Billboards That Inspire

Photographer Brittani Sensabaugh didn’t like billboards with negative messages in her East Oakland neighborhood. So she created her own.


Brittani Sensabaugh has installed life-affirming billboards around Oakland.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Growing up in deep East Oakland, Brittani Sensabaugh became acutely aware that many of the billboards hovering over her neighborhood promoted a negative, unhealthy lifestyle: cigarettes, fast food, and alcohol. To her, it was a stark contrast to the beauty and strength of the black communities surrounding her, the joy and resilience she saw every day.

After high school, she moved to New York to pursue photography, and then a few years ago, a white woman on the New York City subway noticed her Oakland hoodie. The woman said: “‘I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but don’t ever go there, because there’s nothing but thugs and drug dealers and gangsters,”’ according to Sensabaugh.

Courtesy of Brittani Sensabaugh

To Sensabaugh, it seemed as if everyone—from the media that had given this woman her opinion of a city she’d never visited to advertisers who saw her community as nothing more than easy targets for junk food, tobacco, and booze—shared the same bleak view of her beloved hometown.

So she came back and started taking photos of residents of North, West, and East Oakland, stopping people on the street and talking to them until she gained their trust. “I document the communities that have been forgotten and that are overlooked by mainstream media. And if mainstream media is documenting these places, it’s usually a negative perception,” she said. “There is beauty in places where the media says there isn’t. It’s overlooked.”

Courtesy of Brittani Sensabaugh

She traveled to other cities that share the same reputation for high crime as Oakland: Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore. Her photos—joyful dreadlocked children, a woman in a bright head wrap kissing her daughter, a little boy standing in front of a NYPD police car, pointing a water gun at the camera—became a series called 222 Forgotten Cities.

Last year, Sensabaugh noticed that many of the same types of dismal billboards that she noticed growing up were still papered throughout Oakland. So she decided to take things into her own hands. In November, on the day of the election, she started installing her own billboards around East and West Oakland—eight in total. They feature her photography accompanied by positive affirmations: “Loving yourself unconditionally and eating healthy is a revolutionary act.” “Move more out of intention, less out of habit.” “Love is more powerful than fear.”

Sensabaugh pointed out that many billboards in East and West Oakland either target black neighborhoods to sell them something (like Newport cigarettes’ aggressive marketing in black communities) or ignore their demographics completely, featuring only images of white people. Some advertising can even be painful. She referenced a ubiquitous Bay Area billboard for traffic ticket lawyers, featuring a white cop pointing a radar gun at the viewer: “Why would you want that in an area where people are getting killed by the police?” she asked. “That’s a trigger.”

Courtesy of Brittani Sensabaugh

Sensabaugh made sure to tie her billboards to their location. Her first billboard featured a boy with dreadlocks with the message, “Money is fake, energy is real.” The billboard was installed on a building belonging to the East Bay Dragons, Oakland’s historic black motorcycle club. And the boy in the photo? He grew up around the corner on Seminary Avenue. She put another billboard in rapidly gentrifying West Oakland, both as an uplifting message to people forced to move and a reminder for new residents to learn the history of their neighborhood.

For a few billboards, Sensabaugh partnered with local black-owned businesses, promoting places like Mandela Foods Cooperative. But she’s proud to have funded the billboards herself. She didn’t want anyone to dilute her project’s message. It’s too important, she said: “It’s not a project; it’s my life. It’s not only my life; it’s my people’s life.”

She plans to spread her movement, to put more billboards in more cities, but at its core, the project is a love letter to her childhood neighborhood. “I love East Oakland. There is no better place in the Bay Area. It’s an area that to this day people don’t go to and consider ugly, consider ghetto,” she said. “I come from that place, a place that taught me—I cry every time I think about this—in the midst of when shit is fucked up, there is beauty. There’s so many beautiful people that taught me how to be revolutionary, the balance of struggle and beauty. It taught me that without the lows, there’s not going to be any highs. It taught me so much.”


Published online on March 22, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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