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GIVING POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Sol Aramendi is an absolute force. Community smarts, a big heart and bloody hardwork makes her THE instigator for photography and inquiry among the immigrants living in New York city. Project Luz, an organization she founded, delivers photography workshops. Most are conducted with residents of Queens — the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.

The workshops function as cultural orientation and serve to empower immigrants who might be hesitant to explore beyond their new neighborhoods. Aramendi helps them out of their shell, onto the subway and into the boroughs. Photography is an excuse to engage with the world.

Aramendi’s moved toward teaching photography workshops after taking inspiring courses herself with Sergio Larrain (2004) and Adriana Lestido in Argentina. Aramendi also campaigns to promote breastfeeding among immigrant women, facilitates community discussion groups about domestic abuse, and provides a space for children with autism to scratch records. She is developing an App for day laborers to report workplace employer abuses.

I am fascinated by Aramendi’s emphasis on the social aesthetic above and beyond any image aesthetic, and so it was great to catch Aramendi between her many commitments and pose a few questions about her background, motivations and relationships.

Scroll down for our Q&A

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Project Luz workshops in the field.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): How did you get to be here in New York teaching photography and roaming the streets with cameras?

Sol Aramendi (SA): I moved from my hometown in Argentina to Rosario to Buenos Aires where I studied furniture design, film school. Later I trained and worked as an architect. At that time I was interested in black and white photography and sign dup for workshops taught by Adriana Lestido. There was a shanty town in Buenos Aires and I was interested in the many people who lived off garbage — sourcing, salvaging, reselling, recycling.

Simultaneously, I was taking people around the city to photograph architecture. I had a photo-lab in my house and taught from home. This was 1999. There was a financial crisis. Another one! I’d been working as an architect for 10 years and I felt I wanted something different.

I had a continued relationship with one family who survived from working with garbage. I traveled with them on the train to the dumps. It was called tram blanco – the ghost train — because most people never even saw it or knew it existed. It was invisible. Worse still, the operators charged more money than a regular ticket … just to go to work with garbage.

PP: It sounds like you relocated to New York relatively recently?

SA: Yes, and I knew I wanted to continue the work. It had to be for the local community. I wrote to all the museums — MoMA, Queens Museum, and so on — asking for free tours in Spanish for immigrants.

Queens Museum immediately called me back. They had just received a half-a-million dollar grant for community engagement. The museum was empty. It was a huge building, but immigrants using the park thought it was abandoned.

We did a class. On the final day and closing presentation of my course, there were 100 people. Afterward, the Queens Museum gave me the position of that person I had been asking for! I began guiding tours in Spanish at the weekends.

PP: Since, you’ve also been contracted by MoMA, also.

SA: MoMA has 20 community partners. I am one of them. It’s only 30 hours a year, but you can get a lot done in that time. Our project—inspired by Carrie Mae Weems—is about family.

PP: What do you do in your workshops?

SA: I bring people to the museum. We look at images. We make images. Color, black and white, then film, now digital. I’ve learnt how to engage the community, about how to listen; that is the most important thing. I was teaching them basic things but always relating it to art. Everyone can have an opinion about art.

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Various workshops from down the years. Sol has been involved in programs for everything from street photography, to studio portraiture, to lighting, to post production to classes on theory and photo history.

PP: What’s your approach?

SA: We learn through art but mostly we’re getting to know the city. The photography is an excuse!

Immigrants come here and they live in an imaginary space. They want to come here, but they don’t “arrive” here. They are in limbo. Through storytelling, I help them to imagine a more *real* place and being. I want them to feel a belonging to the city and to the spaces.

I had a woman who had lived here for 8 years but she did not know Manhattan. Migrants travel all this way, across borders, and then they are paralyzed in the place that they are. They don’t know more than 10 blocks around. Little by little they discover their own potential. After our MoMA visit, one student asked “Do we have another VIP tour, this week?”

People change themselves. We open a door and from there, they walk themselves. Many of them live subject to stereotypes. Understandably, some of them are embarrassed but they can know their community and space by describing it.

PP: What is the outcome of your workshops?

SA: We make publications in both Spanish and English. One for each workshop series. We’ve made 25 publications.

PP: Wow!

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SA: The format is set, so it is just a case of inputting the photographs and text we create. It’s newsprint. Together, we pick the subject of the publication and always relate it to immigration and place. We made one with union workers, one with day laborers, we encouraged a conversation between those two groups.

We made a newspaper with the New York Public Library. Some publications are in Mandarin. I encourage participants to distribute. We print many and I give participants a lot to share at public events.

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Aramendi (center) with children from one of her ‘Through the Lens’ workshops pose for a group photo.

PP: You seem to share everything you make?

SA: I do a lot of portrait projects. If there’s a community event, I set-up an outside studio, make portraits, upload them on Flickr. People can download for free.

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Christmas portrait studio (top); “Spooky Halloween” portraits studio (bottom).

SA: Project Luz teaches classes on social media and encourage immigrants to use it to communicate. They make virtual “tour guides” for their families back home. So when we visit a place, we’re thinking how to describe it visually and later publish online.

PP: These are all immediate benefits for participants. What is the secondary audience for their photographs? Here in NYC or further afield?

SA: I made an installation inside an old bank vault which included 300 portraits of migrants at work. It was about money and security and labor. After seeing those pictures people said they realized just how many jobs around them are completed by migrants — bus driver, delivery, everything we eat and drink — from morning to night, it goes through immigrant hands.

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Portraits made by Sol and her team during a Migrant Day Open House.

PP: What are the main issues that immigrants face?

SA: Access. I do a lot of work for people to go to a museum, but that work can end at the front desk … because of the way staff look at them. It can be enough to make them stop. After they cross that barrier — it is a lot, but really nothing — they realize they can do a lot of other things.

We talk about society, domestic violence, and I also teach them about the law of what they can photograph. I tell them to photograph at all the train stops. I tell them they can photograph the police. We cannot take pictures in the school. But everything else we can do. We look at the lawsuit between Philip Lorca DiCorcia and the Hasidic Jewish man who objected to his image being made on the street.

I ask students always to discuss and to defend photos or issues. Maybe they can later do the same at their work-place. Maybe they can tell their boss, “No, I only have to work 8 hours, not 12.” I let them know that it is okay to have healthy doubt and to question.

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Sol has led workshops for printmaking for women.

PP: What are immigrants’ relationship with law enforcement in Queens like?

SA: This is their city – they’re living, working and contributing so they can use the public transport, public spaces, art spaces. But it’s not always so easy. For example, the park around the Queens Museum is frequently used by migrants for celebrations such as Cinquo de Mayo. Two years ago, the police started doing raids. May 2nd, 3rd, 4th; they started in Queens, so on the 5th people didn’t come out. We all know where the immigrants live.

Immigrants are convenient for the economy but they are also required to keep quiet — to stand in the corner and to look down. No.

PP: How many of your students are legally documented?

SA: I don’t ask. It is not my preoccupation. But I would guess 80%. There’s 12 million undocumented immigrants in America so there are many in New York.

A lot of the students work as photographers at the weekends photographing the community events. There’s many events and parties. One group from Project Luz created another group called Latinos En Foco so they’re getting together and learning more lighting. They’re students teaching new students.

PP: Latino communities have a lot of events. Does photography play a ritual role?

SA: They’re taking photographs all the time. It used to be you only had a photographed mad once a year in the main house, with the man with the donkey. So there is clothing and performance in photography that is very ritualistic. Photography gives the ability to communicate it immediately with the family back in the home country.

PP: Is photography ever a threat for undocumented individuals?

SA: We talk about it the first day. I go with them the first time they go out in Corona. People on the street think you’re from Immigration, but we talk about how ICE works. ICE is not going out on the street to take your photo; they know where you are.

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Images from a weekend of Migrant Camera workshops at the 2014 Open Engagement conference at Queens Museum, NY.

PP: Can you measure the benefits of Project Luz’s workshops?

SA: It’s difficult. How many of them are empowered? What is empowerment? For sure, they know more about photography. Can talk about themselves and express their opinion? This, for me, it is the most important thing. I can agree or not, but at least they are expressing themselves.

PP: I’m presuming Project Luz serves people from all Central and South American countries as they are all present in Queens?

SA: In Queens, it is mostly Mexican and Columbian. Some Ecuadorian and other nationalities less.

PP: How did this all begin?

SA: I started the social practice program that Tom Finkelpearl (former Queens Museum director) did with Greg Sholette. I know I wanted to do something that gave frame to Project Luz. I am one of five social practice artists in residence and I teach on Saturdays. I have a partnership projects with United Photo Industries in Brooklyn, and with Prerana Reddy at the Queens Museum.

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Photographs from Sol Aramendi’s portrait project promoting positive images of immigrant women breastfeeding.

PP: What did you think of the Open Engagement (2014) conference. What do you think of the art and social practice ecosystem?

SA: I worry about diversity, that Social Practice is too white.

Community arts have been going on since the sixties and now we’ve white students coming to the communities with credentials and think they know [how to construct a project]. There has been this debate. But not everything is like that. I understand that everyone was talking about diversity. It is a preoccupation. I would like it to be more diverse.

I worry because some artists go to immigrant communities and they use them. Tokenism. It can seem like it collaboration but it is not. There were several projects that came to Queens that proposed to make portraits of immigrants, and of “the American Dream.” Several … so that makes me nervous.

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Images from Project Luz’s “Seeing With Light” workshop at El Barrio, NY.

PP: Is a long term project necessarily a better project?

SA: In my experience, things take a long time. You make mistakes and it takes a long time to get to know a community. Are we listening? This is the question I ask of myself all the time. Are they doing what I want or are they doing freely what they want? For me, long duration is good. Create leadership and then let the community go; let it build its owns groups and make their own mistakes.

It’s tricky to judge using time as criteria; results depend on the project, the teacher, the conversations, the student. Two months could be good. Two years is very good.

I worked for just two weeks in Turkey on a project and it worked. I didn’t speak the language but I could communicate.

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In 2012, a workshop led by Sol visited the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA and later made images of their own based upon ideas of identity, costume and image circulation.

LABOUR ORGANISING

PP: You’re working on a new App. It sounds like true political and activist art.

SA: From a day of discussions with day laborers and NY NICE, one student suggested making an App to report issues in the building trade. NICE was also working on a App for wage theft. My role is pedagogical. I create the questions.

PP: So that employers can’t take advantage of non-documented workers?

SA: Yes. The App includes messaging, a fact-checked and filtered ‘Hall of Shame’ of bad contractors. We presented it to 11 organizations with day laborers to secure feedback as we developed it.

This App is to inform laborers and to ostracize disreputable employers. The fines are low for wage theft, so it happens often. Instead of paying $7/hour, some contractors pay $4. A laborer says they’ll complain, the employer threatens to report them. There’s also a lot of agencies that don’t pay immigrants. A business that has an immigrant worker already saves hugely on their [taxes, insurance] costs.

We have funding and it is in the development stages.

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© Sol Aramendi. Meyolotzin Mexica, 2011.

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© Sol Aramendi. Welcome to my hood, 2011.
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© Sol Aramendi. Dancing with myself, 2011.
In her own work Sol constructs elaborate sets to write one page visual allegories.

INFLUENCES

PP: Which photographers are relevant? Which do you show your students?

SA: Latin American photographers. Sometimes we are embarrassed of our heritage, so I introduce photographers to make them proud. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gabriele Stabile, Miguel Rio Branco from Brazil, Adriana Lestido, from Mexico, came and gave a lecture in Spanish.

Students also have to find photographers. I ask them to research five names and bring them in. We look at contemporary photographers such as Hank Willis Thomas. We’re going to look at Carrie Mae Weems and talk about Latin American culture around the kitchen table as Weems did with her series Kitchen Table.

PP: Paula Luttringer?

SA: I admired Slaughterhouse greatly.

PP: The first project of Luttringer’s I discovered was Wailing of the Walls.

SA: Allesandro Sanguenetti. I always share her work with students. And Esteban Pastorino Diaz who made the longest exposure. Literally! The longest physical negative. Over 30 meters. He makes landscapes look like models. He’s fascinating.

Alejandro Chaskielberg from Argentina, too.

The first exhibition I worked on was ABC DF — a huge exhibition of Mexican photographers.

Daniela Rossell did Ricas y Famosas / Rich and Famous (1994-2002) which I thought was showy and tacky.

SA: I was a student of Lestido. She goes into projects 100% and with her heart. I learnt a lot from her about teaching. As a photographer, I admire Francesca Woodman’s life and work.

PP: And which organisations you admire? That may or may not include those working in photography or the arts.

SA: Organizations that DO something! For example El Puente in south Williamsburg, Immigrants Movement International (IMI) and Tania Bruguera’s projects. I like projects that don’t necessary rely on a strict idea and allow flexibility. It is a mistake to intervene in a community with your own “final” idea. Process is vital — it is important to be able to change through dialogue and engagement. The result almost doesn’t matter; the process is where connections are made.

I look to political groups such as Tucumán Arde, which was a group of previously mainstream artists in the north of Argentina who jointly denounced the Argentine’s military action. Never again has something so radical happened in Argentina.

You have to CHANGE something. You have to DO something that is useful. Life is short so better use time working on something that’s of use.

PP: Is photo central?

SA: It has been, but I am not sure it always will be.

PP: Wendy Ewald says it does none any favors if you give someone the ability to make a bad photograph. You can’t just dump cameras in the hands of people. You empower people by teaching them about photography and enabling them to make a good photograph.

SA: The goal of my work is not to make a good photo. If they can realize a good photo that is good, but the goal is for them to have access, social mobility and they can make their own decisions and they can take leadership.

PP: Long may you continue. Thanks Sol

SA: Thank you , Pete.

Follow Project Luz, Sol’s main work, on the web, on Facebook and on Flickr.

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Last month, I popped round to Stockholm Studios in NYC and was wrapped in blankets, ginger tea and the ends of a busy shoe rack. And so it was Episode 2.13 of the LPV Show was born.

Tom Starkweather manned the mixing desk while Bryan “Photos On The Brain” Formhals probed with the important matters of the day. I can’t really remember what we talked about in the first half of the show — certainly Prison Obscura, and I recall revealing my fear of Big Brother. We also had a good laugh about all those headlines in photography writing that describe very literally the content of the photographs and immediate crush the mystery and wonder of it all. After demolishing those low-hanging topic-fruits, we moved onto more serious stuff and tried to position Peter Van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11. We concluded it was one of the best — if not the best — photobooks about modern war to have emerged in the 21st century.

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LPV just busted out four posts that relate: the show itself, a selection of images from Prison Osbcura, a selection of spreads from Disco Night Sept 11, some photographs of my mug and the recording in session, and (bizarrely, but lovingly) an LPV curation of my Instagram images.

It’s a right laugh getting together in ACTUALLY IN PERSON and having a conversation. You should try it!

It’s also nice to know that there is a small amount of accountability attached to your answers as it will be published and exist, for all of time, in Big-Brother-Big-Data-Centers in the deserts of the Southwest.

My thanks to Bryan and Tom for inviting me round.

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Every Friday Evening, in New York City, Women and Children Board Buses Headed for Upstate Prisons

Photographer Jacobia Dahm Rode Too and Documented, Through the Night, the Distances Families Will Go to See Their Incarcerated Loved Ones

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There are various ways to depict the family ties that are put under intense strain when a loved one is imprisoned. Photographers have focused on sibling love; artists have focused on family portraits, and documentarians have tracked the impact of mass incarceration across multiple generations. Often, the daily trials of family with loved ones inside are invisible, unphotographable, psychological and persistent—they are open ended and not really very easy to visualise.

One of the many strengths of Jacobia Dahm’s project In Transit: The Prison Buses is that it very literally describes a time (every weekend), a duration (8 or 10 hour bus ride), a beginning and an end, and a purpose (to get inside a prison visiting room). In Transit: The Prison Buses is a literal example of a photographer taking us there. Dahm took six weekend trips between February and May 2014.

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Dahm’s method is so simple it is surprising no other documentary photographer (I can think of) has told the same story this way. Dahm told me recently, that since the New York Times featured In Transit: The Prison Buses in November 2014, the interest and gratitude has been non-stop. I echo those sentiments of appreciation. Dahm describes a poignant set of circumstances with utmost respect. It is not easy to travel great distances at relatively large cost repeatedly, but families do. As a result, they take care of the emotional health of their loved ones — who, don’t forget are our prisoners — and society is a safer place because of it.

“Honestly, I don’t know why they place them so far away,” says one of Dahm’s subjects in an accompanying short film.

The women on these buses—and they are mostly women—are heroes.

I wanted to ask  Jacobia how she went about finding the story and photographing the project.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea come from?

Jacobia Dahm (JD): In the fall of 2013, I began studying Documentary Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. When the time came to choose a long-term project, I realized I had been captivated for a long time by the criminal justice system here in the U.S., where I had lived for the past decade. Frequently the severity of the sentences did not seem to make any sense, and the verdicts seemed to lack compassion and an understanding of the structural disadvantages that poor people — who make up the majority of prisoners— face. In short, sentencing did not seem to take human nature into account.

My sense of justice was disturbed by all of this. I was shaken when Trayvon Martin was killed and his killer walked free. Or when shortly after, Marissa Alexander, a woman who had just given birth, was given a 20-year sentence for sending a warning shot into the roof of the garage when cornered by her former abusive partner. Her sentence has since been reduced dramatically. But it’s complex: Where does a society’s urge to punish rather than help and rehabilitate come from? In both cases there was a loud public outcry. What’s remarkable is that there are frequent public outcries against the US justice system, because the system simply does not feel just. So I decided to do some work in this area.

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JD: But how do you even begin to photograph injustice?

My original plan was to take on one of the most worrisome aspects of US criminal justice: I wanted to photograph the families of people who were incarcerated for life without parole for non-violent offenses. But New York State does not incarcerate in that category and, as I had classes to attend, travel to further locations would have meant trickier access and less time with the subjects.

In conversation with one of my teachers Andrew Lichtenstein, who had done a good amount of work on prisons, he mentioned the weekend buses that take visitors to the prisons upstate. And once I had that image in my head — of a child on these buses that ride all night to the farthest points of New York State to see their incarcerated parent — I wanted to go and find that image.

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PP: How much preparation did you need to do? Or did you just turn up to the terminus?

JD: I researched the bus companies beforehand, some of them are not easy to find or call. And I had to find out which company went where. I also looked into the surroundings of each prison beforehand. I knew I would not be able to go into prison and knew most of them are in the middle of nowhere, so I had to make sure — especially since it was in the midst of freezing winter — that I would be within walking distance of some sort of town that had a cafe.

The first time I went upstate, it was on a private minivan. I had just finished reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s amazing non-fiction book, Random Family that narrated life over a decade in the 1980s and 90s in the South Bronx. The characters in the book travel with a company called “Prison Gap” which is one of the oldest companies running visitor transportation in New York City, and so I felt they were the real deal and decided to use them on my first trip upstate.

It was a freezing February night in 2014 and we gathered in a Citibank branch south of Columbus Circle for two hours before the minivans appeared. Many people came in to use the ATMs and some looked at us wonderingly, but no-one would have known that these people were about to visit prisons. What they would have seen is a mostly African-American crowd, mostly women, waiting for something.

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PP: I see Attica in your photos, did you just photo one route or many?

JD: The bus I ended up focusing on — because riding on the same bus would allow me to get to know passengers better — went to six different prisons in the Northwest of New York State: Groveland, Livingston, Attica, Wyoming, Albion and Orleans. Most buses and mini vans ride to a number of prisons, that way they always have a full bus because they serve a wider demographic.

I wanted to be on a bus that went to Albion, the largest women’s prison in NY State, because my assumption was, that female prisoners get more visits from their children, simply because the bond is almost always the most crucial one. But I was wrong, because as it turns out, women have fewer visitors, and for a number of reasons: Women tend to act as the social glue and make sure visits happen. And so when they’re the ones who are incarcerated, not everyone around them takes over or can take over the same way. Some dads are absent and if the children are raised by the grandmother, that trip will be very difficult to make for an elderly person.

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PP: What were the reactions of the families to your presence, and to your camera?

JD: The time I traveled upstate I was squeezed into the back of a white mini van, the only white person traveling up and the only one with a camera strapped around her neck. We drove all night and barely talked. It felt otherworldly thinking we are now driving to the Canadian border, but I forced myself to take at least a few pictures through the frozen window and of hands etc. Later the next morning we were moved to a larger bus and that bus was the one I rode on for the next five rides between February and May.

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JD: The first one or two times I took the trip, I did not take many pictures on the bus and I photographed the towns instead. I could quickly tell there was a sense of shame involved in having family in prison, and people where uncomfortable being photographed, which I understand. People had to get used to me first an understand what I was doing. So I did what you do when you are in that situation: I introduced myself to people, I took some pictures and brought them a print next time.

Once they had seen me on the bus more than once they were starting to be intrigued. I also told them that I too was a parent and could not imagine having to bring my children on such a long and difficult journey, and that I was sorry this was the case for them. I think it was rare for many of these women to encounter any kind of compassion from others, and it might have helped them to open up to me.

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PP: You describe the journeys as emotional, tiresome, grueling.

JD: You’re on the bus all night without getting much sleep. The expectations of the visits can be tense, because the mood of your entire relationship for the next week is depending on a few hours. But the journey has also been expensive and most likely exhausted all your funds for the week. During the visit you will be watched closely by the correctional officers, some of them might be rude to you. And if you bring your kids that aspect might be particularly difficult because you’re in no position to stand your ground.

You worry and hope your kids sleep well because you want them to be in good shape for the visit. I knew a grandmother who slept on the floor so her grandson could get the sleep he needed.

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JD: Another one of the moms I knew was not allowed to bring her three kids to Attica because Attica only allows for three people to visit. The child that was left at home with a babysitter or family member was upset and that puts stress on the entire family.

PP: Why are New York State’s prison so far upstate?

JD: New York has around 70 state prisons, and many of them are in rural, post-industrial or post-agricultural areas. You could not get to some of these towns with public transport if you wanted to. The prisons have been economic favors to depressed rural areas that have little else to offer in terms of jobs, but not factored in is how these favors tear families apart and further widen the distance between children and their incarcerated parents.

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PP: Do other states have similar geographic distances between communities and prisons?

JD: I am only beginning to understand what the system looks like in other states, but I believe people have to travel far in most states, as there seems to be no policy on the part of Departments of Corrections to place prisoners in proximity to their families.

In California for example, most prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison come from Los Angeles, and that prison is a 12-hour ride away. In Washington D.C. it seems a large part of the prisoners are placed federally, rather than within state, so the distances can be even larger. And with distance come increased travel costs that poorer families have a very hard time covering with regularity.

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JD: Considering that family ties are crucial in maintaining mental health and key in helping the prisoners regain their footing when they are out, it is a cruel oversight not to place people closer to those that are part of the rehabilitation process. Statistics tell us that the majority or prisoners have minor children.

PP: What can photography achieve in the face of such a massive prison system?

JD: I think at the very least pictures of an experience we know nothing about can create awareness, and at best it can move people to develop a compassion that can move them to act. I think a photograph can give you a sense of how something feels. Seeing is a sense of knowing, and it’s easy not to care if you don’t know.

In the face of the U.S. incarceration system — a system that seems to be concealed from most people’s sight but at the same time permeates so many aspects of the American life and landscape—it feels particularly important to me that photography plays the role of a witness.

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A rest stop at night in Pennsylvania. April 26, 2014.

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PP: How do you want your images to be understood?

JD: I think my images highlight a difficult journey that many people know nothing about.

The focus of the journey, and of my photographs, is on the people that connect the inside of a prison to the outside world: the families.

It might be that by seeing how an entire family’s life is altered people seeing those images and beginning to understand something about how incarceration affects not just the person on the inside, they are maybe capable of a compassion they don’t usually afford for prisoners themselves.

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PP: How do you want your images to be used?

JD: It’s hard to say because I believe an artist’s intention has limits when it comes to how the work is used.

I want people to put themselves in the families’ shoes. I want these images to help people begin to imagine what the secondary effects of incarceration are and how they could be softened. 10 million children in the US have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, and that is not a good start in life for a very large number of the most vulnerable population.

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BIOGRAPHY

Jacobia Dahm (born Frankfurt, Germany) is a documentary storyteller and portrait photographer based in New York and Berlin. She graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2014, where she was a Lisette Model Scholar and received the Rita K. Hillman Award for Excellence. Dahm’s photography and video has been recognized with awards from Rangefinder and the International Photography Awards. Her work has been published by Makeshift Magazine, The New York Times, Shift Book, AIAP and Prison Photography. Her key interest is documenting issues of social justice.

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D’Juan Collins tries on a shirt at Goodwill in Harlem, NY on Feb. 14, 2014. D’Juan was charged with drug possession and spent 6 years of an 8-year sentence in prison. He was released in July 2013 and is currently in a custody battle with the New York foster care system for his 7-year-old son, Isaiah.

INTRODUCING PHYLLIS DOONEY

Often when I want to publish images I want to add thoughts of my own and, in all honesty, direct the message a little. Today’s feature is an exception. Photographer Phyllis Dooney approached me with a complete pitch and story. From the issue to the subject, from Dooney’s motivation to her text and images, there is nothing I can add. This piece is entirely Dooney’s.

The series titled Collapsar follows D’Juan Collins who served six years in a New York State Prison, during which time he lost custody of his son. He’s done everything within his power to reestablish a stable life and yet the prospect of losing his son permanently looms larger than ever before.

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D’Juan Collins goes to the local branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx, NY on Dec. 16, 2013. D’Juan is there to get on the internet, a service his 3/4 housing does not provide. He has launched www.saveisaiah.com to raise awareness for his issues with the foster care system and to raise funds.

COLLAPSAR

Words by Phyllis Dooney.

“You need a man to teach you how to be a man.”

— Tupac Shakur, Tupac: Resurrection

D’Juan Collins wants to be an active parent in his son Isaiah’s life. At the same time, D’Juan realizes that fatherhood, in the form of genuine leadership, nurturing and daily guidance, is a challenge for him. His three-quarter housing is not a fit home for his son. D’Juan needs more income than his job, selling tickets in Times Square, can amount to.

D’Juan is a 44-year-old black man from inner-city Chicago, who now resides in the Bronx. Like his absent father before him, D’Juan both used and sold drugs as a psychological and economic solution. Eventually this behavior landed him in prison. In July 2013, D’Juan was released from prison after serving six years of an eight-year sentence for possession of crack-cocaine.

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D’Juan shopping for ties at Goodwill in Harlem, NY on Feb. 14, 2014. D’Juan has a job interview as a paralegal and is shopping for appropriate clothing.
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Isaiah Fischer-Collins, 7, plays with his paternal grandmother, Dianna Collins, and uncle in a hotel room in Brooklyn, NY on Dec. 21, 2013. Dianna was granted visitation rights from ACS to spend holiday time with her grandson for the weekend. However, Dianna is not an approved visitation supervisor by ACS  which means that when she looks after Isaiah the family remains fractured because D’Juan cannot be present as well.
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D’Juan joins forces with the organization Fostering Progressive Advocacy in a protest on the steps of City Hall in New York, NY on April 16, 2014. Most of the participants are calling attention to ACS because ACS has not placed their children with biological family members.
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Fostering Progressive Advocacy members protest on the steps of City Hall in New York, NY on April 16, 2014.
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Isaiah Fischer-Collins, 7, with his paternal grandmother, Dianna Collins, Brooklyn, NY on Dec. 21, 2013.

While in prison, D’Juan petitioned the court system and New York’s ACS to place his now 7-year-old son, Isaiah, with his biological grandmother, Dianna Collins. For a variety of reasons, this never came to pass and Isaiah has been stuck in the foster care system for over six years now. D’Juan is drug-free, has a regular job and is looking for new housing. He is granted two hours a week to see his son via supervised visits at Graham Wyndham, a branch of the foster care system. In the meantime, it appears that Isaiah is acting out at school and against authority figures.

In the face of this adversity, D’Juan has launched a campaign (saveisaiah.com) to get his child back. At present, D’Juan has non-custodial parental rights only. If he gets full custody back for himself or the boy’s paternal grandmother, D’Juan feels that at best he can make sure Isaiah does not feel abandoned by his biological family and will have the confidence and emotional security to succeed in life. At the very least, like many disadvantaged fathers with a checkered past, he can teach his son what not to do.

The verdict is due to come in 2015 and it is quite possible that the foster mother will be granted the court’s permission to adopt Isaiah. If the custody goes to the foster mother, in lieu of the recent decision by the Court of Appeals of New York in the Hailey ZZ case, the court lacks the authority to order visitation for the biological family, including the father. D’Juan and his extended family may never see the child again.

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D’Juan speaks on the phone to the biological mother of his 7-year-old son in the Bronx, NY on Feb. 11, 2014. D’Juan is appealing to her for help to ensure the foster mother cannot adopt their joint son but the biological mother is on and off drugs which makes her an unreliable source of strength and assistance.
The view from D'Juan's bedroom in the Bronx, NY on Jan. 24, 2014.
 The view from D’Juan’s bedroom in the Bronx, NY on Jan. 24, 2014.
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Residents, Buzz, Reed and D’Juan, relax in their 3/4 house in the Bronx, NY on Feb. 1, 2014.
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D’Juan Collins’ fragrance “Innocent Black Men” sits on his dresser in the Bronx, NY on Jan. 18, 2014.
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D’Juan Collins checks himself in the mirror before heading out of the 3/4 house in the Bronx, NY on Dec. 10, 2013.
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D’Juan reaches out to potential customers in Times Square, NY on Jan. 13, 2014. D’Juan has limited job opportunities as a felon and currently sells tickets to make ends meet.

On June 15, 2008, Father’s Day, at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, then-Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech addressing a well-known American archetype, the absent black father. His message and tone were accusatory, catering to a public opinion.

In his opening sentences, Obama begins by saying, “…too many fathers also are missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men… You and I know how true this is in the African-American community.”

D’Juan represents the legions of “missing” black American men who are caught up in the trappings of intergenerational underachievement as a result of poverty and the effects of the “War On Drugs.” Forty years ago, American inner cities had already begun to feel the impact of globalization and de-industrialization with the loss of jobs matching the skill-sets of inner-city minority men. Today, the minorities living in these areas make up generations of boys and men who have not had access to the education and training to compete in today’s global economy.

80% of our black American men in major cities have criminal records and therefore most are stuck in a cycle of incarceration and recidivism. More African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. Astonishingly, rates in crime have more or less stayed the course in the US over the past 40 years, but with the changes in sentencing laws, under the auspices of the “War On Drugs,” rates of incarceration have increased by 500%.

D’Juan is part of this statistical nightmare.

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D’Juan looks around for potential customers in Times Square, NY on Feb. 10, 2014.
A view of the Bronx from the elevated train in New York, NY on Dec. 14, 2013.
A view of the Bronx from the elevated train in New York, NY on Dec. 14, 2013.
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D’Juan Collins, 43, washes his sheets by hand in the bathroom of his 3/4 house in the Bronx, NY on Feb. 1, 2014.
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D’Juan uses his laundry bucket to do pull-ups in his 3/4 house in the Bronx, NY on Jan. 18, 2014.

Ellen Edelman of Families, Fathers & Children weighed in about the generational impact of incarceration on the black American family, “When incarceration is a narrative in a family, just as a talent is a narrative where there may be several generations who are musical or good at sports, or with behaviors that are very negative, like drugs or alcohol use, it tends to be a generational narrative.”

Mass incarceration – particularly as a response to drug related crimes – has served to effectively warehouse our black youth and males, pulling them out mainstream American life and separating them from their families. Formerly incarcerated men emerge from prison more ill-equipped to confront the demands of daily life. Minority men, with a very traditional definition of manhood and fatherhood, are particularly emasculated when they have not met the expectations of the husband-father-provider. Reintegration after prison is characterized by the same symptoms of depression, hopelessness and anger that preceded the prison sentence or worse. Maladapted coping skills become the family’s legacy that in turn becomes the community’s legacy and ultimately, as the numbers continue to escalate, America’s legacy.

Studies have shown that without intervention 70% of children with incarcerated parents will follow in their parent’s footsteps and go to prison.

Says Malcolm Davis of The Osborne Association in New York City: “Incarceration creates a ripple effect. When a father goes to prison continuously, the kids see that as the normal and they emulate that, ‘I wanna be just like my dad and Dad goes to prison, Dad comes home, Dad looks good, stays home for a little while, but goes back to prison.’ There is a second side of it where we see the kids without any fatherly guidance in their life so they turn to the streets. They turn to the streets for love, for attention, for support, and the cycle continues.”

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D’Juan Collins washes his hands in the soup kitchen before Sunday service at Manhattan Bible Church in New York, NY on Jan. 19, 2014.
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D’Juan Collins, 43, sings and prays at the Manhattan Bible Church in New York, NY on Jan. 19, 2014. D’Juan is fighting the New York City foster care system to regain custody of his 7-year-old son, Isaiah.

Nearly six years after now-President Obama’s Father’s Day speech at the Apostolic Church of God, black fathers continue to be amiss in their family’s lives. Young boys continue to take to the streets to seek out the structure, support, and affirmation that is oftentimes lacking in single-parent and foster care households. One can only hope, with the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and Senators Paul Rand and Cory Booker’s bipartisan call for criminal justice reform that family narratives like D’Juan’s will speak of upward mobility among our black American men and boys, freed from the pitfalls of abandonment, poverty, substance abuse and our national response to them, incarceration.

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D’Juan and girlfriend Melinda relax in bed in his 3/4 house in the Bronx, NY on April 12, 2014.

BIOGRAPHY

Phyllis B. Dooney is a New York-based photographer and storyteller. After graduating from Pitzer College with a combined degree in Eastern Religion, Art History, and Fine Art, she began her career as a photo art director in the commercial sector. Currently, Phyllis works as a social documentary photographer and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Boston Globe, VISTA Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere online and in print.

Follow her on activities on Twitter and on Instagram.

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.

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“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.

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Q&A

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.

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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? 

LS: 1999.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.”

Lorenzo Steele

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.

Lorenzo Steele

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.

Lorenzo Steele

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.

           Lorenzo Steele

Chalkdrawing

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?

SCRAWLS ABUNDANT

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.

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