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Point Park graduate's 'mugshot' photos hit nerve on racism

| Saturday, May 30, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Ej Brown
Ej Brown, a Point Park University student created a series of stark black & white portraits of male African-American students entitled, 'Perceptions of Complexion' that is gaining national attention. The portraits depict the students in graduation caps and gowns but posed in a police booking mug-style.
Ej Brown
One of the stark black & white portraits of male African-American students by Point Park University student Ej Brown for his series entitled, 'Perceptions of Complexion' that is gaining national attention. The portraits depict the students in graduation caps and gowns but posed in a police booking mug-style.
Ej Brown
One of the stark black & white portraits of male African-American students by Point Park University student Ej Brown for his series entitled, 'Perceptions of Complexion' that is gaining national attention. The portraits depict the students in graduation caps and gowns but posed in a police booking mug-style.
Ej Brown
One of the stark black & white portraits of male African-American students by Point Park University student Ej Brown for his series entitled, 'Perceptions of Complexion' that is gaining national attention. The portraits depict the students in graduation caps and gowns but posed in a police booking mug-style.
Ej Brown
One of the stark black & white portraits of male African-American students by Point Park University student Ej Brown for his series entitled, 'Perceptions of Complexion' that is gaining national attention. The portraits depict the students in graduation caps and gowns but posed in a police booking mug-style.
Ej Brown
One of the stark black & white portraits of male African-American students by Point Park University student Ej Brown for his series entitled, 'Perceptions of Complexion' that is gaining national attention. The portraits depict the students in graduation caps and gowns but posed in a police booking mug-style.

Seven young black men in graduation caps and gowns stare solemnly into the camera.

They hold mugshot placards that list “charges,” including business management, international marketing, musical theater and philosophy.

This is Point Park University graduate Ej Brown's way of fighting stereotypes that persist about young black men in America — along with what Brown sees as a lack of attention paid to their achievements. He's the artist behind a photo series that features four Point Park students and three graduates of the Downtown school.

“This is my direct response to the media, the injustice and inequality of our justice system, police brutality, and the overall undermining bigotry in this country,” said Brown, 25, a Baltimore native who grew up in Hanover.

Brown's “Mugshot Series” has gone viral on social media. More than 20,000 people liked or reblogged it since it was posted to the social media website tumblr on May 11. It's also gained attention and circulation on Twitter, Facebook and other sites.

The response surprised him, Brown said.

“I thought I'd put it on Facebook and get a few likes. Then the National Urban League tweeted it, Black Enterprise (magazine) picked up the story, and BET (cable TV network) put it on their website,” Brown said. “I said, ‘Guys, we might actually have something here.' ”

One aspect that has drawn a lot of attention is the misspelling of “engineering” on one of the placards. Brown said it was done intentionally.

“It calls out policemen who abuse their power and cover up wrongdoing by altering the facts. That's not right either,” Brown said.

Todd Allen, a professor of communication studies at Grove City College, said the photos challenge people to look more closely at the men and especially the words on their mugshot placards.

“You're kind of conditioned when you first see it to think, ‘What did they get arrested for?' ” Allen said. “But your mind is kind of jarred because they're in caps and gowns, so you think, ‘Maybe this is some kind of positive prison education program.' ”

Allen, who is black, thinks the series can serve to “inspire other African-American males to achieve academically.”

The idea stemmed from a dorm-room discussion over the media's portrayal of racially charged events in places such as Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Brown said. Many stories about the fatal police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson included a photo of the victim in a graduation cap and gown.

“I felt compelled to do something,” said Brown, who earned a bachelor's degree in cinema production and plans to move to Los Angeles in October to pursue a career in the film industry. He works at a Wal-Mart near his York County home.

“Anything that brings attention to how African-American men are represented in the media is a positive,” said Letrell Crittenden, an associate professor of communication at Robert Morris University in Moon, who is black. “I think (Brown) wants more complexity with regard to how African-Americans are represented, and he's willing to go around the mainstream media to address or deal with issues that are of concern to African-Americans.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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