Brittsense is an emerging photographer on a mission. As a storyteller and social documentarian she uses photography as a tool to create a legacy of her own “melanated” people. Choosing the most demonized communities of color as her subject, she engages a practice that creates probing and empowering studies of the black experience.
I had the pleasure of having a very involved and fruitful discussion with her on everything from her process and practice to the range of subtext the work addresses including distribution of power and wealth, collective trauma and healing, the psychological effects of advertising and using photography as a tool of empowerment.
Originally from East Oakland, Brittsense first picked up photography in high school when gifted a camera from her brother who suggested she take pictures to illustrate the writing she’d been doing. Combining her interests in fashion, photography, and storytelling, she began shooting fashion stories around Oakland. She quickly became disillusioned.
“Fashion started to lack substance. Everything was about the price tag and the trend, and I was more connected to the storytelling – did your mom wear that color? Why did you wear that print?“
After a few years shooting fashion in NY she found her way back home and to her “proper person” as an image-maker documenting life within cities deemed forgotten. She began documenting underprivileged black communities often demonized in the media – while making it her mission to speak on behalf of people who feel they have no voice.
Motivated by negative perceptions of her hometown and coupled with the loss of her brother, she began documenting East Oakland; using the camera given to her by her brother to create the series 222 Oakland. This series gave way to the 222 Movement – a mindset and lifestyle applied to develop the overarching “Forgotten Cities” and “Power of Melanin” projects.
By implanting herself within different communities or “Forgotten Cities”, Brittsense creates collective portraits of a community by focusing on its people and how their environment impacts their development. With Brownsville, Chicago, Houston, Philly, Baltimore, Watts, and Oakland already under her belt and New Orleans next in line, Brittsense is well on her way to impacting and empowering communities of color on a grand scale and on her own terms.
What is the significance of 222 and the 222 Movement?
In 2007 my brother died, 2 years later I started shooting, and 2 years after that I moved to NY. It’s definitely a mindset. It’s my lifestyle. It’s not just my life – it’s my people’s life too.
I don’t consider myself a photographer – it’s bigger than that. There are people that go to my Instagram page daily to become uplifted and I wasn’t even aware of that. But beyond that when I transition on my images are going to be a blueprint and a platform for us to grow from. In America we don’t have a blueprint or a platform to grow form – everything was given to us – we don’t tell our own stories.
Can you speak about the process of going into the communities you document. What is your objective, how do you integrate yourself?
I go to where society considers the worst neighborhoods. The main mission going in is bringing back the trust, the unconditional love, and the communication and awareness that is lacking in these different communities. Thinking less in the flesh and more in the spirit. When going in with that mentality, I am able to be as transparent as possible and not guarded. They can receive me in my pure person so they can be able to reflect within that and do the same.
I build – I talk to a lot of people – just asking questions. Breaking down the void, and making them understand that they’re not alone. “Forgotten Cities” is for me too. I’m also looking at my photos daily for inspiration.
Who is telling our stories? There’s someone else telling our stories for us. “Forgotten Cities” is our media. My photography is a channel for people. They’re channeling the vibrations that society is telling them not to tap into. That’s why it’s bigger. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a mentality – it’s way bigger than me just going out and taking photos. Before I even take a photo I build around each city.
There are no individual titles on your images, and they are sequenced in a way that builds an interesting tension in the work – it’s so focused on the individuals as you’re capturing them, but in the end they become anonymous. I view it as a collective portrait of the entire community.
Yes! I love that! That’s an amazing perception.
Describe the images’ focus on details of the environment and surroundings, and how they impact the community and address issues of class, infrastructure, distribution of wealth.
I ask questions. I would always think of growing up in East Oakland. Since I was like 10 or 11, I would always subconsciously ask myself why do certain things happen in my community? Or why am I eating certain foods, and why don’t I have access to things that certain places do?
Have you ever realized in every community the order is all the same? The order, the colors, everything plays into our psyche to keep us at lower vibrations and literally – when you go into our communities it goes like this – it’s a church, a check cashing place, a liquor store, a nail shop, and it’s a beauty supply shop.
And a chicken spot!
Yes. And let’s break down what that does psychologically. At a beauty supply they’re supplying you with chemicals. Check cashing reminds you of money, but there’s no money coming into the community – so they’re playing little mind games to remind us basically of how poor we are. By the way – none of this stuff is owned by us. Nail shops – the chemical you put on your nails gives you cancer. If you walk down the block everyday and see liquor signs, psychologically it’s going to make you want to drink liquor. It was created this way for us to fail – for us to stay on lower vibrations and not be uplifted.
The projects are built up with one way in, and no way out. Acorn Projects – I’m documenting that. It’s in West Oakland where the Panthers are from, and their projects are a fire hazard. If something happened to people in there they would be doomed. There’s no way out.
Which brings me to gates and bars. In my photography I always bring attention to the area surrounded by gates and bars which puts us in this mentality of jail, beings caged up, and also to it disconnects us from coming together and speak.
I‘m bringing it back to the psychological root of why we are the way we are. And it goes back to the womb. If you are in such destructive conditions it really takes a toll later on in your life.
We don’t wake up and be like – yo I wanna start killin’ – I wanna start selling drugs. We don’t wake up and do that. No! That’s not even where we come from, number one. Number two – it really is psychological. In America we’re in such a consumerist state of mind – we’re so big into buy, but not getting into a mentality to invest.
Can you speak about the hair portraits and how they are connected through different communities?
I shed light on anything that society basically talks down about so our hair now is trending but we’ve been talked down about it for years so I wanted to bring light to it and show the creativeness of it overall, and the beauty. Hair is our solar source; it connects to nature.
And black hair – there is nothing you can do to get your hair like ours.
And it’s been really good, a lot of people at my show loved it and it’s on the cover of a book now, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools”.
What is the next phase of “Forgotten Cities”?
What I’m getting into with the next phase of “Forgotten Cities” is communication. English is not our native language anyway. It’s a slave tongue and there’s a lot that’s deep rooted about it. Imagine waking up everyday and not knowing what my language is! I’m still connected to my slave last name! Daily we suffer from identity issues.
I just realized I wrote my thesis on “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison – what are the odds? Even back then the universe was reminding me to do the things that I’m doing.
That makes total sense. Particularly as an artist though artistic development I feel you are always tuned into what you want to say but you spend this span of time trying to figure out how to communicate it.
My documentations are not for Caucasian people at all. I don’t shoot them. It’s not about disliking anybody I just want my people to have something of their own. At the end of the day they know our beauty and our movements, sometimes more than we do and that’s why they put us in destructive conditions cause they know the power that we have – that’s just what it is.
My documentations are for my people to tap into the power they have within them and to kind of wake up and see. It’s a reminder we are beautiful through our struggles, and most importantly we are love. We are at war when we walk outside, but we are love.
In order for us to have equality in my eyes, we have to have our own table where we can sit at and look at each other and embrace each other, and build each other, and trust each other, and love each other unconditionally before we can do any footwork with Caucasians – cause we can’t even look at ourselves. We need to know our own power first without them being in it. It’s a conflict of interest. We need our own table.
That’s what “Forgotten Cities” is. I’m 26; I created my own table for my people to sit at so we can become better as people.
Interview by Tiffany Smith