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Just a quick post to say …
It happened. Prison Obscura opened. With a fantastic turnout. Gallery was crammed for the curator’s talk and people said many nice things. I pulled my usual trick, clocking silly hours until the early hours most of last week during install. Matthew Seamus Callinan, the Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and Campus Exhibitions at Haverford College did the same. I cannot thank Matthew enough for his support throughout the creation of the show. Legend. More thanks to so many people.
I haven’t any pictures of the opening because my head was spinning. There’s some on Facebook. I’m sure others have some too (send ‘em over!) but I wanted to do a quick post with some installation shots. Taken at different points during the week during install and may not reflect exactly the final layout. (Buckets and hardware not part of the show).
Prison Obscura is up until March 7th at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia, PA. All you need to know about the exhibit is here.
I’m not the only one putting up a show (Prison Obscura) of imagery made in and about prisons. The Laband Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles opens its Voices Of Incarceration exhibition on Saturday 25th January.
It’s an interesting line up of artists that includes artists who are imprisoned and individuals on the outside who are making art about prisons. Laband says:
“Both groups bring to light the emotional costs and injustices of the Prison Industrial Complex. Voices of Incarceration also explores the rehabilitative arts programs in California prisons and the expression of the imprisoned artists’ strength and individuality through the creative process.”
KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR-affiliate has done a couple of programs recently about the small but important attempts to reintroudce arts education into California prisons:
If you’re in L.A., go check it out. It’s open until the 16th March. One last note — it’s great to see in the mix Prison Photography favourites Alyse Emdur, Richard Ross, Michal Chelbin and Sheila Pinkel.
It is with giddy, air-punching pride and mammoth-sized gratitude for those that helped me along the way that I announce the imminent opening of Prison Obscura.
This exhibition is my first solo-curating gig and reflects my thinking right now about images of and from American prisons. Prison Obscura includes works, approaches and genres that — after 5-years of looking at prison photographs — I consider most informative, responsible, challenging and useful.
Prison Obscura is on show at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery from January 24 through March 7. The CantorFitz built a remarkable Prison Obscura website to accompany the exhibition, at which you can find a lengthy 5,000-word essay as to why I have shied away from traditional documentary work and focused instead on surveillance, code, vernacular snaps, prisoner-made photographs and rarely-seen evidentiary images.
I posit that certain images can more accurately speak to political realities in America’s prison industrial complex. I also celebrate photographs that were made through processes of collaboration with prisoners and with intention to socially engage the subjects and educate audiences. I want you to wonder why you — a tax-paying, prison-funding citizen — rarely gets the chance to see inside prisons, and I want us to think about what roles existing pictures serve for those who live and work within the system.
Scroll down to learn more about the Prison Obscura artists.
Photographer Unknown. Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Photographer Unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Suicide watch cell, Building 6A, Facility D, Wasco State Prison, California (August 1st, 2008). This photograph document was submitted as evidence in the Brown vs. Plata class action lawsuit (Supreme Court of the United States, May 2011). Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.
Photographer Unknown. Reception Center Visiting / Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
PRISON OBSCURA ARTISTS
Alyse Emdur’s collected letters and prison visiting room portraits as well as Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration.
Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs.
Prison Obscura will also feature work made in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Men from Graterford Prison who are affiliated with both its own Restorative Justice Program and Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Group are collaborating to create a mural for the exhibition.
The exhibit moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in works like Josh Begley’s manipulated Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated videos, which offer a “celestial” view of the growth of the prison system.
Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face to face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.
Scroll down for media, details and events.
Mark Strandquist. Pocahontas State Park, Picture of the Dam. One Hundred and Thirty Days (top); text describing the scene written by a Virginia prisoner (bottom). From the series Some Other Places We’ve Missed.
Josh Begley Facility 237. From the series Prison Map.
50 of the 5,393 facilities imaged by Prison Map, a data art project which automatically “photographs” every locked facility in the U.S. by gleaning files from Google Maps with use of code modified from the Google API code by artist Josh Begley.
Josh Begley Facility 492 From the series Prison Map.
Photographer unknown. Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, Tacoma, Washington, reenact restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
Photographer unknown: Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
Photographer unknown: Steve Davis Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
Alyse Emdur. Anonymous Backdrop Painted in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. From the series ‘Prison Landcapes’ (2005- 2011)
Robert Gumpert. Tameika Smith, 9 July 2012, San Francisco, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
Robert Gumpert. Michael Johnson, 15 August, 2009, San Francisco County Jail 5, San Bruno, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’
Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’
I’ll be giving a curator’s talk in the gallery on Friday, January 24, 2014, 4:30-5:30pm, followed by the opening reception 5:30–7:30pm.
Additionally, poet C.D. Wright will be on campus for a Tri-College Mellon Creative Residency in conjunction with the exhibit, and on January 31, at 12 noon in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Wright and I will host a dialogue about Prison Obscura.
Prison Obscura is presented by Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities with support from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
Part of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and located in Whitehead Campus Center, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m.
Haverford College is located at 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA, 19041.
SPREADING THE WORD
For more information, please contact myself or Matthew Callinan, associate director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and campus exhibitions, at (610) 896-1287 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Poster showing the statistics and aesthetic of ‘Proliferation’ an animated video of prison construction in the United States (1776-2010). Image: Courtesy of Paul Rucker.
Graphic design for Prison Obscura by Ellen Gould.
“I want this thing off today … this fucking thing is an invasion of privacy, and goes against my well-being,” said the young boy about his ankle bracelet. He was speaking to Zora Murff, a BFA photography student at the University of Iowa and also a Juvenile Tracker for the Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services (JDDS) of Linn County, Iowa.
It was only when Murff heard this complaint that he began to wonder if he and his camera could interrogate the issue of control.
“He was angry,” recalls Murff. “The more I thought about his anger, the more I pondered the concepts of privacy and control in the juvenile corrections system and the role that I play inside of those concepts. I interact with these youths at a critical point in their lives where control is an integral part of the day-to-day. My job is to be a consequence, to insert myself into their lives [...] while the adolescents themselves are struggling to exert control over their development.”
Linn County JDDS provides monitoring and rehabilitation services to youths on probation. Murff has been in the job eighteen months. In mid-2013 he began to photograph his employment and construct a project for submission as part of his studies.
The resulting series Corrections is made up of: photographs of locations of interaction with accompanying narratives about the transgression that took place there (images below with captions); anonymous portraits of the youths; handwritten reflections of the youths; and official paperwork and service documents.
Murff published his notes during the series on the Corrections Tumblr. He has self-published a limited edition book (Murff welcomes interest from publishers to do a larger run). Murff is taking a temporary hiatus from the project. Last week, my Wired colleague Jakob Schiller wrote about Corrections in the piece Peering Into the Digitally Tracked Lives of Youths on Probation. I wanted to do a bit more digging and ask Murff about the logistics, motivations and relationships inherent to the work.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Three youths broke into an abandoned home on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids. When Cedar Rapids Police responded to the scene, two of the youths surrendered themselves, while the third attempted to hide in the basement. Officers sent in a K-9 to retrieve him. Each youth was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.
Prison Photography (PP): Can you start by describing your work?
Zora Murff (ZM): Tracking is one of the diversion programs that JDDS offers. Diversion refers to the youth being able to stay in the community, rather than being placed in detention or in a different type of placement like residential treatment. My primary responsibility is monitoring youths on probation. I have face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis to ensure that they are complying with the expectations of their probation. This may entail electronic monitoring, urinalysis, school follow-up, transportation to therapies (substance abuse, sexual offense, anger-replacement), and other things like completing community service hours. My caseload fluctuates – I believe the lowest number I had was nine youths and I have had up to twenty-one.
PP: Would you have managed to gain access if it weren’t for your job?
ZM: When I pitched the idea to my supervisor, she was very intrigued, but being an insider definitely gave me a leg up, and I was very lucky to have that level of access. My supervisor had a few specific guidelines, but gave me free reign, so I had a wide creative space to work with. I think there was a level of trust there, which made Corrections possible.
PP: How did you come to be studying photography if you’re also a probation service employee?
ZM: I started my degree in psychology. My professional background in human services started when I replied to an ad on a campus bus. I needed a job. I started in disability services working with a wide population of people. Those experience helped me get a job with juvenile criminal justice. I didn’t necessarily have a desire to work in this specific area, but it has been a great experience to watch the youths grow throughout the probation process.
I love my work but I have always felt I was missing out on a need to create, a desire to teach, and a love of the photograph. That is where my education in photography comes into play.
PP: Juveniles under the control of the state are vulnerable young adults. What sort of assurances did you have to provide for your employer, the children and the parents/guardians?
ZM: I have noticed that when working with any population in human services, it all comes down to trust. The real question is how do you build that trust with the people that you serve. I think that this can vary with any worker, but I usually broach this by being available and consistent. Having trusting relationships with the youths that I photographed was key to working on this project.
The biggest assurance that I had to provide was anonymity. It was also important to explain my project to them, which isn’t always easy to do, especially when I was starting out because I wasn’t sure where the project was taking me.
PP: Is Corrections about delinquency or about control; about youth or about state?
ZM: All of the above. The youths do delinquent things that warrant some type of intervention and I wanted to document their experiences once they become a part of the juvenile corrections system. Youths are attempting to control their lives while workers are trying to exert some sort of control over it for them. There’s a dynamic at play between the two.
The use of narratives and documents add context to the project. I felt that portraits of the youths, while the most important component of Corrections, would have told an entirely different story if they were to stand alone.
PP: Is Corrections a voice for you or for your subjects?
ZM: I wouldn’t say that Corrections is my voice personally. The youths are allowing me to show them through their portraits and through some of their writing. My intent was to approach it from an ‘anthropological’ standpoint if you will, almost as if I am a recording device. I felt that it was important to provide a window into this world without editorializing, even though I am embedded in the system.
I feel that when it comes to children on probation a lot of stereotypes are thrown around and it would have been easy to fall into tropes. I want viewers to see inside of the system and draw their own conclusions.
While hanging out with friends, a youth started verbally harassing a peer walking home from school. The youth started to follow the peer and punched him from behind in the side of the face. The youth continued to assault his victim until a car pulled up in the alley. While fleeing the scene, the youth kicked his victim in the head. The youth decided to turn himself in when the story aired on the local evening news, and told Cedar Rapids Police that he had no justification for the assault, that he was just, “mad at the world.” The victim was hospitalized for two days with a broken jaw, two teeth knocked out, and a severed facial nerve. The youth was convicted of felony charges and placed at the Eldora State Training School.
PP: How has the project effected your relationships?
ZM: In human services, the work is about the person that you’re serving, not about you, and typically sharing personal information is discouraged. However, I feel that opening up about my passion for and education in photography bought me a little more trust with some of the clients. It was kind of odd, really. The kids were either totally interested and invested in the project, or completely indifferent. When I walk through the detention center, one or two kids will ask if I’m still working on the project or what was my grade in my photo class. I have also earned the moniker, “that guy with the camera.”
PP: Any particular stumbling blocks?
ZM: My biggest barrier was not being able to photograph faces – I didn’t want to blur out faces or put bars over them. It almost became a game figuring out how to make faces unidentifiable and have the photographs be meaningful.
PP: Any pleasant surprises?
ZM: A number of the compositions happened by accident – a kid blocking the sun from his eyes, or deciding to sit in a certain spot. There is one photograph of a youth playing guitar in his bedroom. While we were taking the photograph, the youth’s friend came to the bedroom window and had a perplexed look on his face when he noticed me with the camera. The youth told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that I was from Rolling Stone Magazine. We all had a good laugh about that – and it was a welcome change from the more difficult interactions that I have.
PP: What has been the reaction so far to the work?
ZM: So far, reactions have all been pretty positive. I was part a group exhibition for the class Corrections was completed for, and a number of people drew some sort of sentiment from the photographs. I also had a portfolio review at Midwest SPE last year, and the project was received well. However, I understand that working with a vulnerable population, specifically youths, can be a contentious territory so I have been a pretty hard critic on myself about the work.
PP: Do you plan to continue photography and/or work in criminal justice?
ZM: I would like to teach photography as a means of creative expression to youths at the detention center, but that is just a lofty idea at this point.
PP: It would be wonderful if you could achieve those types of workshops.
ZM: There are definitely some barriers. The biggest obstacles would be finding the time to teach a course, funding for materials, developing a curriculum, and figuring out when it would work into the residents’ schedule as their day at the detention center is very structured.
PP: What makes you think photography is useful for the youths? What skills does it teach? What can be achieved with photographic education, particularly to at-risk youth?
ZM: Any creative outlet is useful to children. I remember having a drawing journal when I was a teenager, and the amount of things I was able to work through by drawing.
Photography could be a good outlet for youths in the detention center as I feel that visually investigating their surroundings would allow them to build a sense of self-awareness, getting them to really consider where they are in life and where they would like to go.
Also, with the concept of control again, a number of the interactions that I have are usually based upon the youth feeling that they don’t have a say with what is going on in their lives and they are being told all of the things that they cannot do, the places that they cannot go, the people that they cannot hang out with. My hope is that by introducing them to photography this will provide them with a chance of self-expression – they can decide what they want to photograph and how they want to photograph it, getting some semblance of control back.
PP: What else are you up to?
ZM: I’ll continue Corrections until I reach a place where I feel that it is as complete as possible, but I am taking a break from it for the time being. I have an idea for a more intimate project, a case study of sorts, following the story of one individual on probation. I’m gearing up to start shooting for this project in the next few months, and have a youth interested in being a part of it, so I’m ironing out details.
PP: Is the camera a security device or an artistic tool?
ZM: Part of my statement for Corrections is how I, as a Tracker, am required to impose on these youths. This was problematic for me at times because by pointing my camera at them I was imposing upon them in an additional way, but it is important to understand the difference. The cameras that we use to surveil youths are all there in a reactionary capacity in order to provide some sort of control. With my camera, I too am recording, but my camera is there in a collaborative capacity – I feel that the youths have taken back a level of control as they have allowed me to portray them and document their experiences.
PP: Thanks Zora.
ZM: Thank you.
The project is “a series of interviews and photographs documenting the stories of immigrants who have been ordered deported from the U.S. as well as their family members — often, American citizens — who suffer the consequences of harsh punishment of exile. The stories illustrate the wide range of people locked up while caught up in deportation proceedings: not just individuals who crossed the border illegally but asylum seekers, legal permanent residents and immigrants trapped int he bureaucracy of adjusting a visa.”
Immigration and deportation, are arguably, one of the most pressing human rights issues on American soil. Many people subject to immigration and deportation proceedings are not hardened criminals, they are not violent, nor are they a threat to public safety. The long reach of ICE can collar Green Card holders who have lived in the U.S. for years or decades and who have raised families, paid taxes and abided the law. It can take only a small misdemeanor. Frequently, there is no recourse. Loving spouses are separated and society is asked to assume responsibility for children whose parents are sent half-way across the globe. The collateral effect of inflexible deportation laws on families and communities is considerable. MacIndoe and Stellin’s subjects have lived firsthand at edge of legal territory where resources are squeezed, timelines are shortened and due process is compromised; it is here where we can fathom our health, or lack of it, as a just nation.
Stellin and MacIndoe are both seasoned storytellers and their fusion of text and image is a huge advantage when making connection with audiences. The work is needed and it will shock you.
I’ve barely talked about Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) prisons here on the blog because they are very, very rarely photographed. ICE detention facilities are as unseen as ICE surveillance is broad.
Due to extended legal definitions and new laws, President Obama is deporting more people than any previous president. ICE facilities are often strategically hidden, nondescript buildings in urban hinterlands. ICE facilities also oversee near-permanent media shut out. With access so problematic, Stellin and MacIndoe’s decision to meet, interview, photograph and tell the stories of those who’ve been imprisoned is both wise and practical. The prison conditions will be described through first-hand testimony as opposed to literal photographic description. MacIndoe’s respectful and intimate portraits are our starting point.
Stellin brings years of reporting experience which has recently turned toward stories about Homeland security, border technology & search and the legal grey area for Green Card holders with minor offenses.
KNOWING YOUR SUBJECTS
MacIndoe was once subject himself to the Kafkaesque immigration and deportation system. I contend that from personal insight may grow public awareness.
Stellin and MacIndoe have already met, photographed and interviewed subjects. Many are fearful to go public. Scottish-born MacIndoe understands why non-citizens may be reticent but he has the personality to reassure, and understands the small margins on which our comfort rests. MacIndoe has become a friend and mentor to some of the family members he has met in the preliminary stages of the work. He understands that current immigration policy – in it’s inability to be flexible case-by-case — impacts step-children, the poor and the already marginalized more than other groups. He knows that gay couples have not the same legal qualification and therefore protection. MacIndoe and Stellin are looking to hold a mirror to everyday people that have been harshly punished by very new laws. The laws are young, somewhat clumsy, inelegance and overly punitive.
The tumorous growth America’s prison industrial complex goes back four decades whereas the focus of The UnAmericans: Detained, Deported and Divided – the establishment of an extended archipelago of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities — is a much more recent, post 9/11 phenomenon. MacIndoe and Stellin’s work is utterly contemporary and it meets the desperate need for journalism that probes ICE procedures.
All images: Graham MacIndoe
Carlos Javier Ortiz has been documenting the effects of gun violence on young people in Chicago for over seven years on a project called Too Young To Die. He is currently crowdfunding support to bookend, literally, the work.
We All We Got will be a photography book that brings seven years of Ortiz’ images together with interviews from parents and students from across Chicago and texts by Alex Kotlowitz (producer of the The Interrupters), Luke Anderson (teacher, North Lawndale College Prep) and Miles Harvey (assistant professor, DePaul University) among others.
Ortiz isn’t a flashy guy; he just gets the job done. He’s not only photographed for an extended period in the community but he’s also got involved directly with local organisations. It’s something he’s done for a long time. He’s thinking about solutions to gun violence among youth, which is one of the toughest issues in America.
We All We Got has already had deserved coverage on NPR; New York Times Lens; CBS Evening News; Chicago Ideas Week; Museum of Contemporary Photography; Leica Blog; Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting; CNN blog; and CBC radio
Photo: “Me & Myself” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
ONO ŠTO SE VIDI A NE ČUJE
If you happen to be in Belgrade, Serbia over the next couple of weeks, I encourage you to head to the Kulturni Centar Beograda (KCB) and see Seen But Not Heard, an exhibition I’ve curated of photographs from American juvenile detention facilities. The show features photographs made by incarcerated youth in photography workshops coordinated by Steve Davis in Washington State and by As220 Youth in Rhode Island, as well as well known photographers Steve Liss, Ara Oshagan, Joseph Rodriguez and Richard Ross.
The invite to put together Seen But Not Heard – which is my first international solo curating gig — was kindly extended by Belgrade Raw, an impressive photo-collective who have operated as guest exhibition coordinators at the KCB’s Artget Gallery throughout 2013. Belgrade Raw called it’s year long program Raw Season. and it was 10 exhibitions strong, including Blake Andrews, Donald Weber and others. Here’s Belgrade Raw’s announcement for Seen But Not Heard.
I’ll update the blog next week with installation shots and a loooong list of acknowledgements (the hospitality, skills and hard work of everyone here has been so overwhelming.)
Beneath, is a long essay I wrote for Seen But Not Heard . Beneath that is a selection from the 200+ works in the exhibition. Beneath the works are the details of the photographer and/or program who made them.
Photo: “Flip” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
USING PHOTOGRAPHY TO COMMUNICATE NOT CONTROL
“Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time … Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in his pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb.”
- Mark Twain, writing satirically in the voice of King Leopold in condemnation of the Belgian’s brutal rule over the Congo Free State. King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905).
The United States of America is addicted to incarceration. In the course of a year, 13.5 million Americans cycle through the country’s 5,000+ prisons and jails. On any given day, 2.2 million American’s are locked up — 60,500 of whom are children in juvenile correctional facilities or residential programs. The United States imprisons children at more than six times the rate of any other developed nation. With an average cost of $80,000/year to lock up a child under the age of 18, the United States spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.
What do we know of these spaces behind locked doors? What do we see of juvenile prisons? The short answer is, not a lot. However, photographs can provide some information — provided we approach them with caution and an informed eye.
Seen But Not Heard features the work of five well-known American photographers who have taken their cameras inside. Crucially, the exhibition also includes photographs made by incarcerated children on cameras delivered to them by arts educators and by staff of social justice organizations. Many of the children’s photographs are being exhibited for the first time.
Cameras are used by prison administrations to maintain security and enforce order, so when a camera is operated by a visiting photographer — and especially by a prisoner — a shift in the power relations occurs. All the images in Seen But Not Heard prompt urgent questions about what it means to be able document and what it means to be prohibited from documenting. What difference is there between being the maker of an image compared to being the subject of an image? What happens if you put kids behind the camera instead of in front of it? What stories do children tell that adults cannot? Can a camera can be a tool for artistic expression instead of an apparatus of control?
“Light Paintings” made by students of the Rhode Island Training School (RITS) prove a camera is essential to the artist’s toolkit. The anonymous RITS students’ images conjure angelic limbs and alter-egos from the dark. The images contain the frustration of incarceration; the longing of a (new) time; the aspirations of youth; the childishness of comic drawing. The photography outreach program taught by AS220, a community arts group of long-standing in Rhode Island, is an extension of workshops taught to teens in the free-world. In fact, children have graduated out of RITS and into the many studio arts programs offered by AS220 Youth in the town and neighborhoods of Providence, RI. An adult would or could never make these images; it is a privilege for us to share in them.
The workshops that Steve Davis coordinated in four youth detention centers in Washington State provide us a window into the incarcerated children’s lives. For legal reasons, at Remann Hall, no images could identify the girls and so Davis made use of pinhole cameras with long exposures. The girls treated the opportunity as one for performance enacting torment, official restraint procedures and bored isolation. The blurry images are eerie and evocative; as if the girls are capturing the moments in which they are disappearing from society’s view.
By contrast, the boys’ photographs are very much embedded in reality; they carried cameras outside of structured class time with instructions to make general images and construct photographs along a weekly theme. The boys had one another as immediate audience. We see unfiltered views of their activities, cells, day rooms, programs and priorities; we see costume, computer games, machismo posturing, childlike play and even boring moments. Accidentally they collectively constructed a visual narrative in which motifs such as t-shirts, playing cards and institutional furniture recur. The photographs would be monotonous were it not for the splashed of life the children provide — perfectly communicating why and how humans kept in boxes is not the natural order, nor the ideal circumstance.
The photographers in Seen But Not Heard all had different motivations for going inside. After the experience, they all had the same attitudes.
Without exception, the photographers’ experiences had them wide-eyed, sometimes angry, usually frustrated and certainly more conscious of the politics of incarceration. Consequently, they feel a responsibility to share their images and to describe youth prisons to many audiences.
Steve Liss had watched the children of a Texas juvenile prisons perform a choreographed marching routine for then Texas Governor G.W. Bush. After the ridiculous spectacle, the ridiculous Bush gave a ridiculous moral instruction to stay out of trouble. Liss was furious at the patronizing tone of the event and particularly Bush. As a press photographer, Liss had parachuted in and out of that prison as quick as his subject Bush did. He vowed that if Bush ever made it to be President, he’d return to Texas to photograph the children’s lives. Bush would never see those children, but perhaps the world should. It is alarming how often we see very young and tiny children subject to shackles and apparatus designed for dangerous 200+ lb. men. It’s as if the system is blind to the physicality of its young prisoners. That being the case, how can we presume they understand or provide for the more complex psychology of these children?
Joseph Rodriguez was locked up as a young man. He also experienced homelessness, for a time, and was addicted to drugs. He was sent to the infamous Riker’s Island prison in New York twice — first, for a minor charge related to his anti-war protest activity; second, for burglary. His mother could not afford the $500. He spent 3 months locked up awaiting his court date. Post-release, Rodriguez found photography and it gave him a means to process and describe the world. Having seen the inside, Rodriguez empathizes with children who are going through any prison system. More than 20 years after his incarceration, Rodriguez felt it a duty to use his storytelling skills to tell the stories of incarcerated children. In 1999, he photographed inside the San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties juvenile detention centers and followed children through the cells, courtrooms and counseling of the criminal justice system.
Ara Oshagan’s opportunity to photograph at the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall (the largest juvenile prison in America) was pure happenstance. He met with Leslie Neale a documentary filmmaker for lunch on a Monday. Neale was filming inside the juvenile hall and needed a photographer to shoot b-roll. Oshagan was inside on the Tuesday. He was so moved by the experience that he applied for clearance to return on his own. He followed six youngsters as they progressed through their cases and, in some cases, into California’s adult prison system. Oshagan never felt like his photographs were enough to describe the emotions of the children and so he asked each of them to write poems and presents text and image as diptych. Random circumstance, fine slices of luck, peer pressure and other people’s decisions factor far more heavily in children’s lives than in adults’ lives. Throughout, Oshagan was constantly reminded how his subjects were very much like his own children.
Late in his career and having financial security through a Guggenheim fellowship and teaching sabbatical, Richard Ross turned his lens upon juvenile detention. Ross wanted to give advocates, legislators, educators the visual evidence on which to base discussion and policy. He provides his images for free to individuals and organizations doing work for the betterment of children’s lives.
Repeatedly, Ross met children who were themselves victims; frighteningly often he heard stories of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, suicide attempts, addiction and illiteracy. Many kids locked up are from poor communities and a disproportionate number of youths detained are boys and girls of color. Ross observed some really positive interventions made by institutions (regular meals, counseling, positive male role models to name a few) but he saw the use of incarceration not as last resort but as routine.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Unsurprisingly, many have lost faith in the juvenile prison system. Recent scandals have exposed systematic abuses.
In Pennsylvania, two judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private prison company to sentence children to custody; in Texas, an inquiry uncovered over 1,000 cases of sexual assault by staff in the state’s juvenile justice system; in New York, on Riker’s Island it has been alleged that young gangs (referred to as “teams”) organized within the jail itself, and controlled and enforced the juvenile wings while the authorities turned a blind eye. The rivalries resulted in fights, stabbings and in one case death. The New York City Department of Corrections denies the allegations, but interestingly it was NYDOC employees that exposed the violence by leaking internal photographs to the Village Voice newspaper.
Nationally, the private company Youth Services International (YSI) inexplicably continues to operate despite being cited for ‘offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts’ by the Department of Justice and also New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas.
Not only is being locked up ineffective as a deterrent in youths who have not reached full cognitive development and don’t understand the consequences of their actions, it can actually make a criminal out of a potentially law-abiding kid. Dr. Barry Krisberg, director of research at the Berkeley School of Law’s Institute on Law & Social Policy, says, “Young people [when detained] often get mixed in with those incarcerated on more serious offenses. Violence and victimization is common in juvenile facilities and it is known that exposure to such an environment accelerates a young person toward criminal behaviors.”
Given the lessons from the failed practices of incarcerating more and more children, States are adopting more progressive policies. Certainly, authorities are turning away from punishing acts such as truancy and delinquency with detention; acts that are not criminal for an adult but have in the past siphoned youths into the court system. But more than that, incarceration for youth is widely considered a last resort.
States that reduced juvenile confinement rates the most between 1997 and 2007 had the greatest declines in juvenile arrested for violent crimes. It’s proof that incarceration doesn’t solve crime. And, it might suggest incarceration damages communities. Following repeated abuse scandals in the California Youth Authority (CYA) facilities in the 90s, California carried forth the largest program of decarceration in U.S. history. Reducing its total number of youth prisons from 11 to 3 and slashing the CYA population by nearly 90%, California simultaneously witnessed a precipitous drop in violent crime committed by under-18s.
The U.S. still has a long way to go if it is to reverse decades of over-reliance on incarceration, but as the recent Supreme Court ruling banning Life Without Parole sentences for children suggests, it seems Americans hold less punitive attitudes when it comes to youth’s transgressions, as compared to the apathetic attitudes to adult prisoners.
We need to expect and applaud photography that depicts imprisoned children as they are — as citizens-in-the-making, as humans with as complex emotional needs as any of us, as not lost causes, as victims as much as they may have been victimizers, as our future, as individuals society must look to help and reintegrate and not discard. Photography can help us appreciate the complexity of the issues at hand. Used responsibly, it can bring us closer.
Photo: “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
Photo: “Icarus” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
AS220 Youth is a free arts education program for young people ages 14-21, with a special focus on those in the care and custody of the state. AS220 Youth provides free studio-based classes in virtually all media including photography. Staff including photography coordinator Scott Lapham and photography instructor Miguel Rosario (who I met when I visited in 2011) help students build a portfolio with help from a staff advisor. AS220 Youth maintains long-term, supportive relationships with youth transitioning out of RITS and the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF) care, and offers mentoring, transitional jobs, and financial support. AS220 Youth works to connect youth with professional opportunities in the arts — through exhibitions at the AS220 Gallery and others; through publication in the AS220 quarterly literary magazine called ‘The Hidden Truth’; and through securing photo-assistant jobs on commercial photo shoots for students.
Photo: Steve Liss. Prisoners, ages 10-16, wait in line to march back to their cells in the exercise yard at the Webb County Juvenile Detention facility.
Photo: Steve Liss. 10-year-old Alejandro has his mug shot taken at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuana possession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Steve Liss photographed in Texas 2001-2004. His book No Place For Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention (University of Texas Press, 2005) won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2006.
Steve Liss worked as a Time Magazine photographer for 25 years, assigned to stories of social significance involving ordinary people. Forty-three of his photographs appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. For his work on juvenile justice, Liss was awarded a Soros Justice Media Fellowship (2004) for my work on domestic poverty he was awarded an Alicia Patterson Fellowship (2005). Recently, Liss received the Pictures of the Year International (PoYI) ‘World Understanding Award.’ Liss has taught graduate photojournalism at Columbia College, Chicago and Northwestern University.
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Ara Oshagan photographed inside the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall and the California prison system. Oshagan’s book of this work A Poor Imitation of Death is to be published next year (Umbrage Books, 2014). Oshagan is twice a recipient of a California Council on the Humanities Major Grant for his documentary work on diaspora groups in Los Angeles.
Interested in the themes of identity, community and bearing witness, much of Ara Oshagan’s work focuses on the oral histories of survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Since 1995, Oshagan has been creating work for iwitness in collaboration with Levon Parian and the Genocide Project. Father Land, a book project made with his father, well-known author, Vahe Oshagan was published in 2010 by powerHouse books.
Photo: Steve Davis. ‘Tiny, Green Hill, 2000′
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Photograph made in response to the prompt “Vulnerability” as part of photography workshop led by Steve Davis.
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Discussing photographs made during workshop led by Steve Davis.
Steve Davis coordinated photography workshops in four facilities in Washington State (Maple Lane, Green Hill, Remann Hall and Oakridge) between 1997 and 2005. Simultaneously, Davis made portraits and photographs for his own series Captured Youth.
Davis is a documentary portrait and landscape photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Russian Esquire, and is in many collections, including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Seattle Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the George Eastman House. He is a former 1st place recipient of the Santa Fe CENTER Project Competition, and two time winner of Washington Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowships. Davis is the Coordinator of Photography, Media Curator and adjunct faculty member of The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA. Davis is represented by the James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Joseph Rodriguez photographed in the San Francisco County Jails 2001-2004. The work is collected in his book Juvenile (PowerHouse Books, 2004)
Joseph Rodriguez is a documentary photographer from Brooklyn, New York. He studied photography in the School of Visual Arts and in the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Rodriguez’s work had been exhibited at Galleri Kontrast, Stockholm, Sweden; The African American Museum, Philadelphia, PA; The Fototeca, Havana, Cuba; Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama, Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls, New York; Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater at the Lincoln Center; and the Kari Kenneti Gallery Helsinki, Finland. In 2001 the Juvenile Justice website, featuring Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs, launched in partnership with the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival High School Pilot Program. He teaches at New York University, the International Center of Photography, New York. Rodriguez is the past recipient if Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 1993 photographing communities in East Los Angeles.
Photo: Photo: Richard Ross. Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. Downey, California.
Richard Ross is a photographer and professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Juvenile-In-Justice (2006-ongoing) “turns a lens on the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them,” says Ross.
A book Juvenile in Justice (self-published, 2012) and traveling exhibition continue to circulate the work. Ross collaborates with juvenile justice stakeholders and uses the images as catalysts for change. For Juvenile-In-Justice, Richard Ross photographed in over 40 U.S. states in 350 facilities, met and interviewed approximately 1,000 children. Juvenile-In-Justice published on CBS News, WIRED, NPR, PBS Newshour, ProPublica, and Harper’s Magazine, for which it was awarded the 2012 ASME Award for Best News and Documentary Photography.
We remember the TV images of Nelson Mandela in a grey suit, in bright sunlight, walking free from prison in 1990. We might not know that he could have walked free five years earlier. The reason he did not is because the offer made to him by then State President of South Africa, P. W. Botha was conditional. The conditions basically required Mandela to retire in silence, abandon everything he had stood up for, and went against his responsibilities toward his political supporters.
Mandela once said, “In prison, you come face to face with time. There is nothing more terrifying.” To learn that he refused release after 22 years of incarceration, despite the terror of it, is more proof of Mandela’s unwavering pursuit of justice.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial. He was imprisoned for nearly 20 years on Robben Island until a 1982 transfer to Pollsmoor Prison. Perhaps (?) another lesser known fact is that Mandela was a keen boxer. He boxed to maintain health and discipline, so I’ve included a couple of images of Mandela training — one from 1950 before his imprisonment (below) and one from a prison yard (bottom).
To keep fit, Nelson Mandela, solicitor, was at Jerry Moloi’s boxing gym at Orlando every evening. He’s shadow-sparring with Moloi (right) a professional featherweight. As the biggest case in South Africa’s history lumbered to the end of its first stage this August 1957, the 156 accused men and women wondered how many of them would be back in court again. The 156 national leaders had first appeared at a preparatory examination into treason at the end of 1956, in the specially constructd court at the Drill Hall, Johannesburg; they had spent their lives in and out of court for most of 1957; and they could now see the possibility of the same prospect for the third calendar year, 1958, if they were committed for trial in the Supreme Court. (Photograph by Drum photographer © Baileys Archive)
It’s difficult to know what to say upon the death of any man, but particularly a man who shaped history. Therefore, it was a treat, an inspiration (and a writer’s let-off) to find Mandela’s inspiring rejection of Botha’s offer on the UCSC Library website:
On 31 January 1985, Botha, speaking in parliament, offered Mandela his freedom on condition that he ‘unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon’. This was the sixth such offer, earlier ones stipulating that he accept exile in the Transkei. His daughter Zinzi read Mandela’s reply to this offer to a mass meeting in Jabulani Stadium, Soweto, on 10 February, 1985. This was the text of his response as read publicly by Zinzi:
I am a member of the African National Congress. I have always been a member of the African National Congress and I will remain a member of the African National Congress until the day I die. Oliver Tambo is much more than a brother to me. He is my greatest friend and comrade for nearly fifty years. If there is any one amongst you who cherishes my freedom, Oliver Tambo cherishes it more, and I know that he would give his life to see me free. There is no difference between his views and mine.
I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man. My colleagues and I wrote in 1952 to [Daniel François] Malan asking for a round table conference to find a solution to the problems of our country, but that was ignored. When [Johannes Gerhardus] Strijdom was in power, we made the same offer. Again it was ignored. When [Hendrik] Verwoerdwas in power we asked for a national convention for all the people in South Africa to decide on their future. This, too, was in vain.
It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha show that he is different to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organisation, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. Let him guarantee free political activity so that people may decide who will govern them.
I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned.
What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?
Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Herman Toivo ja Toivo, when freed, never gave any undertaking, nor was he called upon to do so. I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.
When F. W. de Klerk signed off on Mandela’s release in 1990, he was careful to make certain that Mandela’s freedom would be unconditional.