There’s a traditional law in photography that states adults should always capture children at eye level, never from standing height.
Brittani Sensabaugh, a documentary photographer that covers urban communities, breaks this law for three good reasons.
“I shoot down on [children] because in many ways, I see them looking up at me and it puts me in the mentality to hold myself accountable to be guidance for them,” the East Oakland, CA native explains. “Another reason why I shoot that way is to uplift them out of the trenches that society has created for them. The third reason I shoot them looking up is because if you see my imagery up close in person and blown up like prints, you can see my reflection inside of the little children’s eyes.”
Her passion for photographing children in black communities is only one part of 222 Forgotten Cities, a photography movement she began in 2013. To date, the 26-year-old has documented 6 cities on her own dime: Oakland, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Houston, Chicago, and Watts, Los Angeles. She captures elders in the community, black hair displayed between nature and vegetation on her website, and the beauty of the everyday lives of residents in areas that the media has condemned as merely crime ridden. Soon she will capture New Orleans and Detroit then she will travel to Tanzania in Africa to begin her project overseas.
“222 Forgotten Cities is a blueprint and a platform for “melanated” people to grow from because we don’t own our own media,” she says using the word she’s adopted in place of ‘black.’ “It’s a way for our stories to be told and not for it to be exploited. It’s for us to be uplifted from our stories and not feel discriminated against and not feel like we have to prove ourselves in a system that was created to fail us to begin with.”
Sensabaugh, who goes by Britt Sense, says her love for story telling began with writing through the encouragement of her mother. Once her elder brother recognized her potential he suggested that she also adopt photography as a method of storytelling. He took things a step further and purchased a professional Kodak camera for her as a high school graduation gift in 2007. Two years later, he died suddenly in his sleep. Sensabaugh was devastated and overcome by the urge to leave Oakland. She made her way to New York in 2009 after another two years passed.
“So for my movement, 222 Forgotten Cities, I put 222 in front of all of the cities that I document,” she explained.
While in New York she worked as a fashion photographer but quickly became uninspired with the lack of substance she felt through the medium. Then one day, while on the train in New York, an older white woman said something that shifted her focus.
“I was wearing my Oakland hoodie around the time Oakland got a bad rap. It was basically really high up on the crime list,” Sensabaugh explains. “She looked at my hoodie, and she just goes, don’t go to that place if you’ve never been. It’s nothing but thugs and drug dealers, and gang bangers there. She was saying all these horrible things about Oakland and she had never stepped foot into a place that she was saying such horrifying things about.”
A few months later she returned home for a visit and saw the old camera her brother gave her. That inspired her to go out into the community and take photos of her beloved neighborhood as she saw it. It was then she decided to work towards shifting the perception of not just her hometown, but other communities that had been branded the same way.
Today she’s being lauded as the female Gordon Parks of 2016. Her photos are beautiful and raw and boast imagery of things that plague poor communities. Her ongoing approach is to shoot people behind brick and bar gates, which symbolizes being imprisoned or trapped. She also shoots fast food chains, advertisements plastered on liquor stores, and people holding Newports since the cigarette brand has become a deadly fixture in black communities.
“We are creating our lives from nothing. Everything that’s given to us from the hands of somebody that’s not from us,” she says. “We can’t even identify with what our native language is. It’s like waking up daily with identity issues. Like, who are we as people? Then the image that is painted of us in America is savage like.”
An image she hopes to change one portrait at a time.