A temporary gig as a set photographer took Jordana Hall to San Quentin State Prison; her heart and consciousness propelled countless return visits. She has worked particularly closely with men who were convicted when juvenile (under 18) and were sentenced to life in prison.
Hall has worked as a volunteer in existing programs; launched her own project that melds poetry, family letters, snapshots and her own portraits; and visited the hometowns and families of prisoners. The ongoing body of work Home Is Not Here is part of Hall’s senior thesis exhibition. It will be on show – beginning April 2013 – at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
I wanted to learn more about Hall’s motives and discoveries.
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Prison Photography (PP): How did you get access to San Quentin State Prison?
Jordana Hall (JH): My work at San Quentin started in June 2011. I was hired as the set photographer for a documentary (working title, Crying Sideways) by SugarBeets Productions. The documentary details the stories of a group inside San Quentin called KIDCAT (Kids Creating Awareness Together).
PP: KIDCAT is a group of lifers sentenced as juveniles, correct?
JH: Yes, you can follow KIDCAT on Facebook.
PP: They describe themselves as “men who grew up in prison and as a group have matured into a community that cares for others, is responsible to others, and accountable for their own actions.”
JH: I began attending KIDCAT’s bi-weekly group meetings as a volunteer. During this period of volunteering, I developed a working relationship with the members of KIDCAT. Showing up when I said I would, being accountable, and most of all keeping an open mind and heart while inside re-assured the men of KIDCAT that I was a trustworthy member.
Then in June 2012, I started working on my senior thesis for my Photojournalism BFA at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. I approached Lieutenant Sam Robinson, Public Information Officer at San Quentin, with the idea of starting the “Home Is Not Here” project. If I had not had the relationship that I do with the men of KIDCAT, Sam would not have been so willing to help. It really is this relationship that I have with the group that has allowed me so many opportunities to continue my work there. I’ve been going into San Quentin for a year and a half now, and have only been able to bring my camera three times.
To be granted access to San Quentin – even minimal access – requires a lot of work. There needs to be a legitimate return for the prison community. In my case, publishing my work to Young Photographer’s Alliance, posting to my website, and eventually in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was enough justification for the prison to allow me to continue working inside.
I never take my access for granted.
There are strict rules about what you can and cannot do, wear and say. If I slip up – even just a little – my access is on the line.
PP: Why did you take on the project?
JH: After hearing the inmate’s stories during the documentary filming, I realized that all of them were just teenagers who were dealt a bad hand. This is not to say they don’t take responsibility for what they did. They definitely do. Their stories resonated to my core; the stories would impact anyone who heard them. I left the prison gates that day realizing that they could be my brother, father, or best friend. I began to think about their families. Most of the men in the group are in their mid-thirties; they have spent more than half of their lives in prison. I thought about how they struggle to keep working relationships with their loved ones for so many years through the prison walls. That wondering led me to my senior thesis project.
Home Is Not Here documents the relationships between an incarcerated person and his family. I seek out the ways in which their relationship can be kept when there are so many barriers involved.
PP: What have you learnt?
JH: I’ve learned that the families of incarcerated people are the least documented victims of crime. Communities shun them for “raising a criminal.” There are limited resources available for them to get help. These families mourn the loss of their loved one’s free life with little to no support.
I learned the truth in the statement, “When one person is incarcerated, at least five people ‘serve the time’ with them.” I have seen family members go about their daily lives with a piece of their heart locked away in prison.
JH: I learned that letters from a child to their “Tio Miguel” (who they have never met outside of prison visitations) would break your heart. I learned that even the toughest looking men still get tears in their eyes when you ask about their family.
I am still learning.
PP: What did the prisoners think of being photographed?
JH: The first day they were most interested in seeing how a digital camera works. I am very hands-on with my subjects, and with the permission of Lt. Sam Robinson, I handed my second camera body to the guys to play with on the breaks during filming. It was both funny as well as saddening to watch their amazement at the foreign device.
The first time I went in, I asked to see an inmate’s cell. The guys all looked at each other, waiting for someone to volunteer. One by one they denied my request to see their space. We ended up going to a stranger’s cell, just so I could poke my head in from the door. Soon after, I fully realized the shame that comes over them when asked about their cells. It is the only space that is their own, but it also the cage they are locked in at night. These 6 x 12 cement cages are a place both of safety and of degradation.
After I stuck around for a year, I approached the cell situation, again. This time they were excited to show me their space. Their family photos on the wall, bookshelf with notebooks, sketchbooks, and wall markings left from previous inmates. “Stay Focused” was scrawled into the yellowed paint next to the metal bunk. It took some time and a lot of trust building for me to get on that level with them.
PP: Did you give the men prints?
JH: Giving the guys the prints is absolutely one of my favorite parts!
The Home Is Not Here project had me traveling to the hometowns of three men. I went with only small clues of what and where to photograph – “The Dairy Queen where I took my first girlfriend on my first date,” or “The restaurant named after the city in Vietnam where my family was from.”
When I brought back prints from my trips, the guys were blown away by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same.
I was asked by one inmate to visit the grave of his grandmother. They were extremely close and she passed away while he was in prison. When he saw the photograph I took there, he began to cry. It was almost as if I had delivered him a physical place to grieve her passing.
I try to give back to my subjects as much as I can. I try not to be that photographer that comes in, gets the story, and never comes back. They give so much of themselves when they allow me to photograph them, giving prints to them is the least I can do.
PP: What did the staff think of being photographed?
JH: I never photographed the staff, although some day I hope to see some really thorough work done about the people who work in prisons. It would be a fascinating story.
PP: I agree. I’ve yet to see a photography project that suitably deals sympathetically and deeply the complex and stressful dynamics of correctional officers’ work and lives.
PP: Could photography serve a rehabilitative role, if used in a workshop format in prisons?
JH: I think a workshop on photography in a prison would be an incredible idea. These men are so introspective and have so much to offer, creatively. The documentation of life inside prison by an inmate could offer such insight for us all.
PP: Are prisoners invisible?
JH: Yes, I believe prisoners are invisible. Everything about the prison system is set up for them to be invisible, and stay invisible. To be silenced, and out of sight. What I aim to do with this project is to shed some light on a piece of an inmate’s life that is not seen. When people think prison photography they think of hardened criminals, drug addicts, grimy hands gripping cell door bars, and the underbelly of society. I am offering the alternative viewpoint, which is the humanity inside. These men are fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and they all have people who care about them. They also have built communities of support for each other, inside.
PP: What’s been the feedback to your the work?
JH: As I work I like to get feedback from my peers. A lot of people who see photographs of inmates and due to their preconceived notions will shake their head and walk away thinking, “What monsters…” but with the work I do, I try to side step this notion and say, “No, look closer.”
No matter what I do, some people will never see it the way I’d like them to, but for people who can be open-minded, the work gives an inside look to the humanity that exists inside prison, and awareness of the struggles of their families.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
JH: As I move forward in my thesis, I am turning my focus to just one inmate in particular, Miguel Quezada. This is the working statement:
“Estamos Contigo (We Are With You)” – Miguel Quezada (below) was incarcerated at age 16. Now 31, he has spent half of his entire life in prison. Due to a harsh judicial decision that he should serve his sentences consecutively, his first parole hearing is not until the year 2040. He will be 60 years old. Home, for Miguel, rests between the realities of life at San Quentin Prison today, memories of his childhood cut short, and dreams of a faraway tomorrow. His family shares this stress, mourning the loss of their loved one’s free life. From the part of South Modesto, California known for its lack of sidewalks and high crime rate, Miguel grew up in poverty with his parents who immigrated from Mexico. His mother and father, Arturo and Lucila, are almost completely illiterate, so writing letters takes a lot of time and energy. Miguel appreciates it when they do write, but loves when they send photographs. His nieces and nephew, who he has never met outside of prison visitations, write him frequently and give him a sense of connectivity to the outside world. Miguel is one of hundreds of men in the state of California with similar stories – serving life for a mistake made as a teenager. The barriers of the prison walls will never restrain the emotional longing of one human being to be with another.
PP: We look forward to checking in again soon. Thanks, Jordana.
JH: Thank you.