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Filmed by David Hoffman and Harry Wiland.
Two months ago, I published a conversation with Lorenzo Steele, a former NY City Correctional Officer who now gives community talks and makes pop-up street exhibitions of photographs from during his time on Rikers Island. Steele wants to impress upon communities and particularly youngsters how violent jail is.
Steele has produced a video to promote his ongoing work with Behind These Prison Walls. a group he founded to inform, educate, and empower individuals and steer at-risk youth away from the criminal justice system.
“I had buddies that couldn’t take the job and wound up quitting because of the mental abuse and, sometimes, physical abuse,” says Steele. “You could be responding to a fight, not knowing that they’re setting you up to stab you with a shank. It’s a very dangerous job. Corrections officers don’t have guns. At that time we weren’t even carrying mace. The only weapon you really have is your mind — how you used it dictated if you were going to have a good 8 hours or a bad 8 hours.”
COP TURNED ADVOCATE
Lorenzo Steele Jr. worked as correctional officer on Rikers Island between 1987 and 1999. Most of his time was spent in the juvenile units. When the officers had retirement parties and other events, he was the one with the camera. In 1996, Steele began talking his small compact film camera into the units and making photographs of the dirt, the filth and the despair. All without any official approval. As part of his work, he also made evidence photos of injuries following violence inside the Rikers Island.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF MUTILATION
When Steele decided to leave the job, his “leap of faith” took him back to community instruction. As founder of Behind These Prison Walls Steele gives public lectures and brings pop-up exhibitions to New York neighbourhoods. It’s a mobile show & tell to shock and educate youngsters on the destructiveness and terror of prison. Steele estimates he has made close to 1,000 presentations in schools, churches and community centres since 2001.
I came across Steele’s archive when some of his images accompanied For Teens at Rikers Island, Solitary Confinement Pushes Mental Limits, a Center for Investigative Reporting article that was also adapted and cross posted to Medium as Inside Rikers Island, part of the excellent ‘Solitary Lives’ series.
It is very unusual for photographs made by correctional staff to surface, let alone for there primary use to be as tools for street-side exhibition and engagement. I called Steele and asked him some questions about his self-propelled cop-to-advocate career change, his motives for making the images, the efficacy of his methods and what we need to start doing differently to decrease the numbers of kids we lock up.
Prison Photography (PP): When did you decide you wanted to be a correctional officer?
Lorenzo Steele (LS): At 21 years old I took a [New York] City test. At that same time I was a para-professional for the New York City Board of Education working with Middle School children. I was there for 8-months and loving the job. I got a letter from the city saying that if I could pass a physical, if I could pass the psychological, if I could pass the drug test, I could become a correction officer.
The only reason I became a correctional officer was because it was paying more money than the Board of Ed. I didn’t know I had to experience the system for 12 years, in order to know the system, and later to help people avoid the system.
I’m 22 years old, and it is just a job — no one in my family went to jail. In the neighborhood I grew up in, nobody went to jail.
The academy was 2 to 3 months at that time. They could never prepare you mentally and physically for what you were about to experience working in a prison. On the first day took the ‘on the job trainees’ OJT’s into an actual facility. Now, they would tell you things — don’t talk to the inmates; don’t stare at the inmates but that was about it. I was afraid, but later I realized that in a prison you can not show fear because you will be manipulated. OJT was about 2 weeks, and after that we were assigned to our facilities.
I worked the C-74 Unit, the Adolescent Recession Detention Center (ARDC) for 14 to 21 year olds. Within that age range, of course, half are adolescents and half are adult inmates. One day you’re working with the adolescents, the next you’re working with adults. I dealt with mental health issues, behavior issues, socio-economical issues. I found out what our people actually go through and why they come to jail.
PP: What were your early impressions of the job?
LS: I’m young, I’m making good money. I have my own apartment, but I have the mind of an officer now.
Can you imagine sitting in a day room with a capacity of 50 inmates and you’re one officer that’s in charge? Your main function is to make sure they don’t kill each other or rape each other and if you see a fight you push a personal body alarm. Depending on which housing area you are in, you can sit there sometimes for 8 hours. I remember the day when I thought, “I can’t do this for twenty years. There are bigger and better things out there for me.”
I’m a photographer. I wondered what I could do legally. I started formulating a mentoring program. I used to volunteer my time in schools as a correction officer and share my insight on what the prison system’s really like. The average person doesn’t really know until its too late. It’s my mission to let these young children know that jail is the last place on earth they want to be.
PP: Do you consider yourself fortunate in that you came to that decision? Because for a lot of people in a lot of jobs, sometimes the stress is so high and the options seem so few they can’t even step back for a minute to see a change in circumstances.
LS: It was very rare for anyone to just resign from the department, unless they were brought up on charges. It was almost unheard of. People asked, “What are you gonna do? This is the best job.”
The last day that I knew I was going to be there, I walked around the jail and I grabbed a little object where I could and wrote on the wall. I carved my name in some wood objects and on some metal doors.
It was around the time of Mother’s Day. My Grandmother was in town and I took her to church. Sometimes, the preacher is actually talking to you. He said, “If there’s anything on your mind just leave it behind you, step out on faith.” That next day, that Monday, I went downtown and turned in my shield, turned in my gun.
PP: What year did you resign?
PP: In between which years did you make photographs in Rikers?
LS: I began maybe around ’95 or ’96.
I was the photographer for COBA, the NYC Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. People retire or you have parties or special events. I always had a camera on me. After that, I used to take pictures of inside of the prison not knowing that I was to turn it into an enterprise to save people from going into the jail.
I had a camera with no flash. Can you imagine taking out a camera? You’ve got 200 prisoners coming down the corridor to the cafeteria — they’re going to see the camera going off so I had to disguise it somehow. You get an adrenaline rush knowing that you can’t get caught. Once that shutter button is released its almost the best feeling in the world. Its like a high once that shutter button goes off and you’ve captured that image. And you know.
PP: Where did you keep the camera? In an office or did you take it home with you every day?
LS: I had it in my pocket. Sometimes I would take pictures of the officers in their uniform because the average officer never really has a picture of himself in uniform. It was a good time back then because the camaraderie was great. We had one team; the officers, the captains, the deputies, the warden. We were all one team back then, but you couldn’t do it today because after twenty years things change in the department.
PP: What type of camera did you use?
LS: A 35mm. One of those CVC store cameras. Digital cameras weren’t even out then. I put some black tape around the flash and disguised it almost like a cell phone or a beeper.
PP: How many photographs do you think you took, in total, inside the prison?
LS: Over 200 photos. Shots of prisoners in cells, of the solitary confinement unit, pictures of prisoners who were physically cut. In colour. You can’t imagine the power of those images when I show the kids: “If you don’t change your ways, this could happen to you.”
LS: Children cannot relate to prison, yet they see the negative violence on television and sometimes a rapper will glorify prison. Some rappers are promoting violence, promoting gang activity, and that’s some children’s reference to the criminal justice system.
But, once you step foot in that criminal justice system your life changes forever. Sometimes they might not even make it out. At 15-years-old we’ve had adolescents that end up taking 25 years with them upstate because they caught jail cases cutting and stabbing individuals while they was on Rikers Island.
PP: How do you exhibit those 200 photographs to the public?
LS: It depends on the audience. I have a lot of graphic images so I don’t put those in the schools with the kindergarten kids and the third graders.
I have select images that I use when I exhibit on the sidewalk in at-risk communities. About 20 images at a time but it depends on where and what message I’m trying to get out.
PP: I’ve seen only a few images like the ones you’ve published. One example is the selection of images leaked by a Riker’ Island officer to the Village Voice two years ago.
We don’t see many images shot from the hip. If we do, they’re usually anonymous. Such images do exist but one must work hard to seek them out. How many people see your presentations? Are people shocked? Surprised? Do people respond to the images in the way that you hope they will?
LS: The first time they see the images, yes, they are shocked, especially students. Students that I deal whether in the church, in schools, in the community, are shocked. Images are powerful but the knock out blow is information, the experience, that actually goes behind what’s in that image.
PP: How dangerous was Rikers? In the 12 years you worked there how many incidents of serious assault and possibly even murder occurred or occurred on your shifts?
LS: Let’s talk about the adolescents first. Rikers Island was considered the most violent prison in the nation. We used to average sometimes 50 to 60 razor slashings a month. Slashing with the single edge razor blade. Cut somebody over the face multiple times inside. There was a lot of blood.
When I went into corrections, I didn’t like the sight of blood [but] I saw so many people get cut that it became normal. I was so desensitized. And that’s scary because that normalcy meant somebody had a scar on their face for life and for every cutting there was a repercussion; if a prisoner got cut he had to get revenge on the other guy and catch another jail case.
PP: I have no idea how politics, street politics or gang culture — in or out of prison — work in New York today let alone in the late 80s and 90s. Over your twelve years, was there consistent gang activity or did it change?
LS: In ’87, there weren’t gangs in the New York prison system. In the early ’90s, we realized we had a gang problem in the prisons. The gangs had their own language. 300 prisoners in the cafeteria and five officers. We had to learn the language real quick and that is what established the Gang Intelligence Unit. By conducting cell searches, we would get the paraphernalia and the by-laws of the gangs
Later on, they flipped gang members into telling the department what the language meant; that’s how the Department of Corrections infiltrated the gangs. We passed the information on to NYPD.
It was very dangerous. You had to be on your toes all the time. The gangs recruited younger people whom they would force sometimes to do harm on officers or do harm to prisoners. We did the best we could.
One of the blessings was that I always had good supervisors. When the captain said ‘go’, you went, and when he said ‘stop’, you stopped. You put your life in the hands of your captain; it’s almost like being in a war. I am old school. That’s what really kept us on top of the prisoners. The jail would never be overrun because you had a select group of officers that demanded respect and that knew how to take care of the business without anybody getting hurt. When prisoners saw that select group of officers, nothing was going down that day.
Part of being a Correction Officer is knowing your prisoners and you always wanted to know the gangster, you always wanted to know the person who was running the housing area because that’s the one that you would use, you know. “Listen man, while I’m here today, nothing’s gonna go down. Tell the boys man to shut it down while I’m here.”
PP: Clearly, I’m opposed to prisons as they exist. I think we lock too many people up and I think when we’re locking people up we’re not providing the right sort of conditions or services for them. Obviously, what goes on in the jails and prisons relates to outside society. The reason you do your work now, I presume, is because you see that link between poverty, what goes on in the neighborhoods and what happens in the jails.
What do we need to do better? How do we rely less on incarceration and when you must imprison people, how do you make it safer for everyone in the place? How do you stop people from coming back? Do we need smaller prisons, do we need more money, do we need different sentences for different crimes?
LS: It starts before prison. I worked in the neighborhoods classified by criminal justice books as “high-crime areas” and it starts with parenting.
Bill Cosby said on National TV that we have parents more focused on giving their kids cell phones, expensive gear and expensive pants. And they condemned Cosby. They found some black guy on CNN to come on and say ‘Cosby, you are wrong.’ But he was right. Unless you are inside the school system you wouldn’t necessarily know.
That’s why I hit the streets. I try to let the parents know that without that proper parenting their child has more chance of going through the criminal justice system.
Imagine being in a first grade class in an impoverished neighborhood (it depends on the school district) with 30 to 35 students in one class. 1st grade. Half the children can read, half the children cannot read, now you have one teacher. How is that teacher going to really teach? There’s two different dynamics going on in that classroom. We have children across America that are coming into the public school system unprepared to learn.
LS: Poverty is a crime, because poverty comes with where you live. Those in impoverished neighborhoods are subjected to crime, shootings, and drugs, and then children have to go into a school system that doesn’t have the necessary resources. It’s a ticking time bomb.
Unless a parent or guardian is there to break down that math homework, for them, some children don’t know what’s going on. Unless there’s a parent there that could check the homework that the teacher gives every night. Its not going to get done. There’s a lot parents in poorer communities who are uneducated themselves. Look at the statistics coming out of poor neighborhoods — many young adults are not finishing high school and are not going to college. If a parent is not educated, then probably education is not talked about in the home.
The point of attack, strategically, needs to be that early childhood.
PP: Parenting and education. I can agree. But we can’t roll back the years’ generations to correct past mistakes. So what about the situation as it stands now? Say, you have a 15-year-old who’s acted out, he’s been pulled in by the police, he’s got a serious charge over his head. Is Rikers Island the best place to deal with that kid? Is Rikers Island the sort of institution in which — while they are kept away from the public for public safety — they themselves are kept safe?
LS: If you break the law there are consequences. There are necessary disciplines in place so we have a civil society. But is it Rikers Island or is it a juvenile detention center?
If you would have asked me this question as an officer, I’d have said, “Rikers, yeah.” But, now, when I go into the communities and hear what the parents have to say about a lot of these children just mimicking their parents, I wonder is that child at fault? Why did he steal that cell phone? Maybe his father was a thief, or maybe they don’t have structure in the home. Maybe there needs to be a place where a child’s whole history needs to be examined? What’s going on in that child’s home. Does he have a support system? He lives in a high crime area, how much do we expect him to succeed?
LS: Yes, I feel there needs to be places where children can go to receive those special considerations, not thrown into a place like Rikers Island in which you’re housed with murderers.
Let’s create places and bring in the necessary mentors. And I’m not just talking about doctors in psychology. Sometimes, it takes the correction officer. Sometimes, it takes that guy that did 25 years in jail.
Create a first offense type place. “Young man, we give you a year. If you do the right thing in this place we’ll seal your record, but if you don’t, you gotta go to the next level.” Sometimes, some people have to go through that prison system if they’re going to turn their lives around.
Create a place where they could come in and get properly mentored to. You understand? Some people have degrees and others not, but there’s only a select few who can really get through to these children.
PP: So, the prison system is too rigid?
LS: It doesn’t always work. Prisons are putting way too many adolescents with mental health problems behind bars. They’re banging on the cells for 3 or 4 hours. These young children need advocates. They can’t speak. Not too many kids are writing a letter to mommy saying, “I’m thinking about suicide tonight; being locked in a 8×6 foot cell for 23 hours, I can’t take it no more.”
PP: Your photographs were used in an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting about solitary confinement. Over your time as a correctional officer did you see the use of solitary for youngsters increase, decrease, or stay the same?
LS: We had one unit, about 66 cells. Prisoners that cut, stabbed, or assaulted officers, were locked in solitary confinement.
Warden Robinson implemented a program called Institute for Inner Development (IID). The warden put together a team. Hand-picked. A select few that you could trust and you knew they weren’t going to violate any prisoners rights. We did two weeks of training and took it to a select housing area. We transformed that housing area. Imagine going from 50 slashings a month, [among the] adolescents, to zero for four years.
Programs work if you can get the necessary personnel to properly run and maintain them. When we ran the IID program, we took another housing area — a hundred more prisoners — then another housing area. Eventually, we had 200 prisoners in the nation’s most violent prison in America and and next to no violence.
PP: What was different about that program? What was it that you provided the youngsters?
LS: I love children. I’m a disciplinarian, I love reading, so I had tons of knowledge about slavery and the connection between slavery and incarceration, so when you start talking about this new thing, they just love it. These 14, 15, 16 year-olds didn’t have any type of discipline at home, didn’t have the male role models at home. “This is what men do young man. Pull your pants up. Grown men do not walk around with their pants down.”
PP: So it was more about developing different interactions between the correctional officers and the prisoners, and changing the culture within the unit?
LS: Out of all of those officers, twelve officers, we had no psychologists, no therapists. We were the psychologists we were the therapists. Just because you have a degree that doesn’t mean that you can work in an area like that. There’s a lot of passion that’s involved in that.
PP: After you resigned, when did you begin exhibiting the photographs?
LS: I detoxed for about 8 months, just not doing anything. From being on the drill to taking it back to normal. Then I started going into the schools and just sharing my information.
PP: With the images?
LS: I laminated some 8×10” color prints and put them on the blackboard. Then I got a laptop and a projector, and went from holding the pictures in my hand to projecting them agains auditoriums and classrooms walls. My first printed use of the images came in a 2005 Don Diva Magazine feature. They gave me 5 or 6 pages. I provided my phone number. Soon after, a police officer who worked with youth called me and asked, “Could you come in a talk to my youth?” That was the start of giving back.
PP: How do you evaluate your work?
LS: Seeing that look on somebody’s face when they think they know what jail was like, but then I show them the reality. Talking to 500 students in an auditorium and asking them, “Is this new information?” and they all say yes. Many of them have to make a change right there. For others its going to take longer to make that change.
PP: Is what you do anything like Scared Straight!?
LS: I’m not trying to scare you straight I’m trying to inform you straight.
When you’re looking at somebody and they got a thousand stitches on their face, the shock is there but along with the shock is the information behind it. Prison is a violent place and the criminal justice system is a for profit agency and so I break down a lot of information within the program.
PP: What images do we need to see?
LS: We need to see the graphic images of the young guy that was in solitary confinement unit who just cut himself with a razor blade because that was the only way that he could get out.
LS: We need to see the images of a young girl in shackles walking down the corridor with a hospital gown on. We need to see images of somebody crying in their cell at night and the only reason he’s in the cell is because his parents didn’t have the money to bail him out. We need to see those images of the abuses, we need to see the dirt, we need to see the filth.
We need to see the pain the officers go through — the officers that get cut and the officers that get feces thrown in their face hoping that they don’t have Hepatitis. An image is what stays in the mind. Every time you think about doing bad you need to think about that image.
Hollywood uses images too to glorify the rich and powerful with the jewelry on their neck. But it is fake. I use images to bring awareness to what really takes place behind bars and what young adolescents are actually going through. Everyday. It has to be traumatic.
Is the prison system still in the business of rehabilitation? That’s a question that needs to be asked in the Department of Corrections nationwide. Are prisons and jails in the business of rehabilitation? Yes, he did commit a crime, but does he have to be put into a cell for 23 hours. Is that rehabilitation? Or is that torture? We have to define cruel and inhumane treatment. We have to bring up those: terms, rehabilitation or torture.
What we do with this young child while we have him here for a couple years could make or break him for the rest of his life. There’s volunteers that go into the prison and mentor. Recently, I had the week off so I went back to Rikers Island, and did some workshops, talking to the kids. I felt obligated because we’re in a place that could make or break them. Some are going to the street. Some are going upstate. If you’re going to the street, prepare their minds while they’re here. If we’re trying to rehabilitate.
PP: Over the 12 years that you’ve been doing this work, if you can estimate, how many times have you presented to groups speaking and how many times have you presented images?
LS: I’ve done close a thousand presentations — in churches, schools, and sometimes putting them on the streets. Just taking the images right to the high crime areas and putting them right on the sidewalk. People in the poor neighborhoods are not going to go to the museum so I bring the museum to the streets.
PP: Thanks, Lorenzo.
LS: Thank you, Pete.
My friend Graham MacIndoe made this photograph a couple of years ago in the Gowanus/Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, NY. “The bit that lies between the projects and the ever expanding gentrification,” explains MacIndoe who just came across the negative again this week.
A second time round, it was one of those not unusual moments of revelation that photographers have. MacIndoe saw story in this old image he’d forgotten since the first go around.
“There were two or three kids about 9 or 10 years old,” recollects MacIndoe of the day he made the shot. “If I recall there were no adults around. The kids had just finished a game and were starting another. One kid was teasing the other about going to jail.”
This photograph, this reality, floors me.
Directly, the image’s visual elements spell-out the school-to-prison-pipeline? It’d be too obvious if it weren’t for the fact, there’s no political statement being made here. This is play. This is play?
Pavement chalk, used by children for generations to invent new games is the type of material that any kid has access to, right? Right. But some kids have access only to chalk and probably not more expensive toys or educational games. The chips are beer bottle tops (Heineken I can identify; the others Bud Light? Maybe Sam Adams?) Is this what happens without XBox? Do children draw themselves acutely closer to reality than adults dare? Does childhood imagination work the other way too? Do we lose brave imagination in adulthood in order to inoculate ourselves against our terrifying, divided reality?
The game the kids have pathed out has depressingly few number of options; in fact it seems to be that you survive outside of prison only until you don’t — it is a case of when, not if.
This is an imagination particular only to poor kids. How horrified would we be if every American child’s imagination turned to these dark concepts? How broken our country would be, huh? Well, as long as we’ve communities so broken that kids dabble in make-believe about jail as easily as Santa then our country IS broken. No child should occupy such a dour imaginative landscape?
Photography has recently focused on, and relied upon to some degree, untrained scrawls to tell stories. From Hetherington’s War Graffiti and Broomberg & Chanarin’s Red House to idiots like me pointing my iPhone at scribbles on walls. It is easy for us to lean on the narrative and evocations of anonymous or near anonymous humans. In prisons, cell walls are etched full with writings coming from a point of deprivation. Photographs reflect that. I’m saying this because, often the motif of photographing writing is dismissed (such is our level of expectation, at this point, is there anything more boring than a not-funny-protest-sign?) And, I’m saying this because I don’t think MacIndoe’s picture deserves to be overlooked.
This picture is literally what is happening on the ground. We’re told about it from the mouths — and minds — of babes.
These kids have created a game for their own world experience. They’ve created a thing not meant for anyone’s consumption but their own. But it is a public thing. In the absence of political awareness rises the most powerful political statement. It is fierce and it is scary. We want to fight back. But we cannot. We cannot doubt these children or discredit the uncomfortable truth they’ve presented. Instead, we are forced to justify this world they’re in. This world is ours and hopefully ours to improve for younger generations.
PICTURE OF THE YEAR
This is the most thought provoking image I have seen all year. I’ve not allowed myself time on a single image like this for a while.
And, yet, I know next to nothing about it. Please help me understand. Are games like this common in that area of Brooklyn? In NYC? In other American cities? These games might be commonplace and it might be merely my inexperience that explains my astonishment. But, of course, knowing the rampant inequality in this country and the exceptionally harsh treatment it reserves for the poor, I should not be surprised.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Andres Serrano has just released Sign Of The Times a new body of work for which he bought signs from the homeless in New York at $20 a pop. Over 200 signs in total.
I’m not sure about the sound track to the video, but Serrano’s words are worth a read on the Creative Time Reports website. He doesn’t breaking any new rhetorical ground but he does make a good case for this work being a timely statement to coincide with the end of Bloomberg’s stint as city mayor. New York has a problem with homelessness.
Just once, Serrano’s words veer dangerously close to over-analysis and sentimentality:
“What struck me about the people who sold me their signs was their willingness to let go of them. It was as if they had little attachment to them even though some signs had been with them for a long time. Of course, they needed the money. Many people would tell me they had made nothing that day. But I also think that those who possess little have less attachment to material things. They know what it’s like to live with less.” [My bolding.]
But, ultimately, he grounds the work where it should be — in an it-is-what-it-is conclusion about art, and in an it-is-an-outrage statement about society:
“Although the homeless are at the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans are not far from it. They may not be homeless, but they’re poor. Fifty million or more Americans live at or below the poverty line.”
You’ll recognise the name. Serrano brought us the *controversial* Piss Christ and in doing so exposed the small-minded vitriol of the culture wars in eighties America, that set the tone for the rightwing unthink so common today.
Despite their wildly different methodologies, Piss Christ and Sign Of The Times have a lot in common. The former magnifies the cultural differences and the latter magnifies our economic differences. Cultural and economic capital are related. Both works ask audiences about how far they, we, are willing to go to manage perspective and to get out of ones own head. Both artworks create, very efficiently, the parameters to those urgent discussions.
Sign Of The Times is a very simple project. It’s not a subversion of capitalism; in fact barter-and-trade might be one of capitalism’s purest forms!? Regardless, Serrano made small but significant one-off contributions to the lives of hundreds of homeless during the making of the work. Hopefully, the presentation of Sign Of The Times will shape public and political opinion to improve the lot for many more homeless folk?
Armand Xama, 31, and Bryan Duggan, 51, are best friends. They both suffered broken necks in diving accidents. Xama and Duggan are just two of 800 patients at Goldwater Hospital, on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Almost every patient at the state-run facility is on Medicaid.
Throughout 2012, photojournalist Daniel Tepper followed Xama and Duggan through their days on and off Roosevelt Island.
In the summer of 2013, Goldwater will be closed and demolished to make way for Cornell University’s new science center. Patients have not yet been to told to where they will be relocated.
“This is a developing and underreported issue,” says Tepper. “The people who call it their home have no way to advocate for themselves and let others know what is happening to them. They are at the mercy of the city’s Health and Hospital Corporation that isn’t doing a great job in handling the closing and relocation.”
With over 400 individuals who have neck and spinal injuries, Goldwater is home to the largest community of such persons in the New York hospital system.
“The closing of Goldwater is just the tip of the iceberg,” explains Tepper. “Opponents to the science center are alarmed that the development is projected to cost $2 billion dollars and take decades to complete, especially at the time when many city workers don’t have contracts and the schools and hospitals are badly in need of funding. This is a big issue that will change everyone who lives on Roosevelt Island but the first people to feel the effects will be the patients at Goldwater.”
Tepper wrote for the Gothamist about the background to the Cornell science center planning.
In July 2010, the city stated that it was planning to relocate some of Goldwater’s patients and staff to a facility in Harlem.
Five months later, Mayor Bloomberg announced Goldwater’s location as a possible site in a tech campus competition. In December 2011, the mayor named Cornell and Technion universities the winners of a bid to construct a sprawling science and engineering campus where the hospital now stands. This massive, two billion dollar project will take decades to complete and cover nearly one-third of the island. It will radically transform Roosevelt Island and affect all 12,000 of its residents, but the first ones to feel the impact will be the residents of Goldwater. Cornell has said they plan on using some of the rubble from Goldwater’s demolished edifice to raise the level of their campus site out of the floodplain.
The closure of Goldwater Hospital and the imminent relocation have received little media coverage. “This is a really old story and it’s done before,” Evelyn Hernández, the director media relations for the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation told us over the phone. “I wanted to make sure you know that the story’s been done before, a long time ago. We’ve announced it in press releases.”
In April, 2013, Tepper returned to Goldwater to catch up with Xama and Duggan – men he now considers his ‘buddies.’
“I was struck by how little their lives have changed since I began this project last year,” reports Tepper. “The daily lives of both men has fallen into a strict routine that I think happens to most people living in a state-run facility, whether it’s a prison or hospital. A times I found myself feeling photographic deja-vu, as a scene I have already captured repeated itself in front of my camera. Both guys are still in the dark about where they will end up and when they will be moved.”
“But they are both as optimistic and good-humored as always.”
Police stop teenagers for ID and when one can’t produce it he is put in a police van and driven away. The other has to call his mother who didn’t answer. The police were about to haul him away when his brother showed up and presented ID. © Nina Berman
STOP AND FRISK
The controversial Stop & Frisk procedures of the New York Police Department (NYPD) have been enacted for decades, but due to a phenomenal rise in figures over the past decade, the issue has recently become a hot news topic.
Civil rights advocates point out that Stop & Frisks are disproportionately experienced by minorities. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) published a report: NYPD Stop-and-Frisk Activity in 2011/2012.
In 2002, the NYPD made 97,296 stops. In 2011, there were 685,724 stops. Not all stops result in frisks. Of the 381,704 frisks, 330,638 (89.2%) were of blacks and Latinos. By contrast, only 27,341 frisks (7.4%) were of whites.
The NYCLU reports:
“Young Black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. Though they account for only 4.7% of the city, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6% of stops in 2011.” …
“The number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406). Ninety percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.” …
“The 2011 data are striking in what they reveal about the large percentages of blacks and Latinos being stopped in precincts that have substantial percentages of white residents. For instance, the population of the 17th Precinct, which covers the East Side of Manhattan, has the lowest percentage of black and Latino residents in the city at 7.8%, yet 71.4% of those stopped in the precinct were black or Latino.“
In total, during the 10 years of the Bloomberg administration, there have been over 4,000,000 stops in New York city. The 524,873 extra stops in 2011 (as compared to 2002) recovered only 176 more guns.
In 2011, of the 381,704 frisks, 330,638 (89.2%) were of blacks and Latinos. By contrast, only 27,341 frisks (7.4%) were of whites.
Blacks and Latinos were more likely to be frisked and, among those frisked, are far less likely to be found with a weapon.
The New York Times reported last month that the NYPD has abused Stop & Frisk policies in recent years but others say the NYPD has – with officers’ routine street stops of minorities – been abusing its powers for decades.
Battle lines have been drawn. In May, NYCLU filed a lawsuit“challenging the NYPD’s unlawful practice of detaining, questioning and searching innocent New Yorkers – particularly blacks, Latinos and other non-whites.” In a counter attack, Mayor Bloomberg has called the NYCLU “dangerously wrong” and dismisses them as “no better than the NRA” for opposing the Stop & Frisk.
The Guardian just published data visualisation of NYC Stop & Frisk.
PHOTOGRAPHER’S INTEREST PIQUED
New York-based photographer Nina Berman has recently taken on the challenge of photographing this sprawling, all-encompassing issue. In the early stages of the project, she has published her forays in a couple (one and two) blog posts.
I realise this is a long conversation (possibly the longest I’ve ever published on Prison Photography) but it’s an important topic emerging in the popular consciousness right now.
Nina and I discuss how to make images of police activities and civil disobedience; talk about Nina’s motivations; pay attention to individual and group activists; and consider why attitudes about Stop & Frisk vary so wildly in the context of such controversial and stark statistics.
Why has this become a big issue recently?
Stop & Frisk has been a big issue for a long time in New York’s communities of colour. If you live in predominantly white community in New York you wouldn’t notice it because most white people are not stopped and frisked.
I think it’s a noticeable issue now because the numbers have got so high. There’s been some lawsuits and activist agitation so it has become more talked about. We’ve also seen connections made with other police aggressiveness and killings of unarmed black and brown men.
Is this just in NYC or is this indicative of issues at a national level?
It’s a national issue. A legal aid attorney, who lives in D.C., told me some months ago, that it was her feeling that it was worse in D.C. There is just a super-intense activist community here in New York who have just made it a central issue. And then there’s been lawsuits by the NYCLU and that has helped propel it into news reports. But I’ve been following it since November 2011 – at that time there was very little conversation about it. Now, it’s in the national press nearly every day.
How did it fall on to your radar?
I heard about it two years ago, either through a NYCLU or a Center for Constitutional Rights listserv. I read about lawsuits that have been put in against the NYPD. I thought that’s a huge number [of police stops]; what’s that all about?
Later, I saw a couple Stop & Frisks happen in the Bronx and it was just shocking. I started to follow some activists, who are just so dedicated; they are doing stuff everyday. The more I learned about it, the more I saw the connection between Stop & Frisks and what people are now calling the New Jim Crow; it’s not just the physical violation and potential humiliation of being stopped and searched but all the disenfranchisement that come as a result of that. That aspect has been missing in a lot of the news reports.
For instance, you may be stopped and the police officer may ask you for ID, and you may not have ID. As far as I know, there’s no ID law in New York city, but they may say, “You’re trespassing here,” and then you get a trespassing summons, or if you talk back to the officer, and ask ‘”Why are you stopping me?” you could get a disorderly conduct ticket and summons to court.
These are the kind of things that pile up. I’d like to see compiled statistics in New York city on how many disorderly conduct summons are given out, to whom they are given, and where they are given.
You said that you had witnessed a couple of Stop & Frisks?
I was in the Bronx on another project and I didn’t have my camera out. I saw a man riding a bicycle and a cop stopped him in the middle of the street. He stayed on his bicycle and he just immediately put his arms out in the air, like he knew precisely what position to assume. That’s a whole other thing that interests me; how body language for some people according to their race is a normalized gesture. For white people gestures [associated with Stop & Frisk] would be abnormal gestures.
Last summer, I saw a guy – he looked like he was 17 or 18 years old – in the Bronx and two plain-clothed cops came out and pushed him against a wall and stripped him of everything. It was intense.
What are the figures for stop and searches over the years?
Up to 700,000 in 2011. How many of those stops are also searches is unclear. Each year since 2002, stops have gone steadily up. If you calculate it for 2011, it is more than one a minute!* It is beyond comprehension.
What are the attitudes of the people in these communities who are effected?
There’s one guy in East Harlem I’ve come to know rather well. He’s been stopped and frisked his whole life and has never thought anything of it. One day, he saw his stepson stopped and searched. A light went off in his head; “What is going on here?” In another instance, his stepson was stopped and he was able to record the audio of the stop and the stuff the cops were saying was so abusive. After that, the father decided to get involved in civil disobedience and he’s out there every day involved in jail support, court support and rallying at precincts too. Many of the activists have been arrested.
Where have you been making photographs?
Outside precincts mostly; in Harlem, the Bronx, and Police Plaza downtown. Also, courthouses; mainly the Bronx criminal courthouse, the Manhattan criminal court house.
In the midst of the project, there was a police killing of a young man named Ramarley Graham. So the Stop & Frisk opposition got connected to issues around unwarranted police killings. They see it as part of the same racial profiling issue.
And the impact?
The impact has only been because of enormous amount of pressure – it’s kind of astonishing that you can have an impact at the grassroots level. Walking while Black [is the issue.] Jumaane Williams, a city councilman has stepped up and said, “I got stop and frisked, and I’m a councilman.”
The protestors I have met want an entire new style of policing; the police are not being seen as protectors, but as aggressors. Also, as part of some system – through these stops, this harassment, these summons, these stops – it just keeps people down.
If you speak to some of the parents, their concern is, “Okay, so my kid gets stopped 5 or 6 times for some bullshit thing and let’s see what happens when you seek college loan money. That’s the real fear. One of the fears. I guess the real fear is that a cop might kill your son. If he moves his hand the wrong way or something.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is just beginning inquiries. The NYPD is not really backing down. As of a month or so ago, Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly were saying ‘This is terrific.’
Michelle Alexander’s characterization of this documenting and disciplining on the streets as well as in the prisons as “The New Jim Crow.” It seems these rapidly rising figures of Stop & Frisk support her arguments. That this racial profiling begins on the street makes the larger, national issue even more terrifying and pernicious. A lot of the time people think it is locked facilities that control populations so vigorously, but here’s evidence that racism begins in free society. Would you agree?
One of my first experiences was photographing some boys who were walking back from the gym in the Bronx. They were stopped, taken to the precinct and their mothers were called. They came to the precinct and the mothers started getting upset. The police wouldn’t let the mothers see them. One of the boys was charged with disorderly conduct because he talked back to the cops and one the mothers said. “That’s it, I sending my kid to the South. I have to protect him from the NYPD.” I learned that there’s this whole reverse migration that goes on when a boy hits his teenage years. Families in New York – and this is not the fist time I’ve heard this – want to send their boys back south to live with relative and to protect them from the NYPD! That blew my mind.
Why has the NYPD taken on this policy which is clearly flawed but also a public relations disaster?
Well, so far it hasn’t been a public relations disaster; not until this year. What kicked it off was a very visible civil disobedience action by Professor Cornell West and a bunch of other in front of the Harlem police precinct. That was the first step. Why the NYPD is doing it? I don’t know if it a money maker which would be an interesting things to find out. All these summonses carry fines.
I personally think New York city has too many cops; it is the most heavily policed city in North America. There’s 40,000 cops so they have to do something. The other factor – and this is what people say on the streets – they are too afraid to go after real gangsters so they hit up these people that are doing nothing, so they can show they are meeting quotas.
Law enforcement says there’s some good in the policy – that gang-bangers don’t bring guns on to the street, because they’re afraid of being stopped; so it is kind of a *preventative* policy.
But statistics (see graph above) don’t really support that argument.
Plus, it’s clogged up the entire court system, the holding cells. Say you’re stopped at 3pm and given a disorderly conduct summons, you may not get to the precinct till 10 o’clock at night … and then they might send you to central booking. Can you imagine what that’d do to a kid, or to anyone? If you’re on a job that says, ‘If you don’t show up you get fired [you loose your job].’ These are real stories; they are not just hypotheticals.
This is what Michelle Alexander would refer to as your way into the system.
What usually happens during a Stop & Frisk?
Legally, if a police officer stops you, you don’t have to say a word. There’s all sorts of “know your rights” trainings all over the city now. And there’s CopWatch groups. Neighborhood people are going out in teams in the community and just watching them.
What you’re supposed to do is ask, “Officer, am I under arrest?” and if the officer says no, you’re supposed to walk away. Does it usually happen like that? No. You’re scared when someone comes up to you. You say something. Each Stop & Frisk handles very differently.
If you refuse to answer questions that might cause problems.
They may throw some charge. They could say you’re obstructing justice. They’re supposed to stop you if they suspect you of something. They’re only supposes to frisk you if they suspect you are carrying a weapon.
I think this policy is going to change. I think there has been a tremendous amount of change. I don’t know what they will then do with all these police officers!?
It used to be when a municipality had budget troubles they’d think about dropping the number of cops. They don’t think that any more. It’s an untouchable.
If they pulled this stuff on 57th Street, Park Avenue or Madison Avenue, can you imagine what would happen? Could you imagine someone walking out of Barney’s New York and the NYPD stopping and frisking the person?
The NYPD does it in neighborhoods where people aren’t going to say anything.
What the most egregious case you’ve learnt about?
In my video, a young man speaks. He’s in his twenties. What was he pulled in for? He was in the subway with his girlfriend going downtown. and his girlfriends sister swiped him through on the subway. He was busted for soliciting. They claimed he asked someone to swipe him through. Well, it’s not illegal to swipe someone through. He spent a whole day in the system because of that. You see some subway stations heavy with police officers. Why? Because they have so much crime? I don’t think so.
Tell us about the groups you’ve been working with and following.
There’s a fluid group of people whop aren’t connected through any specific structure. They find each other at events. Or, someone has a problem and knows one person and they reach out to the group. The group I’ve been following is called Stop Stop & Frisk and it is a mix of Black, Hispanic and White people from Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn. They plan to go Staten Island, where there’s lots of problems as well.
Opponents are a mix of working class and middle class, some social workers, legal aid workers, some students and some activists. Wherever there’s some action happening they’ll try to show up and show support. There was recently an action at Lehman High School in the Bronx. Kids were being harassed; it’s a very liquid surge of people who are interested. Go to any neighborhood that is predominantly Black or Hispanic and you’ll find people working on this issue.
The NYCLU has been on the forefront of the opposition?
Yes, and there’s been different organizations that have coalesced. There’s the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP). There is not one central group and that’s what it so amazing about it. People are waking up at the same time and saying, ‘Hey our neighborhood doesn’t have to be like this.’
How do you plan to pursue the story visually? It’s difficult, no?
I can certainly stake out more Stop & Frisks, and I’d like to do that. There’s also newly emerging surveillance infrastructure. The NYPD will roll these watch-towers into neighborhoods and watch certain places. I’d like to find a way to photograph this landscape that is constantly surveyed. You just have to figure out where these things are because they are moving all the time. And then I’m quite drawn to the mothers – the mothers who feel like they are going to lose their sons.
What do you think about this Pete?
Often material that gets to the heart of the matter is not the photography done by the well-meaning documentary photographers, but the images captured by the surveillance or official cameras. Look at the photos in the appendix of the Supreme Court ruling on the Plata vs. Brown case. The ruling established that overcrowding in California prisons led to preventable deaths, and therefore the conditions of detention for approximately 160,000 inmates was – is – cruel and unusual. Those photos were all taken by the California Department of Corrections itself.
Consider the Collateral Damage wikileaks video; it was US Army footage. The Abu Ghraib images were not taken by a journalist. Many of the photos that are central to expose are taken by those on the inside. It’s very difficult for an outsider to get that sort of access necessary.
So, I am interested in these movable NYPD watch towers. I never knew they existed.
They used them during Occupy. What Happened When I Tried to Get Some Answers About the Creepy NYPD Watchtower Monitoring OWS was a great story by Nick Turse about his encounters with the cops manning the occupy towers. Pete, you’re talking about the Prison Industrial Complex, and there’s is the Military Industrial Complex … well, this is the Homeland Security Industrial Complex. There’s money for new toys and they have to use it. They train police forces on them and they pull them out in every situation.
BUT if you’re in a residential neighborhood and you see one of these watchtowers for a few days, you wonder who’s doing the watching? Am I being watched? Maybe the person behind me is threatening? Is that what’s happening? Or am I being violated? Photographically, it’s not that easy to figure out how to cover these issues, but it’s not impossible. I think you just have to be clever; push yourself further. I feel pretty proud of myself for making the start I have, because you don’t see one photographer touching these things. I’m not patting myself on the back about this but I like the idea of engaging with these communities and the city I live in. I feel that’s important.
A couple of years ago, Fred Ritchin encouraged me to move away from purely historical survey of photography in prisons and think about how the strategies and apparatus of discipline and management developed in prisons have been implemented across free society – corporate parks, high-rise surveillance, riot and protest policing.
Your work from Homeland was subtle in how it connected Americans with the hardware for war and surveillance.
I’ve though of just parking myself in front of central booking in Bronx, in front of the courthouse. I was there for a while the other day when a cop was indicted for the killing of a young boy and I saw kid after kid being walked i n there in handcuffs. I foe want to actually photograph those numbers – and maybe you do that; it takes a day, a week, month – how many pictures can I actually make of Black kids in handcuffs? I’d make thousands.
The challenge is that so much of this you can’t see; you’re prevented from seeing. There is a former prosecutor who has become a big opponent of Stop & Frisk. He says the conditions inside the Manhattan holding cells are worse than anything he’s ever seen in his life, and that they’re designed to make you feel like an animal intentionally.
Criticism of holding cells doesn’t surprise. City jails have a more transient population. There’s a general rule of thumb that the shorter the amount of time someone stays in a cell, the less care they’ll take care of it.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to get a look inside a booking cell. Lawyers don’t even see a booking cell. I’ve thought about getting myself arrested just so I could see it and experience it for myself.
Don’t do that, Nina.
No, I don’t think so. But, it has entered my mind more than once. You see the activists who are doing it more and more. They want to get arrested. They’re so caught up in it. They want the reminder of how fucked up things are.
You said earlier that the courts and booking stations were getting backlogged, possibly because of the civil disobedience also?
Yes, apparently. Frivolous charges are clogging the system. Bobby Constantino, a former [and disillusioned] prosecutor from Boston, writes The Crown blog. He moved to New York, got himself arrested in a civil disobedience action and wrote a whole description of his arrest and booking.
Why have you ventured into video?
I realized the stories people were saying were important and they’d be really hard to capture in just stills. And to give my audience a sense of the cat-and-mouse game played out on the streets. Standing in front of a precinct screaming at police officers? People don’t just do that. People have to get to some sense of rage just to do that.
It would be interesting to speak to the District Attorney (DA) that deals with those cases and see how many cases are brought forward and how many get dropped. Often a DA doesn’t want to waste time and resources on petty charges, especially if the courts are stretched.
The thing is, a cop’s quota is still met as long as he writes the ticket. It’s not based on whether or not it goes through the court. For the cop, he doesn’t care if the case is dropped or not and this is where the reporting needs to come in. The Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Daily News; there needs to be a second level of reporting [from those outlets].
What is the infrastructure driving all of this? It’s not just Michael Bloomberg and Ray Kelly saying this is a crime fighting technique. What are the contradictions? If I was an investigative reporter, that’s what I’d be looking into.
Say you have a couple of disorderly conduct summons against you and you don’t show up to court, you’re going to have a warrant against you! Then you have a record … a real record. It’ll be interesting to see how many people come out for the daily marches. Everyday, more people sign on and it could end up being thousands and thousands of people.
Where do you feel you are at with your coverage of this issue?
I like the video I’ve made and I can certainly go more on it. But how do you photograph racial profiling? Or, furthermore the impulse to racial profile? If you look at some of these situations, in particular police killings – which I think of as the result of racial profiling – the cops are operating with one world view and the communities with another. They’re gulfs apart.
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*There are 525949 minutes in a year. Therefore, in 2011, the NYPD stopped someone every 45 seconds.
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Nina Berman is a documentary photographer with a primary interest in the American political and social landscape. She is the author of two monographs Purple Hearts – Back from Iraq and Homeland, both examining war and militarism. Her work has been recognized with awards in art and journalism from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the World Press Photo Foundation, the Open Society Institute Documentary Fund and Hasselblad among others. She has participated in more than 70 solo and group exhibitions including the Whitney Museum of American Art 2010 Biennial, the Milano Triennale, 2010 and Dublin Contemporary 2011. Her work has been featured on CBS, CNN, PBS, ABC, BBC and reviewed in the New York Times, Aperture, Art in America, Afterimage, TIME, American Photo and Photoworks. She is a member of the NOOR photo collective and is an Associate Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Berman lives in New York City.
I am decidedly ambivalent about the role of religion within prisons – it can be a force for good and for positive change, but it can also be reductive in scope and used for manipulation. I wanted to ask Serge a few questions to see if he could help me, and us, through some of the issues and interactions religions bring about in prison environments.
Prison Photography: Tell us about your approach.
Serge J-F. Levy: When I did the project, I did my best to approach each individual (inmate) tabula rasa. I did everything within my power to try and understand who they were in the moment I met them and to understand who they wanted to be from that moment onward. In most cases I did not know what each person was punished for.
Though I feel a general compassion for humanity and a desire to understand troubled people, I also understand that the acts of many of the people I photographed often had dire and unimaginable consequences on the lives of their victims and the victim’s families. So, my compassion and understanding is measured with an awareness of the distinct nature of my relationship to my subjects.
It seems like you’ve been to a few states. Which prisons have you photographed in and in what time period?
I started in Greenhaven Maximum Security in New York State. I went on to photograph at the Muncy Women’s Unit in Pennsylvania, MCF (Minnesota Correctional Facility) – Stillwater, MCF-Oak Park Heights Super Maximum, MCF- St. Cloud, and Angola in Louisiana.
What attracted you to prisons and specifically religion in prisons?
When an accused criminal is locked away, we, as a country and a society, have assumed the inmate will be experiencing some degree of “rehabilitation.” Instead, it would appear these environments quite often breed further damage, dysfunction, and pathology. I became interested in how inmates used their time to pursue a form of healing outside of the prescribed forms of daily routine. Through religious communities, inmates were often seeking a form of spiritual rehabilitation. This spiritual rehabilitation often provided the inmates a way to metaphorically experience a freedom beyond the obvious confinement and constraint they experience in their present lives. Religion also provides many adherents a lasting form of reflection and cleansing to purge the remains of unresolved tragedy from their pasts. So you asked why I was attracted to this project? Because I feel the literal experience of being imprisoned, stripped of freedom, and confined in a den of thieves (and murderers, etc.), is a powerful figurative example of aspects of the more general human experience. The ability to find a way to transcend the reality of one’s current circumstances and experience a healing and freedom through the channels of spirituality and reflection… that’s a valuable tool.
How did you negotiate access? Did different DOCs react to your request differently?
I got access through the most classic technique I know of; I met someone in the mailroom who introduced me to someone who worked on the second floor who introduced me to the fourth floor and on up the chain until I had an endorsement to enter my first prison. After working in Greenhaven Maximum Security Prison for several visits, I had created a body of work that would encourage future prisons of the valuable intentions and ideas behind my work.
And related to the last question of how I got access, the work I was doing was not much of a security risk for prison administrations as I was mostly working in areas and in ways that could only make the prison system and its staff look good. However, I guess there was always the risk that I could have turned my camera in a different direction and as was the case in many instances, I was left alone with inmates long enough that I could have seen more than I was potentially supposed to. But that’s not who I am or how I work.
Any memorable interactions?
One warden in Texas suggested we grab tea and beer when I made it down. I never made it down but I was always interested in whether that was an obscure Texan custom.
Is photography a security risk for prison administrations?
I just don’t know the nuances of security well enough to weigh in on that question. I could imagine that with a particular intention, a photographer may be able to provide the necessary coverage to develop a plan, but I am mostly constructing this from my avid movie watching hobby!
Some of the services/prayer/rituals you’ve photographed seem quite involved. How much time did prisoners spend involved in religious observance? Were their other outlets available to them for self-reflection and improvement, e.g. sports, industries, education, group counseling, libraries?
I found it interesting how religion served multi-faceted functions for the inmates. On the most direct level, it was a form of spiritual cleansing and growth that would happen in services and weekly or daily gatherings and meetings in chapels and make-shift religious venues. But beyond these formal locations, religion becomes an identity and an opportunity to develop a social circle; a comparison to how gangs function in prison might be an apt comparison because as I understand it, competing religions would at times seek to sabotage the work of each other. One such case was how the baptism tank had to be replaced by a laundry cart because it would constantly develop mysterious holes at Stillwater Maximum Security Prison in Minnesota.
But religion was also practiced in the art inmates created; from sculptural effigies to paintings and drawings of religious scenes, the hobby shops and prison cells often contained quite a bit of religious memorabilia. There were several outlets for inmates to reflect and experience spirituality; the arts, group meetings of various sorts (including therapy), formal religious gatherings, one-on-one consultations with chaplains, and library hours.
Policies varied from prison to prison and in each case I would hear inmates express grievance as to the limitations that were imposed upon them. I was only there for small slices of time and generally wasn’t able to get a more holistic sense of what the greater experience was like.
What did the prisoners think of your presence?
I think the inmates respected the integrity of my stated goals and the ideas I had for my work. I also think, rightfully so, many inmates were skeptical as to my intentions and my affiliation with the media. After all, many of the people I worked with were directly featured and often intensely maligned in the media during their prosecution and processing through the judicial system.
What did the correctional officers think of your presence?
The correctional officers, were largely very helpful but also insistent upon reminding me of the omnipresent dangers. On more than one occasion I was told that a particular inmate was trying to con me into believing one story or another. I generally felt that the correctional officers had seen or heard quite a bit during their time working inside.
Were their any days and/or experiences with the prisoners that shocked, surprised or delighted you?
Kneeling in a small room for Friday Jumma with 300 Muslim inmates listening to and responding to the call of Allah Oh Akbar is something that can’t be explained but only felt. Same for a Baptist or Pentecostal service.
On one occasion, I sat in a room of 10 women gathered with a Catholic chaplain, and listened to one woman recount her experience of being raped and simultaneously attacked by a dog. Sometimes, it was more important for me to listen, feel and internalize the moment without the filter of photography.
Do you follow a creed or religion?
I don’t follow any particular religious path. I lead a life that is guided by principles that I have culled from religious practice and ideas that have resonated with me over time. My “religion” is constantly evolving. The sources behind my spirituality that I can identify are Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and many other faiths and disciplines I have encountered throughout my life.
What has been the reception to these images?
I think people like it. But due to the limited exposure these images have had, I have yet to hear strong dissenting opinions if there are any.
How do you think your images fit into the visual landscape of prisons and prisoners in America. Do they confirm or counter stereotypes or common narratives?
I am seeking to provide a record of the people practicing religion in prison. Of the work I have seen done in prisons, much of it addresses religion as a component of life inside, and therefore seems to be geared toward molding the religious component of prison life into a greater aesthetic and narrative whole.
My work is more thorough in exploring this particular [religious] angle of prison life. Of course, I could be very wrong about the full breadth of quality work done on this specific topic.
Thank you for your time Serge.
Serge J-F. Levy’s work is represented by Gallery 339 in Philadelphia and has been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Schroeder Romero Gallery in Chelsea, and The Leica Gallery (New York City and Tokyo) among many other national and international solo and group exhibitions. In 2011 the Princeton University Press published a book of Serge’s photographs made during his yearlong photography fellowship at the Institute, along with essays by Institute members. Serge’s magazine photography has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Life, ESPN The Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine among others.. For over 10 years Serge has been on the faculty at the International Center of Photography in New York City where he is a seminar leader in the documentary/photojournalism program and teaches street photography, editing, portraiture, and several other courses. In addition to his street photography practice, he is an avid draftsman and painter. Serge lived in New York City for his whole life … until recently moving to the Sonoran Desert.
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