I had known Brittani Sensabaugh for less than two minutes before she started crying. It was last Thursday morning at a well known cafe in Uptown Oakland. We had just sat down over mugs of hot chocolate, when she pointed out to me that we were the only two "melanin people" (her term for people of color) in the room. Then, in walked a young black man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Unarmed Citizen.” Cue the water works.
It took a couple minutes for Sensabaugh, a 26-year-old photographer from East Oakland, to calm her tears. As she dabbed at her eyes with a brown paper napkin, she explained her forceful reaction. It all started about six years ago when, at 20, she had moved to New York City following the sudden death of her older brother. One night, she was sporting an Oakland hoodie on the A-train, when an older Caucasian woman seized at the chance to degrade Sensabaugh's notorious hometown—something along the lines of “that city is full of thugs, thieves, and drug dealers.”
The young Oaklander let the woman carry on before finally standing up and saying, “I am from Oakland, and I am none of those things.”
This was the moment she first felt the call to help change people's misconceptions of America's tougher neighborhoods, be they West Oakland or Brownsville, New York. Her late brother had given her her first Kodak camera; it would become the weapon behind her battle cry and well as a means of bringing her closer to her departed sibling.
During a trip home to East Oakland in 2013, Sensabaugh began to capture her neighborhood on film—stopping people on the street and talking with them in a process she calls “building.” At the end of each conversation, if the neighborhood resident felt comfortable, she would snap their portrait. For the next three years, she walked around the most dangerous neighborhoods in America—alone, boldly dressed in bright, patterned dresses, with her hair wound in a high textile wrap "to protect her spirit." Women of color are very connected to their hair, she says; to protect the hair in the face of situations is to in turn protect the soul. But one thing is certain: She is not afraid.
“These are my people,” she explains, “and I feel best when I’m among my people.” Her travels have taken her to South Chicago, East Oakland, Houston, Brooklyn, Harlem, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Watts in south Los Angeles. Next up is New Orleans and, eventually, she hopes to visit Tanzania.
The photographs she's captured over the past few years have been collected in a new exhibit, 222: Forgotten Cities, at Betti Ono Gallery in Uptown Oakland. The portraits here are divided into categories: Hair, Roles, Destruction, and Children. The selection of images focusing on hair shows the fabulous updos and complicated braid patterns of her people; the collection highlighting children, meanwhile, catches an unapologetic glimpse at young ones who seem to know too well and too soon that they have less of a chance in life than everyone else.
In one portrait, a young boy stands in front of a mural where a painted gun seems to point directly at his burgundy afro—behind him, in graffiti, are the words Love Doesn’t Kill; in another, a middle age man smokes crack cocaine in East Oakland; and yet another depicts an aspiring ballerina practicing on a sidewalk in Harlem. My favorite is a portrait of the photographer's 80-year-old grandfather as he points a loaded gun right at her, in his living room in Kingsport, Tennessee (she assures me that the safety was on).
Perhaps what's most striking about these portraits is that they are universal to the plight of minorities despite the city in which they were captured. In a photo of a pink-curlered woman in Watts, Los Angeles, there is a Church’s Chicken that I could have sworn was near my old apartment in East Oakland. And that's the takeaway: If you grew up in a rough neighborhood, or live in one now, you can connect with all of Sensabaugh's subjects—from West Oakland to Harlem.
Before we leave the cafe, she stops to talk to two women of color who have come into the coffee shop. She compliments their braids, hands them a flyer, and tells them to come to her show. “It’s about our people,” she says with a wink. “Our people are beautiful.”
// We hope you enjoy the slideshow of Sensabaugh's portraits above. See more through April 16th at Betti Ono Gallery (1427 Broadway, Oakland); bettiono.com