This is a continuation from the Interview Part One, published Tuesday, 21st July, 2009.
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PP: Tell us about the objectives of the workshops?
SD: The purpose of the first workshop [at Maple Lane] was to create images that would describe what life was like. To treat the camera as a photojournalist would. They had a story to tell. And they had an audience that they were supposed to reach. Once I was there I quickly realized that most of these kids have never completed a project of any description.
Photography was secondary. They just needed something to do as a group that might actually have some kind of consequence. That people could look to and be happy with. A lot of them had never had [that type of validation].
We agreed, and it wasn’t hard to get them to agree that the group as a whole took credit for each picture. And they were all okay with that. I’d print them, take them back and show them. The group would edit them and they’d feel part of the process.
The Green Hill School was a little less resolved. I wasn’t quite sure I was there honestly. I don’t think they’d quite figured it out. And so that was a little tougher I think.
When I was at Remann Hall there was a whole issue with not photographing faces. So with that I took a whole different tack and gave them pinhole cameras, which ran on long exposures.
The girls had to plan the shot. They were thinking in terms of illustration and performance for the camera. It wasn’t about trying to document as much as create these worlds for the camera. And those pictures are really beautiful.
The purpose of those pictures was to become part of a construction that they were building; It was a house with all sorts of representations, photos, paintings and stuff like that. That went to the Tacoma Museum of Glass. It might even still be there? The photos didn’t work well in the house, unfortunately, mostly for technical or logistical reasons. However, they were very significant in the catalog.
PP: What lessons did you learn?
SD: When it worked at its best we worked as a small group and we did a lot of talking.
The Institution Adapts
PP: Any problems?
SD: They’d take photos, show them and sell them to the other kids and get in trouble for that. They had a whole economy going. They were photographers for hire. The other kids would hire them. They were all doing gang signs, which completely got everyone in trouble.
PP: So they had the cameras with them during the project? In their cells?
SD: It depended which facility we’re talking about. It was actually a huge struggle at the start of the project, especially at Maple Lane where they’d confiscate the cameras. The staff would confiscate the cameras as a form of punishment. As soon as I left the building they’d take the cameras away. That part was really hard.
It got better when there was enough dialogue about it. There was a whole education process that had to go on with the staff too. They weren’t used to cameras being there! They were not comfortable with that. They allowed kids to go outside with one of the staff, you know, photograph a tree and then give the camera back to the staff member.
PP: Describe the education you gave to staff.
SD: The only thing I could do with staff was to explain my view and then get the management of the facility on my side … who could then explain to the staff and sanction the activity. The photographs were all censored at the end.
When the staff realized that the superintendent was saying it was okay they began to lay-off, but in truth there wasn’t a lot I could do with the staff. At the time, there was some really progressive staff who thought this would be good for the kids and that the exposure would actually be good for them. Over the years that changed, and they became very protective again.
PP: How did each of the workshops wrap up then?
SD: Maple Lane: I was there as long as I was supposed to be there. But it was clear I was never going to get to be back. I was caught in the middle of larger differences between organizations. That shut me out of that.
Green Hill School: I was amazed at the amount of support they gave me after a while. I went into the intensive management unit (IMU), which is the hard-core wing – the lock down.
I thought they weren’t likely to let me in there, but I approached the management anyway and I said I really needed to take pictures of that [the IMU]. I explained I didn’t want to make it pretty. The administrator said ‘Yes’ which really blew me away.
And the staff at the IMU were just so excited that someone came out to visit because that place was usually off limits.
Spotlight On/Spotlight Off
A while later the New York Times magazine was going to run my pictures including those of the IMU. I made a mistake and I went back to [Green Hill] and told them the New York Times was interested and that I wanted to get some updated photographs and releases. The management had changed by then – they threatened me with lawyers and state attorney general. It got complicated and the story never ran.
PP: Which photographs were problematic? Or was the project as a whole problematic for Green Hill?
SD: I’d sent New York Times a lot of stuff and they were interested but the final selection was never made, so I don’t know which individual pictures would’ve been the problem. The project was the problem. The editor said “do what you need to do and get it right,” but editors have very short time lines and attentions spans. When I was ready they had already moved on. My fault.
PP: Your stark environment photographs. These are pictures of the IMU too?
SD: Yes. That’s a play area that had been shut down for months. They couldn’t even use it. That’s IMUs exercise room with no weights, no anything.
The situation here is that they’d get a chair if they were still enrolling themselves in school; they had their own choice if they wanted to be enrolled in school. If they acted up, which many did because they were locked up 23/7, they’d take away their mattress and they’d sleep on the cement. And if there was more trouble than that they strip them, and if there was more trouble than that they’d chain them up in the fetal position.
SD: I’m serious. This is what I was told – I was told by staff. It was bad and that’s probably why they didn’t want any of my pictures running in the New York Times. They told me they were cleaning up their act. This was 2000 so that may well be true. My response was, “Great, can you invite me back? I’d like to see it.” They said they were not into that.
PP: You’ve many photographs of the steel doors and hatches.
SD: The hatch is where they’d get their food, mail and medical needs. That’s when the IMU really started to affect me emotionally. You know, when I was working with them face to face in these institutions it wasn’t any different to working with kids anywhere. But …
PP: Were these juveniles in the IMU because they were violent offenders or were they there because they’d broken prison rules?
SD: Because they’d broken prison rules.
PP: It was punishment?
SD: Yes, but part of understanding this is also getting accurate information.
I was told they put people there for their own protection. There was one kid who was a pedophile who was apparently there for his own protection, but then I was told later that that wasn’t the case. “Oh, you can’t do that [type of separation].”
PP: One would think prisons could run protective cells and wings without resorting to these stark punitive environments? It doesn’t have to be run like that?
SD: Maple Lane it is less punitive, as far as I could tell. But they’ll separate gangs as well. You know kids can’t just be housed anywhere. It has to fit with the institution.
PP: I am shocked to learn that juveniles are in isolation. What are your thoughts on solitary confinement?
SD: About the time I was shooting this story, Tim McVeigh was about to be executed for his Oklahoma bombings. Watching him on TV, he was on death row and he clearly had a better cell than those kids. This was interesting but also depressing – some kids told me they’d go to IMU because they just wanted to get away and some of them would only be there for two or three days. But some of them would be there for months.
The staff, there was one guy, I forget his name, was extremely bitter. He said in front of everybody, including the kids. “I could solve this problem easily, I’d just get a gun” and this is how he’d talk to these kids. He said back a few years ago they had tables in the open hallway and a TV and pool table.
The kids took the pool balls and beat the staff with them, they broke the television. So they removed all these things just because the staff were scared – that was the only reason. They told me one woman couldn’t go back to work because her arm could was damaged. And so you realize it is very complicated. These people come to work everyday and they don’t want to be constantly threatened with violence.
SD: But, of course, these kids [I was photographing] had nothing to do with that. Right? They had nothing to do with it but had to pay the consequences.
Some kids would go to IMU just for mouthing off and others may have done something serious.
As for the staff; some most of them were really good. And I don’t know how they do it every day. Others were those who were bringing in dope for the kids and being nasty.
The kids complained about this and there was nobody there to listen.
PP: No accountability? Did complaints ever get out of the facility – say to the DSHS for example?
SD: I don’t know. Part of the problem is the kids lie their heads off. No matter what they tell me I can’t assume it is true and that is part of the problem and just makes it more complicated. But the more I got to know them they all have their underground. You know – they’ve all got something they can get high on. It must be the staff that’s bringing the stuff in.
PP: What’s in it for the staff? Behavioral management?
SD: Well, they’d get something out of it … I don’t know what. I had camera stuff stolen. I know the staff stole it; it wasn’t the kids.
The kids would always get punished because the state didn’t know what to do with these kids. It was about management – it was not about justice.
PP: Tell us about your portraits. Did the kids see your work?
SD: Yeah, they all got a picture. If I did a portrait they all received one. Although yeah [laughs/sighs] some of the kids swore they never got them. I’d give them to staff to pass on …
Something I think is really interesting is this desire for photographs. (I video taped in there too and interviewed a lot of them). They would have empty rooms, but they’d have maybe a few pictures on the wall that they were allowed to have.
It was a huge deal to them to have these pictures. Photographs were important. And one kid who was an outsider (you could tell the other kids didn’t like him) approached the group and said, “I’ve got something but I can’t show it to you.” And they said, “Fine, we not interested.” And he kept nagging; it was clear that he did in fact want to show the group this thing.
Usually contraband is drugs or porno, but no. He pulled out this picture of him and his parents from when he was a kid. It was all wrinkled up and that was his prize that nobody could take from him, I’d never seen anything like that before.
I’d heard from Susan Warner, from before I was in there, that she came across one kid who had never even seen a photograph. I’m thinking, “He must have seen a photograph?” but some of these kids have backgrounds that are so hard to imagine.
Anyway, they loved having their picture taken and they loved having the power to visualize the result.
PP: Their futures? Do you wonder what happened to them?
SD: I tried to track them down. And it was impossible. I tracked one down. He made it into community college in Centralia. He was in college when I met him.
Another kid everybody liked. He was popular and he was smart. After he got out he called me once. The Experimental Gallery got him a scholarship. The college wouldn’t admit a felon so he couldn’t use his scholarship. He was on parole, so he had to stay in his local area and so his options were limited to colleges there. So he had a scholarship and he worked in McDonalds!
Later, I was working with a legal advocacy group in Seattle and they could identify a lot of these kids as being in the adult system now. The recidivism rate is 80%. I think in the back of their minds they just kind of expect that [return to an institution]. Prison is where their dad is in many cases. A lot of them – more than I would have imagined – were affiliated with gangs. I never really appreciated that as being a serious problem in Washington State, but most of them had some allegiance. After release most of them return to their homes and familiar neighborhoods.
PP: In how many cases did you think that the institution as it existed served the child and society?
SD: Only one. There was one who was scary. Out of his mind. But there was only one.
PP: Talk about the procedures one must go through to photograph in a site of incarceration.
SD: Everybody asks me, “Can I go do this, who do I need to call?” somebody needs to call you. They’ve already gone through the hoops and they’ve already got that figured out.
PP: Do you see yourself photographing in sites of incarceration again?
SD: Yes. Am I planning for it, no, but it could happen through other avenues. I have been planning for some years to do a project on American war veterans, which falls under the same sort of scope. That is going to be my next big project.
If I do go back to prisons or jails, I don’t want to photograph more portraits that look the same. I don’t want to take the same pictures. I would like to penetrate into [the issue] with something deeper.
PP: Any closing thoughts?
SD: I don’t know a lot about prisons. I don’t know a lot about the adult systems but the youth systems (and I have a two and half year old now) is an embarrassment. It’s really bad they don’t know how to deal with these kids and they don’t know how to make them better.
The real smart ones will figure out how to get out of there and the rest … ?
Steve Davis is the Coordinator of Photography and adjunct faculty member of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He received the Santa Fe Center for Photography’s Project Competition in 2002, and recently won an Artist Trust Fellowship. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, and is in the collections of the George Eastman House, the Tacoma Art Museum and the Musee de la Photographie in Belgium. He is represented by the James Harris Gallery, Seattle.