Brian Ellison is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He moved to Houston to pursue his Masters in Counseling at Prairie View A&M University. He earned his BA in Sociology at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Ellison works as a photographer, visual artist, and special education teacher at YES Prep East End. We interviewed him about his path to YES Prep, his art installation “You Are Enough” with Project Row Houses, and the intersection of community art and teaching.
How did you become a photographer?
I went to a performing arts high school and took my first photography class then. When I think back to it, I’ve always loved taking photos– I just didn’t know that there was a title for what I was doing. After I moved to Houston, I picked up my camera again and started taking photos. I’d post them online and people would reach out to me to see if I’d do shoots or to express interest in my work. I wasn’t trying to get accolades; it was just something I loved doing. In 2011, I went to Africa and that trip really transformed me. I was able to capture so many beautiful day-to-day moments in the community I visited. When I got back, I had my first show and 25% of the profits went back to that community. The show had an amazing turnout. There was a write-up in the Chronicle about it, and the feedback was great. It was the first time I realized that people really liked what I was doing. About a year and a half ago, I started talking to Michael Healey, East End’s art teacher, and he invited me to submit to Avenue CDC’s Winter Street show. I put in a photo and won best photo for the whole show. That was confirmation that you shouldn’t sit on your gifts. You need to be confident enough to try. After that, I started applying for grants and opportunities.
I heard about YES Prep through a friend when I was working as a kindergarten teacher at another charter school. During the interview, the questions they asked showed that they were trying to dive into me as a person. They wanted a deeper understanding of who I was. And they took a shot on me– someone who had never taught special education before. It turned out to be the perfect place for me. They allow me to be an individual and they are very strategic about recruiting powerful people for the classroom. I’ve stayed at YES for three years because of the people and the relationships I’ve built. I believe in the mission of working with underserved neighborhoods and families.
“You Are Enough” started with tagging this vacant building in the 3rd Ward with those words. I wanted to take this space that was perceived negatively and flip the feeling associated with it. I started taking photos of people with the words. (One of the first photos you see in the row house installation is one of these photos). I wanted to create a platform for mental health awareness in a community where it isn’t talked about. So we had an event on that block where we created a space for people to feel safe sharing what they’re going through. It was such a beautiful, diverse group of people who came. I see “You Are Enough” as taking three steps. The first is release. The second is cleanse. And the third is affirm. So people would release the negative thing they no longer wanted associated with them, cleanse the negative energy from their system, and write down something positive about themselves that they wanted to flourish and grow. When you walk into the row house now, there’s a whole window of these affirmations. It’s quite beautiful.
Mr. Healey came up with the idea of pushing “You Are Enough” into the school. We painted “You Are Enough” on the back of theater flats, thinking it would serve as a reminder that students are capable of overcoming whatever they’re dealing with. I work daily with children with special needs who often feel insufficient and need to hear that they are enough. I want those words to become a movement. They’re not mine. They’re everybody’s.
All photos provided by Brian Ellison. Ellison’s “You Are Enough” is on view until March 25. Project Row Houses is free and open to the public Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Follow the “You Are Enough” experience on Instagram.