When Ara Oshagan was invited to shoot b-roll for a documentary film in the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, he didn’t hesitate.
“I had lunch with Leslie [Neale, the filmmaker] on Monday, and on Tuesday I was inside with my camera,” says Oshagan. The film was Juvies.
As an Armenian emigre living in Los Angeles, Oshagan was aware of California’s bloated prison and jail systems, but had not thought about how he’d operate as a photographer within them. Previously, his approach was to spend years on his documentary projects often wandering and discovering. In Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, time was not a luxury … and neither was space. “I had to keep the film crew out the frame.”
Over the 3 years of the project, Oshagan identified shortcomings in the ability of his photographs alone to describe the experience of the children. His solution? To pair images with poetry and prose of the six children he followed.
When the kids got bumped up into the adult system he followed them there too. “I wanted this work to be about this passage. The adult system is a complete change in culture,” says Oshagan. “The whole culture will take advantage of the younger kids coming in.”
Oshagan witnessed teenagers he knew as small boys, bulk-up in their first six months in the adult system. They told him how the first thing they learnt was how to make weapons to protect themselves.
What surprised both he and his subjects was the length of sentences children are routinely given. And, after they move up through the system, their chances of a secure, violent-free life diminish.
The real kicker? Oshagan concludes his own kids are not too dissimilar to those he photographed in lock up. It’s not too difficult to imagine one poor decision and a life taken over by years of incarceration.
Why does this matter? Well, not only are sentence-lengths for juveniles growing, in recent years many states (40 in total) have introduced laws to allow the trial of juveniles as adults.
How is our society poised for the conversation on the culpability of under-18s and our shared capacity to manage and then forgive?
To help the conversation, Oshagan is to shortly publish the photobook A Poor Imitation of Death. The title comes from one of the kids’ description of imprisonment.
All images © Ara Oshagan