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Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange

In 1981, freelance photographer Karen Ruckman stepped inside the notorious medium-security Lorton Prison to teach prisoners photography. Lorton was a sprawling barrack-like institution nestled in a rural pocket of the Virginia suburbs. Lorton, a Federal facility, closed in 2001. For decades it was where Washington D.C. sent its convicted felons. Initially, the administration didn’t think the program would last more than a few sessions and the students were cautious. Ruckman successfully won grants, donations from Kodak, cash from private donors, and support from then Mayor’s wife Effi Barry to support the photography workshops. Ruckman taught at Lorton until 1988.

When I recently learnt about Ruckman’s work, I was floored. For the longest time I have said that photography workshops inside of American mens prisons ended in the late seventies and mass incarceration had precluded the mere chance. Ruckman’s work at Lorton has forced me to reevaluate my timeline. I hope Ruckman’s work also brings you encouragement.

In 1985, Ruckman invited cameraman Gary Keith Griffin to film the class at work. Now, she and Griffin are working on a documentary about this unique moment in prison arts education. Ruckman and Griffin have followed some of the men since their release and the film, tentatively titled InsideOut, is slated for release in 2015 — the 30 years after Gary made those first reels.

Ruckman has routinely worked with populations considered to have less of a voice in our society – battered women, the poor, and at -risk youth for example. She also taught photography in the D.C. women’s jail, but that single summer program doesn’t feature in the film.

Karen Ruckman and I spoke about her access, the program’s successes and obstacles, the need for diverse image-makers in criminal justice and the lessons the project contains for us all three decades on.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham

Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): I wasn’t aware of any prison photography workshop programs after the 70′s and so to find your work at Lorton is a revelation. It’s 25 years since the program ended, so let’s start with the basics, how did you get involved? Where did the idea come from? 

Karen Ruckman (KR): I was doing work for the Volunteer Clearinghouse here in D.C. and they sent me to the prison to photograph volunteers who were tutoring inmates. I went to Lorton with George Strawn, the head of volunteer services and he asked if I’d be interested in teaching a class. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it happened to coincide with the funding for proposals coming in to the D.C. Arts Commission and I applied for a career development grant and I got it, much to my surprise.

I went down once a week and taught photography with a focus on career development. I approached it as a basic photography class and I brought in guest speakers, photographers from various newspapers, friends of mine in the community who were photographers. It went very well. The men worked hard, so after that I applied for another grant. Actually, D.C. had a category called ‘Arts in Prison’ during the 80s. I got my later funding through that grant category.

PP: Which photographers visited the class?

KR: Craig Herndon, from the Washington Post; Bernie Boston, from The Los Angeles Times, Gary Keith Griffin who works primarily in video and is working with me on the feature documentary now. I had executives from NBC who came in too, as well as local artists and fine arts photographers.

PP: What other arts program were being taught in D.C. prisons at the time?

KR: There were several theater programs and a woman who taught painting. That’s pretty much it.

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Photo: Bernard Seaborn. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Bernard Seaborn

PP: How did the program develop over the 8 years? Did the funding, scope or size of the class change?

KR: I had a cap on how many students I could have but I ended up doing two classes. Prisoners who had been in the earlier classes then became mentors to the new guys. Over time, I became more of a facilitator: bringing in supplies, bringing in expertise, working with them, training them and then they took on the job of mentoring each other.

They also ran the dark room when I wasn’t there. We built a dark room in a closet that was in the prison school where classes took place. I had a teaching assistant, Chuck Kennedy, who came with me from the community but I also had a prisoner  who was a teaching assistant so the guys could work during the week. The program grew with more men participating, more prisoners developed skills. The inmates took on more of a teaching role; it was always my goal that they would.

PP: How many students would you say you taught over the seven years?

KR: I tried to figure this out once some years ago! More than 100 but less than 200. We had new intakes for each class and some guys stayed in year after year. They’d been charged for felonies in D.C. Some had written bad checks, others had been charged for murder.

PP: Lorton is now closed?

KR: It was closed in 2001. It was a rather controversial move. The prison was actually located in Virginia on hundreds of acres of land. There were different facilities there including two youth centers, Central, the medium security facility where I taught, and maximum. Virginia had been wanting that land for quite some time.

Lorton’s buildings needed a lot of work, and rather than renovate, they closed it. The Federal government transferred the land to Virginia and now D.C. prisoners are farmed out across all of the country.

PP: Ouch! That can’t be good for rehabilitation.

KR: It’s terrible, yes. And so there’s no programing, and they’re in federal facilities all over the country.

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Photo: Sidney Davis. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Sidney Davis

PP: What was the reaction and the response from the prison authority? Today, of course, these programs don’t exist and often the language-of-security is used to deny all sorts of things within prisons, and the  camera in particular is quickly labelled as a security hazard. What was the feelings of the Lorton authorities at that time?

KR: I had to take on the job of educator. Many didn’t understood the need for the men to go outside the classroom to photograph, and the usefulness of exhibitions. They understood the photo class but part of that, part of each class was doing a show. We always did one in the community and one in the prison — it was a massive job of educating staff about how we could go about producing the program successfully.

I was very fortunate because Effi Barry, the mayor’s wife, had just opened an art gallery and I had her support. I always went top down. It took me a lot of time to go through the necessary channels and to get the permissions. The administrator at Central Facility, Salanda Whitfield, was a really nice guy who supported the program. He died some years ago.

Mr. Whitfield let the program come in, he let us break the rules, because of course cameras weren’t allowed, and of course inmates were not allowed to take photographs. Even with his backing I still had lots of paperwork to do in order to make the classes function well.

I found some resistance from the guards who felt like the inmates were getting something that was too nice, that wasn’t fair, that they shouldn’t get. So, my real problem when I had problems was always from the guards.

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Photo: Michael Moses El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Michael Moses El

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Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham

PP: Before you began the project, did you consider yourself an activist in that field of criminal justice?

KR: No, I was an activist generally but not particularly in prison reform.

PP: Did you ever have visitors that were inspired by the program and wanted to replicate it elsewhere? Or were you working in a bubble?

KR: I guess I worked in a bubble. I mean, I had visitors and help from others. I had photographers come in, other artists as well, but, no, I didn’t have anyone that wanted to replicate it.

PP: Did you understand at the time that you were doing something very pioneering? 

KR: I don’t think so. I mean it was a really interesting time. Many of us were doing things in the community and were trying to think sideways, and I felt like it was something exciting. I had a passion about taking the camera to people who couldn’t normally tell their stories. By giving the men in my program this powerful communication tool, it was an opportunity for them to tell people who they were, it was a humanizing agent.

For the documentary, and since 2001, we’ve followed up with two of the men who were in Lorton and the program.

Michael Moses El had a fascination with guns. He found that when he came into the program that he was able to transfer this fascination with guns to the camera. It was a very exciting thing for him.

Calvin Gorham is an artist. He’s a singer; a soulful person and he used photography as an artistic tool to communicate how he felt. He said he saw a lot of dark things in the prison and he photographed to express that.

PP: And so there’s no doubt in your mind that photography is a rehabilitative tool?

KR: It’s a powerful rehabilitative tool. There are so many levels one could do with it as a storytelling device. Now, with digital imaging, possibilities are unlimited. Yes, absolutely. I worked with other groups in the city. In 1988, I also worked with women at D.C. Jail, then in the 90s with women at a pre-release halfway house. Also, women in various shelters and at-risk kids.

PP: And so tell us about the documentary, it’s been thirty years since you’ve been doing this work, how and why did you decide a documentary was necessary?

KR: In 1985, Gary Griffin, a friend and colleague, bought his first TV camera. Gary thought it would be valuable if we could do video about the program. So I got permission again, days of paperwork, but we went in with a crew for a week in 1985.

Some of the footage in the trailer is from ’85. We never were quite sure what it was going to be. We did put together a fundraising piece because I was always having to raise money.

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Photo: Michael Moses El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Michael Moses El

PP: Right, you were constantly communicating with free society how important your work was and asking for help?

KR: To do the programing, I had to constantly write proposals and fundraise. I was somewhat burnt out by the end of the 80s. The funding for the prison program became very difficult to get. I went on to work with other groups and do different things. The guys would stay in touch with me, they had my business phone and they’d call me when they got out of prison and tell me what they were up to.

But, I still have the wonderful images. I was at a workshop in Santa Fe in the late 90s and showed some of the images to National Geographic photographer Sam Abell. I also had an audio tape from one of the graduations that I put with the images and it was a very powerful slideshow (of sorts) — one of the men at one of the graduations gave a marvelous speech about photography.

Sam was excited by the images and very supportive. He said. “You’ve got to do something with this.”

I decided along with my video production friends to do a reunion. We knew Lorton was closing. I tracked down as many of the guys as I could. We had about 20-25 at the reunion. Gary documented the reunion and then we documented some of the men periodically. We later settled on following Michael and Calvin.

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Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham

PP: Why Michael and Calvin?

KR: Number 1, they were interested in participating. Number 2, they’re very interesting people — Michael is business-oriented, very focused about his life. Calvin’s a musician, we have a lot of footage of him singing. We’ve seen them almost every year since 2001. Gary and I think 30 years is a good amount of time. When we get this feature documentary completed by 2015 it will have been 30 years since Gary began filming.

PP: The documentary is a few things, it seems? A record of a moment; the on-going stories of Michael and Calvin; and a call to action asking people to think about photography’s relationship to educational and rehabilitation?

KR: It is. It’s a character study that presents the power of photography, the power of art, and how important both can be in changing lives.

Only a few of the men now make pictures professionally, but they all make pictures still. The documentary is about the program and how the learning experience has stayed with the participants throughout their lives; how it continues to resonate and define their world view in a positive and powerful way.

The discipline required working in the dark room was critical. For example, one participant, David, spent two years learning how to make a good print. And he ultimately made beautiful prints. Two years. It was very impactful.

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Photo: David Mitchell El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + David Mitchell El

PP: Can you give us your thoughts of storytelling, self-representation and empowerment?

KR: It was always their story to tell. I came in, I gave them cameras. I didn’t take a lot of pictures. I was there as a facilitator. I gave them the tool to tell their stories. I think that’s enormously important.

During that period — and even now — there’s something that is bothersome to me when people go in and take pictures of powerless people. It’s important for people to tell their own story; that doesn’t just shift the viewer, it shifts the person telling the story.

PP: It does seem obvious that if one puts a camera into the hands of someone in the community that you’re trying to bring new information about and to the wider world, but there’s still so many people in the photo world who reject that. 

KR: Yes. This is off topic, but probably the most amazing experience I had when I took exhibitions to the community was when I hung a show by women at a shelter for victim’s of domestic violence. We did a show of their work at the D.C. library, in the mid-90s. Visitors would ask me who took the photographs, and when I explained the women photographers were survivors of domestic violence, people would just stop and walk out of the room.

How do we relate to issues that we’re uncomfortable about? Do we not want to see these individuals?

PP: Well, what were attitudes like then about crime? What was the reputation of Lorton? What was the general community’s view of Lorton prison? 

KR: Lorton and the D.C. community were very connected in the eighties. So many people from the city were incarcerated there that Lorton was just like a subset of the community. So, there wasn’t as much stigma with prisoners as I encountered among other groups that I worked with, at least in D.C. at that time.

Lorton was considered a very dangerous place. The facilities were old even when I was there. The men lived in dorms and there was one guard per dorm at night so you can imagine that there was some violence. I personally, I didn’t get too involved in that. I tried to go in and do my program with them without judgement.

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Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange

PP: And then tell me about the dark room? Were there any issues with taking chemicals and other apparatus in?

KR: The dark room was fabulous! I brought the supplies and the men ran the dark room. Kodak gave me film and photographic paper. I bought chemicals. We had lots of applicants, but I could only take so many, so it was considered a reward for someone to get into the photography program.

PP: On what criteria did you decide admission? 

KR: They had to have good behavior to be allowed in the program. When it started out I only admitted men that were within three years of parole because the lessons were about career development; it was my hope to actually help guys get jobs once they got out. After a while, we relaxed that rule and a few guys still had a lot of time to serve.

PP: And could students be removed from the program at the whim of the warden or the staff?

KR: Well, I lost a few people because they misbehaved in prison and were sent to the hole (solitary confinement), or to another prison. That happened.

PP: When you release the documentary have you got any plans for distribution. How do you plan to reach audiences?

KR: I’m taking that a step at a time. We are going to finish a 30-minute short this winter that we’ll take to film festivals. A local organization, Docs In Progress, is hosting a showing of the trailer. I’ll contact our local PBS station, but with the feature-length film I have to plan a more structured distribution plan. It’s very important to get it out. I’ve stayed in connection with people in the D.C. community, people like Marc Mauer at the Sentencing Project and others who care about the issue.

PP: What’s your personal position on prisons? What role does incarceration play in our society?

KR: There are people who commit violent crimes and they belong in prison. Some of the men that I worked with said that being in prison gave them an opportunity to really look at themselves and take a timeout and to correct their behavior. There is a role for prison if they have rehabilitation programs.

Of course, we all know that there are way too many people that are incarcerated and there are people that are incarcerated that just shouldn’t be there, so it’s very frustrating. Things haven’t changed all that much since the eighties except we’ve incarcerated more people.

D.C. incarcerates an enormous number of people. With the poverty and lack of good public education here. That’s the story of the documentary. Calvin’s son went to prison and Michael’s son went to prison. So, we talk about that story, it’s that legacy that’s just, it should be broken. Marian Wright Edelman‘s work with the Children’s Defense Fund deals with this issue, and has a program called the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.

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Photo: Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange

PP: Do you think the American public gets reliable information on prisons?

It’s my sense that most people aren’t interested in prisons. When I tried to raise money for the program it was very hard. There’s little compassion. Around drugs and drug culture there’s some alternative sentencing programs happening but by and large, I don’t think people are interested. I mean, now, we have for-profit prisons which is even more atrocious because now we have to maintain the population so that profit lines can be maintained.

PP: I ask because, to my mind, if there were more photography programs like yours occurring in our prisons today, there would exist a more nuanced view of prisons; prisoners’ views. We’d all be in a better place in terms of being informed. 

KR: Yes, absolutely. The program had a humanizing effect, both on the participants and in how they were viewed by the community. It provided a bridge, and it didn’t cost the tax payers much. I secured small grants and fundraised and so it was for tax payers a really good deal. That’s true of most arts programming.

PP: Often program funding is based on measurable impacts but a lot of time with prisons you can’t measure those so easily because some people are not getting out for ten or twenty years. You can’t correlate arts rehabilitation with recidivism because the prisoners don’t get out in any short space of time. So, what stories do you have about your students? Any stand out stories that convince you of the efficacy of a photography program?

KR: The men would be the ones to tell you. Sadly, a lot of the guys die; they don’t make it. Some of them die soon after they get out.

I think about Calvin and Michael — the program gave them discipline and an opportunity to evolve productively. Michael told us about a time soon after his release when he was very tempted to commit a violent act against another man. Something stopped him. It was, he said, it was the discipline and working relationships that he had developed during the program. He didn’t want to end up back at Lorton.

A couple of the guys do a lot of professional photography. It’s very hard to answer that question because people want to ask, “Okay, well how many guys got a job as a photographer?”

PP: How many people generally get jobs as photographers!

KR: Actually, Michael was hired by US News and World Report to shoot a cover story on poverty, and he took some amazing pictures. They were going to use one of his photos for the cover but when they found out he was an ex-offender they wouldn’t run his photo. He’s still very bitter about that.

PP: What’s his past history got to do with the suitability of a photograph? 

KR: It was many years ago; it was the late 80s.

PP: But that’s complete discrimination.

KR: I was told by several photographers at the Post that they would be uncomfortable to have ex-offenders there because they would be afraid that they would steal equipment. These are the attitudes that make it really tough for ex-offenders to get jobs in fields other than construction or the food industry, though a few of them do get jobs driving Metro buses.

PP: Is there anything I’ve missed?

KR: I appreciate you finding and highlighting the work. We’re excited about finishing the film. The project has ended up — without me realizing it — a life work.

FOLLOW

You can follow Karen and Gary’s development of the film via the InsideOut website, on its Facebook page, Tumblr page and via Karen’s Twitter.

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