Alexis is a project I began in 2013 while researching the impact of gang violence in Los Angeles and the resulting urban war youth are subjected to. My intention with this work was to show how violence within low income communities between rival gangs closely simulates that of a war-zone, as it is often referred to as such by its inhabitants. A study called the Oakland Effect found that youth in low-income cities have potential for more severe PTSD than soldiers returning from 2+ tours in Iraq. Through this research I became closely involved with the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), a continuation school for disenfranchised youth who are at high risk for gang recruitment. There I met Alexis, a biracial bisexual 17-year-old working as a community organiser. I began to learn more about Alexis and discovered she has been homeless sporadically since the age of 13; was involved in a South Central gang; struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder; had been institutionalised numerous times; lost her father to meth; and works to support her family through stripping and sex work. Alexis exemplified the direct impact of what I was studying, and I began documenting her exclusively.
In working with Alexis, I started to feel restricted by the confines of photography, as the images I made failed to fully translate what I knew privately of her. I became interested in the moments that I couldn't be there for and the intangible shifts in her demeanor. In order to combat this challenge, I changed the framework of the project by giving Alexis and her partner their own camera. Later I included writings, screenshots, selfies, and all Alexis’ social media platforms Including these personal mediums enabled us to record everything from her sex work to her relapses; her train of thought to her mental (in)stability. As a result, we created an all-encompassing documentation of her life through photography, video, audio, writing, text, and social media content. Through employing the technology and modes of communication used by youth today, the project questions the potential for documentary photography.
Alexis is the shifting space of the people invested in the works’ production and, by extension, the ambiguous relationships enabled and facilitated by our many outlets of connection. The collective authorship of ‘Alexis’ formed by looking to achieve an accurate representation of such shifts in public and private interactions. Similar to the conventions of art and commercial imagery, the surveilled female object is offered up; yet here she is not just viewed, but viewing, herself and her public. As an audience, we see a personal memoir juxtaposed with the outsiders perspective, resulting in a panoptic gaze of one life lived. We see what it means to create an aggregate and constant documentation of a self.
Alexis is not unique in the challenges she has faced, and she continues to struggle with many of the physical, mental, and emotional problems she battled when I first met her. This project raises awareness on what it means to be an independent youth: the decisions they are asked to make and the sacrifices required to survive. The project became a form of therapy: Alexis sees the impacts of the decisions she makes and the rhythms her life assumes, and it works to reaffirm her self-worth. This work continues to allow me to question the ideas of self-representation and authorship to research urban youth PTSD in greater depth, and other projects/groups that have provided artistic outlets to help kids cope with the tremendous stresses they face daily. By focusing on Alexis, I hope to continue documenting the long-term impact of a childhood in an urban, gang-affiliated neighborhood; but also to try to understand if and when that influence can be swayed by the development of her persona as a growing adult. I want to know if art and self-reflection, as allowed by viewing one’s self through myriad personal and objective lenses, can have a positive impact on the future of an otherwise forgotten child from America’s discarded neighborhoods.