Photographs and text by Phyllis Dooney

To tell this story, I decided to install camera obscuras and then capture a portrait. I wanted to visually represent the counter-influence of public and private life.

Camera obscura is the phenomenon of light that led to the invention of the camera and is astonishingly simple; light waves will travel through a hole and land on the opposite plain, in this case, the walls, upside down. To create them, I blacked out any windows and light sources, and cut a hole where the light could come through. The effect was that the neighborhood was literally projected onto the walls of the subject’s home.

The juxtaposition of the outside scenes in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood pouring into the interiors became an installation-metaphor in which to contemplate how one’s environment affects the intimate spaces of domestic life, relationships and fatherhood.

“Raising East New York” (RENY) is a multimedia piece featuring a series portraits — of men in East New York — that initiates a conversation about fatherhood.

This generation of fathers in East New York — a growing concentration of people of color, living in a high concentration of poverty — is rife with the long-term societal and psychological effects of mass incarceration: the War on Drugs and the 1980s crack epidemic, economic insecurity and frequent exposure to crime and trauma. The effect of those problems shows up in day-to-day home life.

Family households in East New York are at the extreme end of the spectrum where, despite having a higher percentage of family households overall than in greater New York City, only 8.7 percent include a spouse and only 1.7 percent include an unmarried partner. That means that most children do not live with both of their parents. Statistics like this are often dangled in the media, without context, to condemn fathers as being absent. The neighborhood, like many in the United States where the nuclear family has significantly diminished, paints a picture of a complex communal child-rearing effort.

RENY helps fill the vacuum by exploring — on a personal level — how day-to-day life, grappling with the monumental societal challenges in East New York, affects these fathers and the endeavor of (co-)parenting. By doing this, RENY also exposes how the “deadbeat dad” label — often stapled to the American inner-city black man — is a gross and counterproductive simplification.

The interviews with the fathers can be heard on Narratively.