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Graduation: Documenting Chicago Youth Violence

Sophia Nahli Allison’s photo series Graduation goes beyond the detached sensationalism of daily headlines to document the ongoing effects of loss and violence on Chicago’s youth. Visiting the schools that victims of violence attended, she photographs the institution as a locus of community and mourning, while highlighting the absence of the  young person that community has lost. The stark and iconic images of these schools as a recognizable, relatable site that should be free of such tragedy also emphasize the need to look beyond attempts to stereotype the communities and young people affected by violence in media narratives. To that effect audio interviews in which teachers and classmates remember the students and friends they have lost accompany her images. These interviews, which provide a platform for young people often overlooked by mainstream coverage, also offer stories of resilience and determination to make the world a better place. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Allison about her ongoing project and what the experience has meant to her.

Sixty Inches From Center: Graduation is really powerful, and part of its power lies in how you take us behind the daily headlines of violence. In your statement, you mention how names are recited on the evening news only to be forgotten. But the people who were affected don’t forget. How did you decide on what would be the best way to document their experiences?

Sophia Nahli Allison: I think I’m still trying to discover the most impactful way to document youth violence. I began photographing schools of victims of violence because I felt it was an image and reality everyone could relate to. Despite your ethnicity, social status or environment, odds are your own child attends school or you yourself at one point attended school. To me there was something haunting about creating these portraits of schools and pairing them with the names of youth who were killed during their time of attendance. I remember I went to McKay Elementary School; I wanted to cry standing on the playground looking at those swings, and I believe I did. Laura Joslin attended Mckay and was killed at the age 12; she was stabbed by an 18 year old girl. How many people remember her name, or are even aware of her story? Standing where these students once went to school breaks my heart every time. The same feelings emerged when I went to a school of a student my mom had watched grow up. I later incorporated youth audio because I felt it was important to create a platform for their voices to be heard since youth are the number one victims of homicide in Chicago. I also document vigils, rallies, press conferences etc,  to have that history and those stories, but the school images and audio is the main part of the project.

SIFC: The audio part of Graduation consists of talking to young people about their hopes and their ideas for solutions in the community. This has the effect showing young people’s agency–which is rarely seen in media stories–and combating stereotypical narratives about youth violence. Was it difficult to get them to open up to you? 

SNA: Honestly it wasn’t, and I think it wasn’t difficult because they want their voices and stories to be heard. How often is the subject of violence discussed in school, especially for youth who experience it daily? What is their outlet and who is listening to them? I really wanted to create a platform for their voices to be heard, because often it isn’t and it is plagued with negative stereotypes as you said. It became very emotional for me to have that trust and honesty with young people, some of whom I only had encounters with once, and others whom I was able to spend time with. I also have to acknowledge educators and program organizers who introduced me to students. That helped a lot in creating a safe environment. There are so many people to thank. Overall it was emotional hearing their stories, from them sharing personal obstacles and experiences with violence to discussing their future goals. It remains a truly beautiful experience, connecting with youth. I feel beyond blessed to hear their stories.

Sophia Nahli Allison, 2013. (Image courtesy of the artist)

JP: How do you feel about the media coverage of the violence in Chicago and what kind of effect has this had on your project? Do you feel that this project is a journalistic/artistic hybrid–and if so, does this open up what you’re able to do in a way that either medium alone might not allow?

SNA: I think (some of it) is exploitative, heartless and generic… can I say that and not be blacklisted?! At the beginning I really had to focus on not making my piece an exploitative examination on violence. The media does that already, and it is very easy to do. After some of my initial youth interviews I had to rethink my approach. It’s easy to want the gritty “urban” tale. But, what stories aren’t being heard? How are the youth not perceived in the media? That shift helped me really find the beauty in the youth interviews. Yes, these youth have been affected by violence, but did you know that Rocky wants to own a bakery, Vanetta is a student teacher and Aramis was accepted into Indiana State University? That’s when you start to break this stereotypical mold the media has created. And yes, it is definitely a journalist /artistic hybrid!

SIFC: Despite the crisis of violence in our communities, the city’s administration is taking ever more resources away from our communities, closing 50 schools, half of our public mental health clinics, etc. It can feel really disheartening at times, but hearing these young people talk about wanting to make their communities better is really inspiring. I just want to say, as someone viewing your project, that it helps. Has it helped you as well?

SNA: Thank you so much. It has. When I started the project I became very depressed. I had nightmares, I didn’t want hang out with people, and I just wanted to consume myself in what I was learning about violence, I learned that was not healthy and had to take some breathers. But working as a teaching artist and interviewing youth is just beautiful. Truly fantastic. They make me remember why I’m doing what I do. There is strength I’ve seen in them that even I don’t possess yet.

Sophia Nahli Allison, Hyde Park High School: Malcolm Whitney, age 16. 2013. Chavez Clarke, age 18. 2008. Christopher Watson, age 16. 2007. (Image courtesy of the artist)

SIFC: Through your work on Graduation, have you been able to pick up on some core issues that we can tackle as Chicagoans to help reduce violence in the city? Do you feel art can play a role? What’s next for Graduation?

SNA: Oh boy! Let me pull from what the youth have told me. We need to re-evaluate our music, we need more youth programs and opportunities presented to our youth, we need to support the educators that are really passionate about our students, we need art, we must listen to the youth, and we must believe in them. I’ll leave you with a quote from Carolina: I was a senior mentor of 30 kids…I would tell them every day they could be whatever they wanted to be… A lot of people tell me ‘how can you believe in the kids in your class, the kids in your class are getting into fights every day, they’re in gangs, they’re bound to get pregnant, they’re bound to do something stupid.’ But it’s not about that, it’s about having faith, maybe through me they learn something.”

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