An intimate portrait of black fatherhood in East New York
As thousands of people in cities across the U.S. took to the streets in recent years to protest the police killings of black men — most recently for Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher — photographer Phyllis Dooney noticed something missing.
In all the media coverage of these killings, “there’s so little mention that these guys are fathers,” she said.
Dooney said that omission is the result of a racially-charged stereotype of black fathers as neglectful. But that stereotype does not account for the complex social effects of mass incarceration, the War on Drugs and other events that have disproportionately affected black families. She decided to document their stories in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood that lies between the southernmost reaches of Queens and the shallow marshes of Jamaica Bay, where approximately one-third of residents live below the poverty line. “What I found was a lot of strength, resolve, character and self reflection,” she said.
Dooney, who currently is earning a Masters of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University, first saw the neighborhood in 2012 while photographing a marching band for The New York Times. She talked to us about the process of taking the portraits and what they add to our national conversation on race.
What’s your relationship to East New York?
The first time I was introduced to East New York was probably 2011. … It was this very interesting version of New York. Right away, I was just in love with the sort of rhythms of the place and the people. It felt really warm and people were creative and friendly and then aesthetically, there’s just so many housing projects packed into one area that it’s really visually sort of astounding. You have these row houses interrupted by a giant public housing complex. So visual and just the energy of it, I felt like that was a different version of New York.
Why was fatherhood your main focus?
I spent a lot of time thinking about the way race is projected in the media, the way it’s talked about, the way it’s visually represented. Especially as there’s more and more attention being brought to it over police shootings and things like that in the last couple of years. I see this gaping hole in terms of representing people of color, especially the black man, as a family member, as a father, as somebody who loves. And I just wanted to see what it felt like to have that discussion.
What’s missing from that conversation?
I was watching the news with the Charlotte protests that were going on recently. A lot of the newscasters were saying, “Mothers are concerned.” There’s this emphasis on sons and mothers but there’s never, “Parents are concerned,” “Fathers are concerned.” These men are fathers, these men are sons. Somehow this figure is being cut out of the family and I think that’s probably the result of many years’ worth of discussing the black man as criminal, the “other.”
Now it’s coming more full-circle. You have Black Lives Matter activists that are pointing this out finally, and what implicit bias means, and how pervasive it is, and how we’re responsible as image-makers to not feed into that identification of, “Boy with hoodie is probably carrying drugs.”
In the photos, camera obscuras project images of the streets into the families’ homes. How did you choose this method?
I had been wrestling with how to do this project for awhile. There were other ideas and ways of attacking it that had been discarded, and when I landed on this it seemed like the right fit, and one of the obvious reasons was that the streets coming into somebody’s domestic space is such a good visual metaphor. What does the outside world do to your private life? How does it shape it? What are the counter-influences that take place? So it was actually visually happening, and that actually enriched the audio conversations, I feel. We were able to see that effect. What are these streets, that are now on your walls, how do you think they’ve shaped your private life as a partner and as a father?
How did you choose your subjects?
I found the subjects through various conduits. Some were people that I knew through working there and doing other stories in East New York. I asked them if they would also be a part of this because they happened to be a father. Other ones were referrals.
They were different from other portraits because it’s so invasive to install a camera in someone’s living room. You’re carrying around sheets of black plastic and taping on the walls and the whole thing is very invasive, and that’s not my normal style of working. But on the flip side, there was an experience to be had. Because when it was successful, there was a shared experience.
Is there anything else you want people to know about the project?
I think it’s important for people to understand that problems that happened in the past are inter-generational. We hand down our problems to our [descendants] if they’re not resolved in that generation. That idea that mass incarceration or the crack epidemic happened in the 1980s, what that means is, a lot of these men … a good proportion of them grew up without a parent that was victim of that. And that affects how they parent, and it lives in their psyche, and it gets handed down. It shapes how they love. And also with incarceration, if their father has been locked up for most of their childhood, a direct transmission of how to parent, what it means, has not been handed down. These problems are very much something that is manifesting now and will continue to manifest and does shape family life.
It makes me think about social issues and social justice because really what we’re all trying to do on this planet is love, live, laugh and the most important thing for me to look at is, how is our system or our policies affecting your ability to do those things? Which is why I tend to go in and check out how it’s taking shape in families.
You can see more photos from the project below.