On a sunny, hot Saturday afternoon, the Newburgh Community Photo Project (NCPP) began hanging banners in Delano-Hitch Park in preparation for their unveiling of their project “Truth Be Told: Uncovering Newburgh’s Muted Legacy”.
According to the project website, NCPP will work over the course of the next three years by speaking with local historians, gathering information, stories and visuals to display and interpret the Black history in the City of Newburgh.
On this particular Saturday, Vincent Cianni, founder and director of NCPP, was out with fellow members, Salief Lewis & Charles Williams.
“Where we’re standing now (Delano-Hitch Park) is a public art project which is one aspect of our installations this year,” Cianni said. “The purpose of the public art project is to really reach out to the community and allow community members to become aware of their own history.”
Cianni, originally from Brooklyn, moved to the City of Newburgh 14 years ago. Cianni received his undergraduate degree from Penn State University. From there he received a degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art and his masters in photography from the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Volunteering at a men’s homeless shelter in the city during his time at New Paltz, Cianni became aware of the ongoing problems within the community.
The origins of the NCPP began five years ago, following the results of the 2016 election. Through the NCPP, the goal of the project was to utilize photojournalism to explore and express on-going social issues, discuss greater community topics, and encourage community engagement and awareness.
The NCPP’s first project in 2018 came from the idea of doing a grassroots photo project that related to the community members. This initial project focused on the issue and effects of gun violence in the City of Newburgh. The project came about from 8 contributors, who along with Cianni, worked, researched and photographed a catalogue to express their own experiences. Creating a project that was relevant for the community allowed others to share the similar emotions and effects of this issue.
According to Cianni, following this project, the NCPP grew and applied for a state government grant and Orange County Council Arts grant. Following the grants, the NCPP created and held 10-week workshops during the summers of 2018 and 2019 for high school students to work on projects that were relevant to their own lives through photojournalism.
With the current pandemic, Cianni noted that COVID-19 was a challenge due to the restrictions and health protocols that made it difficult to work in their spaces.
Yet during that time, a photo project was developed by discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic using photographs of community members with various messages on their masks. This project became known as “UnMasking the Truth”.
For NCPP fellowship member, Charles Williams, he initially became interested in joining the NCPP when he was a student in Cianni’s class at Parsons School of Design located in New York City. Williams is originally from Queens, New York and majored in photography at Parsons.
Williams first initial interaction with the project and the NCPP’s work came from the UnMasking the Truth project. Coming from the city and doing the local research over this period of time, Williams is excited for this opportunity to express and display his work for the community.
“I love to just tell a story within the images I take,” Williams said. “I want to be here, I want to be a part of this. I want to do as much as I can.”
Williams is thankful for the push to create work further than he could have expected to through the mentorship and collaboration with Cianni.
Salief Lewis, another NCPP member, similar to Williams, first became interested in the NCPP through the “UnMasking the Truth” project as well.
As one who does not have ties to the Newburgh community, Lewis recognizes that this project will be viewed by many, but the hope for him is that people will learn and value the importance of one’s own story through this project.
“When we had this idea about doing the banners in Delano-Hitch, it was something that I really gravitated towards because this is a place, from my experience, where a lot of young people come to play soccer, basketball, whatever,”
Lewis said. “Having something of a different nature be present in this space and be something that these people, or young people, are interacting with, I think that’s important to me. I hope that this project impacts a lot of people.”
For NCPP fellow Steven Baltsas, he came on to the project through a recommendation by his friend and NCPP fellow already, Thérèse Fischer.
Through his research, his focus on the project views the architecture and structures that once housed these members before and his hope is for the community to recognize and be aware of the history within their own community. Raising more curiosity will lead to more work being done and continue the conversation.
“The buildings are so altered from their original appearance. I think it really says something that we don’t have photographs of these places because they were Black neighborhoods and there was no one going and seeing that they were worthy of being photographed,” Baltsas said. “Having the record of that now, and the record of its current appearance is very important because it originally wasn’t photographed. It’s important to keep track of the neighborhood’s progression.”
In 2018, Thérèse Fischer, another NCPP fellowship member, was a Newburgh Free Academy junior when she first met Cianni and worked on her first project through the NCPP.
Becoming more involved with NCPP, she worked on the Unmasking the Truth project last summer and previously before that, she was a mentor for the workshops. Currently, Fischer attends Cornell University, studying communications with a concentration in social influence and a minor in inequality studies.
“Doing these workshops really inspired me to continue with this social justice work,” Fischer said.
Working with Cianni over the last few years, Fischer has learned to push her own work further and pursue the story despite the obstacles and challenges.
Fischer also oversees the NCPP’s social media presence. Reading the comments, receiving community feedback and connecting others online both before and during the pandemic has helped the NCPP grow its online presence and community engagement.
“I hope that this project shines light on the resilience of the Newburgh community and their strength,” Fischer said. “I hope that this project maintains the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. I hope that this project encourages people to continue these uncomfortable conversations about this uncomfortable history.”
To learn more about the NCPP’s upcoming project, visit newburghcommunityphotoproject.com/projectoverview.