Most photographs of schools show children running, playing, seated in a classroom. But the Chicago Public Schools in Sophia Nahli Allison’s photographs are devoid of any life. The black-and-white images highlight the imposing, impersonal nature of school buildings, planted next to empty playgrounds and concrete stretches.
That’s because what Allison’s photographs represent are not what schools are intended to be--centers of learning and life-- but the cold, abandoned buildings they are becoming in the midst of a plague of urban violence affecting Chicago Public Schools students. In Chicago, young people, many who have attended Chicago Public Schools, are the number one victims of homicide, a Reporter investigation found.
These school buildings are the center of Allison’s audio-visual project on youth violence in Chicago, titled “Graduation.” Allison, a Columbia College student, teaching artist and photojournalism fellow at the Chicago Reporter, has been working on the series for the past year.
Kenwood High School: Cornelius German, age 15. 2013. Marshaun Taylor, age 16. 2011. Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison.
“I wanted to focus on this harsh reality that I was seeing in the schools,” she says. But in her interviews with Chicago students, she began to uncover another part of the story.
“I realized there was something bigger than just--what hardships have you gone through? There was also the question of what are your goals, what are your aspirations, what are your solutions to the violence? These are the youth that are working to change things.”
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, but going to school in a nearby suburb, Allison rode a bus almost daily between the boundary separating the harsh realities of urban life and her well-resourced school outside the city limits. That contrast is part of what led her to include both a symbol of the despair associated with youth violence – empty schools – and the hopeful voices of young people in her project.
McKay Elementary School- Laura Joslin, age 12. 2008. Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison
Since she began the project in November 2012, she’s been touched by violence herself. A friend’s younger brother was killed in Los Angeles this year. And in March, she attended her first funeral for a young person--16 years old--in Chicago.
“Having worked on this project for a year, and then seeing this [violence] happen to someone I grew up with that was so young, it just blew my mind to feel it [violence] growing closer and closer to home,” Allison says of the death of her friend’s brother.
Ultimately, Allison says, her project is about creating change. “The news is always sensationalizing kids killing each other. Yeah, that is happening, but there is also good within this travesty, and we need to pull out the good to combat what’s happening, and make a difference.”
A former student’s notebook. She wrote this on her notebook a day after her friend Taylor Fitting was killed. Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison.