A Playful Gaze at the Lives of Brooklyn’s Youth

From tender moments on the city streets to football practice under the lights, Cassandra Giraldo captures urban teen culture in the United States’ largest school district.

© Cassandra Giraldo, from the series, The After School Project. Raquelle and Alonzo hang out near Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, New York after school on 29 September, 2014.

The @afterschoolproject is an Instagram-based series that examines how today’s urban youth spend their time away from the authority of their parents and teachers. The project offers a tender yet nuanced insight into how adolescents act unabashedly themselves, pretending to be grown-ups, despite the complicated, and sometimes, unequal social and educational systems they must navigate. The project was recognised as an exceptional finalist in the inaugural Getty Images Instagram Grant in 2015.

How did you get into photography?

I think I’ve always been an observer in a journalistic sense since I was a little girl. I’ve always been curious, nosy, but quiet and sensitive at the same time. Once a disposable camera got in my hands at a young age, I’d say that’s when I got into photography. The first news event I covered was a Semana Santa procession in Seville, Spain that I shot with a disposable camera when I was 14-years-old. Being that I was such a quiet youth, photography was my way to communicate and my way to feel empowered. I started my formal education inside a dark room in high school and I’ve been learning, fumbling, growing and relearning here in New York City ever since.

© Cassandra Giraldo, from the series, The After School Project. Konstantin, 14, left, and Bishopp, 14, right, both new freshmen in high school, do their math homework before track practice in Fort Greene Park on September 9, 2015, the first day of school in New York City.

Tell us how The After School Project came about and why you decided to photograph the youth of New York City?

When I was a photojournalism student at the International Center of Photography I took on a nine-month long-term project where I trailed the lives of two best friends, April and Desire, in their last year of junior high school. I met the two girls in the same way I meet the "after school kids" on my Instagram account. I saw a gaggle of loud squeaky girls walking toward Atlantic Mall in Brooklyn, which stopped me in my tracks. I knew I had to photograph them. After talking with them a bit, I started taking their pictures and getting to know their stories. It was that one "after school" moment that began a more in depth exploration of these two girls lives as they come of age as thirteen year-olds. I knew I had something magical that I couldn’t quite put my finger on each time I would meet these girls after school, and I wouldn’t name it until three years later while working as a freelancer.

I knew generally speaking that I had always been drawn to documenting youth. From Russian punks in St. Petersburg or Chicano punks in Los Angeles, I feel the most comfortable photographing young people. In between my work assignments, I would always catch myself taking portraits of teens in the city and I realised I had a wealth of youth right in front of me to work with. I didn’t necessarily have to go to the far reaches of the world to find an interesting way to tell stories of youth. Not to mention, I just so happen to live across the street from one of New York City's largest high schools. On an anthropological level, I love feeling like the ethnographer of a young tribe, but also just enjoy the natural rapport I feel with young people. Both these aspects allow for me to melt away into the background in order to capture the natural moments.

© Cassandra Giraldo, from the series, The After School Project. Jamal St. Rose, 16, a junior at Collegiate takes a break from painting the new school mural inside the art room.

You said in your statement that the more you got to know these teenagers, the more you realised there was so much more going on beneath the surface: so what would you say you have learned from this young community?

Yes, I’m constantly surprised by what I learn from the kids. I think it’s important for me to convey the authenticity of teenager’s and their voice. Each scenario brings up another idea or issue about what it means to be a young person today. The interesting thing about creating the thematic “After School” is that so many things fit under this umbrella making it a boundless subject matter. More recently for example, I’ve had access inside a school, which has completely changed the way I think about the complex systems these kids must navigate. The biggest takeaway from the project is that young people, especially city kids, have a wealth of wisdom about society and that adults should respect their insights and give them more credit for.

Why did you decide to make this project an Instagram project?

As I began to accumulate images of teens after school, I realized I had nowhere to take them and that's where Instagram came in. I had been getting such great reactions whenever I posted the pictures onto my personal account that I realized that perhaps the images could stand on their own on their own platform. So the project really is Instagram born and bred and continues to grow in a very organic and public space, which is a new and challenging workflow for me. The project is inextricably linked to Instagram. It made sense from the outset because social media is the language of young people today. It was also a natural outlet for me to attract an audience and to stay in touch with the kids I meet.

© Cassandra Giraldo, from the series, The After School Project. The Atlantic terminal in Brooklyn buzzes with teenagers after school. Taken during back to school season, September 2014.

To finish with - do you intend to continue this project in other cities in America?

Yes, definitely, in fact I consider it to be the start of a global project. Whenever I travel somewhere new, my entryway into a community is through the youth I meet. Kids are hanging out and canoodling after school everywhere and a lot of the interactions are almost identical and mirror each other. That universality speaks volumes to me.

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Cassandra Giraldo is an independent photojournalist and investigative journalism fellow at Columbia University. In addition to her daily assignment work, she pursues stories related to education and coming of age.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the work of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers.

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