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AmyElkinsPartingWords

Amy Elkins‘ latest body of work Parting Words is a visual representation of every execution in the state of Texas since the ban on capital punishment was overturned in 1976.

Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.

Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?

Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.

Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.

The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.

PP: What was the impulse then?

AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.

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PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?

AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.

A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions.  But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.

I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.

That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.

PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?

AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.

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PP: Are you afraid of death?

AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.

PP: Where do we go when our time is up?

AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.

PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?

AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them.  This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.

PPAnything else you’d like to add?

AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.

PP: Thanks, Amy.

AE: Thank you, Pete.

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ELKINS ELSEWHERE

In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.

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Susan Wright, Texas

Matt Rainwaters is an editorial features photographer, based in Austin, Texas. Photographer Lance Rosenfield told me, “Matt is a specialist at making portraits through bullet proof glass.” For the past few years, Rainwaters has been the go-to-man in the lone star state for interview-room portraits. Collected, these portraits are the series Offender.

As well as Texas prison portraits, Offender includes some images from Rainwaters’ 2010 trip to Guantanamo.

Of Rainwaters’ Guantanamo images, I have never before seen photos like his shots of magazines with crudely redacted images of women inside the pages. The layers, scrawls and obvious surface of those images of images seem to encapsulate the malevolent drudgery that is the deadlock between disfunctional fundamentalism and more disfunctional American legal standards. When two resolute systems that cannot accommodate each other an create faint-compromise, they do so with results of zero utility. Perverse and pathetic.

Unfortunately, when I spoke to Matt, I wasn’t familiar with the redacted-image magazine images, so I didn’t ask him about them. Darn! I hope they spark some inquiries of your own.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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PP: Recently, I spoke with Alan Pogue, a documentary photographer in your home city Austin. Alan said it’s easy to get a photograph in a visiting room but if you need to get inside the living quarters and inside Texan prison facilities you pretty much need a lawsuit. What do you think about that?

Matthew Rainwaters (MR): I’d say that’s fair. Getting access to the visiting rooms is fairly easy if you have a commission and if you have the media contact. Getting beyond that though I’ve never been able to.

The writer I work with and I have had great ideas for stories but getting past the visiting room is not gonna happen. There’s been times when literally I could have walked just past the line and made a much more compelling portait, but it’s just not allowed.

PP: How does one get access to the visiting rooms?

MR: If you go to the Texas Department of Justice website there is a ‘media’ section. Contact the media liaison with details of the publication that you’re working for. Once you have the commission, you tell them the story and the prisoner that you’re planning on working with. The negotiations are straight forward.

PP: In how many Texas prisons have you made portraiture?

MR: I’ve been to various facilities in Hunstville, TX; one in Palestine, TX; and I’ve been to four different facilities in East Texas.

PP: Are there any limitations on the equipment you take in?

MR:You are subject to a search every time you go in. I typically have my lighting kit  - two strobe heads, a bag with stands and various modifiers, reflectors, cloths, back drops. I’ve never had a problem getting kit in and out.

PPHow do you shoot through reflective bullet-proof glass?

MR: There’s a few tricks that you can use. Sometimes a polarizer will help. Sometimes if it’s a small enough booth I can have an assistant stand behind me with a dark cloth and that will cut down on reflections and then from there it’s just understanding the fundamentals of photography. Lighting, contrast, and trying to work with the available light.

Trying to use a strobe through glass is next to impossible.

From there it’s just talking with your subject, getting to know them, and then trying to effectively communicate their story that the writer is also telling.

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Wayne East, Texas

PP: Can you describe each of your subjects and their particular stories?

MR: I photographed Wayne East. He was convicted of a murder. This is a pretty compelling story. He spent 19 years on death row before a woman started championing his cause. Not incoincidentally, she was the victim’s cousin who believed that East is innocent.

She raised a bunch of money, spent a lot of her own money and basically petitioned to get him off of death row. He was recently paroled. after 30 years for the crime.

PP: It wasn’t a wrongful conviction?

MR: East has always said he is innocent. The question remains: Was he really guilty or is he innocent as she also believes?

The other story I was really close to was that of Susan Wright (top image). My images ran in Texas Monthly for an article titled 193. She was convicted of murdering her husband by stabbing him 193 times.

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Susan Wright, Texas

MR: The story goes that Wright’s husband would come home and beat her. The defense attorney never brought up battered woman syndrome.

Well, one day he came home and started rough-housing with their kid, slapped him around, and that’s actually what drove her over the edge and she tied him to the bed and then ended up pulling a knife out and stabbing him 193 times. This whole idea of battered woman syndrome and her being psychologically damaged from years of abuse was never brought up during the defense. So she was up for an appeal for parole and I believe that’s still pending. I don’t know how that’s played out.

PP: There’s another compelling portrait of a female in that story was it the prosecuting attorney or the DA?

MR: Kelly Siegler, prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office.

The court proceedings were aired on Court TV and Siegler was a controversial character because she was very theatrical in her closing arguments. She ended up tying one of her law assistants to the table and climbed on top of him and proceeded to count out 193 stabs, every single one she simulated with her pen. All on TV. A lot of people believe that those theatrics are responsible for convicting Susan.

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Kelly Siegler, District Attorney prosecutor, Texas

PP: What was your first prison shoot?

MR: Steven Russell. You may be familiar with him from the movie I Love You Phillip Morris starring Jim Carrey as Russell.

Russell is Texas’ most notorious escape artist. He’ll be in prison for the rest of his life, even though he was originally convicted of a white collar crime. Russell fell in love with a man in prison, escaped to be with him, and then continued to escape over and over again. So what could have been a relatively short prison sentence has been compounded by the crime of escape four times over.

Russell was in the most maximum security prison – the Michael Unit out past Palestine. He has one hour of sunlight each day. He’s locked up in the same way as the most violent offenders, although he’s a completely non-violent offender.

All four times that he escaped were completely nonviolent too, so it’s sort of tragic. Does he deserve to be there? You know, that’s questionable. He did escape but it’s a sad story nonetheless.

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Steven Russell, Texas

PP: Let’s move from the US to the US’ outlying territories? When did you got Guantanamo and why?

MR: I went to Guantanamo for Esquire UK in March, 2010.

PP: For how many days?

MR: It was a three day stay on the base.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about Guantanamo Bay. The media portrays it as solely as a detention facility on the coast of Cuba but what I didn’t realize until I got there it’s been a functioning military base since 1906 – a lot of it’s operations have to do with immigration and refueling point for US allies.

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MR: We did the media tour of the prison facility. We went to some of the different camps. Saw how, in some cases, some of the inmates live communally, in other cases some of them are locked down. There’s definitely a lot of secrecy still. It’s not as transparent as they would have you believe. There’s some camps that you don’t have access to at all and there’s some camps that they don’t even admit to existing on the island and they don’t show up on any maps. But it’s been proven that there are certain inmates that are held there in a mysterious location.

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MR: What is extremely frustrating about photographing at Guantanamo Bay is the strict security protocol. At the end of every day, you sit down with an officer and they look through every single photo.

Sometimes very arbitrary reasons or sometimes very good reasons, they will delete a photo. If they don’t like the way it may represent the prison then they’ll delete those photos too.

Every single photograph goes through this “filter.” I had maybe 60% of the images I shot deleted before I came home.

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PP: Is it fair to ask if there’s any points of comparison between Guantanamo and the Texas prisons? Did you feel as though the monitoring is different? Did you feel as though the administrations understood your role as a media person differently? Do you find any irony in the fact that Guantanamo is one of the most secure and notorious prisons in the world but they provide these three days media junkets, something state prisons do not provide?

MR: Within the Texas prison system we’re there to photograph a specific individual. So you’re led into an interview room or booth. I’m there to take a photograph of that person whereas in Guantanamo Bay the subject isn’t a specific person it is the entire facility.

PP: But in both cases, for different reasons, the authority is media savvy and happy to work with you?

MR: Yes.

Guantanamo Bay a lot of people believe, and quite possibly rightfully so, should be shut down because it is a publicity nightmare for the United States. Everything they’re trying to do with the media at Guantanamo is to try and show how fair, how honest, how transparent, everything is and they’re really trying to deflect this image of it being a detention facility that practices torture.

The institutionally genius part of Guantanamo Bay, from the administration standpoint is no-one is stationed at Guantanamo Bay. People are only deployed to Guantanamo Bay, so no-one stays there for longer than a year-and-a-half and that goes to the highest ranking people, including the admiral who’s in charge of the Joint Task Force.

So, when you ask them about issues of torture or enhanced interrogation methods everyone can default stock answer over and over again. We kept running into, “I don’t know, I wasn’t here.”

Institutionally it’s set up in that way and that was probably the most frustrating thing as a journalist. No one can tell the whole story. The institutional memory of the place is at best a year old.

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PP: Your work has a very distinct look. So, how would you say it fits in with other photography made in prisons? And I’m asking that in terms of like who has the power? How does it inform the public?

MR: I’m photographing individuals and as an editorial features photographer. Portraiture is mostly what I do so I’m trying to set up a dialogue with my subject that is fair to them and it’s honest to the story. I have to quickly learn how to make people comfortable, disarm them, get them to open up to you so that you can be fair and honest to them.

I typically have an hour to work with a subject, it’s a different thing than say a documentary looking at a place over and over again. I’m working work within the confines of limited time and semi-limited knowledge of the person and trying to break all that down and create a portrait.

PP: What is the reaction of your subjects? What do they think will come about through your interaction with the camera as a mediator?

MR: A mixture of skepticism and hope. They hope that telling their story will better the legal decision that may be looming. Maybe it’s a plea for an appeal or they just want to tell their story. Maybe they feel like they haven’t been able to tell their side of the story?

But there’s also skepticism because they don’t know necessarily the turns that the story may take and they don’t know what the recent side of the victim’s story, nor the reactions to it.

Imprisoned subjects can be guarded at first. Usually, there’s 10 to 15 minute window where you’re talking on the phone through the plexi glass. I’ve got my camera just sitting there and I’m not taking photos, just taking the pulse of the person and getting to understand them … and that will dictate everything.

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Wayne East, Texas

PP: You’re building what could be loosely characterized as a portfolio of visiting room prison portraiture. Is there a common aesthetic that runs through those that you’re either conscious of or you’ve just started to notice as these projects mount up. Not in a pejorative sense, I want to describe Offender as creepy. Is that okay?

MR: Well, it’s definitely that institutional aesthetic – you’re so confined with time and space you literally have to learn to make do with whatever’s thrown at you.

Now that I’ve done it quite a few times I know what to expect; “Am I shooting through plexi-glass today or am I shooting through a screen? Do we maybe have an open room to work with which maybe means I can actually set up a back drop and maybe a light or two? Am I free to interact with the person without talking on a phone?”

It’s a dark subject but it’s also mostly working with honest stories – fascinating stories, but yeah, creepy at times. Ultimately, these are stories that need to be told and that’s why I enjoy photographing, I believe it’s some of the most honest work that I do.

PP: Thanks Matt.

MR: Thank you, Pete.

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 Steven Russell, Texas.

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NO MORE

A quick note to say that I have taken down the PPOTR audio files of interviews with photographers I met during Prison Photography On The Road from the designated Podbean page and mirrored iTunes account.

The extensive time required to audio-edit and publish the interviews is just not something I currently have. I did not want to pay for monthly hosting any longer in the knowledge I wouldn’t be publishing them at any point in the next six or seven months.

But, do not fear! As you know, the interviews are the key component of the upcoming Prison Photography photobook. I have the best intern in the world transcribing all the interviews and the publisher Silas Finch and I have plans for a digital edition of the book which will include all the interviews in full – both audio and transcripts. I also hope desperately, that in the future I’ll be able to host the PPOTR project in full on a dedicated website.

I thank all those who responded positively to the 16 interviews I published in the past year. I hope you understand and will be patient enough to wait for all 65 interviews to be given the full treatment. All in good time.

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A temporary gig as a set photographer took Jordana Hall to San Quentin State Prison; her heart and consciousness propelled countless return visits. She has worked particularly closely with men who were convicted when juvenile (under 18) and were sentenced to life in prison.

Hall has worked as a volunteer in existing programs; launched her own project that melds poetry, family letters, snapshots and her own portraits; and visited the hometowns and families of prisoners. The ongoing body of work  Home Is Not Here is part of Hall’s senior thesis exhibition. It will be on show – beginning April 2013 – at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

I wanted to learn more about Hall’s motives and discoveries.

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Prison Photography (PP): How did you get access to San Quentin State Prison?

Jordana Hall (JH): My work at San Quentin started in June 2011. I was hired as the set photographer for a documentary (working title, Crying Sideways) by SugarBeets Productions. The documentary details the stories of a group inside San Quentin called KIDCAT (Kids Creating Awareness Together).

PP: KIDCAT is a group of lifers sentenced as juveniles, correct?

JH: Yes, you can follow KIDCAT on Facebook.

PP: They describe themselves as “men who grew up in prison and as a group have matured into a community that cares for others, is responsible to others, and accountable for their own actions.”

JH: I began attending KIDCAT’s bi-weekly group meetings as a volunteer. During this period of volunteering, I developed a working relationship with the members of KIDCAT. Showing up when I said I would, being accountable, and most of all keeping an open mind and heart while inside re-assured the men of KIDCAT that I was a trustworthy member.

Then in June 2012, I started working on my senior thesis for my Photojournalism BFA at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. I approached Lieutenant Sam Robinson, Public Information Officer at San Quentin, with the idea of starting the “Home Is Not Here” project. If I had not had the relationship that I do with the men of KIDCAT, Sam would not have been so willing to help. It really is this relationship that I have with the group that has allowed me so many opportunities to continue my work there. I’ve been going into San Quentin for a year and a half now, and have only been able to bring my camera three times.

To be granted access to San Quentin – even minimal access – requires a lot of work. There needs to be a legitimate return for the prison community. In my case, publishing my work to Young Photographer’s Alliance, posting to my website, and eventually in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was enough justification for the prison to allow me to continue working inside.

I never take my access for granted.

There are strict rules about what you can and cannot do, wear and say. If I slip up – even just a little – my access is on the line.

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PP: Why did you take on the project?

JH: After hearing the inmate’s stories during the documentary filming, I realized that all of them were just teenagers who were dealt a bad hand. This is not to say they don’t take responsibility for what they did. They definitely do. Their stories resonated to my core; the stories would impact anyone who heard them. I left the prison gates that day realizing that they could be my brother, father, or best friend. I began to think about their families. Most of the men in the group are in their mid-thirties; they have spent more than half of their lives in prison. I thought about how they struggle to keep working relationships with their loved ones for so many years through the prison walls. That wondering led me to my senior thesis project.

Home Is Not Here documents the relationships between an incarcerated person and his family. I seek out the ways in which their relationship can be kept when there are so many barriers involved.

PP: What have you learnt?

JH: I’ve learned that the families of incarcerated people are the least documented victims of crime. Communities shun them for “raising a criminal.” There are limited resources available for them to get help. These families mourn the loss of their loved one’s free life with little to no support.

I learned the truth in the statement, “When one person is incarcerated, at least five people ‘serve the time’ with them.” I have seen family members go about their daily lives with a piece of their heart locked away in prison.

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JH: I learned that letters from a child to their “Tio Miguel” (who they have never met outside of prison visitations) would break your heart. I learned that even the toughest looking men still get tears in their eyes when you ask about their family.

I am still learning.

PP: What did the prisoners think of being photographed?

JH: The first day they were most interested in seeing how a digital camera works. I am very hands-on with my subjects, and with the permission of Lt. Sam Robinson, I handed my second camera body to the guys to play with on the breaks during filming. It was both funny as well as saddening to watch their amazement at the foreign device.

The first time I went in, I asked to see an inmate’s cell. The guys all looked at each other, waiting for someone to volunteer. One by one they denied my request to see their space. We ended up going to a stranger’s cell, just so I could poke my head in from the door. Soon after, I fully realized the shame that comes over them when asked about their cells. It is the only space that is their own, but it also the cage they are locked in at night. These 6 x 12 cement cages are a place both of safety and of degradation.

After I stuck around for a year, I approached the cell situation, again. This time they were excited to show me their space. Their family photos on the wall, bookshelf with notebooks, sketchbooks, and wall markings left from previous inmates. “Stay Focused” was scrawled into the yellowed paint next to the metal bunk. It took some time and a lot of trust building for me to get on that level with them.

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PP: Did you give the men prints?

JH: Giving the guys the prints is absolutely one of my favorite parts!

The Home Is Not Here project had me traveling to the hometowns of three men. I went with only small clues of what and where to photograph – “The Dairy Queen where I took my first girlfriend on my first date,” or “The restaurant named after the city in Vietnam where my family was from.”

When I brought back prints from my trips, the guys were blown away by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same.

I was asked by one inmate to visit the grave of his grandmother. They were extremely close and she passed away while he was in prison. When he saw the photograph I took there, he began to cry. It was almost as if I had delivered him a physical place to grieve her passing.

I try to give back to my subjects as much as I can. I try not to be that photographer that comes in, gets the story, and never comes back. They give so much of themselves when they allow me to photograph them, giving prints to them is the least I can do.

PP: What did the staff think of being photographed?

JH: I never photographed the staff, although some day I hope to see some really thorough work done about the people who work in prisons. It would be a fascinating story.

PP: I agree. I’ve yet to see a photography project that suitably deals sympathetically and deeply the complex and stressful dynamics of correctional officers’ work and lives.

PP: Could photography serve a rehabilitative role, if used in a workshop format in prisons?

JH: I think a workshop on photography in a prison would be an incredible idea. These men are so introspective and have so much to offer, creatively. The documentation of life inside prison by an inmate could offer such insight for us all.

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PP: Are prisoners invisible?

JH: Yes, I believe prisoners are invisible. Everything about the prison system is set up for them to be invisible, and stay invisible. To be silenced, and out of sight. What I aim to do with this project is to shed some light on a piece of an inmate’s life that is not seen. When people think prison photography they think of hardened criminals, drug addicts, grimy hands gripping cell door bars, and the underbelly of society. I am offering the alternative viewpoint, which is the humanity inside. These men are fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and they all have people who care about them. They also have built communities of support for each other, inside.

PP: What’s been the feedback to your the work?

JH: As I work I like to get feedback from my peers. A lot of people who see photographs of inmates and due to their preconceived notions will shake their head and walk away thinking, “What monsters…” but with the work I do, I try to side step this notion and say, “No, look closer.”

No matter what I do, some people will never see it the way I’d like them to, but for people who can be open-minded, the work gives an inside look to the humanity that exists inside prison, and awareness of the struggles of their families.

PP: Anything else you’d like to add?

JH: As I move forward in my thesis, I am turning my focus to just one inmate in particular, Miguel Quezada. This is the working statement:

“Estamos Contigo (We Are With You)” - Miguel Quezada (below) was incarcerated at age 16. Now 31, he has spent half of his entire life in prison. Due to a harsh judicial decision that he should serve his sentences consecutively, his first parole hearing is not until the year 2040. He will be 60 years old. Home, for Miguel, rests between the realities of life at San Quentin Prison today, memories of his childhood cut short, and dreams of a faraway tomorrow. His family shares this stress, mourning the loss of their loved one’s free life. From the part of South Modesto, California known for its lack of sidewalks and high crime rate, Miguel grew up in poverty with his parents who immigrated from Mexico. His mother and father, Arturo and Lucila, are almost completely illiterate, so writing letters takes a lot of time and energy. Miguel appreciates it when they do write, but loves when they send photographs. His nieces and nephew, who he has never met outside of prison visitations, write him frequently and give him a sense of connectivity to the outside world. Miguel is one of hundreds of men in the state of California with similar stories – serving life for a mistake made as a teenager. The barriers of the prison walls will never restrain the emotional longing of one human being to be with another.

PP: We look forward to checking in again soon. Thanks, Jordana.

JH: Thank you.

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Blake has posted the latest in our Eye On PDX series. He spoke (at length) with Jason Langer. The conversation swoops over the achievements of Langer’s career beginning with his apprenticeship with Michael Kenna. Much of the conversation is Langer passing on the wisdoms that Kenna passed on to him.

Langer says, “I wrote a postcard to Kenna every year with my photo on one side and when I was ready to graduate in 1989 he was ready to hire his first assistant. I jumped at the chance, moved down to the Bay Area and got paid $6/hr. to babysit, mop floors, wash dishes- anything he needed- and of course all the photo related things. Souping film, making contacts, drymounting and matting prints and getting them ready to ship.”

“Kenna told me was that it takes about 10 years to figure out what you want to photograph- what your subject is- and it takes that much time to get good at it- and in the meantime, don’t show your work, until it’s ready- keep the photos under your bed and keep working. There is no rush. That’s a lesson which shocking (to me) has gone out the window- people don’t take ANY time to let their images stew in the pot. It takes AT LEAST this to create a signature style and subject matter- or so I thought. Now – seemingly- it doesn’t matter.”

Read the full conversation: Q&A with Jason Langer

Jason Langer’s debut monograph Secret City was published by Nazraeli in 2006. His next book, Possession, will be published by Nazraeli in Spring 2013.

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Eye On PDX is an ongoing series of profiles of photographers based in Portland, Oregon. See past Eye On PDX profiles here and here.

Photo: Robin Holland. Source: Bill Moyers Show

Bryan Stevenson founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) made arguments to the United States Supreme Court in May 2012 against the sentencing of Juvenile to Life Without Parole. He is fervently against the death penalty and has consistently pointed out the injustices within the US legal system that benefit the rich over the poor.

This is the second part of a two-part conversation with Prison Photography. You can read part one here.

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PP: While presenting at TED, you encouraged the audience to educate themselves about communities beyond their circles, but you also warned the audience that the type of awareness that spurs you and your work – an awareness of profound inequality in American society – “will get to you”. Can you expand on that?

Bryan Stevenson: It is a challenge. It’s a new relationship with the world of injustice, poverty and bias that implicates you in ways in which you are otherwise not implicated. That’s both a burden and – in my judgment – a privilege, because to be able to respond to those things animates human beings in ways that very few things do. It creates meaning and purpose that can be transcendental.

I think the way you do it is by trying to insulate yourself from the politics of fear that have created many of these dynamics. We very rarely ask ourselves ‘What are we afraid of?’, ‘What are we angry about?’ but in public life we’ve been encouraged through our political leaders to be very angry about crime, to be very afraid of the society that we live in. There are things that we should be legitimately angry and legitimately concerned about, but I think as a world view this is a very destructive way to live.

When you’re consumed with fear and anger you make decisions about how you treat other people, even about how you think of your own needs, that often time leads to inequality, injustice and oppression. When you look at every example of massive human rights violations the story always begins with a narrative around fear and anger. I think one of the things we have to do is step back from that and begin to ask harder, more critical questions about the issues around us. Is it better to punish crime or to prevent crime? Are there things that we can do to reduce the prison population? Is it better to have a free population or an incarcerated population? If you start asking those kind of questions it will lead you to different policy outcomes than the outcomes we’ve largely elected.

What that means for individuals – and I think for me – is that you sometimes have to say things which are challenging; you have to be willing to stand when everyone else is sitting and be the voice that says ‘But what about this?’ You have to be willing to speak when everyone else is quiet. That’s not always easy and that’s not always comfortable. Certainly for me, it has at times been pretty overwhelming and vexing to be the target of other people’s anger and frustration because of what I am saying and who I am representing.

It has been frustrating to deal with this wall of ignorance when people are making decisions with so little information and with so little context of the people whose lives are being directly affected. What it has taught me is that I do have to believe things I haven’t seen and that is not always easy for people to embrace but I think it essential if you are going to create justice, if you’re going to create a new world.

As a little boy, growing up in the civil rights movement you’d hear Martin Luther King say, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I heard the words, I understood their individual meaning but I didn’t really get what he was talking about until I became actively engaged in advocating for people who were hated and condemned.

One of the great challenges for our generation and community today is that so much of academic training is trying to deconstruct the things we believe, know and understand, and to make you accept the status quo – it is really intended to make you less idealistic, less aspirational, less confident that  you can change the world in which you inhabit. That is unfortunate and while we have to be smart and strategic, we still have to be hopeful and we still have to believe in things we haven’t seen.

PP: This year you presented arguments in the cases Jackson vs. Hobbs and Miller vs. Alabama at the US Supreme Court. How did it go?

Bryan Stevenson: The United States Supreme Court is a tough room full of smart, thoughtful people who know these issues inside out. They ask a lot of difficult questions. Many of the justices asked some interesting questions about what sort of remedy would be necessary if relief were granted which is more encouraging than if they had asked no questions! I was pleased that the court granted review – that’s the hard part. There are thousands of petitions filed every year and the court rarely grants review, so for the court to do so on such an important constitutional question like this is even less common.

PP: In June, The Supreme Court ruled that all mandatory life sentences without parole given to children 17 and younger are unconstitutional. What happens now?

Bryan Stevenson: EJI will be dealing with as many of those cases as we can. We have made commitment to over 100 people in the last few months. We prepared to help those who would be affected by a favorable ruling. A lot of these kids don’t have right to counsel so even if the court grants relief, they’re going to have a hard time finding the legal help they need to get their sentence corrected. We’re trying to take that up.

In addition to ending LWOP for children, we are committed to ending the incarceration of children with adults. There’s still 27 or 28 states that put kids in adult facilities so that’s another campaign we’re trying to advance. We’ll take those cases on. We’re very interested in ending the underage prosecution of children; there is still a lot of states that have no minimum age for trying a child as an adult so frequently 9 and 10 year olds are looking at adult prosecution, something we think should never happen and we’ll keep doing those cases no matter what the court rules on Miller and Jackson.

PP: EJI was one of the earliest organizations to partner with Richard Ross. He has provided EJI with photographs for its reports and advocacy. In April, I wrote a piece for Wired.com titles Uncompromising Photos Expose Juvenile Detention In America about Richard’s photographs. What does photography do or change – if anything at all – in helping EJI describe these worlds we can talk about but rarely see?

Bryan Stevenson: I think photography is essential. There’s no question that Richard’s images provide a power and an intimacy to these issues that cannot be achieved any other way. It is important for photography and photojournalism to be a component of the kind of work we’re trying to do because in many ways the issues we’re discussing are underground issues.

We don’t really know what prisons and jails look like. We don’t know what the people inside them look like. We have some very outdated and exaggerated presentations of jails and prisons in popular culture. I don’t think people can get a perspective on what it is like to lock someone down 23 hours a day, year after year, decade after decade. We don’t understand what it is like for a child to be in custody in an adult facility where the risk of sexual assault is 10 times greater than it would be for an adult. We don’t know what it is like to go week after week with no contact with anybody who is not either a prisoner or a prison guard, which is true for many of our clients.

There is cruelty, real misconduct and brutality in prisons. There are all of these realities that good photographers can expose and give a lens to that is critical. Richard’s work has been hugely influential and we’ve worked with other photographers to bring these issues to light. Our first report in 2007 was mostly photographs, driven by images by Steve Liss who’d spent time in facilities taking photographs of young kids incarcerated.

Until we show people these children and the conditions of confinement in which we find these children we are not going to be able to get people to deal carefully and honestly with these issues. Photo-advocacy is critical to the work we do.

PP: Once an image is made and seen of a child in a prison cell it smashes all the stereotypes that you talked about within our a culture of fear?

Bryan Stevenson: That’s right.

PP: You argued at the Supreme Court that Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) is cruel and unusual. Definitions of cruel and unusual change over time. We perceive punishments as cruel and unusual depending on what we collectively consider socially reasonable. What do we need to do as a society to label practices that lead to mass incarceration as cruel and unusual?

Bryan Stevenson: We need to be quite intentional about how recognizing that having the highest rate of incarceration in the world is a negative thing. It is not a good reflection on a society that is committed to freedom and equality. We’re going to have to be as deliberate in our efforts to eliminate and reduce mass incarceration as we have been in creating it.

We have to begin a conversation where we say it would be better if 1 out 3 young men of color were not in jail, prison, probation or parole. It would be a positive thing if we solved the problems of drug addiction and misuse in our society rather than just continuing to imprison people. If you orient that way, then you can ask ‘What can we do instead?’

One of the things EJI talks about is having a deliberate target of reducing the prison pollution by 50% over the next 6 or 7 years. We have to be intentional. Drug policy is the largest contributor to our current prison population. We started about 30 years ago making something like simple drug possession a crime. We made drug addiction a crime. If we thought about drugs and drug abuse as a healthcare problem, rather than a criminal justice problem not only would we not be saving the thirty, forty, fifty thousands dollars a year to it costs incarcerate a person who has a health problem we could actually begin to pursue the interventions that reduce drug addiction. Redirect the resources.

That’s not just good for the government and for taxpayers; it’s good for families and communities. That orientation would go a long way to move us forward and eliminate these race disparities and the disparities that are created by class and status. If we did that seriously over the next 2 or 3 years we would dramatically reduce our prison population almost overnight.

If we added to that a punishment system and scale influenced by what science has to teach us about rehabilitation, behavior modification, about how human beings can recover, I think we’d also save billions of dollars – billions with a B – on resources that are now being invested in doing nothing more than warehousing people, further damaging them before we release them back into society.

There are states where we spend over $100,000 per year to keep teenagers incarcerated. I can’t identify any educator who couldn’t make better use of those dollars. Most educators will tell you that for half of that – for a quarter of that – invested in each child you are working with, you could do some magical things to re-orient them and prevent crime and the problems we’re trying to deal with in the public safety sphere. We must approach this problem by first acknowledging it’s a PROBLEM, it’s not just an aspect of life in America that we incarcerate the poor and disadvantaged.

You’re right; the notion of cruel and unusual has evolved. It is rooted in a concept of how we relate to one another, but it is also related in a vision of human rights and human dignity that the framers of our constitution understood was critical in a free society. If we tolerate cruelty and violations of human rights we sow the seeds of destruction, discontent and animosity that ultimately undermine any free community. That’s why we can never make peace – in my judgment – the type of cruelty we see too much. To say to any child of thirteen, ‘You are only fit to die in prison’ is cruel. I don’t think you need a law degree or a degree in adolescent development to acknowledge that. You just need to be willing to think critically and honestly about what protecting children requires. A lot of these issues are much more simple than people think.

PP: It’s the first time I’ve heard someone put a figure on targets for decarceration in America. A reduction of 50% would mean releasing more than 1.1 million people. That figure would scare the hell out of most Americans.

Bryan Stevenson: [Laughs] Only because they don’t know who those people are!

There are hundreds of thousands of people in jails and prisons who have never committed a violent crime, they’ve never hurt anybody. We have close to a million people in prison for non-violent property crimes or drug crimes. Frankly, if someone stole $50 from your house, you’re never going to get that back in our current system, but you can imagine a world where the obligation to pay back to restore and to compensate the victims of crime in ways that are meaningful could replace the use of prisons to punish and crush folks.

All of a sudden a whole host of things are happening that I think are positive to our society; once we begin defining and describing how people get to prison and who they are, the idea of reducing the prison population becomes a lot more attractive. Also, when we start talking about the collateral consequences of the money we’re spending; we are undermining education in this country because of mass incarceration. We are depleting resources for public safety because of mass incarceration. We are stripping basic services and public utilities because of mass incarceration.

PP: At TED, you said that as a society we will not be judged by our technology. Will we be judged by the fairness of our laws?

Bryan Stevenson: Our laws express our fundamental norms and our fundamental values; I think it more complex than just our laws or just our technology. It has to do with the dynamics in our community. If we get comfortable with widespread racial bias and discrimination; if we get comfortable with a widespread population of people who are desperately poor; if we get comfortable with these vertical relationships then we are destined to become a different kind of America – an America that is not defined by commitment to fairness, equality and opportunity.

We have to pay attention to all of the strategies and techniques that create opportunity, and technologies are at the heart of that, design is at the heart of that, even entertainment can stimulate the kind of creativity we need. Those are important parts of it, and so are our laws. Ultimately, for me, the measure is what we do with technological tools and where we stand. There are more people living under the poverty line today than there were forty years ago. That’s a bad thing. Having 2.3 million people in jails and prisons is a bad thing. The growing population of people who have permanently lost the right to vote who are African-American – after the civil rights struggle – is a bad thing. The despair and hopelessness that I see in poor communities and minority communities – where 13 year old children believe they’re either going to be dead or incarcerated by the time they are 21 – is a bad thing. We will ultimately have to measure our commitment to society and to our norms and values by how we respond to those problems.

PP: And you’re helping us learn deeply about the problems, and offering solutions. More power to you. Thank you Bryan.

Bryan Stevenson: Thanks Pete.

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The first part of this conversation was published October 31st, 2012.

Below is Stevenson’s full TED presentation.

Source: Flickr, Jurvetson

Bryan Stevenson is not a pioneering scientist or tech entrepreneur, nor is he a globally known entertainer, a powerful politician or a media mogul. Given that Stevenson’s day-to-day company includes the poorest Americans, prisoners and the condemned he would not seem to be a likely candidate to speak at the prestigious pay-to-attend TED Conference. And yet, Stevenson, a lawyer of over 25 years, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), stole the show at this year’s TED meet.

Without the aid of flashy visuals, Stevenson described how it is the poor and disadvantaged who suffer the racial and class biases within the US criminal justice system. Not only a breath of fresh air, his presentation was a challenge to both the moneyed and influential TEDsters in the room and we – the online audience – to engage with the facts, laws, and shortcomings of criminal justice within our communities.

Can we reconcile the belief that the US is a society based upon fairness, equality and opportunity when over 7 million citizens are under some form of correctional supervision? Why do we sentence children to an entire life behind bars? Can we adopt restorative justice and move away from an over-reliance on incarceration? Can we truly see and tackle the causes of despair, poverty and crime?

Given his other commitments, appearing at TED was not even Stevenson’s priority. One week after TED, he stood in front of the United States Supreme Court and made arguments in the Jackson vs. Hobbs and Miller vs. Alabama cases against the use of Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing for children. Stevenson believes it cruel and unusual – and therefore a violation of the eighth amendment – to sentence a minor as an adult, and especially cruel when the sentence carries no possibility of release.

For many reasons including the current budget crises, criminal justice spending and policy is under scrutiny. Stevenson is at the sharp end of this hot topic. He sat down with Prison Photography to discuss his start in these tough issues, the need for us all to treat issues of poverty and marginalization as our own, and the long arc of the universe that Stevenson – despite the inequalities he battles daily – still believes bends toward justice.

Prison Photography (PP): How did you get invited to TED?

Bryan Stevenson: I hope it’s not too embarrassing to admit that I had never actually heard of TED. I was never really that plugged in to that community. I was given a Four Freedoms Award in New York, last year, and that is where I met Chris Anderson.

Chris was very generous. He said, “I think you might be great for a TED talk.” I said, “Well, I’ll talk to you about that.” I went back to Alabama and asked my staff, “What’s a TED Talk?” and they said I should do one. It was a tough month because I had cases going to the Supreme Court and I wasn’t sure I could do all of it, but I decided I would.

PP: You founded the EJI over two decades ago, and I presume while your focus has changed your message has been consistent. Did the TED conference have any effect on how your message has been received?

Bryan Stevenson: It was really surprised by what a vibrant community TED is. There are a lot of very thoughtful people all engaged in the pursuit of ideas. I listened to many of the presentations and I was quite inspired by them.

Frankly, I was tempted to do things differently to what I had planned; everything there was so visual, dazzling and spectacular. I don’t usually use visual aids or do Powerpoints. I was a little concerned about that but I just decided to give the talk I planned. I was humbled by the response; people were very generous and very enthusiastic. For me, that was very affirming.

I talk in a lot of places where there’s a great deal of hostility, where there is a great deal of resistance; where you know you’re saying things that people don’t really want to hear and frequently they show that. It was very gratifying to be received well at TED. And it has had an impact – just the notion that you can put a talk like that online in a venue that people regularly visit has meant that a lot of people have heard what we are trying to do and they’d otherwise have never heard about our work.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) believes deeply in getting more information out, educating more people. We cannot change this environment inside a courtroom alone; we’re going to have to change the broader political, social and cultural environment; if we are going to have the sort of conversation I think we need to have.

PP: Did you really raise $1million in 15 minutes from TEDster donations?

Bryan Stevenson: Yes. The day after my talk, I had to go to Seattle to give another talk, so I wasn’t at TED, but a lot of people had said that they wanted to advance the work we were doing and to participate directly. Chris was kind enough to have a few minutes to invite people to offer support and they did and we have gotten pledges of about a million dollars which really comes at a critical time. We’re engaged in campaign right now to end excessive sentences of children. The United States is the only nation in the world that still sentences children to die in prison. Life in prison without parole for children as young as thirteen is a sentence that is still widely imposed in the US and we are really actively trying to eliminate that sentence, so we’ve been at the US Supreme Court, we’ve been in courts across the country and we’re now doing a national campaign.

In addition [we're working on] a couple of other things – stopping the underage prosecution of children as adults, and stopping the incarceration of children with adults. This support will really allow us to move that forward. TED has had a tremendous impact on the visibility of our work and I’m hoping that out of it will come new partnerships, new colleagues, new opportunities for these very critical social justice issues for our era.

PP: One of the biggest laughs you got in the talk was when described writing a motion to have your poor, juvenile client tried as a 75 year-old, white corporate executive! That latter description would fit many in the TED crowd. Beforehand, were you nervous about the demographic and reaction of the TED crowd? Did you think it might be a tough crowd?

Bryan Stevenson: It ended up be a very generous crowd. I was a little nervous about that story, of course, but one thing I’ve learnt is that you want to reach people where you and they are. I talk about a lot of tough issues all the time and I genuinely want us to get to a better place; I genuinely want all people to achieve a relationship within the human community which is full, robust, respectful and appropriate, so whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, employed or not, whatever the dynamic we must find ways to communicate with one another.

We impose on people in the criminal justice system identities that presume guilt, presume dangerousness and a fitness for incarceration. It has contributed to a high rate of error and wrongful convictions. We have to deconstruct that and my story about the motion is just one of the ways I’ve tried to raise important questions about why we are so indifferent to the status of people who are needy and vulnerable when to be just we need to acknowledge those deficits and deal with them appropriately.

PP: You talked about identities, how they are made, individual identity and collective identity. Was there a point in your life that you decided a life of fighting racial bias and inequalities in the criminal justice was for you?

Bryan Stevenson: I grew up in a poor rural community where issues of race and poverty were very dominant. It was a southern community where the legacy of Jim Crow was very evident, schools were segregated, social institutions were segregated and that was all slowly starting to get dismantled as I was coming up. It was hard to not see that.

I decided when I was a senior in college that I’d go to law school really with no clear idea of what type of lawyer I’d be or even if I would practice law. I just knew, as a philosophy major, no-one would pay me to philosophize.

After a year in law school when I had an internship at an organization in the South that provided legal assistance to death row prisoners and I became acutely aware of just how stark the differences were for people who were poor and incarcerated when it came to legal help. I met people on death row who were literally dying for legal assistance.

As a student at Harvard Law School and going back there where people were very anxious about which job they were going to take, not whether they’d get a job, the idea that there were people moving toward execution largely because they could not find legal assistance was pretty startling and compelling to me. I found in that area also some really interesting questions about how we treat the poor and how we deal with racial bias and how we deal with our history of racial discrimination. So all of it spoke to me in a way that I found very hard to ignore.

I started working on death penalty cases when I was a law student and when I graduated I began working at the same organization on criminal justice reform, excessive punishment, conditions of confinement and to this day I find new reasons to pursue this more intensely, to dig deeper and to struggle toward a better future and better solutions to the ones I’ve seen along the way.

PP: So there was no single personal experience in which you or your family were directly involved with the criminal justice system or a personal racist confrontation?

Bryan Stevenson: When people think you’re doing something unexpected and something hard to understand they are always searching for a narrative of something episodic or some incident to help explain how you got thrown off the path that you’re supposed to be on [laughs] to this misguided path that they really have great concerns to see you traveling down.

I do get those questions and I tell people, “No, I’m not motivated because I have a loved one in prison, no-one in my family has ever been executed.” That’s not to say that I don’t have an identity that is deeply vexed by the persistence of racial bias in our society; an identity that is challenged by the pervasive nature of poverty and our indifference to poverty; an identity that very much values freedom and fairness and the application of law that is just and reliable. But it doesn’t come from a place of personal exposure.

I think everyone should realize that these are not issues for activists and advocates; these are basic fundamental issues for people concerned about the quality of society we live in. One of the great problems that we are dealing with is that mass incarceration, excessive punishment, the marginalization of communities of disadvantaged people in this country have been relegated to the boundaries and are not part of mainstream conversation, whereas in fact, I think they reveal more about us than many of the other things we are preoccupied with. If you look at magazines, we spend a lot of time looking at fashion, consumers habits, what we buy, what we watch on TV, the gadgets we use. All of these do reveal things about our culture, but when you have the highest rate of incarceration in the world and a system of justice that is systematically depriving people of basic human dignity and human rights – that says something about the society we live in as well.

I’m always saying to folks that you judge the character of society not by how you treat the privileged the rich and the powerful and the celebrated but how you treat the poor and the incarcerated and the condemned. I do think it is a very mainstream question that it is difficult for many people to ask or respond to because it has been so marginalized in popular discourse.

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The second part of a two-part conversation with Prison Photography can be read here.

I recommend Bryan Stevenson’s TED presentation.

Mercedes Smith, a formerly incarcerated person, reads a letter from her currently imprisoned son, at a relatives house where she lives after working all day on July 13, 2012, in Manhattan  New York. Ms. Smith is not allowed to live with her family while she is on bail because her mother still lives in the same building as where the crime took place. Ms. Smith served 20 years for 2nd degree manslaughter and was released in 2010. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII)

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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to create a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This conversation with Ashley Gilbertson is the final part of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’

(Part One): Think Outside The Cell / VII Photo Partnership
(Part Two): A Conversation With Ron Haviv
(Part Three): A Conversation With Ed Kashi
(Part Four): A Conversation Wtih Jessica Dimmock

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This text has been edited from longer conversation.

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PP: In part four I spoke with your colleague Jessica Dimmock. How was it working with her?

AG: It was easy. Jess is a photographer as a primary, so she knows how photographers move. We went back to Mercedes’ home one night and Mercedes went into her room and opened a letter. I looked through the door and I saw that it was a handwritten letter and I knew that her son was in prison. It was from her son. She started reading, I took some frames and moved out the way and Jess could shoot. That was an isolating scene that was very poignant – reading a letter from your son, while you are on parole, in a house that you’re trying to get out of.

PP: Why should we care about prisons and their aftermath?

AG: In the aftermath of prison, ideally, prisoners are changed members of society. Prisons are a place where people can at least try to signify to society that they have made recompense for crimes they’ve committed. Why is it important that we pay attention? The size of it. Until I met Mercedes Smith, I had no idea of the intensity of the problems former prisoners are facing.

PP: What type of problems?

AG: Housing. Mercedes living with a family member in housing projects in Manhattan. She wants to move on from that, but housing is so expensive that for her to actually afford something is really hard. And this is where all these elements that former prisoners face come together; she’s working two jobs part time and she’s looking for a third job. But it is very difficult for her to find any type of third job because she has curfew hours. Getting back to her apartment after curfew means she’ll break her terms of parole and potentially face going back to prison. For her to get an apartment she needs a third job.

Say if she wanted to move to New Jersey where housing is cheaper, she can’t. Her terms of parole require her to stay in New York State.

PP: Does she have good support?

AG: She was in a fortunate position because when she came out of prison to a very supportive and loving family. It is not quite accurate to say that Mercedes is fortunate because, in fact, she has worked very hard to get to where she is. Her children had been cared for by her mother and they visited her regularly while she was in prison and they had relationships. So, even after having done 20 years in prison, she had a warm and supportive environment to come back to and that’s something that – as I came to understand the issue better – a lot of people are lacking.

Mercedes is a really supportive mother who is doing everything she possibly can for her children. Two of her children live with her mother, one is down South and one is in prison. I saw her speaking a couple of times with her son that is in prison and it was a really warm and loving exchange – the tone of conversation that we all wish we could have with our mum.

PP: What did Mercedes hope of the project? Why did she go in front of cameras?

AG: Mercedes never said she felt like a role model, but she has figured out how to get out of the hole and she wants to save other women time and energy as they try to do so.

Both of Mercedes’ jobs work around her existence today as a parolee and as a former prisoner. She works with Women On The Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), a group that lobbies for women who are imprisoned and particularly women who are giving birth in prison. The work plays directly into Mercedes’ experience, as she gave birth to her youngest child in prison, I believe.

Her other job is working with women just out of prison and giving them advice about what they have at their disposal; what organizations that might get in touch with. It is a mentor role. And she works at that second job with her own mentor.

PP: Your work is always about America.

AG: I research ideas and become interested in issues at a concept level, then I’ll start meeting people – community leaders in Pontiac, Michigan, for example, or in the case of Bedrooms Of The Fallen, family members. Everything I do is about America.

I see America as this sort of social experiment. I grew up in Australia; in the Commonwealth. I’ve lived in America for nine years, yes, but it remains so foreign to me. I hadn’t met a large group of Americans until 2003 when they marched into Iraq. I learnt more about America in Iraq than I did in America over those first few years [of the War on Iraq].

Working on different issues, here in America, is to continue to look at this experiment. The way Americans wave flags. It’s the same as how Australians wave flags, but in many ways it is very different.

The way Americans carry guns, the way they incarcerate people – it’s the world leader in so many poor statistics, but then in many great statistics too. I find it so bizarre to work here. There’s just an endless wealth of material. I don’t work on things I have a passing interest in. I have to be actively engaged … and, usually, angry.

Each aspect of American culture I look at, whether that’s politics, incarceration, war, treatment of veterans at home, suicide, post traumatic stress disorder, the auto industry, the economy – each thing adds to this tapestry that I’m trying to understand, and I want to, I just don’t know if I ever will.

PP: Why has VII pursued a partnership with TOTC?

AG: This partnership appealed because it was looking at a project in a way that offered solutions, with stories of people who were actively getting out of the problem, trying to create solutions to it. That is compelling.

I’d say it is a traditional approach to go to a prison and photograph the scenes and problems there. Or, to go to “convict alley” in Harlem, where there is the highest concentration of parolees living within a certain numbers of blocks in Harlem.

I was reading about speech-writing the other day and they were saying at the end of strong speech is a call to action. Both Ronald Day and Mercedes stand as a call to action. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been convicted of crimes because they’ve gotten beyond that and turned into people who empower those around them.

PP: VII wants to extend the project. Do you think you’ll continue involvement?

AG: I hope very much that the project goes on, and that it goes national. Think Outside The Cell is an incredibly powerful approach to this problem, so to see it produced on a national level would be compelling. I’d like to be involved, but I’d like more to see other photographers brought in.

It turned from an issue that I cared about into something that I all of a sudden became involved in. For a lot of us working in the press, it takes a significant amount for us to be shocked by certain things we see people come up against.

The opportunity that I’ve had to meet these inspiring people who are working to get out of this rut and try to change it at a policy level – that should be regarded by as wide a swathe of people as is possible.

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