I wanted to trace the physical and psychic contours of the world of these young people to see what they might reveal. Juvies is not only a document, but also a query about perception. Do we know who these young people are and what we are doing to them?
The Open Society Documentary Photography Project launches Moving Walls 17 exhibit today. Ara Oshagan, one of the seven award recipients, alerted me to the New York launch and his inclusion, Juvies: A Collaborative Portrait of Juvenile Offenders.
Juvies is collaborative because often his images are accompanied by the handwritten texts of incarcerated young people. Frequently the writings focus on emotional ties, problems with self esteem, the powerlessness against a system. It makes sense then that many of Oshagan’s photographs are visually-fractured, detached.
Compositions of door-frames, window reflections, outside corridors and gestures to action the other side of barriers describe very literally the immediate limitations these young people face daily. Oshagan’s work is not to politicise, but to describe (as best that is possible in the manipulating medium of photography.)
Oshagan explains, “I did not meet any angry or tattoo-ridden kids decked out in the clothes and accessories that could mark them as members of the city’s gang culture. Rather, I found a group of ordinary young men and women who had signed up for a video production class. When I spoke to them, they were deferential. For them, candy was the “contraband” article they had brought to class. Some of the kids were interested in photography and told me about how they strove to learn white balance. I listened to one of the kids play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on [a keyboard]. And somehow I had come full circle: I had played that exact same piece to my own son the night before. Suddenly, the distance between the inside and the outside seemed to vanish into thin air, a vast gulf turned into an imperceptible chimera.”
Before accompanying filmmaker friend, Leslie Neale* into Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall, Oshagan wasn’t an activist or particularly interested in prison reform. Oshagan admits the exposure to the system and young lives within was disorienting. From Oshagan’s artist statement:
“I was in a privileged place that allowed the perceptions that existed in my head to be confronted by the realities I was witnessing in the closed and misunderstood world of incarceration. What I was seeing was also raising issues that would not give me peace.”
“I can understand why Mayra might get life in prison for shooting her girlfriend from point blank range. But how could a combination of relatively minor charges result in the same life sentence for Duc, an 18-year-old who, despite having no prior convictions, was convicted in a shooting crime that resulted in no injuries and in which he did not pull the trigger? And why did Peter – a 17-year-old piano prodigy and poet – get 12 years in adult prison for a first time assault and breaking and entering offense? Why is the justice system so harsh on kids who clearly have potential?”
In addition to the walls, the guards, the other incarcerated people, the yards, the bunk beds, Oshagan also photographed families and communities left behind as well as the courts and victims. Sadly, I cannot present these images here but consider them essential in Oshagan’s “layered photographic narrative”.
These young people cannot be ignored. Our actions, just as theirs have ramifications both sides of the walls.
Two weeks ago the Supreme Court of the United States of America changed law, ruling life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) for a non-capital offense by a juvenile was to be removed from the books. Get past the fact that such harsh punishment was illogic and cruel and one soon arrives at the maddening circumstances of some of Oshagan’s subjects, Duc.
High school student Duc was arrested for driving a car from which a gun was shot. Although no one was injured, Duc was not a member of a gang, had no priors and was 16 years old, he received a sentence of 35 years to life
Again, to quote Oshagan, “Do we know who these young people are and what we are doing to them?”
* Oshagan did the B-Roll for Neale’s documentary film Juvies, whose own words about the juvenile detention system are worth taking in.
Born into a family of writers, Ara Oshagan studied literature and physics, but found his true passion in photography. A self-taught photographer, his work revolves around the intertwining themes of identity, community, and aftermath.
Aftermath is the main impetus for his first project, iwitness, which combines portraits of survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 with their oral histories. Issues of aftermath and identity also took Oshagan to the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucasus, where he documented and explored the post-war state of limbo experienced by Armenians in that mountainous and unrecognized region. This journey resulted in a project that won an award from the Santa Fe Project Competition in 2001, and will be published by powerHouse Books in 2010 as Father Land, a book featuring Oshagan’s photographs and an essay by his father.
Oshagan has also explored his identity as member of the Armenian diaspora community in Los Angeles. This project, Traces of Identity, was supported by the California Council for the Humanities and exhibited at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 2004 and the Downey Museum of Art in 2005. Oshagan’s work is in the permanent collections of the Southeast Museum of Photography, the Downey Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in Armenia.