Brownsville

By Nicholas Pilarski

I bike twenty-four blocks from my apartment in Flatbush to the housing developments of Brownsville. While riding, I watch the sun slowly rise, back-lighting the monolithic buildings that lay to the east. As light passes through the nation’s largest network of affordable housing developments, shadows divide the streets into a complex crosshatch of light and dark. This is not unlike the geography of the landscape itself, where invisible lines have divided the community from prolonged affiliated conflict, forcing many youth in the neighborhood to choose what side of the street they walk. The origin of this rivalry is a mystery to those who call Brownsville home, yet everyone is forced to abide by specific rules born from a painful history. This history predates the lives of young people walking in the streets of this community. Each housing unit is either red or blue, with the police often adding a third color into the complex negotiation of power.

The complicated, geo-political environment is not justly articulated in the stereotypes often applied to Brownsville. There is community here. There is a certain potent quality to its residents, aptly described in conversation by a young resident. Knocking on the wall with the back of her hand, she reflected: “These [buildings] are tall and made of stone. We are tall and strong like them. But people don’t see this from the outside. You come from Brownsville, people have assumptions about you. They think you are something you’re not because you come from this place. But we have a lot. It might not be like other places. But it’s our place. And a lot of us are proud of it.” Made in Brownsville shirts, namesake tattoos, and verbal affirmation exemplify this pride. Daily exchanges of proud residents greeting each other in the streets as their day begins make this sense of provenance, and community, ever more evident.

Arranged literally and figuratively as an anchor within the community is The Brownsville Community Justice Center (Center), part of the Center for Court Innovation. The pride and strength of the residents seen in the streets is reflected in the ethos created by the Center. There, a philosophy of youth-led innovations works to reconfigure relationships between community and the justice system.

Working in conjunction with the Center, I engage with five young men in a project titled “Opportunity Youth.” We explore documentary practice, from animation to the audio doc., and work to develop technical skills as a way to identify each individual’s unique, artistic voice. Currently the young men are defining their body of work, which is taking the form of photo-essays and a small group-created script that has parallels to the afro-futurist movement of the mid-1970s.

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Kadale and Craig working on personal Audio Doc.
Quaming, Craig, and Kadale in animation masterclass.
Quaming, Craig, and Kadale in animation masterclass.

Another young man involved with the Center, Ray, is a natural community leader, taking a role in anti-violence initiatives in Brownsville. Together, Ray and I will develop a documentary video game. The medium will allow us to create proactive dialogue across divided houses and navigate Brownsville geographically, both currently not possible given lines of conflict drawn throughout the community. In a virtual environment, youth will have the freedom to explore Brownsville without these political or physical borders. Established gamers will be able to explore individual narratives of the community that they would not have access to otherwise. The primary hope of the game is for users to transcend literal and figurative obstruction of an ongoing rivalry, one in which both sides hold similar dreams and struggles. As multiple real-time users navigate a virtual Brownsville, they must work together to complete various missions, which are rooted in the shared viewing of interviews and narratives. By the end of the “docu-game,” when all missions are complete, it will be revealed that the real-time users, or “avatars,” in the game are comprised of individuals living in buildings across the whole of Brownsville. Built into the gameplay is a mechanism that theorists and practitioners Augusto Boal and Sanjoy Ganguly would call instruments to “rehearse a better reality through play.” Their interactive theatre work has led to peaceful solutions to violence in India and Brazil, where the idea of finding empathy through play is foundational to spread peace through communities in conflict. These models will be used heavily throughout development.

In order to attempt to translate Boal and Gaguly’s theatrical concepts to our virtual environment, we are excited to announce a partnership with Brooklyn-based experimental artist, Alexander Porter. Alex has generously donated an unreleased Alpha version of his 3D motion scanning software. Using this, we will record and interview participating Brownsville residents and place them in our constructed virtual world. This project still remains in its planning stages with many details and technological harnessing yet to be finalized. Images of this technology in motion are included below.

3d Scan of Room. Source: Alexander Porter
3d Scan of Room. Source: Alexander Porter
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People cut into blank space. Source: Alexander Porter
3d man recorded in NYC Subway. Source: Alexander Porter
3d man recorded in NYC Subway. Source: Alexander Porter

With both the five young men involved with “Opportunity Youth” and Ray, I am excited to move forward with these talented Brownsville youth. We look forward to sharing updates moving forward.

Brenna Cukier 2015-2016

Brenna was born in Tempe, Arizona but moved toBrenna_BioPic Auckland, New Zealand at age ten. She received her B.A. in journalism as a Robertson Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she reported for the student newscast for two years until she became the executive producer. During her sophomore year, she participated in a component of the Robertson Program known as the “semester switch,” when scholars spend a year in residence at their sister campus. In an effort to find a way to combine her newsroom skills with her passion for creative storytelling, she enrolled in three CDS courses. From that semester onward, she simultaneously pursued these programs at both universities.

By combining videography with her love for travel and her interest in NGOs, Brenna spent her summers documenting the work of various education-focused non-profits around the world, from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Azores Islands to Bali, Indonesia. This summer, Brenna will utilize support from the John Hope Franklin Award with the AJC Goldman Fellowship to make a connection between the work she will be doing at her internship with the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations in Warsaw, Poland with the story of her own family’s history. By re-tracing the steps of her Holocaust-survivor grandparents, she hopes to fill some of the gaps in her identity that she has been curious about since childhood.

Regarding the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellowship, Brenna says, “My past documentary experiences have validated that I thrive in new and challenging environments, and the Hine Fellowship is a new challenge in which I hope to produce meaningful and provocative work. If I have learned anything as a videographer, it’s that we don’t stop looking through a lens when we put the camera down, and I am excited to see how the Fellowship will contribute to my perception of the world and how my perception of the world will contribute to the lives of others.”

Brenna will be working with the Center for Family Life.

To see some of Brenna’s work, please visit her YouTube channel.

Laura Doggett 2015-2016

LCDLaura is a community artist and educator who believes in the transformative power of creative expression and storytelling in the lives of young people. She has spent much of the past twenty years creating opportunities for girls to be heard in their own voices. Through video, audio, writing, theater and visual arts, Laura has worked with girls from underserved and marginalized communities in the Appalachian mountains of KY and WV, the immigrant communities and inner-cities of NYC, Queens, the Bronx and DC, and Jordan’s Syrian refugee camps and urban areas, to express their experiences through various artistic approaches to storytelling. She has seen the tools of documentary arts give girls a sense of agency and power over their own stories and dreams, and is constantly thrilled to see the amazement in girls, whenever they share their artistic work with the public, as they realize the value their voices and visions carry in opening up channels of understanding, dialogue and change. She graduated from Duke University with an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts in 2013.

On working as a Hine Fellow, Laura says: “I feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity to work with an organization full of people who are deeply invested in finding innovative approaches to supporting young people in their communities. I’m excited to see where the young people I will work with take us as they engage with the documentary arts process – using these tools to find a voice that’s distinctive and undeniably their own, and drawing upon their surroundings, memory and imaginations to shape their stories. I hope that together, this young collective of media makers can create a complex and vibrant portrait that reflects what they most want to share about how they see and move through their worlds in this particular landscape of home and time in their lives.”

Laura will be working with Next Generation Center.

To see some of the work from Laura’s workshops in Jordan, please visit:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11201377/Syrias-refugees-Girls-use-photography-to-document-life-in-the-Zaatari-camp.html

http://m.rescue.org/blog/media-workshop-syrian-girls-voice-their-stories-through-film

 

Nicholas Pilarski 2015-2016

Nicholas aims to create art that facilitates a space forNP development and growth through documentary practice. His work focuses on issues that surround social and economic marginalization He uses collaborative art-making approaches that engage with individuals and communities to create dialogue through self-expression.

With experience working in music, theater, and film, Nicholas uses a multidisciplinary approach to inform his work. He has performed in a range of theatrical productions that include acting as a Blue Man with the Blue Man Group in both Chicago and New York City, and has played percussion with various Grammy nominated artists. As an educator he has facilitated master classes on theater methodologies, and most recently, documentary theory. After finishing a degree from the University of Michigan in theater and film, he traveled to West Bengal, India, to work with and learn from the world’s largest Theatre of the Oppressed movement, Jana Sanskriti. There, he concentrated on how theatrical and social techniques developed by the group could influence new-media and documentary.

This experience was fundamental in Nicholas’s decision to obtain an MFA from Duke University in Experimental and Documentary Arts. While at Duke, he worked to connect performance methodologies, Theatre of the Oppressed practices, and computational media to create his thesis project, I, Destini. This animated film explored the poignant and imaginative perspective of a youth grappling with the effects of having an incarcerated loved one. The documentary came to life through a series of creative workshops with Destini (the film’s main character/co-creator) and her family. This process ultimately focused on how documentary practices could foster reciprocal and creative dialog while advocating for social reform. Nicholas hopes to continue to build upon the collaborative documentary process he began developing while working with Destini and her family.

Recent film screenings include Meet the Press at The Indie Grits Film Festival, Columbia, South Carolina; Of Remnants at The Cinedans Film Festival at the National Film Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Semi-Winged at Abstract Currents at the MoMA and MoMA-PS1, New York, New York.

About the Lewis Hine Fellowship Nicholas writes, “I am excited and honored to be a Lewis Hine Fellow. While supported by the fellowship I hope to help create a space where ideas can be shared freely and personal history can be documented through the process of collaborative self-expression. I can think of no greater privilege than to create work through the optic of activism and education that Lewis Hine helped pave almost a century ago.”

Nicholas will be working with the Brownsville Community Justice Center.

To see some of Nicholas’s work, please visit: http://www.nicholaspilarski.com

Newspaper Squad

By Amanda Berg

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South Bronx United Newspaper Club selfie during the last day of after school tutoring. From left to right, Samuka, Amanda, Moriken, and Ayouba.

My dad tells a story about the scars on his knees. He learned to play baseball on the asphalt lot behind his school. For years he played on that blacktop, with chalk marks for bases and a chain link fence as the boundary. A slide into home meant a bloody knee.

When he moved from the Bronx to suburban Long Island his new school had a baseball field made of grass and dirt. He wondered why it was not paved over.

One day a friend, the first in his neighborhood to have a color television, invited him over to watch a Yankees game. The game flickered on the screen and the outfield glowed green. The color tubes were less surprising than the grass.

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Picture Poem by Samuka Kenneh for the SBU Press.

I forgot about my family’s connection to the Bronx during my first few months working with South Bronx United. Both of my father’s parents grew up here and my dad was born here. One of my very first memories taking documentary photos was freshman year of college when I asked my dad to go back to his childhood home on Tenbroeck Avenue with me.

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The front page of SBU Press, a community newspaper published by students of the South Bronx United after school tutoring program.

Facilitating the newspaper club at South Bronx United was a great learning experience in terms of teaching youth and considering my documentary approach. It was a fun adventure, exploring and bonding through creative expression, getting to know a place where I have roots but am not familiar.

The main members of the club are Samuka, Ayouba, and Moriken. They prefer to call it the “newspaper squad.” Everyone contributed to the writing, photography and design of the paper. I love how collaborative the process has been. Sometimes one person would do the interview and another write the story, while a third person would take pictures and make key edits. We covered everything from the Bronx African Cup of Nations Soccer Tournament to the local community farm. One of my favorite stories written was about being young and Muslim during Ramadan in the Bronx.

The newspaper gave us all an excuse to be together, ask questions, and take a closer look. The club was a reminder of the kind of community engagement and self-reflection that drew me to photography in the first place.Draft007_commVoices copy-600

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.