Exploring cities through a new lens with funding from the Benenson Awards
In this interview, Benenson Awardee Milena Ozernova ’22 shares how she intertwines her passions for social justice and storytelling to document neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Diego effected by gentrification.
Each year, Duke University grants Benenson Awards in the Arts, which provide funding for fees, travel, and other educational expenses for arts-centered projects proposed by undergraduates (including graduating seniors). The deadline for 2023 Benenson Award applications is Monday, March 20th. The Benenson Awards contribute to students’ artistic work. We recently spoke with 2022 awardee Milena Ozernova, a 2022 graduate with a BA in Political Science and minors in History and Visual Media Studies, who shares her passions for social justice and storytelling to document neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Diego effected by gentrification. Before photographing the cities, Ozernova first identified members within the communities to interview and learn background information about the spaces she was documenting.
Did the interviews with community members in Boston, Chicago and San Diego influence how you captured their spaces?
Absolutely! When I started my project in Roxbury, Boston, I made sure to schedule as many interviews as possible before going out to photograph – I knew that as an outsider, I would never be able to find the “authentic” places I wanted to showcase. In one of my first interviews with a local activist Jordana Monteiro, I learned that Roxbury used to have a famous shoe store that was the cornerstone of the community, until it had to relocate to a different building due to the high rent prices. When I passed the closed store during my introductory trip to the neighborhood, I saw nothing but an empty commercial space. But now that I knew the history behind this space, I made sure to take plenty of photographs!
Do you have a specific photograph that you find particularly impactful?
Of course! I have taken this photograph in Wicker Park, Chicago, one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the world. I was trying to photograph the wall behind this boy, which was covered in lavish greenery and flowers. It seemed like something one would never find in a low-income neighborhood, but that was a staple in gentrifying neighborhoods. However, I couldn’t stop time, so when I was taking photos, I was bound to catch a few passers-by in my photo. This was one of such accidents, and for some reason, it’s now one of my favorite photos.
How has support from the Benenson Award impacted the development of your photojournalistic book, Three Stories of Gentrification?
The Benenson Award helped me spend more time in the communities I was studying – a whole month in each city as opposed to one week – which gave me a chance to feel a little bit like a local.
I think that it made my work on the project much easier and even intimate as I was able to participate in the day-to-day life of the neighborhoods where I lived and worked.
What kind of advice would you give to a student preparing to apply for the Benenson Award?
My main advice would be to get as much advice from previous students and faculty members. As I was quite active in Duke’s artistic community, I had a few of friends who had received the Benenson Award in the past. I made sure to ask them about their experiences and project themes, and whether they could give me any advice about my proposal idea and structure.
My personal advice would be to choose an idea that truly speaks to you. Your project can serve as an excellent foundation for your future professional endeavors, so why not do something that can both showcase your skills AND promote your personal agenda?
When I was still a freshman or a sophomore, I couldn’t understand how to combine my creative projects with social justice initiatives, but this project helped me intertwine the two and get closer to my goal of using storytelling to promote change.