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Reporting on the prison industrial complex requires many tactics of approach in order to sustain audiences’ attentions and emotions. For all the constant misery, shame and violence the prison systems of America mete out, that relentless mood of defeat cannot dominate the flow of reported stories. Prisons are scary enough without giving people added fatigue and an easy option to turn away from stories heated the same beat-down drum. I guess this applies to all serious issues and is why human interest stories exist in journalism.
Human interest stories are great, but they have their place. Within the prison system are human interest stories ones that journalist find or are they ones fed to them? We’re headed into the weekend here and the sun is up so I don’t want to be a debbie-downer but I want to flag this contested context before celebrating Grant Blankenship’s latest human interest story, Say a Prayer for the Barber.
Anthony Ponder spent many years in prison in Georgia. He was released on August 18th. Not knowing where to go he spent his first night out asleep in the truck outside his uncle’s house. While he was inside he was the prison barber.
“Population barber. So I’ve got plenty of practice. Unfortunately.”
Anthony wasn’t afforded much help when he got out form the state. But two churches in the town of Macon, GA did; Centenary Church and Vineville United Methodist Church gave him clippers, scissors and a chair and a space to cut hair. Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men.
Every Sunday morning, Anthony cut the hair of men who are making the transition, as he did, from prison or jail back into society.
“I was attracted to the story because of its simple reciprocity. A man is given a hand up and he returns the favor,” says Blankenship. “I was not assigned the story, but when I heard about Anthony I jumped on it pretty quickly.”
The full piece, including audio is titled Say a Prayer for the Barber. Recommended.
Anthony’s “shop” is located in Centenary Church which works with a number of men, providing transitional housing and other services. Eric, an organizer at Centenary, asked Anthony if he would like to volunteer but Anthony couldn’t imagine how to without the gear he had had before his incarceration.
“So Mr. Eric, we had a conversation he said he had a way that he could buy all the tools for me if I worked so many times cutting hair he would donate them to me,” recounts Anthony in Blankenship’s story.
Blankenship a staff audio and visual reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting is at the forefront of highlighting, through images, the issues of incarceration to Georgians.
“Public policy regarding former prisoners is shifting,” says Blankenship, who stresses he no expert on prison issues. “For example, my community of Bibb County, GA recently adopted a ban questions on job applications about felon status in an attempt to make hiring practices more immediately meritocratic.”
At the state level, new programs are slowly being introduced to aid returning citizens’ reintegration into communities and the wider economy. I’ve heard anecdotally, from photographers who’ve worked in Georgia’s prisons, that they’re below par, threatening and without significant programs. Georgia’s prisons are overcrowded. Reentry efforts will have to be redoubled to scale back on the damage done by an out of control system.
“Time will tell how those efforts pan out,” says Blankenship of reentry projects.
The state is making moves toward accountability.
“Though it has yet to be tested, a bill passed this year is touted as making the parole process, and even the granting or denial of clemency for death row inmates, more transparent,” says Blankenship who reported on the vague language of a new death penalty pardons bill here and here. “We are in the midst of a subtle but perceptible cultural shift. That’s the eight mile high view.”
In the mean time, we can hope for the best for Anthony and other men and women rejoining society after long stints away. Thanks to some imaginative thinking on the part of some church leaders, Anthony can connect with others in one of their most difficult moments.
“I want to give him some hope. Like I have. That’s my aim. Give him hope. Let him know there is hope. There’s a better way. If he’s down and depressed and discouraged, let him know there’s a better way.”
It’s an uplifting story, but returning to me opening caution. We must remember that people make it out of prison and stay out in spite of the system not because of it. As heartwarming as Anthony’s story is and as easy it is to connect with his warmth and generosity, we must not be distracted from seeing the larger systemic inequalities at play that.
That said, Blankenship’s cracking images and Anthony Ponder’s words of wisdom are the hook by which we are all snagged. And here we are talking about Georgia’s prisons.
The story was only positive for Blankenship. A joy to work on.
“I am grateful to Anthony for sharing so much with me for no good reason,” says Blankenship. “I’m left wanting the absolute best for him. He’s a kind man.
Read and listen to Blankenship’s full report Say a Prayer for the Barber.
Heidi Levine hugs her driver Ashraf Al Masri after his home in Gaza was destroyed. Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis
It can be tricky to talk about photojournalists’ work without over-simplifying, romanticising or glorifying. Thankfully, this piece Bearing Witness does none. Writer Doug Bierend does a sterling job of describing the decade-long work of Heidi Levine and teasing out the bittersweet award of the inaugural Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award for her coverage of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. Levine knew Niedringhaus and an award is a strange thing in the face of societies destroyed by war:
“This award has made me reflect, and spend a lot of time thinking back and understanding — I have been very lucky. We were talking about experience — sometimes it’s not even how experienced you are, it can boil down to just having bad luck. I guess I’ve always felt committed to bearing witness, and feel that is just so important to give people the opportunity to know what’s happening in the world, and I don’t believe that there’s any excuse anymore for people looking the other way and claiming, as they did in the past, in history, that they were just unaware and didn’t know.”
Wounded Palestinian Rawya abu Jom’a, 17 years old, lays in a hospital bed at the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, July 22, 2014. Rawya was seriously injured when two Israeli air strikes hit her family’s apartment. Her sister and three of her cousins were killed in the attack. She is suffering from shrapnel in her face, her legs have perforated holes in them and the bones of her right hand were crushed. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Some photos we feature are gorgeous and some are gory. In Levine’s case she manages to combine to the two. As Bierend puts it, Levine makes pictures in “a subtle or even artful way requiring a high degree of sensitivity [that] sees through the violence to the dignity of the subjects suffering at its heart. At its best, this skill can convey the true stories of conflict, the hidden personal and private lives shaken to their foundations by the nations, militaries, and leaders which tend to be the sole subjects in any discussions about war.”
It’s a sobering piece. Levine talks about risk, fixers and luck. I’ll leave you with another statement of hers:
“If you’re not trained, it’s really, really important to become trained, to take a hostile environment course, to take a combat medical training class … I have seen a lot of people out there in the field that are very inexperienced. It’s not like rockets or bullets discriminate between who is experienced and who’s not experienced. As you saw, Chris Hondros, who was one of the most experienced conflict photographers, was killed in Libya.”
Read in full at Bearing Witness.
Women mourn during the funeral of the boys killed by an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Four boys died instantly during an Israeli naval bombardment in the port of Gaza, a fifth boy died shortly after the attack in hospital. Israel stepped up its attacks on July 16 by bombing the homes of Hamas leaders after the Islamist movement rejected a truce proposal and instead launched dozens more rockets into Israel. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Palestinian men run with a white flag in the Shejaia neighborhood, which was heavily shelled by Israel during the fighting, in Gaza City, July 20, 2014. At least 50 Palestinians were killed on Sunday by Israeli shelling in the Gaza neighborhood, and thousands fled for shelter to a hospital packed with wounded, while bodies were unable to be recovered for hours until a brief cease-fire was implemented. Photo: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Palestinians collect religious books in the rubble of the Al-Qassam mosque in Nuseitat camp, located in the middle of the Gaza Strip, July 9, 2014. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
Hidya Atash stands on the top floor of her home as she overlooks the destruction in Shujayea, at dawn Aug 8, 2014. Her family’s home was hit two weeks prior by a warning rocket and the family of 40 people fled. When they returned during the cease-fire, they discovered their home was heavily damaged during the fighting. Photo credit: Heidi Levine/The National/Sipa Press
A small, unbreakable tin wall mirror in a solitary cell. Reflection is of a slatted window. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.
The suicide of Kalief Browder was the latest, most tragic reminder of how much of a hell hole Rikers Island is. It was the combined effects of broken bail and juvenile prison systems that killed Kalief.
Take your pick of the coverage from The Guardian and the New York Times, to New York Magazine. What has been consistent in the coverage of Rikers as information about conditions and treatment is that visuals have been limited and it has relied on the progression of lawsuits and news FOIA requests. Whistleblowers have been few and far between and prisoners’ testimonies are notoriously difficult to verify.
An August 2013 fight in the George R. Vierno Center, caught on surveillance tape.
That makes the recent feature Rikers Island, Population 9,790, a joint effort between The Marshall Project and New York Magazine noteworthy. In the expansive effort involving more than half a dozen journalists, we hear from a couple who both went to Rikers in the same year (she was pregnant); a teacher on Rikers; a couple of recent prisoners; an officer, the commissioner of the department of corrections; a girlfriend of a slain prisoner; a former volunteer-librarian; various visitors; a mental health professional; and others.
The selection of imagery (as well as an overview map) is one of the most diverse visual presentations of Rikers that I have seen online. It includes Ashley Gilbertson‘s straight shots from common areas, wings and solitary cells, Ruth Fremson‘s work from the kitchen, surveillance video stills, photos of prisoners by Clara Vannucci and Julie Jacobson, Instagram images found under the hashtag #Rikers, environmental studies by Librado Romero, and archival photos by my friend and former correctional officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.
Bravo to the photo editors of The Marshall Project and New York Magazine.
The recreation center at the bing. Photo: Officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.
Contraband, including jail-made weapons and drugs. Photo: New York City Department of Correction via AP.
The view from Instagram, #Rikers: Clockwise from left: The bridge to Rikers; bathroom graffiti inside the vistors center; the new maximum-security wing; the entrace to a chapel; a correction officer at an adolescent unit; an exercise and recreation area. Photo: Kelsey Jorgenson/Edgar Sandoval/JB Nicholas/Bryan R. Smith/JR/Gee Force.
Prisoners at “Rosie’s” the women’s unit. Photo: Clara Vannucci.
Inside a solitary-confinement cell. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.
Photo: Meghann Riepenhoff
I’m one of five jurors for this years annual juried show at SF Camerawork. Y’all should enter. Here’s the blurb …
CALL FOR ENTRIES: HEAT
HEAT registers the volatility and restlessness that comes with long hot summers: violent crime rates increase, leases expire and people seek new homes, global weather changes signal an alarm, and warm summer days bring adults and children alike into the streets, parks, and beaches.
SF Camerawork invites artists to submit work that responds to HEAT: the social, political, and climatic conditions of rapidly changing environments. Following the lead of social and political advocates around the world, SF Camerawork asks artists working at all levels in photography to participate.
Art is politics. Particularly in the realistic forms of photography and filmmaking, what gets assigned, shown or sold reflects political considerations. […] Politics is in the air. All you need to do to get the message is breathe. – Danny Lyon.
Photo: David Butow
Deadline: Monday, June 15, 2015, 5pm PST.
Notification: Finalists will be contacted on July 1st.
Exhibition Dates: July 23 – August 22, 2015.
Opening Reception: Thursday, July 23, 6-8pm.
Application Fee: $50 application fee for up to 15 images.
ENTER NOW ON LENSCULTURE AND CREATE AN ACCOUNT TO UPLOAD YOUR APPLICATION
EXHIBITION AT SF CAMERAWORK: 2-5 finalists will have a 4-week exhibition at SF Camerawork.
LIVE ONLINE REVIEW SESSION: Finalists will receive a one-on-one review with a juror through this innovative platform hosted by LensCulture.
20 JUROR SELECTIONS FEATURED: 20 juror selections will be exhibited on interactive screens at SF Camerawork as part of the exhibition.
FEATURE ARTICLE ON LENSCULTURE: Finalists will be featured in an article on LensCulture.
ONE YEAR MEMBERSHIP: All entrants will receive a one-year membership to SF Camerawork.
HEAT 2015 JURY
Pete Brook, Writer and Curator, Founder: Prison Photography
Jim Casper, Editor and Publisher, LensCulture
Seth Curcio, Associate Director, Pier 24 Photography
Janet Delaney, Artist and Educator
Heather Snider, Executive Director, SF Camerawork
Please email info@sfcamerawork with “Call for Entries” in the subject line.
Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork‘s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas in the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we strive to create an engaging platform for artistic exploration as well as community involvement and inquiry.
SF Camerawork is a membership-based organization.
1011 Market St., 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery hours: 12:00 – 6:00 pm
Tuesday – Saturday (also by appointment)
Photo: McNair Evans
CAN WE ALL AGREE, NOW, THAT THE DISGRACED SHERIFF ARPAIO IS A DISGRACE?
In December 2011, Judge Snow ordered the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) headed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio to cease its practices of racial profiling and “enforcement” of immigration law. The reason? Sheriff jurisdictions are not responsible for enforcing immigration law; federal authorities are.
If Arpaio had complied then he wouldn’t be where he is now and we wouldn’t have a story about his demise to enjoy. Arpaio is currently in court. He has admitted to not adhering to the court order to cease his deputies’ special brand of patrols. His weak-sauce defense is that “things fell through the cracks” and his subordinates made mistakes. The upshot? Deputies didn’t receive any retraining about how not to racially profile and harass Latino citizens.
Arpaio thought he and his office so untouchable that he ignored the court order and instructed his staff to do the same. Arpaio has been battered in court this week. First, a former senior deputy recounted how Arpaio urged him to hold presumed undocumented persons who’d committed no crime, even after ICE had told MCSO that they were not going to transfer them into custody. Second, Arpaio has been on the stand cutting a forlorn figure — unheard of from the man who has personified cocky bullishness his entire career. It’s been humiliating. Arpaio’s apologies seem less than sincere and more the actions of a man with no other options and no other distraction-techniques to call upon. Third, Arpaio admitted that his former attorney hired a private investigator to snoop into Judge Snow’s wife’s life and political affiliations.
The case is ongoing and there might be more to come. Let’s just say it looks like Arpaio is going to get hit with civil-contempt charges for his non-compliance to the court order. It could’ve been any of dozens of abuses that Arpaio’s enacted, but it seems like it is this one that is to be his undoing. For a brief history of Arpaio’s sleaziest tricks, read this.
Why do I bring all of this up? Well, part of Arpaio’s power plays has been a constant play of the media. He invented pink underwear, adopted striped uniforms, instigated chain gangs. He had prisoners painting curbstones in down town Phoenix in order to put the image of the convict in front of his constituents. He dominated the visual tropes of criminality … and expanded them all. MCSO invited a constant stream of photographers through its facilities to perpetuate Arpaio’s media game and to propel the cult of personality. I’ve written a lot about different photographers’ work from ‘Tent City’ or Estrella Jail (women’s jail) or the chain gangs at large in the desert, but my position — after years of peering at it — is best described in this post Photos That Extend the Jailer’s Narrative.
Recently, photographer Anthony Karen contacted me with his photographs from the Maricopa County jails. I felt like I’d said everything about Arpaio that I wanted to say, but when “America’s Shittiest Sheriff” stepped into the courtroom this week, I was excited by the prospect of covering Big Joe and not having to complain. To the contrary, I can positively celebrate these developments. Hopefully, this is Arpaio’s final act in public office and this is the last I’ll ever have to type his name.
I’m thankful for Mr. Karen for sharing his images with Prison Photography and for letting me editorialise our Q&A with this lengthy intro.
Karen made these photographs in Oct 2012, which is to say right in the middle of the 18-month period in which Arpaio’s office was willfully ignoring court orders to cease racial profiling.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): You said you wanted to make non-sensational coverage. Did you achieve that?
Anthony Karen (AK): I believe so, although I consider this a work-in-process and would like to return at some point. I did take several images of Sheriff Arpaio’s poster-board ladened office, but it’s a necessary element in my opinion.
Asides from that, daily life in a jail is fairly straightforward for the most part. I say that with the exclusion of the pronounced environmental situation aka the temperatures at Tent City to which prisoners are exposed.
PP: How long were you there?
AK: I spent approximately 6 hours — in the jail and with the female chain-gang outside the facility — over a two-day period.
PP: Why did you go?
AK: I was working on a project with a journalist friend of mine from Norway. Our initial focus was a White Nationalist who conducts his own border patrols in the Vekol Valley in Arizona. The Norwegian publication we were working for thought it would add some dimension if we interviewed Sheriff Arpaio regarding his views on illegal immigration and his unique approach to incarceration.
PP: Did you have much interaction with Arpaio?
AK: We spent approximately 45 minutes with him at his office.
PP: What was that like?
AK: Honestly, it was very relaxed. The Sheriff seemed to appreciate my sarcastic sense of humor.
During the interview, my friend asked the standard Tent City questions and Sheriff Arpaio responded accordingly. It was quite obvious he’s been down this interview road thousands of times before. He’s definitely his own man and proud of his accomplishments — he doesn’t seem to be phased by those who disagree with his methods.
PP: What did you make of the people in Maricopa and Estella jails?
AK: The correction officers were polite and accommodating to me as a visitor and photojournalist.
Overall, no one seemed bothered by my presence. I was able to interact with the prisoners, but most of my time was spent observing and taking photos as moments presented themselves.
PP: Did they need to be there?
AK: Unfortunately, there are people in our society who do very bad things. So as far as being incarcerated, yes we need jails and prisons. Might there be a better way to rehabilitate prisoners – yes, and that goes for other institutions as well.
PP: Were they learning, improving, drying out? What was their experience in the jail?
AK: To be fair, I didn’t spend enough time at the jail to answer that question with any authority. I did notice several prisoners occupied with activities such as drawing and reading. That said, I would like to return at some point to observe how prisoners engage in worship, the chain-gang burial detail at the White Tank Cemetery, the infirmary and processing.
PP: I’ve said many times before that Arpaio is media savvy and controls the message too much. Do you agree, or is there space for photographers to work and forge their own view?
AK: He is media savvy, but I’d imagine that’s to be expected from someone who’s constantly bombarded with interview requests.
I was able to roam freely within the jail, so as a photojournalist his words had little affect on my visual experience. I feel the issue is the journalist(s) that go into a story with only an hour to spare and are lured into the sensational aspects (and let’s not forget the editors role as well) which is all too common these days. Something as simple as non-scripted daily-life is far more interesting to me.
PP: Thanks Anthony.
AK: Thank you Pete.
This week, The Marshall Project published an illuminating piece Prison Plantations about Bruce Jackson‘s work from inside Texas and Arkansas in the 60s and 70s. As far as I am aware, it is the best presentation of Jackson’s work on the web. 27 images.
Jackson a professor in history, writer and photographer, focused on the work songs of prisoners to trace the progression of arable land in the South from plantation to prison. For a century, between the outlaw of slavery and the era of mass incarceration (approx. 1865-1975), the Texas Department of Justice bought up old family plantations on which to house and work inmates.
For the black men who had once been slaves and now were convicts, arrested often for minor crimes, the experience was not drastically different. As Jackson writes in his introduction to the 2012 photo collection Inside the Wire:
“…Everyone in the Texas prisons in the years I worked there used a definite article when referring to the units: it was always “Down on the Ramsey,” not “Down on Ramsey,” and “Up on the Ellis,” not “Up on Ellis.” It made no sense to me until I realized that nearly all of those prison farms had been plantations at one time, so it was like an abbreviated way of saying “I’m going to the Smith family’s plantation,” or “I’m going to the Smiths’.”
This was the end of an era. Right after these photos were taken, in 1980, William Wayne Justice, a federal judge, issued a sweeping decision in the prisoner rights case Ruiz v. Estelle. Justice forced Texas prisons to modernize in all sorts of ways, from adding staff to improving working conditions to stopping the policy of allowing prisoners to guard one another with weapons. Jackson photographed prisoners with rifles, an image unthinkable today.
It’s a great little piece putting into stark perspective our very recent history. And Jackson’s pictures take us straight back there. Read Prison Plantations.
A RIOT TO REMEMBER
Prison riot, prison rebellion, prison uprising — whatever they’re called, they hit the news, grip public nation and stay long in the memory. In the U.S., Attica is synonymous with prison rebellion. In Britain, it is Strangeways.
On 1st April, 1990, prisoners took charge of Strangeways’ chapel. Within hours they were in control of an entire wing and entrances. They made their way to the roof and began 25 days of public appearances. Britain had never seen anything like it. The nation could not turn away. At first, most were disgusted both by the prisoners’ wanton destruction and their brazenness out in the unusually warm spring sun. These first impressions, though, were founded on unfamiliarity with the system. As a hardcore of protestors remained on the roof into a second, a third and a fourth week, the nation started to think that perhaps there was something fighting for. There was. Better prison conditions.
The Strangeways Riot was the catalyst for the consequent government’s Wolff Report which scrutinised prison conditions across the nation. It was a watershed moment in the history of Britain’s prisons, setting out 12 major recommendations and identifying knackered, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions as the underlying causes of trouble at Strangeways and tensions elsewhere.
A RIOT FOR THE CAMERAS
It only seems like yesterday I was commenting on the 20th anniversary. Nevertheless, on this historical anniversary I’d like to share some of the most iconic images. They’re all sourced from this Manchester Evening News gallery. The gallery itself is tired and poorly put together (duplicates, cursory or no captions, few image credits, mix of colour and B&W) but there are some gems in there.
Many of these photographs were made from a disused warehouse across the street from Strangeways in which press photographers posted up. Ged Murray probably has the best available archive. I know Don McPhee was there too (his work is probably in the Guardian archive). Meanwhile, there’s work by Stephanie De Leng out there somewhere, and Chris Steele Perkins photographed Strangeways during the 80s.
What impresses me most about the protest is that the prisoners knew they had a message to deliver and they dominated the narrative as best they could from a besieged position. Most notably, were the regulars appearances of Alan Lord (top), a convicted murderer, who quoted from official prison logs to establish their contempt for the system. He used the words of the authority against the authority. Writ large on chalkboards. All for the world’s media.
“Media Contact, Now”
The prisoners made requests for media contacts as mediators and guarantors. While the authorities slowly cut off food, water and limited them to the roof, and while protestors were picked off in ambushes, the prisoners still managed to dictate a public show on their terms.
Alan Lord got out in 2012. He now runs a gym in Greater Manchester. He was one of the key figures during the protest and negotiated with the authorities during the siege. When he was ambushed by a snatch squad, it was the beginning of the end for the protest. There’s a feature about Lord in the Manchester Evening News (MEN).
“It’s a tragedy that prisoners had to take that stance. But the warning signs had been there for decades. There were clear warnings within the prison system,” Lord told MEN. “It was an explosion waiting to happen. It could have happened in any prison but unfortunately it was Strangeways.”
He’s now writing a book Life in Strangeways: From Riots to Redemption about his 32 years inside.
Unfortunately, it seems the small gains made in the wake of the Wolff Report have evaporated. Lord Wolff said recently that conditions in Britain’s prisons are the same as 25 years ago.
“For a time after the riot, things were much better and numbers were going down. Unfortunately, prisoners are again being kept in conditions that we should not tolerate, they’re a long way from home and their families can’t keep in touch with them – a whole gamut of things that need to be done and that’s why I would welcome a thorough re-look at the situation and above all trying to take prisons out of politics.”
In November 2014, the prison population in England and Wales stood at 85,925 – close to the record – and it had one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, at 149 per 100,000 people.
For the best account of prisons during the past disastrous 25 years, read Sir David Ramsbotham’s Prisongate. Ramsbotham was the independently-appointed Chief Inspectorate of UK prisons (1995-2000). His findings were shocking and surprised many who were deep in the British culture of corrections — even in the wake of Strangeways.
A cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee recently voiced “grave concern” over increases in assaults on staff and prisners, suicides, self-harm and indiscipline in prisons between 2012 and 2014.
Wolff is calling for a new investigation into the state of the country’s prisons.
“People’s re-offending behaviour has not been tackled,” says Wolff. “You have to look at the problem holistically and that’s what I don’t think we’re doing and not making the matter a political football. The main political parties want to show the public they’re tough on crime because they believe that’s what the public wants.”
“There are things that are better now than then but I fear we’ve allowed ourselves to go backwards and we’re back where we were at the time of Strangeways,” said Wolff.
Meanwhile, “enjoy” these photographs.
10, 11, 12, 13 & 14. © Steve Davis.
TRY YOUTH AS YOUTH
Currently on show at David Weinberg Photography in Chicago is Try Youth As Youth (Feb 13th — May 9th), an exhibition of photographs and video that bear witness to children locked in American prisons. As the title would suggest, the exhibition has a stated political position — that no person under the aged of 18 should be tried as an adult in a U.S. court of law.
In the summer of 2014, selling works ceased to be David Weinberg Photography’s primary function. The gallery formally changed its mission and committed to shedding light on social justice.
Try Youth As Youth, curated by Meg Noe, was conceived of and put together in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Here’s art in a gallery not only reflecting society back at itself, but trying to shift its debate.
The issue is urgent. In the catalogue essay Using Science and Art to Reclaim Childhood in the Justice System, Diane Geraghty Professor of Law at Loyola University, Chicago notes:
Every state continues to permit youth under the age of 18 to be transferred to adult court for trial and sentencing. As a result, approximately 200,000 children annually are legally stripped of their childhood and assumed to be fully functional adults in the criminal justice system.
This has not always been the case in the U.S. It is only changes to law in the past few decades that have resulted in children facing abnormally long custodial sentences, Life Without Parole sentences and even (in some states) the death penalty. In the face of such dark forces, what else is art doing if it is not speaking truth to power and challenging systems that undermine democracy and our social contract?
Noe invited me to write some words for the Try Youth As Youth catalogue. Given Weinberg’s enlightened modus operandi, I was eager to contribute. Here, republished in full is that essay. It’s populated with installation shots, photographs by Steve Davis, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, and video-stills by Tirtza Even.
Scroll down for essay.
Image: Steve Liss. A young boy held and handcuffed in a juvenile detention facility, Laredo, Texas.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Image: Steve Liss. Paperwork for one boy awaiting a court appearance. How many of our young “criminals” are really children in distress? Three-quarters of children detained in the United States are being held for nonviolent offenses. And for many young people today, family relationships that once nurtured a smooth process of socialization are frequently tenuous and sometimes non-existent.
Try Youth As Youth Catalogue Essay
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Isolated in a cell, a child might wonder, “What am I doing here?” It is an immediate, obvious and crucial question and, yet, satisfactory answers are hard to come by. The causes of America’s perverse addiction to incarceration are complex. Let’s just say, for now, that the inequities, poverty, fears and class divisions that give rise to America’s thirst for imprisonment have existed in society longer than any child has. And, let’s just say, for now, that the complex web of factors contributing to a child’s imprisonment are larger than most children could be expected to understand on a first go around.
As understandable as it might be children in crisis to ask “What am I doing here?” it should not be expected. Instead, it is we, as adults, who should be expected to face the question. We should rephrase it and ask it of ourselves, and of society. What are WE doing here? What are we doing as voters in a society that locks up an estimated 65,000 children on any given night? In the face of decades of gross criminal justice policy and practice, what are we doing here, within these gallery walls, looking at pictures?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility, Albany, Oregon, by Richard Ross. “I’m from Portland. I’ve only been here 17 days. I’m in isolation. I’ve been in ICU for four days. I get out in one more day. During the day you’re not allowed to lay down. If they see you laying down, they take away your mattress. I’m in isolation ‘cause I got in a fight. I hit the staff while they were trying to break it up. They think I’m intimidating. I can’t go out into the day room; I have to stay in the cell. They release me for a shower. I’ve been here three times. I have a daughter, so I’m stressed. She’s six months old. At 12 I was caught stealing at Wal-Mart with my brother and sister. My sister ran away from home with a white dude. She was smoking weed, alcohol. When my sister left I was sort of alone…then my mother left with a new boyfriend, so my aunt had custody. She’s 34. My aunt smoked weed, snorts powder, does pills, lots of prescription stuff. I got sexual with a five-year-older boy, so I started running away. So I was basically grown when I was about 14. But I wasn’t doing meth. Then I stopped going to school and dropped out after 8th grade. Then I was in a parenting program for young mothers…then I left that, so they said I was endangering my baby. The people in the program were scared of me. I don’t know what to think. I was selling meth, crack, and powder when I was 15. I was Measure 11. I was with some other girls — they blamed the crime on me, and I took the charges because I was the youngest. They beat up this girl and stole from her, but I didn’t do it. But they charged me with assault and robbery too. This was my first heavy charge.” — K.Y., age 19.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
I have spent a good portion of the past six-and-a-half years trying to figure out just what it is that images of prisons and prisoners actually do. Who is their audience and what are their effects? If I thought answers were always to be couched in the language of social justice I was soon put right by Steve Davis during an interview in the autumn of 2008.
“People respond to these portraits for their own reasons,” said Davis. “A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prisons or justice. Some people like pictures of handsome young boys — they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.”
My interview with Davis was the first ever for the ongoing Prison Photography project. It blew my mind too, but in many ways it also prepared me for the contested visual territory within which sites of incarceration exist and into which I had embarked. Davis’ honesty prepared me to face uncomfortable truths and perversions of truth. It readied me for the skeevy power imbalances I’d observe time and time again in our criminal justice system.
The children in Try Youth As Youth may be, for the most part, invisible to society but they are not far away. “I was just acknowledging that this juvenile prison is 20 miles from my home,” says Davis of his earliest motivations. If you reside in an urban area, it is likely you live as near to a juvenile prison, too. Or closer.
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Prisoners, and surely child prisoners, make up one of society’s most vulnerable groups. Isn’t it strange then that rarely are they presented as such? Often depictions of prisoners serve to condemn them, but not here, in Try Youth As Youth.
As we celebrate the committed works of Steve Davis, Tirtza Even, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, we should bear in mind that other types of prison imagery are less sympathetic and that other viewers’ motives are not wed to the politics of social justice. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it’s a different thousand for everyone. We must be willing to fight and press the issue and advocate for child prisoners. Our mainstream media dominated by cliche, our news-cycles dominated by mugshots and the politics of fear, and our gallery-systems with a mandate to make profits will not always serve us. They may even do damage.
Image: Steve Davis. A girl incarcerated in Remann Hall, near Tacoma, Washington State.
Given that the works of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross circulate in a free-world that most of their subjects do not, it is all our responsibility to handle, contextualize and talk about these photographs and films in a way that serves the child subjects most. It is our responsibility to talk about economic inequality and about the have and have-nots.
“No child asks to be born into a neighborhood where you can get a gun as easily as a popsicle at the convenience store or giving up drugs means losing every one of your friends,” said Steve Liss “They were there [in jail] because there was no love, there was no nourishing, there was anger in startling doses, and there was poverty. Tremendous poverty.”
Image: Steve Liss. Alone and lonely, ten-year-old Christian, accused of ‘family violence’ as a result of a fight with an abusive older brother, sits in his cell.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.
Davis, Even, Liss and Ross understand the burden is upon us as a society to explain our widespread use of sophisticated and brutal prisons more than it is for any individual child to explain him or herself. The image of an incarcerated child is an image not of their failings, but of ours. We must do better — by providing quality pre and post-natal care for mothers and babies, nutritious food, livable wages for parents, and support and safety in the home and on the streets. Most often, it is a series of failures in the provision of these most basic needs that leads a child to prison.
“Poverty would be solved in two generations. It would require an enormous change in our priorities. Look at how we elevate the role of a stockbroker and denigrate the role of a school teacher or a parent, those who are responsible for raising the next generation of Americans,” says Liss.
(Top to Bottom) Installation shot; video still; and drawings from Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez’s Natural Life, 2014.
Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez. Natural Life, 2014. Cast concrete (segment of installation). A cast of five sets of the standard issue bedding (a pillow, a bedroll) given to prisoners upon their arrival to the facility, are arranged on raw-steel pedestals in the area leading to the video projection. The sets, scaled down to kid size and made of a stack of crumbling and thin sheets of material resembling deposits of rock, are cast in concrete. Individually marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of each of the five prisoners featured in the documentary, they thus delineate the brief time the inmates spent in the free world.
Each of the artists in Try Youth As Youth have seen incredible deprivations inside facilities that do not — cannot — serve the needs of all the children they house. Ross speaks of a child who has never had a bedtime. A social worker once told Davis of one child in the system who had never seen or held a printed photograph.
Documenting these sites is not easy and brings with it huge responsibility. Tirtza Even has grappled with the weight of her work “and how much is expected from them is a little heavy.” In some cases, these artists are the outside voice for children. Liss acknowledges that expectations more often than not outweigh the actual effects their work can have.
“People ask how do you get close to kids in a facility like that. That isn’t the problem. The problem is how do you set up enough artificial barriers so you don’t get too close. So you’re not just one more adult walking out on them in the final analysis,” he says. “I, at least, convinced myself into thinking it was therapeutic for the kids. At least someone was listening to them.”
So far, the efforts of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross have been recognized by those in power. Liss’ work has been used to lobby for psych care and an adolescent treatment unit in Laredo, Texas. Ross’ work was used in a Senate subcommittee meeting that legislated at the federal level against detained pre-adjudicated juveniles with youth convicted of committed hard crimes.
“That’s a great thing for me to know that my work is being used for advocacy rather than the masturbatory art world that I grew up in,” says Ross.
Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, Wichita, Kansas, by Richard Ross. “Nobody comes to visit me here. Nobody. I have been here for eight months. My mom is being charged with aggravated prostitution. She had me have sex for money and give her the money. The money was for drugs and men. I was always trying to prove something to her…prove that I was worth something. Mom left me when I was four weeks old — abandoned me. There are no charges against me. I’m here because I am a material witness and I ran away a lot. There is a case against my pimp. He was my care worker when I was in a group home. They are scared I am going to run away and they need me for court. I love my mom more than anybody in the world. I was raised to believe you don’t walk away from a person so I try to fix her. When I was 12 my mom was charged with child endangerment. I’ve been in and out of foster homes. They put me in there when they went to my house and found no running water, no electricity. I ran away so much that they moved me from temporary to permanent JJA custody. I’m refusing all my visits because I am tired of being lied to.” — B.B., age 17.
Richard Ross’ works in the Try Youth As Youth exhibition at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
The walls of David Weinberg are not the end point of these works’ journey. An exhibition is not a triumph it is a call to action. The work begins now.
Programming during the exhibition — phone-ins to prison, discussions with ACLU lawyers and experts in the field, conversations with formerly incarcerated youth — will all direct us the right way. The gallery space works best when it sutures artists’ creative processes into a larger process that we can shape as socially informed citizens. Our process of building healthy society.
“Kids need us,” says Liss. “They need our time, they need our involvement, and they need our investment. If you own an automotive shop, open it up to kids and the community. It does take a community.”
There are a host of wonderful arts communities doing work, here in Chicago, around criminal justice reform and social equity — Project NIA, 96 Acres, AREA, Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, Lucky Pierre and Temporary Services to name a few.
The arts can trail-blaze the conversation we need to be having. Photography and film are the ammunition with which we arm our reform arguments. First we see, then we do. If art is not speaking truth to power, then really, what are we doing here?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
David Weinberg Photography is at 300 W. Superior Street, Suite 203, Chicago, IL 60654. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Telephone: 312 529 5090.
Try Youth As Youth is on show until May 9th, 2015.
Text © Pete Brook / David Weinberg Photography.
Images: Courtesy of artists / David Weinberg Photography.