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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Bronx is Thawing

The clock skipped ahead an hour and the sun rose with a purpose last Sunday. After months of freezing temperatures and early sunsets there was finally a high forecasted above 32 degrees. It was 48. Warm enough to lift my spirits but not warm enough to melt the layers of ice and snow off Macombs Field.

In the shadow of Yankee Stadium players and coaches of South Bronx United gathered together to shovel over 7,000 square yards of wintery mix off their home turf in an attempt to assist the sun in clearing the field for next weekend’s soccer games. I admired their dedication and thought, what is worth shoveling 7,000 square yards of snow for?

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U16-U19 South Bronx United players shoveling Macombs Field the week before their first outdoor soccer game is scheduled to be played. Photo by Amanda Berg

South Bronx United is a non-profit soccer club that uses soccer as a tool for social change. Their programming is equally focused on education, character development, and soccer skills. I have spent most of my time as a Lewis Hine Fellow with SBU at their after school tutoring program. Helping someone with homework is no small task. I know from experience that a simple take-home worksheet can cause real anxiety. I remember what it felt like to be in middle school and it seems just as difficult and formative now as it did then.

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SBU student athlete working on his homework during tutoring. Photo by Amanda Berg

Last week I sat down to help a 6th grader named Brayon do an English language assignment. The task was to describe a journey through pictures. My eyes lit up when I read this. Brayon was on the Internet googling images of his hometown in Mexico. Everything he searched was in Spanish. I realized he understood part of the assignment but was new to English and was confused by the word “journey.” We went back and forth brainstorming what he wanted to describe. As we talked he searched for other images. I could tell his ideas were forming but I wasn’t sure what exactly he was going to draw.

First he drew an intricate picture of a church. He wrote underneath, “the first journey I went on is when I went to church to talk to God that nothing happen to us.” Next he drew a plane shooting upward into the sky. He then depicted trees with snakes hanging from them and a large wall in the distance that he called the frontera. The last image was of cars driving away. One by one he worked out his captions and wrote them under the pictures. Brayon depicted his journey immigrating to the United States.

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Brayon’s journey. Photo by Amanda Berg

 

The student athletes at SBU are incredibly diverse. Their life experience is unparalleled. They have powerful personal stories and unique perspectives on the world. The challenge they face is in believing their stories are important. With a slight shift in self-perception, a personal narrative can transform. Expectations rise. Doors open. I think this sort of shift is crucial to an individual’s success, happiness and shared cultural understanding, especially a young person who is faced with the task of imagining their future. This is central to why I love visual stories but also why I love sports.

Sports give you a compressed narrative, a clear beginning middle, and end. There is obvious tension, opposing sides and an undeniable outcome. Life is not always so well defined but most of the stories that get us through are. As a player you can be anyone you want for the duration of the game. You can risk failure and always try again. You can imagine the future, the win, the lose, the playoffs, your college teams uniforms, your loved one watching you… You are given a literal field of possibilities to explore. I think sports and photography are ideal metaphors for what it means to be alive. Both give us the tools to explain our human experience.

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The SBU Newspaper Club skyping with Mike McCray, digital content coordinator at the Dallas Morning News. Photo by Amanda Berg

 

As part of my role at South Bronx United I am leading a Newspaper Club. We meet every Wednesday during tutoring. Our goal is to explore how stories create change and ask our selves what stories matter most. The club is practicing journalistic photography and writing techniques that we will use to creatively document the community. By the end of May we will take what we have reported, design pages, send out to print, and distribute our newspaper. By then the Bronx will be in bloom and the fields will be open for play.

The Crossing

By Amanda Berg

One of the most challenging parts of moving to a new place has been introducing myself. People ask, “Who are you? What do you do? Why are you here?” It doesn’t feel like enough to say, “I am a photographer from New Jersey.” Am I a Lewis Hine Fellow from Duke? Or a recent Graduate from North Carolina? Am I just a photographer? Why am I here, really?

In an attempt to be honest, I stumble.

My daily commute is a long one. For the first time in my life that doesn’t mean I am the driver. Sitting on the NYC Subway each day has given me a time and place to read.

The first book I brought along for the ride was And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. I identify strongly with his writing. I arrived in the city and immediately felt something was missing. The horizon. The limit where vision ends and the sky meets the ground. I spent the last six years practicing the art of observation. Looking as far as I could to see as much as possible. Here distance is not measured by the same plain line. The absence of a horizon has left me feeling a little lost.

nyc_instagrams_006Waiting for the elevated subway, By Amanda Berg

John Berger wrote about home as the center of the world in an ontological sense. “Without a home at the center of the real,” he explained, “one was not only shelterless, but also lost…without a home everything was fragmentation.”

Berger said home was the center of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one. He believed that the crossing of these two lines, the reassurance that their intersection promised, was part of us all since embryo. My physical body is my vertical line. It comes with me everywhere I go. Where will I find a horizontal line to cross in this city of skyscrapers?

nyc_instagrams_004Eric Garner protest in Manhattan, By Amanda Berg

Lewis Hine moved to New York in 1904 from his hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He was invited by friends to teach geography and natural history at a new progressive school on the Upper West Side called the Ethical Culture School. He became the school photographer and began to explore the city with his camera. He used the images he collected to teach his students about current social issues. As Hine documented urban life he established the base of his practice on a foundation of photography and social work. He called his approach “sympathetic photography” and his pictures “levers for social uplift.”

Hine began by going to Ellis Island, then paid witness to child laborers across the country, moving on to document refugees in Europe during WWI, and ultimately, for his final project, Hine climbed to the top of the Empire State Building as it was being built and documented its construction. From there he could see everything. Yet, he chose to focus his lens not on the landscape but on the men at work.

Hine found his horizon in the working class. He saw himself reflected in the shared experiences of the people he photographed. For him “the crossing” Berger mentioned was that of individuals and society.

nyc_instagrams_003The commute home, By Amanda Berg

In his classic address to the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1909, Hine said “the picture is the symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality.” In this sense, the picture is the shelter at the center of the real. The photograph is home.

I imagine; if I could introduce myself with one picture, what would it look like?

 

 

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.

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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.”

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exalt, Cycle 62. Ayenie.

 

 

 

 

 

A big congratulations to 2014-2015 Hine Fellow Sarah Stacke for her two-part feature on the popular photography blog BagNews.

 

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