Kevin Claiborne ’21 Leads Free Film: NYC in Harlem

Carlos Barragán
April 05, 2024

Visual Arts alumnus and former Adjunct Assistant Professor Kevin Claiborne ’21 recently worked as the Artist in Residence for Free Film: NYC, a project aimed at connecting New York City neighborhoods through the medium of film photography and making this art form available to everyone. The month-long role involves three photo walks with neighbors and a few hours of work per week in the organization's converted Airstream trailer planning events, operating the darkroom, and managing relationships with partner organizations. 

During the project's Harlem residency this November, Claiborne and his team hosted photo walks by equipping amateur photographers with Pentax cameras and 35mm film, encouraging exploration of Harlem’s streets and inviting participants to document their surroundings in a one-square-mile area of the neighborhood. They took pictures of the pink polka dot trash bags near James Baldwin Lawn, the discarded bathtubs that lined an alley off West 140th Street, and a jack-o’-lantern impaled on a fence along St. Nicholas Terrace.

“They grab a roll, take a creative approach to those 36 images, and bring whatever it is they see and take whatever they want to document in a creative project,” Claiborne told Columbia News Service. Photographers received digital copies of their work at no cost. The initiative has spanned across New York City, including neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Sunset Park in Queens, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and East Williamsburg. 

Claiborne’s own relationship with the Free Film Project, run by Worthless Studios, began in 2020 through an open call to photograph Black Lives Matter protests. “I participated and had a roll of film, and then when I submitted it, they had selected one of my images to be in their book,” Claiborne said. He supports making photography easy for everyone. The process, especially working with film, forces you to slow down “in a good way because the medium itself requires you to be more thoughtful and intentional,” he said. “There’s a limitation in terms of images per roll of film, there’s limitation because of the cost associated with the medium for analog versus digital.”

Claiborne has a long-standing connection with Harlem. He’s lived in the neighborhood for the past four years, seeing its transformation firsthand. “It’s something that I feel deserves a critical eye,” he said. “I’m part of that new class of people coming into the area, compared to people who’ve been there for generations, so I’m trying to capture what I see as someone young and living in Harlem.”

Kevin Claiborne is a multidisciplinary conceptual artist whose work examines intersections of identity, social environment, & mental health within the Black American experience. Moving between collage, silkscreen, photography, painting, and sculpture, while frequently using language as material, Claiborne is interested in finding new ways to look at history and its connection to the present. Claiborne holds a B.S. in Mathematics from the historically Black college North Carolina Central University (2012), an M.S. in Higher Education from Syracuse University (2016).