“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.
“Raising East New York” (RENY) features portraits of men in East New York and initiates a conversation around fatherhood. RENY helps fill the vacuum of understanding by personally exploring how day-to-day life in a disadvantaged neighborhood affects these fathers and their parenting. RENY also exposes how the “deadbeat Dad” label – often stapled to the American inner-city Black man and other men of color — is an unfair, counter-productive simplification.
This generation of fathers – a growing concentration of people of color living in poverty in East New York — is rife with the long-term societal and psychological effects of mass incarceration, the “war on drugs,” the 1980’s crack epidemic, economic insecurity and frequent exposure to crime and trauma. The impact of those problems shows up in everyday home life.
Despite having a higher percentage of family households overall than in greater New York City, only 8.7 percent of families in East New York include a spouse and only 1.7 percent include an unmarried partner, according to the U.S. Census. That means that most children do not live with both of their parents. Without context, statistics like these often condemn men as “absent fathers.” Like many neighborhoods in America, where the nuclear family has significantly diminished, this one is a complex, communal child-rearing effort.
I installed obscuras to create an effect where the outside world is literally projected onto the walls of the subject’s home in real-time. Camera obscura is the phenomenon of light that led to the invention of the camera – the mysterious principle that light waves travel through a hole and lands on the opposite plain – 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 juxtaposition of the outside scene, the streets and buildings of East New York, pouring into the interiors becomes a visual metaphor to contemplate how one’s environment affects the intimate spaces of domestic life, relationships and fatherhood.
Willie Johnson poses for a portrait in East New York on Feb. 13, 2016.
“Brother Kenny” Watson, 49, poses for a portrait with his step children, Sammie Lee Brown Jr. (center) and Justin Grant (right) on Feb. 7, 2016. “One of the challenges I have is that I am fearful for my son that lives in Atlanta. It’s a hard adjustment. You have a family here, but you also have a son who needs you there. How do you split yourself?”
Joshua Mann, 34, poses for a portrait with his son, King Joshua Mann, in East New York, NY on March 29, 2015. “I’m just gonna keep my son strong to me. He’s like my best friend. He’s gonna be stuck to me like glue. I can’t let nothing happen to him. I’d let it happen to me before it’d happen to him. I can’t be subject to my son out here being shot, stabbed or however they go.”
Kelvin McJunkin, 29, poses for a portrait in East New York on July 25, 2015. “The first time I can remember meeting my father, he came to my grandmother’s house, pulled me to the side and told me that my mother got killed. After that, I went into the foster care system. I would die and come back to life before I let anything like that happen to my daughter.”
David “Prince” Pierce, 22, poses for a portrait with his son, Prince David Pierce, in East New York on March 29, 2015. “I think about this all the time: who am I doin’ this for? Can I really make this work with his mother, or am I just running away from it ’cause I still want to live my life? I don’t want to be tied down. I know a lot of cats that didn’t see 21, didn’t see 25, didn’t see 30.”
Raheem Grant, 39, poses for a portrait with his daughter, Nature Grant. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have a father. My little one, she gets scared of the dark. ‘You don’t have to be scared because Daddy is here.’ Just knowing that I am there for them makes me feel like I accomplished a lot.”
“Boo” poses for a portrait in East New York on July 25, 2015.
Ariel “AJ” Jones, 25, poses for a portrait with his daughter, Lexi Preston, in East New York on July 12, 2015.
Clifton Jerrick, 35, poses for a portrait with his son, Logan Suttor, in East New York on March 12, 2016. “Being a father is not just a title, it’s a job. It’s a full-time job until the day you die.”
Esau “Chubbs” Johnson, 23, poses for a portrait in East New York on May 30, 2015. “The cops are cracking down on us. You know, they are shooting kids. That’s really what I am worried about – my daughter growing up in that environment.”
Michael Cathlin, 26, poses for a portrait with his step father, Michael Burke-Andrade, in East New York on July 25, 2015. “Thankfully, I walked in [the delivery room] right before my son started crying. So, I was there for the whole thing, but it was the fact that the mother didn’t want me there.”
Jason “Law” Woods, 42, poses for a portrait with his daughter, Nevoeh West-Woods, in East New York on July 28, 2015. “The courts do work for men, but a lot of men won’t pursue that. ‘Cause it’s been, throughout time, that you go to court for your child and nine times out of 10, they gonna give it back to the woman. It’s like: why fight?”
The experience is further crystallized in the voices of the subjects – audio recordings that explore love, fatherhood, childhood and the associated challenges in a neighborhood like East New York.
Phyllis B. Dooney is a New York City photographer and visual storyteller. After graduating from Pitzer College, she began her career as a photo art director in the commercial sector. Currently, Phyllis works as a social documentary photographer. She attended Eddie Adams XXVII in Autumn 2014. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Feature Shoot, The Huffington Post, Prison Photography, American Photo and elsewhere. She is a Screen Projects mentee and was accepted into the 4th annual New York Times Portfolio Review. Phyllis’ project, “Gravity Is Stronger Here,” was awarded first place in The Center’s Editor’s Choice category and will be released in a book by Kehrer Verlag in Dec. 2016.