Ben Cleeton

Photographer / Visual Storyteller
    
The Town
Location: syracuse
Nationality: american
Biography: Ben Cleeton is a Syracuse documentary photographer and filmmaker who holds a degree in photojournalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications (2015). He was born in Syracuse and lived in Geneseo, NY, where his mother, a professor... MORE

Ralow Intro

Private Story
The Town
Copyright Ben Cleeton 2022
Date of Work Sep 2015 - Ongoing
Updated Jun 2020
Location Syracuse
Topics Adolescence, Aging, Celebrations, Community, Discrimination, Documentary, Dying/Death, Essays, Family, Feminism, Freedom, Happiness, Hope, Human Rights, Incarceration, Joy, Minority, Pandemics, Photography, Photojournalism, Portraiture, Prison, Racism, Sorrow, Yearning, Youth
This is a selection of images from a larger body of unpublished work awarded the 2020 Light Work Grant in Photography.

“When you from the Town, it’s a Town thing”—friends and family reunite at a wedding south of Syracuse at Highland Forest, exquisite baby showers and birthday parties celebrate new life, as vigils and funerals observe its ending. The disappearance of Black bars means the emergence of underground hangouts, like “the hooka spot.” Syracuse often feels small—longing for escape some relocate, migrating back south, while others enjoy weekend trips to neighboring cities. In this project, I determine how these stories offer a counter-narrative to the hegemonic portrayal of Syracuse as a city in a state of postindustrial crisis.

The photos that accompany the project capture the mundane and sacred realities transcending the everyday lives of people from “The Town.” Rather than imagine the artist as the primary producer of the art, this work foregrounds what I describe as “invisible art.” As a privileged white male working in a community of color, my art work is indebted to community members who have invited me into their lives. These vibrant pockets of Syracuse that remain invisible constitute “The Town.” My art is nothing without them. In this project, I hope to assemble a collection of stories and perspectives arising from these invisible communities in Syracuse’s margins.

André “Ralow” Wilson first heard “The Town” while incarcerated in NYS. “I think it started in prison and ended out in the street and it just stayed in the street,” he said. “Even though Syracuse is small it’s still big enough that everybody don’t know everybody, so when you see an individual that you never see before that look familiar you be like, ‘You from the town?’ If they from Syracuse they gonna be like, ‘Yo, I’m from the Town.’”

Central New York’s rust-belt anchor is often described by the high rate of concentrated poverty among Blacks and Hispanics1 and decline of neighborhood shops, supermarkets, and historic residences resulting from decades of redlining, gentrification, incarceration, and job loss. Decades of systematic racist policy paved the way for blight. In 2017, Syracuse’s poverty rate (32.4%) tied for ninth in the nation.2 The following year, 30.5% of Syracuse residents lived below the poverty line, including 44% of children.3 In local and national media, commonplace images of underprivileged neighborhoods focus on crime, poverty, and violence, failing to recognize the unquantifiable human dimensions of care and solidarity abundant in these communities. “The Town,” arguably, represents the invisible Syracuse not seen by outsiders like myself.

After winning the 2020 Light Work Grant in Photography, the next step for the project is to produce a series of video and audio stories. A multimedia component will complement the photography, which I continue to develop. I want the viewer to be able to hear, see, and feel “The Town.” Ralow, a neighborhood griot blessed with a radiogenic voice, guides us through the town—he talks about a once-thriving South Avenue lined with bars and theaters, now populated with empty storefronts. He describes Syracuse as “the town of 1000 hustles,” where everyone has a side job to survive. My desire to recreate Ralow’s stories, which mixes satire and social commentary, is inspired by Charlie Murphy’s Hollywood Stories on Chapelle Show and Donald Glover’s TV-series Atlanta. I’ll create commercial parodies that highlight essential neighborhood businesses like The Chess Club—the last remaining event space on the South Side.

Each story, skit, or commercial takes on a life of its own—some warrant a documentary approach while others are better visualized through production, including a story board, script, lighting, etc. I have access to the tools—LED lights, cameras, a gimble. I have a team of colleagues living in the area and excited to collaborate. Spending almost six years on this project, I have built an extensive network within in the community. These relationships, developed on trust, has embedded me in the community. I envision the work being displayed within the community, at Light Work’s gallery, and on an interactive mixed media website.

1 Weiner, Mark. “Syracuse has nation’s highest poverty concentrated among blacks, Hispanics.” Syracuse.com, September 6, 2015.
2 Breidenbach, Michelle. “Syracuse makes list no one wants to be on: Top 10 U.S. cities with highest poverty.”  Syracuse.com, September 13, 2018.
3 Weiner, Mark. “Census: Syracuse’s poverty rate remains among nation’s highest.” Syracuse.com, September 26, 2019. 
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