Photography has innumerable uses, but one of its greatest qualities is it’s ability to tell stories. Sometimes that is through direct description of events and sometimes through evocation of emotion through colour and form.

In the rare cases when photography is used as a rehabilitative artistic tool for incarcerated peoples, straight documentation may be effected (even manipulated) by control and access privileges put in place by a prison administration. In the case of incarcerated youth, the essential and appropriate legal control which prevents identification of a child means that photo-education must be purposefully designed.

That is why when projects of light painting emerge from detention facilities such as the Rhode Island Training School (RITS), I applaud the invention and persistence of AS220, the Providence-based arts non-profit that conducts the program.

Writer and photographer Katy McCarthy published a gallery of the AS220/RITS’ light paintings on the excellent JJIE Bokeh blog recently.

“In the striking images from AS220‘s If These Walls Could Talk, the magic made is not an illusion. Like a surrealist painting, the manipulated photos employ metaphor and symbol,” writes McCarthy.

The images are like electric bolts from the darkness; not something we’d necessarily expect but that is because our imagination may not soar like those of imprisoned children.

Photography has glorious potential to unlock the emotional needs of locked up youth. (A few weeks ago, I featured the work of those locked up in New Mexico, enrolled in the Fresh Eyes Project.) However, given the dearth of photo-education in juvenile detention facilities in the U.S., I can only conclude that the sensitivities to publication/distribution, and the road-blocks to getting a potentially security-threatening camera inside any prison inhibit the development of programs such as those run by AS220 at RITS and The Fresh Eyes Project in NM.

Are we missing massive opportunities to connect by not embracing the camera as we would embrace, say, a pen or paintbrush? Clearly, much more goes into helping children through emotional and behavioural difficulties — rounded and relevant education, vocational skills, counseling, substance abuse help — yet propping up these efforts is the need to steady emotional and self-esteem needs says Anne Kugler, AS220 Youth Director.

“Unless you address underlying emotional issues you can put all the services in place that you want and it doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be able to move through adolescent development in a positive way. That’s where I think self-expression and creativity come in. Unless children have the experience of being recognized for doing something creative and good it’s a hard road; inside in their heart they must feel there’s a purpose to moving forward with education and counseling,” says Kugler.

Youngsters are responsible for the lion’s share of the 1.3 billion images made everyday worldwide. It seems a little perverse to deny photo-based activities and visual literacy to incarcerated youth, no? Especially as it’s so relevant.

“When you watch young people with cameras they immediately want to use them,” says Kugler. “They know how to do so. They want to get their hands on the camera and they want to take pictures of themselves and they love being able to see — especially with digital cameras — their pictures right away. It’s fun and very accessible. Bear in mind, there are some children who — because of self-esteem issues — feel a sense of horror if you ask them to write a poem or draw a picture, but I think a photo in particular has accessibility that works great out there.”

Bravo to AS220. And let’s see more programs for incarcerated youth like AS220’s If These Walls Could Talk! A special shout out to Scott Lapham and Miguel Rosario who coordinate and teach the If These Walls Could Talk program.

Check out Young Incarcerated Photographer Make Magic In Photos


All photos: Courtesy of students of the AS220 RITS photography program.