Photo Essays

A Photo Series Casts Black College Students as Criminals in Caps and Gowns

zach
An image from EJ Brown’s ‘Mugshots’ series (all images courtesy EJ Brown)

EJ Brown remembers being a kid and hearing older relatives talk about Rodney King, the Los Angeles taxi driver beaten by the LAPD. Growing up, he knew that cases of police brutality still existed, and that blacks were especially vulnerable, but the riots that ensued after the 1992 incident seemed like a thing of the past.

Then, in the span of Brown’s final year as a cinema productions major at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray were all killed by law enforcement officers who used excessive force, and people once again took to the streets. “[The protests] were something my generation had never seen and was brand new to most of us,” he told Hyperallergic. It seemed everyone had finally had enough.

It was only after watching a video of Walter Scott being shot to death by police in South Carolina that Brown himself felt emboldened to speak out. He was tired of the way that he and his black schoolmates are viewed suspiciously as potential criminals — a cop once even followed him home and searched his car with a flashlight. Though they would soon be graduating from college, attitudes toward Brown and his peers remained stuck in the 19th century.

Brown’s response is Mugshots, a stark photographic series that turns his black schoolmates into the criminals society assumes they are. His friends pose in caps and gowns while holding up booking signs announcing the charges against them — in this case, degrees in business management, philosophy, and criminal justice. Blending the conventions of school portraiture and mugshots, the images powerfully illustrate just how nonsensical modern racism can be.

ryan
An image from EJ Brown’s ‘Mugshots’ series. “The misspelling of “engineering” calls out officers who abuse their power and cover up their wrongdoing by tampering with the facts,” Brown says. “Thus, they are booking misinformation, which leads to a false arrest or accusation.”
keilynn
An image from EJ Brown’s ‘Mugshots’ series
jarrod
An image from EJ Brown’s ‘Mugshots’ series
carlos
An image from EJ Brown’s ‘Mugshots’ series
christopher
An image from EJ Brown’s ‘Mugshots’ series
christian
An image from EJ Brown’s ‘Mugshots’ series
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