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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.
From ‘Assisted Self-Portraits’ (2002-2005) by Anthony Luvera.
PHOTOGRAPHY’S NOT JUST DEPICTION!
There’s a fascinating discussion to be had at Aperture Gallery this Saturday December 7th. Collaboration – Revisiting the History of Photography curated by Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, and Susan Meiselas is an effort to draft the first ever timeline of collaborative photographic projects. Items on the timeline have been submitted either by members of the public or uncovered during research by Azoulay, Ewald, Meiselas and grad students from Brown University and RISD.
“The timeline includes close to 100 projects assembled in different clusters,” says the press release. “Each of these projects address a different aspect of collaboration: 1. the intimate “face to face” encounter between photographer and photographed person; 2. collaborations recognized over time; 3. collaboration as the production of alternative and common histories; 4. as a means of creating new potentialities in given political regimes of violence; 5. as a framework for collecting, preserving and studying existing images as a basis for establishing civil archives for unrecognized, endangered or oppressed communities; 6. as a vantage point to reflect on relations of co-laboring that are hidden, denied, compelled, imagined or fake.
Within the gallery space, Ewald and co. will discuss the projects and move images, quotes and archival documents belonging to the projects about the wall “as a large modular desktop.”
The day will create the first iteration of the timeline which will continue to be added to.
“In this project we seek to reconstruct the material, practical and political conditions of collaboration through photography — and of photography — through collaboration,” continues the press release. “We seek ways to foreground – and create – the tension between the collaborative process and the photographic product by reconstructing the participation of others, usually the more *silent* participants. We try to do this through the presentation of a large repertoire of types of collaborations, those which take place at the moment when a photograph is taken, or others that are understood as collaboration only later, when a photograph is reproduced and disseminated, juxtaposed to another, read by others, investigated, explored, preserved, and accumulated in an archive to create a new database.”
I applaud this revisioning of photo-practice; I only wish I was in NYC to join the discussion.
As you know, I celebrate photographers and activists who involve prisoners in the design and production of work. And I’m generally interested in photographers who have long-form discussions with their subjects … to the extent that they are no longer subjects but collaborators instead.
Photographic artists Mark Menjivar, Eliza Gregory, Gemma-Rose Turnbull and Mark Strandquist are just a few socially engaged practitioners/artists who are keen on making connections with people through image-making. They’ve also included me in their recent discussions about community engagement across the medium. I feel there’s a lot of thought currently going into finding practical responses to the old (and boring) dismissals of detached documentary photography, and into finding new methodologies for creating images.
At this point, this post is not much more than a “watch-this-space-post” so just to say, over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see the first results from the lab. If you’re free Saturday, and in New York, this is a schedule you should pay attention to:
1:00-2:00 – Visit the open-lab + short presentations by Azoulay, Ewald and Meiselas.
2:00-2:45 – Discussion groups, one on each cluster with the participation of one of the research assistant.
2:45-4:00 – Groups’ presenting their thoughts on each grouping.
4:00-4:30 – Coffee!
4:30-6:00 – Open discussion.
6:00 – Reception.
If any of you make it down there and have the chance, please let me know what you think and thought of the day.
A couple of months ago, photographer Cosmin Bumbuț contacted me out of the blue and asked if I’d look over his new book Bumbata. I was aware of Cosmin and his work because of the photography workshop he initiated in Targsor women’s penitentiary in Romania in 2009. However, I was not aware of his long term project documenting life inside a Romanian men’s prison. He made photographs in Aiud Penitentiary between 2005 and 2008.
Bumbata – which is a Romania slang term for “prison” — was awarded the Book Art Object Award at the Romanian National Book Design Awards last month. The book paints a portrait of hard life in prison with variation, colour and curiosity. It is a stunning object; thoughtfully designed and brimming with crisp, images full of intimacy, unexpected interactions and (it sounds strange to say) disarming hope. Bumbata is one of my books of the year. You all should get a copy.
During Romania’s Communist era, Aiud Penitentiary was as a site of subjugation and abuse against political prisoners. Since Romania joined the European Union, conditions in Romanian prisons have improved greatly but the country’s overall prison population is growing.
Scroll down for a Q&A with Bumbuț.
Prison Photography (PP): Congratulations on the book. How did it develop? Did you release any of the images online or have them published in print before the book?
Cosmin Bumbuț (CB): Some of the portraits of prisoners that I shot in 2005 were published in the Romanian edition of Elle Man in 2006. In the same year, I won at the International Photography Awards with these portraits. I have not published the photographs online until now because I wanted to complete the final selection and find the flow of the story. I had 15,000 images and difficulties editing them. I did not like the flow of the pictures from the layout drafts I was working on. The book looked like a classic photo album, but I wanted more. I stopped shooting at Aiud in 2008 but it wasn’t until 2011 that I was satisfied with a selection.
During my last visit at Aiud, I found a file labeled ‘Literary Works of Prisoners’ in the office of the Social Reintegration staff. I read some works on the spot and took pictures of the rest thinking I might use them. I also photographed the prison magazine called Light From The Dark, which at that time was handwritten and stapled in one hard copy.
While I was editing the photos for the 1000th time, I read a text which made me think that prisoners’ texts might be binder for my photos. After this point, it was much simpler. I finished the layout quickly using InDesign which I learned in order to be able to make the design for my own book – the project was really important for me, so I wanted to make the book on my own.
PP: How did the book realise it’s final form?
CB: I printed three copies at Blurb, just so I could film them and try to raise the money for printing through a crowdfunding campaign. After I successfully completed the crowdfunding campaign I realized that I underestimated the printing costs.
CB: Two weeks before the completion of the crowdfunding campaign, I had the idea to make a hole in the cover, a hole that leads to the idea of the eye (sight) of a cell door. I remade the whole layout of the book because of this and I started looking for a printing house that could make this cover. Eventually, I managed this with the help of Atelier Fabrik – great people who never once said “It can’t be done.” The last minute changes of the layout and print cost more money which I paid for from my own pocket.
PP: How do you describe the book to people who have not opened it?
CB: Inside the prison walls, people laugh, play, sing, watch TV, read or write. Prisoners rebuild new homes inside and have created a micro-society with its own rules and functions. Bumbata reveals an intimate perspective of this micro-society. There are libraries, art and theater but many photos are in cells or on the yard.
PP: What’s life like inside Aiud? What sort of rehabilitation programs exist? How are the prisoners’ days occupied?
CB: They are not busy at all. Not all of them are allowed to work or are willing to work, although they are released sooner if they do. Most of them “sit on the room”, as they say, and hang around watching TV or talking. There are not too many volunteers for the activities you are talking about – I met men sentenced to four years of prison who could reduce their conviction with a few months if they would work, but they preferred to lay.
After 2007, when private visits were made law, there was a noticeable difference in mood and spirit. Prisoners were allowed to receive packages from their families; they received better food; they did not have to wear uniforms any longer; and guards were not allowed to beat them.
Once Romania joined the European Union, in 2007, the whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits. This means that a prisoner who is married or in a relationship has the right to receive, every three months, a two-hour private visit which takes place in a separate room inside the prison compound. Plus, if a prisoner gets married in detention he or she can spend 48 hours with the spouse in the special room and is allowed visits once a month in the first year of marriage. In such a context I started photographing the first couples to enjoy the new rights inside the Aiud prison.
So, a side project is called Private Visits Room. I have photographed 34 rooms in almost all the Romanian penitentiaries. I do not know yet what am I going to do with this project.
PP: Prisoners are happier then?
CB: They are aware of their rights and this has made them more “courageous” in their relationships with the guards. I am not sure if that is right or wrong. Some of them eat and live better inside a prison than they did in their own homes – they have hot water and warm rooms.
PP: I really enjoyed Hungarian writer Attila Bartis‘ musing on freedom in the introduction to Bumbata. He describes YOU as free; free from expectation, free from dogma of the medium; free to explore. Is he right?
CB: If he describes me that way, he must know something! Atilla writes that I am not “constrained by documentation nor by shocking.” I spent more than three years taking pictures in Aiud and during this time I witnessed all sorts of happy, sad and even absurd events. I tried to get close to the prisoners and to photograph them without any exaggeration, without making them look like monsters or victims, but exactly the way they were: mockers, ostentatious, nostalgic or God-fearing. So in that sense, Attila is right – I was not constrained by documentation nor by shocking. I was free to observe unspectacular everyday life in prison.
Attila and I have been friends since 2010. I met him when I published his photo portfolio in Punctum magazine. I read his novel, Tranquility, all in a breath and after that I wrote to him, telling how much I enjoyed his photographic descriptions. I knew that he was also a very good photographer, so I interviewed him for Punctum magazine.
PP: Can you tell us about Punctum?
CB: I launched Punctum in December 2009 in Romania. Until Punctum, there was no magazine dedicated exclusively to photography in Romania. I wanted to launch a printed magazine because I missed photographs’ consistence and I wanted to educate the public and prove that photography means more than technical information, exposure compensation, shutter and ISO. I found a sponsor who could take care of the contributors’ fees and printing costs. I volunteered my time.
Punctum encouraged diversity and presented different kind of artists: renowned photographers from Romania, but also young students, pictures taken by prisoners from Targsor (the women that attended my workshop), but also portfolios of photographers from New York, Japan, Cuba and Hungary. Additionally, it recovered the history of Romanian photography and published documentaries about photographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who were hardly known by the public. Each issue presented a photographic portfolio of a famous writer, director, painter or a violinist interested in photography, for example Bartis.
But after five issues (the magazine appeared quarterly with a circulation of 1,000 copies) I realized that I did not have the abilities to sell this magazine and make it profitable. After all, I am just a photographer, not a business man.
PP: Bumbata is of men’s prisons, but you also coordinated workshops in the Targsor women’s prison. Were these projects pursued at the same time?
CB: No, I held the workshop in Targsor women’s prison a year after I finished shooting in Aiud.
In Targsor, I chose six prisoners and I gave each a camera so that they could photograph inside. Of course, I needed special approvals for this. I taught them basic settings and concepts during one visit each week. The workshop lasted for two months. While I was there, I was downloading their pictures and explaining to them how could they improve and what they should shoot the next week.
PP: Did you do a similar workshop with the men in Aiud?
CB: I never held a photo workshop in Aiud. Actually, Ms. Raducanu from the Social Reintegration Department was supportive of the idea, but a workshop needed some special approvals from the National Administration of Prisons.
PP: How long have you been interested in prisons?
CB: Since 2005, when the National Administration of Prisons got in contact with me and offered me access in any Romanian prison. They had seen my photo album Transit. I told them I want to pick only one penitentiary. In order to do that, I visited several and then chose the one in Aiud, which I did for visual reasons: the old cellular system with small detention rooms.
PP: Who helped you secure access?
CB: Dana Cenusa, the spokeswoman of the National Administration of Prisons, helped me and secured my access anywhere inside the prison system.
PP: The guards uniform interests me. Why the balaclava hood?
CB: According to the law, prisoners inside maximum security facilties that are convicted for murder, drug trafficking or cruelty deeds are accompanied everywhere by guards wearing balaclava hoods.
PP: Your work was exhibited and prisoners were escorted to the gallery by guards. What was the event like?
CB: I did not organize the exhibition. An art gallery from the city in collaboration with the penitentiary did so. I was touched by the encounter of the detainees with their families, wives and children.
PP: What are the attitudes toward prison and prisoners in Romania?
CB: Generally speaking, it is a controversial subject. Prisoners or former prisoners are considered the scumbags of the Romanian society. I was often asked what am I doing in the prison – have I not found anything more beautiful to photograph than the prisoners? I think that the bad image of the prisoners inside the Romanian society was one of the reasons why National Administration of Prisons asked me if I want to take photos inside the prisons. Maybe they thought that the fashion photographer in me could rehabilitate the image of the prisoners?!
PP: You explain that the prisoners appreciated the Polaroids and printed photos you gave them. How do you define photographs value within prison?
CB: They all want to send photos of them to their families. Because photo cameras are forbidden inside the prison, the value of a printed photo is priceless. They will be released and they will go back home. Prisoners are afraid of being forgotten – so the photographs helped them to remind their families of their existence.
PP: What were the prisoners expectations of photography and of you making images in their prison? Did they think you’d hit the news or sell images for big money across the globe? What was their understanding of your work?
CB: Some of them understood my work, others did not. They kept asking me what I was going to do with the images and I answered them that I will do an exhibition and, probably, a book. After Elle Man published the photos, I became famous inside the prison. They all wanted to be photographed because they have seen that my pictures were not denigrating them. After that, they trusted me.
PP: What did the staff think of your project?
CB: They wondered why I did not have something better to do with my time and money! But as I had all the approvals from National Administration of Prisons, what could they possible do to me, a mad man?!
PP: You did three years. How did you know when the shooting stage of the project was done?
CB: I wanted to finish with a prisoner’s release, so Pricu’s release ended the project. I knew before that I had come to an end. I felt I had become too visible – all the prisoners knew me and wanted me to photograph them. I could not pass unnoticed anymore. So, I took a break until I found out that Pricu was going to be released. I went to Aiud and spent the last two weeks only with him.
PP: What’s next?
CB: Recently, I won the The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism together with the journalist Elena Stancu and the next year I will travel around the country working on a multimedia project about the culture of education by violence in the Romanian families and society.
PP: Thanks Cosmin and congratulations on the impressive book!
CB: Thank you, Pete
Cosmin Bumbuț studied at the Faculty of Journalism Bucharest, and later studied photography at the Academy of Theatre and Film. For the last 18 years, Bumbuț has been a freelance photographer. His fashion stories and reportage has been published in Elle, Esquire, Marie Claire, Tabu, Cosmopolitan, FHM, Dilema and Viva! He worked as a photographer for Nottara Theater and Today newspapers. Between 1997-1998 he was a professor at the Academy of Theatre and Film.
Bumbuț has worked on advertising campaigns for Vodafone, ING Bank, Procter&Gamble, Wella, Epson, Coca-Cola Romania, Marriott Hotels and Mercedes-Benz Romania. to name a few. He was awarded The Best Fashion Photographer, Pantene Beauty Awards (2002), The Best Advertising Photo (Ad’Or Festival, 2001) and Best Advertising Photo (AdPrint Festival 1996). In 2006, he won the International Photography Award for a series of photographic portraits of convicts from Aiud Penitentiary.
In 1999, Bumbuț co-founded the photo group 7 Days and organized a series of workshops and photo camps. He co-authored the photographic album 7 Zile – 7 Ani in Maramures ”7 Days – 7 Years in Maramures” (Humanitas, 2007). His book Transit (Humanitas, 2002) won the Art Book of the Year Award awarded by the Romanian Publishers’ Association.
Between 2009 and 2010, Bumbuț published Punctum, Romania’s only magazine dedicated solely to art photography. Bumbuț’s photographs have been exhibited in New York, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Thessaloniki, Madrid, Rome, Warsaw and Naples to name a few.
Richard Ross’ Juvenile-In-Justice project of photography and advocacy just keeps on rolling. And it does so with an experimental spirit and real world change.
Juvenile-In-Justice is currently on show at the Ice Box Project Space, part of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. Ice Box — which is in Kensington, one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighbourhoods – will host a free juvenile record expungement clinic on December 3rd.
The expungement clinic – which will be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania – expects to help 150 youth but there is no cut off. “We are going to take all we can and make sure no one is turned away,” says Ross.
Expungement is feasibly open to all youth but the expensive bureaucracy often prevents their ability to move into adulthood without criminal record they acquired as juveniles.
“If not expunged, a juvenile record is often a significant roadblock to employment and other opportunities for these young people. Even when someone takes action to expunge their record, hiring a private lawyer can cost thousands of dollars,” says Ross.
The show demonstrates a laudable cohesion of art and social practice.
“So often art that speaks to social justice issues is simply looked at, provoking brief contemplation among the audience,” says Ross. “While awareness is certainly great, we are turning the gallery into a laboratory for social change: photographic evidence of a problem hangs on the walls, while the people among the art work to alleviate it.”
The expungement clinic is particularly needed in Pennsylvania, state which is bucking the national and effective trends of youth decarceration.
“Pennsylvania is one of only two states in which the incarcerated juvenile population is actually growing,” says Ross.
Ross is quick to point out that this bold project comes about through the efforts of many partner organizations fighting for youth justice in the Philadelphia area, not least inLiquid Art + Design. “Their work, from inception to impact, is truly admirable,” says Ross.
Why should we care about juvenile incarceration? Check out my WIRED article about Ross’ work for some answers. Below, are a few more of Ross’ photographs from Juvenile-In-Justice.
Restraint chair for self-abusive juveniles at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, WI houses 29 children and is usually at full capacity. The average stay for the emotionally and mentally disturbed juveniles, some of which are self-abusive or suicidal, is eight months. Children must be released at age 18, sometimes with no transition options available to them.
Nevada Youth Training Facility, Elko, NV.
“Time out room” at the South Bend Juvenile Correctional Facility, South Bend, IN.
“I photographed intake moments before a director of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, Downey, CA, had the juveniles sit in erect and proper on the benches – an unnatural positions. This is one of three major centers of the Los Angeles Juvenile confinement system, collectively the largest in the country. The great majority here is populated by Hispanic and African-American juveniles,” says Ross.
The air-conditioning was not working when Ross visited the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in New Orleans. There had also been a fight the previous night and as a result, TV, cards and dominoes privileges had been taken away. The OPP, managed by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, houses about 23 juvenile boys. They live two to each cell. The cells at their narrowest measure six feet in width.
Challenge Program, El Paso, TX. “They come in once a day and do a search of my room,” says the 14 Year old girl. “Everything I have in there, EVERYTHING, goes out–including the inside of the mattress and a body search–once a day. It happens anytime. Random. I was arrested for assault against a 13-year-old girl. It’s sort of all right, but it also really sucks. I’m here for Violation of Probation. I was at home with an ankle bracelet. I got mad at my mother and started throwing chairs and cut my ankle bracelet. My Mother works for Rody One industries; my Father lives in Juarez. I just finished starting 8th grade. It’s boring but I like to write poems, and listen to music. One day I might want to work as a Corrections Officer in a prison.”
A 12-year-old in his cell at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The window has been boarded up from the outside. The facility is operated by Mississippi Security Police, a private company. In 1982, a fire killed 27 prisoners and an ensuing lawsuit against the authorities forced them to reduce their population to maintain an 8:1 inmate to staff ratio.
I’ve been stumbling across some mind-blowingly novel prison photographs recently. This incredible Facebook Album by Steve Milanowski fell on my radar and the colour is something special.
Milanowski photographed at three prisons during the eighties – Walpole, Massachusetts (1981, 1982); Ionia, Michigan (1984); and Jackson, Michigan (1985). In 2012, he began shooting the outside of Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. In each case, Milanowski was working independently and not on assignment.
As colourful and characterful as these images are it’s worth bearing in mind that prisons of this era were beginning to creek. Dangerous overcrowding existed in Michigan prisons in the early eighties, and Jackson in particularly was renowned as a tough prison with gangs and enforced convict codes.
These prison photographs have, up to this point, only had limited circulation. Some feature in Milanowski’s book Duplicity, others on his website. A few photographs have appeared in museum exhibitions around the country. I wanted to know more, so I dropped Steve a line with some questions.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Where did your interest in prisons come from?
Steve Milanowski (SM): It dates back to my childhood: my dad was an attorney in Michigan and very occasionally had clients that he had to visit in prison. When I was in 5th and 6th grades, maybe twice, he took me along (taking me out of classes) on the prison/client visits. For a 6th grader, these visits were absolutely unforgettable. Indelible. This was an environment that was utterly foreign to my existence. It was almost as if my eyes weren’t fast enough to take it all in. To a kid, nothing in the world looks like a prison.
PP: What was the purpose of your visits the these four prisons?
SM: Simply to make new photographs in places that have mostly been, in the past, photographed with visual cliche and with the perceived grittiness of black and white films.
PP: How did you gain access?
SM: My first permission was with Walpole in Massachusetts. I sent a letter to the Walpole warden; it was written on MIT stationary. I was a graduate student at MIT and I think the name helped in getting me access. I found that once one gets permission to photograph in a prison — that permission leads to more permission. I used the Walpole photographs in gaining access to Jackson and Ionia prisons. No negotiations were needed; they all gave me fairly easy access. Initially, I only asked for single-visit access.
PP: How would you characterize the atmosphere of the prisons?
SM: The atmosphere was taut, tough and difficult at most turns — very regimented and formal. In some instances, I was assigned a female escort which made my shooting more difficult because the inmates had no hesitation in shouting out awful, obscene things; and, the female escorts seemed bent on proving that they were not bothered or intimidated by these nasty shout-outs.
PP: How does this body of work relate to your other projects and your philosophy/approach to photography generally?
SM: I consider my work to be the work of a portraitist. My prison portraits are stylistically in line with the portrait work that I pursue “out in public” at public demonstrations, holiday parades, festivals, fairs, and competitions.
PP: What were the reactions of the staff to your photography?
SM: I never really sought out their reactions. My photographs did seem to always successfully get me more access though.
PP: What were the reactions of the prisoners?
SM: Never really got reactions, per se. But with each portrait, I offered a free print if they wrote me a request and visually described themselves; some inmates wrote back and praised the images. Some seemed to want to start a pen pal relationship, just because, it seemed, some inmates had few contacts with the outside world.
PP: What is your personal opinion of prisons? Have they changed since you visited in the eighties?
SM: Prisons, then and now, in America, seem to continue to be warehouses; I think most Americans are aware of the fact that we, as a nation, have one of the largest prison populations in the world — and that we incarcerate at a level that far exceeds almost all other nations.
Have prisons changed? One change I’ve noticed with great concern is the concept and use of Supermax prisons which seems to be uniquely American. With older prisons as well as Supermax prisons, we seem to never be willing to spend much money on reducing recidivism.
The conservative right loves to convey the idea that they are tough on crime — tough prisons, tough sentencing, and the idea of “throw away the key.” So, our prison populations grow, and we build more prisons than any other nation. We’ve seen the expansion. And the Democrats? They do their best to avoid being tagged as “soft on crime.”
PP: What are Americans’ feeling toward crime and punishment?
SM: Americans very much ignore prisons and prison life — unless they live near a prison where the prison is the source of some level of local employment. Americans seem to only take notice of prisons when there is a problem, an escape, a prison disturbance (that receives national media attention), or when there is some breakdown in the system.
There seems to be a real void in political or community leadership especially in the realm of education as a path to reducing crime and reducing prison populations; the idea gets plenty of lip service.
PP: What role has photography in telling publics about prisons? Is it an effective tool?
SM: I think photography can help — and be an effective tool in informing the public about prisons and who inhabits American prisons; but, I’m not sure at all that our society wants to look at prisons and prison life … its too easy to ignore.
PP: What camera and film did you use?
SM: 4×5 Linhof and 4×5 Kodak and Fuji color negative. Sometimes a Pentax 6×7 with Fuji and Kodak color negative film. And, always combining flash with ambient light.
PP: The color you introduce is unusual for prison photographs. From looking at your other work, it is clear you revel in colour portraits. Were you aware that you were making unique images; splashing color all over these darkened corners of US society?
SM: Unique images? Well you have hit on something that was a primary intention: I wanted to make photographs that told you something new. Pictures you hadn’t seen before. Prison photography is rife with cliches. I thought if I were given access to prisons, I’d make different photographs. I was not arrogant about this — just determined to make images that had not been seen before.
I was determined, self-directed and wanted to get as many photographs as I could accomplish in, typically, a 1 to 2 hour visit. I limited my talk and conversations — I was on a mission.
Steve Milanowski is a photographer and, with Bob Tarte, co-author of Duplicity, a monograph of his own portraits. Milanowski earned his BFA from The Cranbrook Academy of Art and his MS from The Creative Photography Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His photographs are part of the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, The Houstin Museum of Fine Arts, The High Museum of Art, and The Polaroid Collection and numerous public collections. MoMA published his work in Celebrations and Animals; his work was also included in MoMA’s recent survey of late 20th century photography in the newly reinstalled Edward Steichen galleries.
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.
Photo: Calvin Gorman. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Calvin Gorham
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.
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.
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.
Photo: Michael Moses El. © Karen Ruckman/PhotoChange + Michael Moses El
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yellow Hand With Orange Glow. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
The potential for photography to change the lives of the incarcerated, particularly the young prisoners, is significant. Photography education provides all the therapeutic tenets of arts programming, but also develops new skills; visual literacy, computer and digital-darkroom skills, and (of course) the not-too-simple task of mastering the settings on a camera. Photography workshops flex different muscles than painting or writing workshops may. Photography allows storytelling beyond the pen and the paintbrush.
NOTE: I discuss many photography programs in this article, but all the images are by incarcerated children in New Mexico who’ve participated in the Fresh Eyes Project workshops.
THE FRESH EYES PROJECT
The Fresh Eyes Project in New Mexico is two years old. It delivers 10-week classes, twice a year in two New Mexico facilities – the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center (YDDC) in Albuquerque and the adjacent Camino Nuevo Correctional Center.
The planning, structure and accountability reported on the Fresh Eyes Project website is impressive.
Volunteer programs, cameras or not, must be water-tight, well-designed and directed. The Fresh Eyes Project clearly states its scope of work, it’s objectives, its internal assessment and feedback opportunities for students. I very much appreciate programs that share curriculum and lesson plans. Very valuable.
“Our purpose is to help the youngsters to see themselves and the community into which they would be released with fresh eyes as and for the community to see the youngsters with fresh eyes not as ‘the Other’ but as ‘our own,’” says the Fresh Eyes Project founder, Cecilia Lewis.
SCARCITY OF PROGRAMS INSIDE JUVENILE DETENTION
Sadly, projects like the Fresh Eyes Project are rare. In America, inside locked facilities there have been some occasional photography workshops but few consistent ones. I’ve mentioned many times Steve Davis’ workshops (there’s still so many photographs that remain unpublished). Fatima Donaldson recently led a digital photography workshop at Fort Bend Juvenile Detention Center, Texas (info and video).
Probably the best and most consistent provider of photography workshops to incarcerated youth is AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island. AS220 delivers education, including photography training, at the Rhode Island Training School (RITS), the State’s only juvenile detention facility. Classes are delivered as part of AS220′s Youth Photography Program which also works out of a downtown location and in local schools too.*
The Fresh Eyes Project and AS220′s work are the only year-on-year prison photography programs delivered in the U.S. that I know of. Please, contact me if there’s current programs of which I should know.
Fear. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
Ghost Hand. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
These Bars Keep Me In. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR YOUTH STORYTELLING
Can a teen do without their phone? Is a phone ever without camera these days? Can that commonplace visual communication be leveraged to spark interest in other forms of image making? In other cameras? In film photography? I’d say so.
Thanks largely to the work of Wendy Ewald, literacy and personal development through photography is a familiar notion. Youth storytelling photo programs include Youth in Focus, Seattle: Focus on Youth, Portland; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; First Exposures, San Francisco; The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Inner City Light, Chicago; My Story, Portland, OR; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; and Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative.
This summer, at Photoville, I saw an exhibit Perspectives featuring the photographs of teens from Red Hook, Brooklyn. Perspectives came out of a specific PhotoVoice program, that itself is part of the ongoing JustArts Photography Program (formerly the Red Hook Photo Project)
The JustArts Photography Program (more here and here) is run through the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC) in cooperation with New York Juvenile Justice Corps and the Brooklyn Arts Council. As with all the RHCJC projects, the photography program exists to improve the lives of teens within the geographically and socially isolated Red Hook neighbourhood.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS INTERVENTION
Whereas JustArts uses photography as inspiration, working with kids from less advantaged communities to envision great futures, Young New Yorkers actually uses photography (as well as video, illustration and design) as intervention in the cogs of the youth justice system.
“Young New Yorkers a restorative justice, arts program for 16- and 17-year-olds who have open criminal cases. The criminal court gives eligible defendants the option to participate in Young New Yorkers rather than do jail time, community service and have a lifelong criminal record. The curriculum is uniquely tailored to develop the emotional and behavioral skills of the young participants while facilitating responsible and creative self-expression.”
Young New Yorkers (YNY) is remarkable. More to come on Prison Photography about their successes. This little shout out is the least YNY deserve.
If you want to support YNY’s work right now, their Second Annual Silent Art Auction is on October 16, 6-10pm, at Allegra La Viola Gallery, 179 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002. You can bid online, if you’re not in New York.
So much good work being done across the country. These kids are our future.
Shadow Portrait. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
On The Outside. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
Portrait Of My Teacher. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
Scary Hands. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
Mighty Me. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project
* A couple of years ago, I interviewed the director of AS220 youth programs, two of the photography instructors and a few kids. They also gifted me a portfolio of work and I’m long overdue to scan and present that material here on the blog. Please, stay tuned.