Black men are becoming endangered in the United States. Imprisonment, drugs, gun violence, and the heinous acts of some police officers are taking them away from their families and from their futures.

However, my experience confirms that not every man is a murderer, gangster, or criminal—nor is every black man. The growth and potential of young black men is being stunted. They are growing up in a world that is against them; they are forced to prove their innocence instead of the justice system needing to prove them guilty.

My goal for these portraits is for the viewer to look into the eyes of these young men and see young men: not necessarily young black men—definitely not thugs—but prospective contributors to society. We were all created by God. We all have a purpose. If society will allow them, they will realize that potential. But first, the initial perception of guilt must be changed. That change starts by looking them in their faces.

In this portrait series, given just a face and very minimal information, examine your own thoughts. What judgements have you placed on the subjects in the frame? Have you fallen victim to believing the false reality society has placed on black men? Or do you see opportunity, potential, contribution and advancement? Think about it.

—Cydni Elledge

Editors’ note: We discovered Cydni Elledge’s work thanks to the organizers behind “Documenting Detroit.” Elledge was a fellow in their program for emerging and early career photographers. Discover the other 2016 fellows and learn more about this important and inspiring initiative.

If you’re interested in seeing more work on this and similar topics, we’d recommend the following articles: Nigerian Identity, contemporary portraits of Nigerians that were deliberately photographed without the context of environment to challenge the viewers’ pre-conceived ideas about identity and A Common Story, a series about personal and national identity in contemporary Greece following their economic crisis.