kids gathered outside for a trip to swimming pool. Once the chaperons gathered all the children, they began to walk towards the bus stop a few blocks away.  One of the little girls spotted bluish-green glass shards spread on the asphalt and sidewalk adjacent to one of the teacher’s car. The glass had spread through the front passenger seat and on to the floor board.  The daycare instructor’s vehicle had been broken into the previous evening. She asked what happened to the window.

This image stands out to me because it combined the violence of a smashed car window with the sacred space of childhood. I watched her as she opened her thin arms, then I made a picture. In the moment of witnessing her reaction I was touched by the simple question she asked, Why? The explanation was short and technical. Someone broke into the car to steal a music player. The kids wrestled with the reality of what that meant. Their level of understanding was one thing I could not photograph, but the intersection of crime and the innocence of youth radiate throughout this moment.

This is even more poignant because this group of children, whether it’s a simple walk to catch a bus to the pool or any other act of daily life, must navigate a community that has been stripped of it’s fathers and mothers.

An estimated 60,000 Washington D.C. residents have criminal records. Nearly 8,000 returning citizens are released back into the city each year after serving sentences in prison or jail. The aftermath of the War on Drugs has had serious impact on children in the economically depressed communities of “nation’s capital.” At some point in many of their lives, they will lose one or both of their parents due to incarceration.

Behind the Image: A Basketball and a Tall Fence

Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, LA.
Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, LA.

Faceless and nameless, a group of teenage boys scattered around a basketball court. The rubber soles of their tennis shoes screeched as they scrape the concrete. The boys taunted each other, challenging their defender to stop their advancement to the basket. If someone heard their voices from outside, the sounds might remind them of all the hope that youth offered.  As I watched the drama unfold in front of me, I thought at this very moment this scene must be replicating itself in neighborhoods across America. Except on this court the unscalable metallic walls that surrounded the play area stretched at least 20 feet into the sky, topped by another chain-linked fence angle in a 45 degree angle towards the court. These boys could not leave this place. They are prisoners.

I had traveled to New Orleans to attend a non-profit photography workshop. While doing research on the area, I found Friends and Family of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a non-profit that provides support to families of incarcerated children. They agreed to let me make pictures of their organization’s efforts to help families and children caught in the system.

The strangely named Youth Study Center is the juvenile detention Center for Orleans parish. The YSC is a short-term facility meant for short stays. The youths that are held there are often awaiting court dates before being transferred to other facilities. The detention center flooded during hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2013, at the time I made this picture, the area surrounding the facility looked like a war zone. The roads were filled with potholes that could fit full-sized grocery carts. A mix of badly damaged structures and homes that were slowly being rebuilt stood in the nearby residential neighborhood that paralleled the YSC.

Access to these closed places is often difficult. Especially when they involved underage children in the legal system. I was allowed to photograph only if I asked permission of each child first and I could not show their faces. The outdoor space where the basketball court was located was important to FFLIP because they had assisted in a lawsuit that forced YSC to build the space for the children to play.

I wrapped around the court photographing the boys, trying to find angles that did not show their faces. The challenge I faced was showing that this was not a normal basketball court. I needed to elevate this simple activity to express meaning that would touch the soul of anyone that viewed the image. The sky that day was deep blue and the individual clouds floated heavily overhead. I stood at the far end of the basketball court against the direction the boys would be facing the majority of the time. I raised the angle of lens high so I could capture the scene and waited for the a moment to happen with boys at the bottom of the picture.  For a fraction of a second, the boys aligned into a triangle pattern on a half court basketball hoop overhead. The picture stood out to me because of it quite simplicity. The boys positioned at the bottom of the frame reminded me of a pawn on a chessboard.

Regardless of the offense, these children have been caught in a set of complex systems much larger than themselves. It becomes easier for us as a society to dismiss children, once we consider the individual actions that lead to their incarceration. But in this case only viewing, the low-hanging fruit of individual responsibility is deceptive.

In this image, I see the slow suffocation of youth. Their sadness, like a slow dripping faucet, leaks back into the lives of the juvenile’s families and their communities. The collective pool formed by their lost American Dreams gathered in silence.