How Would the Media Portray You If…

By Sarah Stacke

In late July I held a workshop for exalt alumni designed to facilitate conversations about how, since the invention of photography, communities of color have used photography as a tool of empowerment. exalt, the organization I’m collaborating with as a Lewis Hine Fellow, is an after-school program serving youth who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Using our visual literacy skills, we analyzed imagery from 1850 to 2015 that represents figures, movements, and photographers including Sojourner Truth, Emmett Till, James Van Der Zee, Hank Willis Thomas, Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, Ferguson, and the If They Gunned Me Down campaign.


If They Gunned Me Down is a social media campaign that was initiated in 2014 as a response to the media’s visual portrayal of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, participants of the campaign post a picture of themselves at their best juxtaposed with a picture that might reap less sympathy, ultimately asking, “If they gunned me down,” which picture would the media choose to represent me? In Brown’s case, rather than pulling an image from Facebook of Brown at his high school graduation or with his family, many outlets pulled a picture of Brown flashing a peace sign, which was then translated into a gang sign by some media.


Pushing back against stereotypes and demanding that society becomes more visually literate, students in the workshop created their own campaigns and hashtags using the If They Gunned Me Down campaign as an example. Each student planned clothing, props, facial expressions and body language for their own “dueling” portraits and wrote the accompanying text.

Photography by Sarah Stacke Text by Dirk Shultz
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Dirk


Photography by Sarah Stacke Text by Amanda Mouzon
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Amanda


As Soraya Nadia McDonald says of the If They Gunned Me Down campaign,

it’s not just demanding that people…see past clothing. It’s questioning if it’s possible for people, especially young black men, to live their lives online without worry that an innocent photo of them gettin’ gully at a party will somehow become re-appropriated as evidence of black thuggery…The hashtag asks if black teens have the same right as others to make mistakes –– to do dumb things and post about it on Facebook or clown around with their friends –– without becoming branded in perpetuity.

Photography by Sarah Stacke Text by Loela Pacheco
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Loela

At exalt, the dueling portrait exercise is particularly poignant. Code-switching, or changing how we express ourselves when moving between various cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our identities, is a large part of the curriculum. Learning how and when to code-switch –– and owning a thoughtful decision not to code-switch in some circumstances –– is something we all share, but the reality is that the ability to code-switch can be a matter of life or death, especially for people of color.

Photo by Sarah Stacke Text by Ikim
Photography by Sarah Stacke / Text by Ikim

Sharing Crossroads

By Sarah Stacke

I’m dedicated to developing intimate stories about intersections of culture, history, and geography that create marginalized communities. This has led to Love From Manenberg, a long-form documentary piece shot in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa; a project about the Cherokee Reservation in Western North Carolina; and most recently, a series documenting court-involved youth in New York City.

There are few, if any, places more geographically marginalizing than a prison cell. Although not all of the young men and women I’m currently documenting have spent time in prison, they are all students of exalt, an organization that elevates expectations of personal success for youth involved in the criminal justice system. exalt is a city-wide organization, yet consistent with patterns of arrest rates, program participants come from NYC’s poorest zip codes, and many face challenges such as multi-generational poverty, foster care involvement, low education skills, incarcerated parent(s), racial marginalization, and living in households in which they are often caregivers for siblings and sick relatives.

As a Lewis Hine Fellow collaborating with exalt, I recently had the opportunity to develop the curriculum for an exalt alumni workshop. The five-day course was designed to teach the students the fundamentals of documentary thought and to guide them in creating their own documentary piece. The work they produced was based on a “crossroads” they had experienced; each student focused on a story of overcoming adversity and finding the strength to make their life better.


Excerpt from Reality Check: 7th Period Phone Call by Jamal

On the last day of the workshop the six students presented their projects to the exalt staff and to other current students. It takes courage to share personal stories with others, particularly as a teenager, and especially when the story makes one vulnerable. Brandon and Donnell shared how exalt helped put distance between themselves and street gangs, Jamal talked about the decision to be a devoted father when at 15 years-old he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, Nicole examined her transition from only child to older sister at 18 years-old, and Melanie shared her story of transforming from a man to a woman. At the end of the presentations everyone in the room knew each other a little better.

Sharing stories helps us connect and relate to one another, which are the first steps toward empathy. If there’s one thing I hope my students and the viewers of their work carry with them, it’s the meaning of the word “empathy,” and the extraordinary feeling of connecting with and relating to somebody that you never thought you would.

What’s in a Name?

By Sarah Stacke 

On November 24 a grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson, a White man, of any crimes associated with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man. Brown was unarmed when Wilson shot him six times on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

On December 3 a grand jury failed to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo, also White, of any crimes associated with the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man and father of six from Staten Island. Pantaleo placed Garner in a chokehold, a tactic banned by the New York City Police Department. Garner’s last words were caught on video: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

For many, the names Mike Brown and Eric Garner have become symbolic of systematic racism and institutional injustice.

The grand jury decisions fueled fury and protests in cities across the U.S. by people enraged at a system that holds a deep and irrational fear of Black men and a system that casts them as criminals, subsequently feeding the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration.

I began working at exalt, an organization that serves youth –– primarily Black, Latino, and under-resourced –– who are involved in the criminal justice system, in September. The foundation of exalt’s curriculum is an after-school program that advocates Communication, Critical Thinking, Creative Problem Solving, and Resource Management.

In an effort to get to know the participants and as a means to document the transformations they experience at exalt, I’ve been setting up a portrait studio one day per week. The students stand in front of a white seamless backdrop and I ask them to reflect on what they learned that week about mass incarceration or on how the training and knowledge they’re gaining at exalt makes them feel. The students’ confidence in exalt and in themselves grows week by week; this is one thing I hope to capture with the portraits.



When I spoke to exalt about where I might feature the portraits, an earnest discussion about the use of the students’ names ensued. exalt suggested I use first names only or false names. My first reaction was that I couldn’t do that because it was against my principles; a name means so much. As a practitioner and teacher I’ve always been clear that I think it’s important to include the names of the people documented. Names contribute to individuality and the personalization of a story. Without names, the people documented tend to symbolize or collectively represent an issue or topic, thereby obscuring the individual complexities of those documented.

After weighing both sides of the debate I concluded that exalt is infinitely more familiar with the day-to-day realities of youth who are involved in the criminal justice system and impacted by mass incarceration. In today’s digital world, having your name associated with your image on the Web is a commitment that lasts forever. At 15 or 19 years old, many youth don’t understand the consequences of attaching their names to their involvement with the criminal justice system.

Reading the statistics, facts, and histories about inequality and mass incarceration in The New Jim Crow, the newspaper, or magazines and blogs is valuable. Sitting in the classroom with youth who are directly impacted by systematic oppression, the criminal justice system, and mass incarceration is invaluable. I don’t know of a single student at exalt that lives further than 30 miles away from me, and the majority live between 5-10 miles from my apartment; they are my neighbors in every sense of the word. Yet in many ways, particularly those related to criminal justice and education, we live in different worlds. As Sonja Okun, the Founder and Executive Director of exalt says, “many people are still unaware of how deep, wide, and pernicious the tentacles of mass incarceration spread. How we don’t just have an un-level playing field in this country, but rather, separate playing fields altogether.”


exalt, Cycle 62. Ayenie.