Phyllis B. Dooney spent some time in East New York - a poverty stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn. After witnessing the family dynamic being different from the norm, Phyllis began a project on fatherhood. Phyllis' unique approach to this project raised the question, "How do the streets affect domestic life/spaces?”
Interview by Julian Lucas | Kathleen Graulty
How did you come about the "Raising East New York" project?
I covered a local marching band in East New York back in 2012. I developed affection for the neighborhood and even made friends there. In general, I tend to narrow in on family life in my work and knew I wanted to have a conversation with fathers for a new story in East New York. I like to look at family life as a sample for how broader social issues are manifesting in personal life. Of course, in this case, broader social issues include mass incarceration, the 1980’s crack epidemic, poverty, trauma, crime and other forms of systematic racism. By installing the camera obscura, the question literally became “How do the streets affect domestic life/spaces?” The fathers reflected on this in audio interviews. It is important to note, however, that while we all agreed that our environment shapes us, it does not define us––does not define them.
Considering the current and ongoing shootings of unarmed African American men - what was the energy like while you were in their homes?
Men of color, especially Black men in East New York, are used to militarized neighborhoods. The feeling that the police are an occupying and potentially dangerous force is an old one. It’s nothing new. “Stop + Frisk” was only recently ruled as unconstitutional in New York City. That said, the energy was what it normally would be. The police shootings, or in the case of Eric Garner, choking, came up in conversation but it was not framed as a new threat that is somehow more urgent. This is a chronic issue.
How did the men respond when the outside life was projected within their intimate environments? How did their children respond?
We were all delighted! When the camera obscura worked (it is a temperamental technique), it was a sight to behold. Imagine some stranger coming into your home, putting plastic up and tinkering for an hour and then all of a sudden––your walls are populated by a moving image of the streets and other buildings in your neighborhood! The very first one I did with Joshua was the most successful. I believe he kept it up for a couple of days after I left. We could see the subway traveling along the walls. Funny enough, the children were less enthralled than the adults. I think as adults, it’s more rare that we get to see “magic” anymore and this phenomenon really feels inexplicable. Ultimately, it was always a shared experience, which is why I tend to look at these photographs as records of an event that took place.
What was the most memorable conversation you had with any of the men or children?
The most memorable conversation perhaps was with Prince. Prince has lost many friends as a young man. We discussed how life expectancy, when it’s a short expectancy, can effect your romantic relationships. That in conjunction with shorter attention spans everywhere, perhaps has as a result of the internet and Facebook for example. How does your behavior change when your life’s trajectory is so tenuous? How might you resist commitment when you see your friends getting locked up and/or killed suddenly and you know that it could be you next?
Did you experience any communication barriers?
Not really. Like I said, I have been spending time there for a few years now so am less self-aware of my “otherness.” All of the subjects were welcoming, curious and open to me. At the end of the day, we were just people talking.
How do you feel your images challenge the stereotype of African American men being absent fathers?
I try to create stories that erode the existing narratives. My hope with this one is that by giving these men a voice in a conversation about family and fatherhood, a path starts to emerge for more.
When photographing events dealing with social justice, some photographers take a neutral approach. Where do you fall in that category and why?
I am in the camp that nothing is neutral and that my presence will always alter the “reality” of a situation. So I create stories that embrace that. What I try to avoid at all costs is having preconceived ideas or expectations about what I will find. I try not to bring an agenda into the process and to honor what really unfolds. The danger also lies in the editing process where I do my best not to edit to the extent that I am fabricating a simpler one-note message. Instead I try to let the inconsistencies and complexities remain part of the narrative.
We're looking forward to your first book "Gravity is Stronger Here" published by Kehrer Verlag. Tell us a little about this project.
“Gravity Is Stronger Here” is a book about a family in Greenville, MS. I traveled down there regularly over a period of five years. It began when I met Halea Brown, one of the daughters, at a local karaoke bar and the project expanded from there. I brought Jardine Libaire on board to write docu-poems that are interspersed with the photographs in the upcoming book, published by Kehrer Verlag, that will be released in the US in April 2017. There will also be experimental documentary video pieces, including music videos (!), online (gravityisstrongerhere.com). The project just won an Honorable Mention for the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from The Center of Documentary Studies/Duke University. We are thrilled that it is getting such a warm reception already!
Your most cherished photobook…
Oh my goodness! This is an impossible question. I’ll throw out a few that I hold dear in very different ways:
Black in White America - Leonard Freed
Ray's a Laugh - Richard Billingham
Interrogations - Donald Weber
Minutes to Midnight - Trent Parke
All Images Photos©Phyllis B. Dooney