Alex Welsh is a 2009 graduate of San Francisco State University with a B.A. in photojournalism and minors in history and Middle Eastern studies. Welsh recently won gold in the Documentary category of the 64th College Photographer of the Year competition for his work in Hunters Point.  Welsh is currently a freelance photographer.

Hunters Point, located on the southeast corner of San Francisco, is the last predominantly African-American Neighborhood in the city. The neighborhood consists largely of a community that migrated from the south for wartime work on the Naval Shipyard during the Second World War, but when the shipyard was shut down in the late 1970s, the community that was built up around it slowly deteriorated into poverty due to unemployment and marginalization. Today, San Francisco is quickly becoming an unaffordable city for many, and due to rapid gentrification, happens to be experiencing the fastest out-migration of African Americans out of all major cities in the United States.

A child watches as the playground structure at the Alice Griffith ‘Double Rock’ projects burns to the ground after being set on fire. Although it his highly suspected that the arson was done by young residents of the projects, police never discovered the culprit. Double Rock is slated for redevelopment in 2011, and residents must stay in ‘good standing’ with the housing authority and the developer Lennar to be eligible for a unit in the new development. (Alex Welsh)

I started working in Hunters Point in November of 2007 with a friend of mine who was a writer at the time for the San Francisco State Xpress, our schools publication. Our original plan was to work on a story about the possible environmental effects of the Naval Shipyard on the community. The shipyard is an EPA superfund site that some members of the community believe is the cause for the cancer and asthma rates in Hunters Point to be double that of the rest of the city. But after several weeks we couldn’t land any solid subjects for that angle so we decided to look into a different direction. A story that jumped out to us was the slated redevelopment of all of the public housing along the shipyard that had been there since the 1940s. Large developers such as the Lennar Corporation have plans for the waterfront property that the public housing sits on, and we found that many of the residents expressed concern as to whether the redevelopment was intended to truly benefit their community.

We published the story, you can see it here.

After it was done, I decided to continue documenting life in the neighborhood for fear that the redevelopment would cause the face of the community to change drastically. My goal was to create a body of work that would tell the story of this historic community that has been a part of San Francisco for decades and create a set of images that served as visual evidence of its struggle to remain. Like many poor communities all over the United States, Hunters Point is plagued with the problems of drug abuse and violence, and as I worked, the gang issues slowly became one of the focal points of my story.

Residents of the Hunters View projects celebrate the life of Martel “Gully” Peters with a dance party on the block after his funeral. Peters was shot 16 times in the Army street projects after being lured him into an ambush. Shortly after, Peter’s brother ‘Nook’ (white tank top) and his sister Tati (blue hat) moved away from Hunters View. (Alex Welsh)

At first, many of the kids in the housing projects throughout the neighborhood were not open to me being around, so I just stayed away and photographed mostly family life. But after I photographed a funeral of a kid on the block who was shot and killed in the city’s Army Street projects in the Mission District of the city, many of his friends opened up to me, and I began photographing around them more. In other projects in the neighborhood, I met rappers and other artists that were interested in my work, and the music scene in the neighborhood became a gateway for me to photograph some of the younger residents who normally wouldn’t want anything to do with a camera. I was working in three public housing sprawls simultaneously: Oakdale, Westpoint, and Double Rock, with different subjects in all three. The first public housing sprawl I worked in was Westpoint, and there I was mainly documenting family life, some rap artists opened up to me, but for the most part my subjects were the parents of the kids on the block. In Double Rock, I mostly photographed rappers, the music scene there became very open to me rather quickly, when I met a rapper who brought me around the neighborhood and introduced me in an effort to keep me safe. In Oakdale, I befriended a young man who was a member of the ‘Oakdale Mob,’ which gave me access to photograph the gang culture on the block, the most I saw in the entire neighborhood. After about a year off and on in Hunters Point, most everybody was happy to have me around. I was greeted by kids on the block who loved to have their picture taken, and generally liked me hanging out with them.

Speedy, a young man from the Oakdale projects, admires his chain in the afternoon light while sitting in a van with his friends on Navy Road. In 2007, the city of San Francisco created its first ever gang injunction against the ‘Oakdale Mob,’ listing over 20 young men allegedly involved in gang activity on the block. Today, most of the kids on the block, like Speedy, are under the age of 18, many of who don’t live there anymore but come to see their friends. (Alex Welsh)

I think over time, I became very passionate about documenting the lives of the younger men in the community involved in the gang violence because I realized that no one was making an effort to tell their story. I became interested in telling the story of the culture that enveloped the public housing lifestyle, and I wanted to get to the heart of what was causing these systemic problems for myself. I think, as a society, we tend to view the youth in communities like Hunters Point as hopeless and nothing more than a menace to public safety, and I wanted to create a set of images that went beyond their criminalization, while at the same time examining the evident violence and its effect on them.

After a lengthy chase, Jermaine Jackson is arrested by police officers in the Hunters View housing projects in Hunters Point. With the amount of families in Hunters View dwindling by the month, tension between police and the remaining residents runs high. Jackson was charged with reckless driving police had surveyed earlier in the day. (Alex Welsh)

As time went on, I built up a tremendous respect, in a way, for the kids in the gangs because with hardly any guidance and no positive role models, they were raising themselves to be self-sufficient in any way they could be. I don’t think, as many would say, that they didn’t know any better. I think the majority of them absolutely knew that they shouldn’t be involved in what they were doing. What was extremely tragic to me is that most didn’t have any higher expectations for themselves, and their actions seemed self-destructive at times because they simply lacked respect for their own life. It seemed as though many gang members just slipped into the depths of this dark criminal society because they were extremely angry and depressed about their struggles, and to realize that was a heavy understanding to cope with. For example, I began to see that the act of theft, or the act of drug dealing, was self-destructive because the person who does it knows they will inevitably face the consequences at some point, and the act of murder was in a sense deeply suicidal, because they understood by the person committing the act that it would come back around. As one of them best explained it to me, they were ‘80’s babies’, products of the crack boom and the violent culture that surrounded the drug. They were raised by victims of crack, who were never mothers or fathers to them. Because of that, they held no respect for the elders, or anybody around them, and concurrently held an angry self-entitlement to making a living for themselves and their family by any means necessary. Spending time in the community helped me understand their situation in a much deeper sense.

Friends and family mourn over the death of Andre “Baby Bin Laden” Helton, 18, who was shot dead in his car along with one other in the early hours of the morning. Much of Helton’s family resides in Hunters Point but also in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, where his funeral was held. (Alex Welsh)

At times, I was extremely scared for my own safety and well being, and over time the dangerous lifestyle that the kids around me were living began to take a toll on my sanity, but the more time I spent with the them, the more my convictions about the importance of the work deepened. No journalists in San Francisco really spent enough time in the neighborhood to gain access to the gangs, so it upset me that if I just bailed out of the project, the story simply wouldn’t get told. Even though the kids involved in the gangs commit atrocious, hateful acts often with a reckless disregard for human life: murdering, selling drugs, stealing, they need a voice in the media more than anyone else, and that is what a large part of my work became about.

Go here to view Alex Welsh’s website.