Two boys play ball in a sunken basketball court in between the Van Dyke housing buildings.

A grandmother tends to her crying grandson's hurt toe while he is held up by his mother in the Van Dyke houses. (Cole Davis)

Photographer Cole Davis was born in Texas, grew up in Louisiana and now lives in Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he says, “I’m a photographer photographing life underneath the headlines.”

Davis moved to Brownsville after hearing of the tragic death of a teenager named Timi Oyebola.

He notes Brownsville is often referred to as the “Murder Capital of New York,” but he says, “It shouldn’t take a shooting to make people pay attention to Brownsville, but since they’re paying attention, there’s an opportunity to show what it’s like to live in the neighborhood, show that it’s not only a dangerous neighborhood that pops up in crime articles, but also a place of beauty and depth.”

In Sight asked Davis to talk a little bit more about the work he is doing there. Here’s what he said.

“On Sept. 20, 2018, Minister David Oyebola sat with his son Timi telling him stories from his travels. Timi was distant, hardly listening. ‘He knew he was leaving,’ his father recalled. The next day, on a Brownsville basketball court, a bullet struck the 16-year-old in the forehead, and the kind-spirited teen and community mentor was killed. Afterward, his father demanded merciless justice for his son’s murderer — only to discover weeks later that the killer was 14 years old.

“I couldn’t understand the impalpable horror of this tragedy. I researched tirelessly following the event, I learned about Brownsville’s reputation, the associations that people attach to its name: the ‘Murder Capital of New York.’ Sixty thousand people living in one square mile, with the highest incarceration rate of any New York area by a significant margin. But despite so many heavy statistics, I found beauty and aliveness walking around, more so than suffering. My skin became stitched to the skin of the community, and I didn’t know how to stop, I didn’t know how to leave. So I moved in. I was conscious of my identity as a white man from Louisiana in a predominantly black neighborhood. It was often an uncomfortable experience, being the only one who looked different. Before this, my understanding of race was shallow, as it no doubt still is, but I began to comprehend what ‘minority’ fundamentally means.

“I was walking in East New York, a few months after feeling at home in Brownsville, when I bumped into the church where Timi’s father was a minister. He sat down and told me the whole story in detail. I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened to Timi — and here I was with someone who had no choice whether or not to think about it. Speaking to him, I realized his focus was entirely on the protection and prosperity of the next generation of children. Not on the past. And in this, there is no longer fear, only solutions.

“I still live in Brownsville, because of a simple notion: I love being there. It’s an area of authenticity. I often questioned myself, or was questioned by others — about the risk of exploiting a black neighborhood as a white photographer, facing the backlash and criticism for it, but the risk is worth it. Because if there is a one-in-a-million chance to help, to grow, to share, it’s worth it. Even if none of these things happen, I’d rather get torn apart having tried, then not try at all. Nothing gives me the right to enter the discourse on race, nor anyone; it isn’t a right, but a decision, to throw our hat in the ring and face the possible consequences for caring.”

You can see more of Davis’s work on his website, here.


An anti-violence sign posted in the Chester Street basketball court, the court where Timi Oyebola died. (Cole Davis)

A man in a hazmat suit clears out a unit in the Blake New York City Housing Authority buildings. (Cole Davis)

Children playing in the Dr. Green playground look out from the other side of the fence. (Cole Davis)

A mother holds her child in the Van Dyke houses. (Cole Davis)

A young boy stands on a hand rail just outside Brownsville in East New York. (Cole Davis)

A New York City Housing Authority inspector writes a note at the entrance to one of many buildings in the central Brownsville housing projects on Sutter Avenue. (Cole Davis)

A man holds a napkin to his face as high winds blow debris and dust into the air on Mother Gaston Boulevard. (Cole Davis)

Minister David Oyebola is the father of Timi Oyebola, who was shot and killed in Brownsville on Sept. 21, 2018. (Cole Davis)

A man carries a bundle of balloons from his car on Sutter Avenue. (Cole Davis)

A New York City Housing Authority inspector examines the conditions of a tenant's unit. (Cole Davis)

Two children play a hand and counting game outside a coffee shop on Mother Gaston Boulevard. (Cole Davis)

A woman investigates a pigeon inside the awning of a store on Mother Gaston Boulevard. (Cole Davis)

A man dances to music inside his aunt's apartment in Brownsville. (Cole Davis)

A young man looks back during a conversation with a girl through the window of a Brownsville project building. (Cole Davis)

A man plays quarterback for a group of children playing football in Nehemiah Park in Brownsville. (Cole Davis)

Two siblings lead the way in front of their mother on Mother Gaston Boulevard. (Cole Davis)

Construction scaffolding sets the stage for a flock of birds on Powell Street. (Cole Davis)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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