“We don’t have deadbeat dads out here. We have a lot of men who are just really working hard to figure a way out of their predicament.” – Brother Andre Mitchell, Executive Director, ManUp! Inc., East New York, Brooklyn, NY
East New York is a little-known neighborhood in Brooklyn that borders JFK Airport and is home to a growing concentration of people of color who endure a high concentration of poverty (a third of the residents live below the Federal Poverty Level). It is also rife with the long-term societal and psychological effects of mass incarceration, the War on Drugs and the 1980’s crack epidemic, and frequent exposure to crime and trauma.
My affection for East New York began in 2012 when I covered a local marching band, The Soul Tigers. As I befriended the local children, it quickly became clear that households and family formations were a departure from expected norms. “I’m staying at my aunt’s house tonight,” “I’ll be at Mom’s,” or “I go back and forth between my father and grandmother’s houses” were the kind of common and casual explanations of the kids’ whereabouts and they collectively drew a picture of a complex communal child rearing effort.
Family households in East New York are at the extreme end of the spectrum where, despite having a higher percentage of family households overall than in greater New York City, only 8.7% of them include a spouse and only 1.7% include an unmarried partner. That means that most children do not live with both of their parents. Statistics like this are often dangled in the media, without context, to condemn fathers as being absent.
To tell this story, I decided to install camera obscuras and then capture a portrait. I wanted to visually represent the dynamic of outside versus inside life. Camera obscura is the phenomenon of light that led to the invention of the camera – it is photography at its most basic. Light waves travel through a hole and land on the opposite plane, in this case, the walls, upside down. To create the projections, I blacked out windows and light sources, and cut a hole where the light could come through. The effect is such that the neighborhood and the streets are literally projected onto the walls of the subject’s home. Traffic and walking pedestrians could be seen on the ceiling, and in one case, the elevated subway was moving along the walls. The juxtaposition of the outside scene pouring into the interiors is a live metaphor to contemplate how one’s environment affects the intimate spaces of domestic life, relationships and fatherhood.
It is hard to say what is “normal” in America today – family formations are rapidly changing countrywide. According to census statistics, East New York seems to be at the front of a growing trend where the nuclear family model has significantly diminished. The men seen here expose how the “deadbeat Dad” label – often stapled to the American inner-city black man and men of color in particular – is a gross and counter-productive simplification.
By projecting the East New York cityscape into these mens’ homes, the counter-influence of a challenging environment with intimacy at home is clear, but at the same time the discussions reveal that they are not defined by it. Rather, these fathers candidly and movingly reflect on the universal and fundamental experience of fatherhood; the enduring connection between father and child, the purity of wanting to provide, protect and nourish, and the motivation to keep going.