Most artists are known to be empathetic, capable of feeling everything, both good and bad, in their surroundings. Some see it as a curse driving them to madness. Brittani Sensabaugh chooses to see it as a gift.
Hi Brittani. Tell us about yourself. Where do you come from, and how does home affect your being as photographer?
I’m a documentarian from East Oakland, California. Oakland affected my being as an artist greatly; it taught me about culture and the sense of balance between the concepts of struggle and love.
I wake up everyday never knowing what I may experience or who I may come across within the place. It puts me in a mode to document each moment — with no filter and expectation. Oakland also taught me how to be unapologetic about my perception of the earth. It taught me that there are many stories that can be told if more individuals are aware and take the time out to listen. Oakland was the first place to make me realize that there is always another story behind a story, which is what I feel never gets documented in our society.
Mainstream media is quick to document their side but for me, there’s always three sides to every story. I feel that my photography documents the other two sides: one side is the reason behind a lot of negative perceptions placed upon melanated communities, and the other side is the positivity and pure moments that are often overlooked.
How did you get in to photography and has it always been an interest? When, how, and why did you start taking photos?
Before I pursued photography, my first love was writing. My mother introduced me to writing because when I was younger (and still to this day) she would write me inspirational notes and quotes for me to grow with.
My older brother Michael introduced me to photography by lending me his Kodak camera when I graduated high school because he felt my writing needed imagery. Two years after, he gave me the camera before he died in his sleep. After that event, photography became an outlet for me to release all the pain and emptiness I felt from his death and the generational struggle I feel daily while living in this society. Documenting through images placed me in a realm of pure happiness and freedom. However, there are times I still drift back to writing and I mostly connect it with my photography.
How do you distinguish your work and style from other photographers? How has your style changed over the years?
One of my missions when I’m documenting is to get to the root of the numbness that my people feel, so they can start building better foundations. When observing my documentations, I realized I want people to have conversations about different aspects that the mainstream tries to cover up. My mission is to bring back the awareness and give the unconditional love that society lacks for these forgotten communities, so that we can prosper and go through our daily struggles.
My transparency with my people through each moment I document has increased. I make sure they understand that they aren’t alone in the emptiness they may feel and the trenches they are trying to get out of because we are all in it together.
We notice your photos mostly consist of dramatic and vivid portraiture of colored people, but with a documentary tinge. Can you tell us about your style? What story do you want to tell?
Ever since I was little, I have always been someone who can constantly feel the pain of this earth, but most importantly the love as well. I tend to feel everything which is why I’m super compassionate when it comes down to my documentation.
When I picked up my camera for the “222 Forgotten Cities” series, I set two goals: first is to document communities that have been forgotten and the people who feel like they have no voice. Second, is to make people that live both in and outside these communities aware that we all share the same struggle if your skin has melanin.
Society wants equality but that can never truly happen until my people have something of their own. My images are moments for my people to embrace and feel good about, they are examples of the strength and love my people have inside of them despite all the negative perceptions that society throws their way. My work are for my people who feel hopeless while living in places that have no resources.
I have documented life in Oakland, New York, Philly, Baltimore, Houston, Chicago and Watts Los Angeles; the story in all these places sound and look the same. I’ve made it my business to go and shoot all the places around the world that the media talks down on. I do not only document the story and emotions they don’t show, but I make sure I get to the reasons why these things are happening. I feel this is a way to create a new version of history. Each picture I capture is a piece of history that I am giving back to my people. It’s a reminder that no matter how much pain and struggle we go through, we will find ways to shine and rise above it.
Your documentary work seems to be both physically and emotionally challenging. Do you have a certain ritual before or during a photo shoot?
I’m very aware of the food I put inside of my body because I’m super in tune with nature’s energy and vibrations. I live by the saying, “Money is fake and energy is real.” I make sure my energy levels are vibrating high, so I am able to document and do the proper footwork. In order to do that though, I make a smoothie full of vegetables and fruit and have a bowl of oatmeal everyday. I also make sure I’m within nature and meditate at least twice a day so I’m able to fully observe all that is around me.
What or who inspires you in life?
I’m defined by nothing but I’m inspired by every moment; I believe that all moments are connected. My mother inspires me because she reminds me of being grounded and strength. I’m also really inspired by a variety of people, like artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, musicians Tupac Shakur and J Dilla, activist Assata Shakur and boxer Muhammad Ali. Each person I named reminds me to continue being passionate with my craft and never apologize for it.
Is there an art principle or philosophy you follow? And what do you look for in a photograph?
That always changes in each transition I go through, but my main principle is to always allow myself to feel and be balanced within every moment I am connecting with. In my principle, there is no "good, ""bad," “right” or “wrong” because they are all subjective labels.
I look for pure emotion especially when viewing any imagery. The emotion and mood of the captured individual is important.
What certain emotions or moods do you want people to have when looking at your photos?
The emotion I wish to evoke with my photographs is the feeling of unconditional love, love that is without conditions but with growth and trust. It’s the feeling of bringing my people to that familiar place we all can connect with.
Aside from photography and art, what else do you love do?
As I’ve mentioned before, I write sometimes. I listen to music and dance to oldies because I’m all about movement. I also love to explore nature, meditate and I just recently started to paint. All are very therapeutic when I’m on my journey.
What remarkable experiences have you had in your art? What photo or series of yours are you most proud of?
I have a lot. I connect with different, beautiful souls daily and each one is remarkable because they remind me that there is an opportunity to learn from the experience and the person. Every experience I have with children have been really, really remarkable because their pure innocent souls remind me that before I can be a mastered teacher, I have to be a mastered student first.
As for my work, I admire every moment I’ve documented, but I connect with my “Power of Melanin” series deeply because it shows my people in their proper person — our hair, style and communication all roots from the power of melanin that is within our skin.
What’s next for you? Do you have an ongoing project you’d like to promote?
I plan on creating a film and book for my movement “222 Forgotten Cities” and working with the youth through different workshops created by this beautiful organization called Namac. I’m also working on my next city to document, which will be New Orleans.
And lastly, what do you hope for the contemporary art and photography world?
I wish for more artists to move more out of intentions and less out of habit. Anyone who is aligned with the universe and creating their own space will prosper and become who they need to be on this earth. Anyone who is creating purely and is not distracted by society’s perceptions, those who allow themselves to learn and embrace each thing for whatever it may be, anyone that is taking time to deal with the Self, spreading unconditional love, and those who realize that money is fake and energy is real — I wish them to be rooted and stay grounded through each transition in their spiritual journey.