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
Date of Work Sep 2014 - Ongoing
Updated May 2020
Location syracuse
Topics Adolescence, Birth, Celebrations, Community, Documentary, Dying/Death, Family, Incarceration, Joy, Loss, Motherhood, Photography, Spotlight, Yearning, Youth
This is a selection from a larger body of unpublished work awarded the 2020 Light Work Grant in Photography.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 a one-dimensional portrayal of a once thriving city now on the margins.

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 man 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.

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