Ronald Day en route to work, NYC. © Ed Kashi / VII Photo
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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This is the third of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’
Ed Kashi, together with Ron Haviv, photographed and videoed Ronald Day‘s story. Ed and I chatted about his experience and the issues at stake.
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Editor’s note: On September 27, 2012, Ronald Day was discharged from parole. He has since obtained his passport and registered to vote. On November 6, he will vote for the first time in his life. These interviews were conducted prior to September 27.
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Prison Photography (PP): When the idea of this partnership cropped up, how was it that yourself, Ron, Ash and Jess became the first four photographers?
Ed Kashi (EK): To some degree we were chosen on proximity to the subjects. Proximity to New York … and budget. We sense that we’ll expand this work dramatically into a bigger documentary series – not only in terms of going more in depth with our two subjects but with two more subjects.
EK: I’ve done a lot of work on prisons and similar subject matter. I don’t know about the other three. I am driven by examining social and political issues and increasingly it is frustrating to be able to do that for publications and the editorial world. I can speak confidently for all four of us and say our hearts lie in examining social and political issues, but it is so hard to get the funding let alone the interest and the buy-in of the editorial world, so whenever the chance to partner with NGOs or foundations or organizations and go out in the world and do honest and good visual reporting and know that the work will be used in an effective way to advocate for these issues, we take it.
PP: Can you give us a brief background on those stories you’ve done on prisons before?
EK: The first project that I did was in the late 80s. I pursued a personal project on the issue of private prisons looking at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) based in Nashville. I was fascinated back then by the issue of privatization that began under Reagan and Bush Snr. I was concerned that we were privatizing such a critical function of society. I went to four facilities around the country.
The next really big encounter with prisons was during my aging project. During the very first stage of what became an eight-year project on how America is growing old, I did a story on aging prisoners. I went to a couple of prisons with dedicated geriatric facilities. I did the fieldwork in 96 and 97 and the story eventually ran in the New York Times Magazine in 1997. It seems to be an issue I’m always bumping up against in one way or another.
PP: Compared to most photographers, your experience with and within prisons is incredibly wide and involved. Most photographers if they touch on the subject – and sometimes it might be accidental – might do do only once. Repeated visits to prison across the states is unusual. Access to private prisons is very unusual.
EK: I’d be amazed if CCA would give me or another photographer access again. They let me go to a juvenile facility in Nashville, an immigration facility in Houston, a maximum security prison in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a prison in Panama City in Florida. That the early operating years of CCA and maybe they were seeing it as a PR/marketing effort. I mean, I wasn’t even on assignment. To think that CCA would allow in the late eighties a freelance photographer from San Francisco to photograph in their facilities figuring, ‘Well, we’ve not had bad publicity yet, we’re just getting started, this is a way for people to know what’s going on.’ In the state of California, years ago I believe, they set down a policy in which journalists are not allowed in any of their facilities. More and more today, things are really shutting down. Access is in general shutting down for journalists in many ways. We’re perceived as having lost our neutrality and are now considered partisans!
PP: Well, we hear the term “liberal media” constantly. It is one of the most meaningless slurs I can think of. NPR is not liberal.; it’s journalism organization and it is neutral.
EK: The fact that anyone would call Obama a socialist is ridiculous. You should be sent back to school!
In terms of media, the type of person to go in to journalism should have an open and progressive mind. And I don’t mean progressive in a political sense; I mean you’re looking at the world trying to find out what’s going on; trying to figure out how to move forward; seeing the problems and then looking for where there may be solutions. By the nature of this work, you should be progressive and open minded, but unfortunately that has been translated into, ‘You’re Liberal.’
Quite frankly, I think there is something much more venal and dangerous this represents. What we’re now experiencing is something that was begun under the Nixon White House in the sixties and Pat Buchanan was very much behind it … and truthfully Cheney and Rumsfeld and the older Bush were part of it. It is in many ways, no different to what fascist and authoritarian regimes have done – which is to debunk and attack the media. If you don’t kill them physically, you delegitimate them. Really, that’s my very firm feeling of how these political movements work and it is very sad to me to see that this is happening in America.
I don’t see it happening in Europe, but America is such a huge country, a huge swathe is under-educated or naive. I think it is the nature of a large country. It is not that these are bad people, it’s just that they are not educated. It pisses me off and it scares me.
PP: Let’s talk about how that relates to this partnership. Does that landscape you just described, does that imperil the way potential this work and it’s products could be seen, interpreted or understood? Or do you look at it another way, a more positive way, that there wouldn’t have been a pressing need in the past to reach down and give a helping hand to a young, fledgling NGO. How does VII Photo, Think Outside the Cell and Sheila Rule anticipate that this work will be consumed?
EK: The way I look at this advocacy journalism, which is what I call it, is we gain access to subject we would otherwise have trouble getting access to. That’s number one. Number two, we’re doing it in cooperation with an organization that we know will disseminate the product to the policy makers and the people and organizations who can make a real difference and drive change – be it on a legislation for funding level.
Then, VII or the photographer can take that work and have a free hand to distribute it in the media landscape. The difference is that in the past I’d have to convince New York Times magazine or whoever it is [ahead of time] to give me time and money to go and do the work. Theoretically, I’d have been able to gain access because of the guarantor of a reputable organization and then the work would be funneled through that media organization for good or bad effect. In a sense, I prefer this [way of doing things] which sounds kind of weird. Just so you understand, on a process level, I’d rather just be working all the time for New York Times magazine or National Geographic or whomever, just because I love that being a journalist and having the support and protection of a media organization, but given the way things have changed and given the reality – both economically, politically and structurally of media in our society today, this is an exciting development that is taking place. As long as it is done in the correct way, where there is no slanted or biased reporting.
PP: You’ve been liberated but not compromised? And you use the phrase ‘advocacy journalism’ which is the most fitting term I’ve heard.
EK: On a deeper level – and this is definitely a product of my age and the stage I am in my life. Being mid career in terms of my work and certainly being mid career in terms of my life span and being a parent of teenagers and being engaged with the world not just as a journalist but as a citizen – I want this goddamn work to make a difference.
It’s not just about, ‘Hey, look, I got the cover of National Geographic magazine’ or ‘Hey, I’m on assignment for the New York Times Magazine.’ Its not that those things don’t have value any more, it’s that they are not the purpose. The purpose is, ‘How do I make work that makes a difference. How do I make work that can be utilized to make positive change?’ I think it is critical for us to find ways to tell stories that give optimism and a belief that there’s a way forward. We need to bear witness to the worst things that are going on in the world and not sugarcoat them. Obviously we need that objective first hand view of things. Whenever we can tell a story that exposes a problem but proposes a solution, I think that is the height of journalism.
Ronald Day at his home in the Bronx, during a Father’s Day barbecue, held on June 17, 2012 in New York City. © Ed Kashi/VII Photo.
PP: That’s what you want out of it. What do you think your subject, Ronald Day, wanted out of it?
EK: That’s a great question because it cuts through to the potential naked ambition of the photographer or the journalist. You’re getting points by shooting in a prison because it is gritty and it is edgy and it is tough and cool. You know what I mean? Characterized in that warped way the professional can work. Whereas, I am at a point now where I wouldn’t want to go into a prison or do a story on Ronald or anyone if I were to hurt the subject in any way.
What does Ronald want? I think he wants his story to be told, and it is common among people who agree to cooperate with journalists – it’s a little bit of vanity and a little bit of hope. At the very least, their situation will improve and for those who are a little more magnanimous, telling their story may help others in similar positions. I believe Ronald is a selfless man. He’s a pretty brilliant dude; he’s a smart and totally impressive. He is a poster-child for this particular issue. He is not your average ex-prisoner. I left the project missing him.
PP: How long have you lived in New Jersey?
EK: I moved here Christmas 2004, so eight years. I was born in New York city and raised in the New York area. In 1979, I moved out to the Bay Area.
PP: What did you learn, as a resident of the region, about New York State? VII and Think Outside the Cell intend to expand the initiative to other states. At that point the stories will change because each state carries different laws. But did you learn anything through Ronald peculiar to New York State when it comes to the stigma of reentry.
EK: I was surprised to learn about how a one size-fits-all nature of bureaucracy ends up shafting extraordinary guys like Ronald. The probation rules are a central theme of Ronald’s psyche and story.
PP: I’m presuming you think he should’ve had a faster track through probation and been able to take on student loans and start his PhD and make international travel.
EK: Yes, and for instance, now he is in this position where because of the job he has and the teaching at night, it forces him to break his curfew rules. He has to get up a 5 in the morning, to catch the bus to the train at 6:30, so he gets to Brooklyn in time for his work, but technically he’s not supposed to be out of his house until 7am. He could potentially be penalized for that. Or he has to go to some event in the evening, where he is teaching or speaking or taking a class and technically then he’ll get back home after his curfew. I understand that with tens of thousands of parolees in the state of New York you can’t have tens of thousands of different sets of rules, but it would be great to find a way to bend and accommodate for people when it is so clear they are on the right path. That might seem like a minor thing, but it is not minor to him.
PP: Anything else?
EK: I don’t know if I expressed this adequately but ultimately the goal of this work is to further break down the stigma of people who have been in prison and – as is the case with any journalism – to educate people. We have to look at the formerly incarcerated in a different light and in a sense we need to look at how the structures of our society deal with the formerly incarcerated. At a functional level, that is more important for former prisoners – so that when they go for housing or employment, they don’t face hurdles that basically leave them in a self perpetuating negative cycle.
PP: Do you think your media of choice, photo and video, are entirely appropriate? Inasmuch that you are battling stereotypes and many misleading stereotypes that have been created through mass media images, TV and film.
EK: That’s where this partnership with Think Outside The Cell is different. In a perfect world scenario, the work gets presented through big outlets, but ultimately this work will be used by Sheila Rule and her organization to advocate in the trenches. Progress occurs when a few minds who actually have some influence on the system are changed. So, they go into their next hearings, congressional meetings or classrooms and they open up others’ eyes. It is something I believe in – even despite all the cynicism and the over-mediated world we are living in, I absolutely believe in that, because I’ve seen it happen. You change one mind and then there is a ripple effect.
PP: Hear, hear. Thanks Ed.
EK: Thank you, Pete.