Ben Cleeton

Photographer / Visual Storyteller
The Town
Location: syracuse, ny
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
Public Story
The Town
Copyright Ben Cleeton 2023
Updated Feb 2022
Topics Birth, Conceptual, Documentary, Dying/Death, Joy, Loss, Personal Projects, Photography, Portraiture, Race, Social Justice, Violence, Youth
This project captures the sacred and everyday lives of people from “The Town”—a nickname for Syracuse, New York created by its Black residents. The Town represents large, vibrant pockets of community that are often unseen and marginalized by dominant society. This collection of stories, an ongoing documentary film and still image archive, pays tribute to the people and places creating and embodying its existence.

In media, commonplace images of underprivileged neighborhoods focus on crime, poverty, violence, etc., rendering places like The Town invisible by failing to recognize their dimensions of joy and resilience. This project offers a counter-narrative to the one-dimensional portrayal of Black and Brown communities within Syracuse.

Syracuse is a reflection of how systemic racism stratified many American cities—decades of redlining, gentrification, incarceration, and job loss meant the decline of neighborhood shops, supermarkets, and historic residences. For example, in the 1950s and 60s, the 15th Ward, a thriving Black community built around clubs, churches, and businesses, was leveled to make way for the construction of I-81. In 2017, Syracuse’s poverty rate (32.4%) tied for ninth in the nation with Bloomington, Indiana and Dearborn, Michigan.[1] That Federal prosecutors use RICO laws to target and destabilize Black neighborhoods, fragmenting families by sending dozens from a single community to prison exemplifies the extent of institutionalized racism. Consequently, most people in The Town know someone who has been to prison.

Despite the racist policies which left blight in their wake, The Town is resilient. Filled with energy, it is the setting for late-night summertime block parties, exquisite birthday parties and baby showers celebrating new life. Families coordinate themes and customize t-shirts for parties. Grasping to memories of deceased loved ones, funeral outfits feature photographs of individuals gone too soon. Syracuse has several divisions. The areas featured in this project are neighborhoods, blocks, and sets that together make up The Town—some friendly with one another while others are not.

André “Ralow” Wilson, a neighborhood griot, first heard his home called The Town while incarcerated across New York State. “I think it started in prison and ended out in the street and it just stayed there,” he said. Prisoners communicate using their hometown monikers. Prison vernacular flows into the streets. “When you from The Town, it’s a town thing,” says Ralow. “Even though Syracuse is small it’s still big enough that everybody don’t know everybody, so when you see an individual that may look familiar, ‘Yo, you from The Town?’ It’s not a question of what town they’re from but without hesitation, ‘Yeah, I’m from The Town.’ We doing shit that big cities are doing. We doing shit that big cities ain’t doing. There’s no place like The Town. Don’t take my word for it, ask around.”

This project is a long-term collaboration with Ralow and various people and places within The Town. We plan to make a documentary film along with a series of short videos that include skits, parodies, and commercials. We will record interviews and sound bites to accompany the documentary and photographs, as well as continue filming and making new images. The Town offers a distinct perspective aimed at countering forces of systemic oppression, simply by showing people’s everyday lives. Syracuse—this version of it—deserves its story told.

[1] Breidenbach, Michelle. “Syracuse makes list no one wants to be on: Top 10 U.S. cities with highest poverty.”, September 13, 2018.
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