There's rarely a moment when I meet someone and I'm completely riveted by their presence alone. There's rarely ever a moment when I view another artist's work and feel compelled or driven by it. That's not to sound arrogant, mean, or disconnected, it's simply to point out how much of a gem Brittani Sensabaugh really is. Rather than using her artistic voice for personal gain or "fame", the Oakland-bred documentarian known as Brittsense casts her lens on the light most of the country and the world in its entirety, has tried to dim. I admire her for her selflessness and eagerness to go out into the universe and tell the story of those often dismissed or completely forgotten. A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to spend the day with Brittsense in Nickerson Gardens and see how she builds with our community firsthand.
KAYLA: Before we get all serious and delve into the scope of your work, how about we break the ice a little… Do you prefer cake or pie? Favorite music/artist to space out to? Spirit animal?
BRITTSENSE: Haha love! Thanks for breaking the ice because anything cold bothers me, except for ice cream which is the answer to your next question. I prefer ice cream, that and Mexican food will always be foods that uplift my vibrations. Anytime I eat pie I only prefer eating the crust. There aren’t enough kinds of cakes that I love. My favorite music is Hip-hop; artist would be Tupac. There are numerous reasons why I admire Tupac but the main one would be how transparent he was towards his people. The passion and love he had towards the community reminds me a lot of myself as well. My spirit animal would be an elephant. They remind me of being balanced.
How long have you been doing photography? Did you start off documenting from the jump or is it something you transitioned into?
I’ve been doing photography going on six years now. I started off doing Fashion Photography when I first moved to New York at the age of 20. I did that for two years and within those years I truly discovered my passion for wanting to connect with individuals beyond the clothing. Each time I took pictures I would ask the individual wearing the garment about moments within their journey that added to their style process. I found myself wanting to know more about the individual than the actual garment. After awhile, Fashion Photography started to lack substance and I transitioned into documenting melanated people in forgotten areas. [It stemmed] from having a conversation on the subway train with this elderly Caucasian lady. I’m from East Oakland so I usually always wear my favorite Oakland hoodie. While sitting on the subway train the Caucasian lady pointed down to my hoodie and told me to never go to that place, because there is nothing but killing and destruction. I allowed her to continue expressing her negative perception, but once I was about to get off the train I stopped her and said that I was from East Oakland and I’m none of those characteristics that she was describing. I told her that before she spoke so negatively about a place, she should actually go experience it for herself instead of listening to what mainstream media says. I remember feeling really angry about what she said and I wanted to turn that anger into positive energy. I went home two months later and started documenting the moments that the media doesn’t show about Oakland.
What is "Forgotten Cities"? What cities have you visited thus far and which ones do you plan on documenting next?
222ForgottenCities is a movement I created where I go and document any city and areas within that city where melanated people live that the media talks down upon. Any areas that I feel are overlooked and the media has a negative perception about I document to show that there is much more happening. My mission is to bring awareness towards the people living inside and outside these areas by showing them that WE all share the same struggle if your skin is melanated. Not only do I document the story, I document emotions they will NEVER show. I make sure I document the REASONS WHY things are happening this way. In my mind I feel this is a way to create a new set of history and paint a different picture for my people. It is a way to knock down all the division they have placed in our minds and for us to wake up and see the system they have placed us under. I have documented Oakland, New York, Philly, Baltimore, Houston, Chicago, Watts (Los Angeles). The next city I plan on documenting is New Orleans before I go out of the country for a few months.
When you arrive to a new city do you already have a certain location in mind? Or do you simply walk around and capture what is most compelling to you?
It depends on the city, I was just in Chicago and before going there I knew I had to document Englewood because the first thing you see if you put Englewood into the search engine on Google is the murder rate. I usually just allow the universe to align me wherever my existence is supposed to be within these cities, but I make sure I go to the areas that the media considers the most “dangerous” first. Overall though, my process is a balance of both.
When documenting, what are the common denominators you tend to see in each neighborhood?
There are an abundance of liquor stores, check cashing places, food establishments that are toxic to our body. [I see] beauty supply stores, and churches on every other corner, which are all things that aren’t uplifting our vibrations. The main emotions I feel from melanated people living in these neighborhoods are hopelessness and struggle but even more so love because through all these conditions they still find ways to rise above it.
On average, what would be your guess as to how many people (men, women, children) you’ve documented? What is the most memorable story out of all the individuals you’ve captured?
I make sure I document at least one family in a project residency and anyone else I can build with in that area. For the most part on an average I build strong foundations with at least 50 people within each city but I wouldn’t put any number on how much building I do and love I spread. I make sure it's unlimited everywhere I go. I also document lots of children within these areas. I gravitate towards children because their innocence, pure energy, and anxiousness to learn reminds me to embrace every moment within my journey despite all the distractions society creates. When I’m documenting a child, I feel like a teacher but even more a student because I learn about the earth through their eyes which hasn’t been totally jaded by society's negative perceptions. All the love I get from the communities are unique to those communities. When I was documenting Nickerson Gardens a couple weeks ago, a melanated king gave me a film camera he didn’t use and another beautiful family invited me into a fish fry they were having. For the most part though, all moments I experience are memorable.
I noticed when you post on Instagram, your hashtags typically contain the number 222. It is also prevalent in the symbolism of your logo. What does the number 222 stand for and what does it mean to you?
My 222 movement roots from 2007 when my older brother, Michael, gave me my first Kodak camera which introduced me to Photography. Two years after that he died in his sleep at the age of 28. Two years after that, I moved to New York to pursue my photography career. My brother is the reason I seriously considered doing photography because he made me realize that my vision matters and that I should share it with the world. I created this movement in remembrance of him. Every city that I document and series I create begins with "222". Interestingly enough, I recently started studying numerology and found out that the number "2" is my life number. Anyone who continues to break society’s boundaries and gives unlimited passion and unconditional love to others, themselves, their craft, and their journey period, is an example of the 222MOVEMENT.
You address women/men of color as empress/king. Both words evoke such positivity, and power, and can also be incredibly uplifting. What made you want to start addressing men/women of color as such?
My people struggle physically and even more mentally from years and years of conditioning. Society likes to cloud our minds with slavery but never speak much about the years of us OWNING OUR OWN LAND & BUSINESSES. Addressing my people as kings and empresses is a seed I plant for them to grow back into that mentality. It is a way to show that I acknowledge their beauty and their worth; OUR beauty and worth as a people.
Your first solo exhibition is coming up next week on February 5th, in your hometown of Oakland. What message do you hope people take away from your exhibit?
My first solo exhibition in Oakland, California will be at this beautiful gallery called Betti Ono from February 5th until April 16th. It’s my very first time having a 2-month exhibition so I’m beyond excited to hug and spread unconditional love to all of my beautiful people. The main message I want them to feel while experiencing the exhibition is the unconditional love, building and soulful beauty we come from. I want each person that walks into the space to release any confusion or pain they may feel from this society and embrace, plus become aware of the Power of Melanin despite the negativity they face from society daily.
Throughout our day together you always referred to yourself as a documentarian rather than a photographer; you stated that this was your calling. Was there a particular moment in which this epiphany occurred? When you knew “This is it. This is my art. This is me.”