This article was originally published as Vinny: David, Mon Frere, in French translation in Polka, Issue 39.

Vinny and David is a story about two brothers coming of age in New Mexico. Growing up with near absent fathers and a loving but struggling mother, Vinny and David came to rely on, and love, one another. They have both been incarcerated but their lives are more than the prisons, poverty and addictions that have inundated their young lives. Isadora Kosofsky has been photographing the siblings and their family for five years.

“You’ve taken the pictures that show what we are feeling inside,” says David. “The photos that go inside us.”

Kosofsky gets close. She consciously develops friendships first. Sometimes those friendships develop into a long-term project, sometimes not. At aged 24, she been documenting Vinny and David for nearly a quarter of her life.

“I must share in my subjects’ struggles over a sustained period of time in order to forge a bond. The relationships are more important to me than the actual image making,” she says.

 

 

The long association began one evening in 2012 in the juvenile detention center in Albuquerque. Vinny, aged 13, had just been arrested for stabbing a man who was assaulting his mother, Eve. Once he took his seat, Kosofsky introduced herself and listened. Though young, Vinny was full of wisdom and sensitivity.

“He spoke extensively about his relationship with his older brother,” says Kosofsky, “particularly talking about wanting his brother’s attention. What I had learned about Vinny and David’s brotherly relationship intrigued me, and I knew that in order to document Vinny’s life, I had to include David.”

One of the reasons Vinny was compelled to defend his mother was David’s absence. David was locked up, in the local county jail. Between 2011 and 2014, while awaiting trial for aggravated assault, David was repeatedly locked up for parole violations—either failure to check in with his parole officer or a dirty urine analysis.

After one-month, Vinny was released. The man he stabbed was not seriously injured. Vinny has not returned to jail since.

 

 

David got out of jail a couple of weeks before Vinny. Felicia, who was then David’s girlfriend, remembers only one good thing from that time: Vinny’s phone-call, from juvenile hall, on the day David was released.

“Vinny told David for the first time that he loved him, and that he was his brother,” says Felicia. “It brought them closer.”

Kosofsky asked the family if she could document them in their daily lives. Vinny doubted they’d agree to it, but they did. David was the most guarded. It was a year before his “mask” came off and Kosofsky was able to capture moments of his life.

Exposure to the prison system has marked effects on the whole family. Kosofsky describes Vinny, Davids and the family’s lives as ‘transcarceral’.

“As a relative or friend, one is powerless to intervene, waiting hours for phone calls, weeks for visits and years for legal decisions and then release, sometimes with an unknown date,” she says. “When David was cycling in and out of jail, a looming fear of loss hovered over the entire family.”

 

 

Furthermore, incarceration only adds to the emotional and financial stress of life, particularly so in New Mexico, the 49th poorest U.S. state. Children from lower-economic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by incarceration.

In 2015, the most recent year’s figures available, approximately 921,600 juveniles were arrested. On any given night there are 40,970 children behind bars. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention. The Justice Policy Institute estimates the long-term consequences of incarcerating young people could cost taxpayers $8 billion to $21 billion each year. New Mexico spends $74 million per year on supervision and services for youth in the system.

The rate of youth incarceration and spending wasn’t always so high. Throughout the 80s and 90s, politicians across the spectrum rallied votes by promising to be tough on crime. But, lawmakers failed to adequately distinguish between the transgressions of adults and the waywardness of youth. Juvenile systems built facilities that functioned like adult prisons. Youth were warehoused for longer sentences and rehabilitation was sidelined or suspended all together.

Fortunately, recent years have shown a move away from youth incarceration. States now realize that prisons do not reduce recidivism as effectively as other interventions. Prisons harm youth.

 

 

In April 2017, New Mexico received millions of dollars from the U.S. Justice Department to establish more appropriate, non-custodial, responses to parole violations. This will have real world effects. For example, had David’s parole violations occurred under these new rules, he would not have been in and out of prison more than ten times since 2011.

The number of youth now referred to the juvenile justice system is 50% lower than in 2009. The number of youth in New Mexico on probation has declined by 55%. There are fewer youth in New Mexico’s juvenile justice system now than at any time in the last decade.

 

     

 

 

As well as helping the public see the connections between poverty, addiction and incarceration, Kosofsky’s work has helped the family see themselves.

“All these pictures, every one of them,” says David, “bring back these memories to everyone in my family. It reminds us of what dope has done. What incarceration has done. What we have lost. The last five years,” says David. “It’s a fall out for my family. Especially myself.”

 

 

In the past, Vinny has looked at David as a father figure. David views Vinny as the only person who appreciates him. But David’s repeated absence has strained their relationship. Vinny feels his brother has let himself and his family down.

“I see two brothers who love each other unconditionally but one brother wasn’t there when he needed him to be. The younger brother,“ says Vinny about himself, “had to become the more mature brother.”

Now 18, Vinny is married with a one-year-old daughter, Jordyn. He’s staying away from trouble in a way he wishes his older brother would.

“I have my job, I’m relied on and I’m still employed. As long as I have income, I can support my child. It has brought responsibility and adulthood.”

 

 

Every time David strays he feels guilt. He wouldn’t argue with Vinny about having let him down.

“When I think about the photos of me in jail,” reflects David, “I think of how I don’t realize my actions until I’ve already reacted. You regret a lot of things in jail. A lot of things that you can’t change.”

Throughout Kosofsky’s photos, family members drape over each other, they hold one another and hold each other up. They entwine and grasp as if to tap some collective energy. A sense of exhaustion is pervasive, but exhaustion is held at bay by the love and (literal) support of loved ones.

The years have conjured visual repetitions too. In a recent photo, Vinny cradles his baby in the same way Eve cradled him and his siblings years ago. Vinny now lays on a motel bed with his wife Krystle, just as he did with his brother during their closer, more vulnerable times, years past.

 

 

In play, in grooming, in rest, the family gravitates toward physical touch. Perhaps they do this because they know that prison, child protective services and the courts can deny, and have denied, them proximity to one another. The project may have started in a prison but has extended far beyond.

“It’s about a relationship of a family,” says Vinny.

Vinny and David was part of Juveniles In Prison, and After, an exhibition of Kosofsky’s work debuted at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France, September 2nd-23rd. This Polka article was commissioned in response to the show.

Images from Vinny and David were shown on Capitol Hill when Senate Bill 1524, also known as The Dignity Act, was introduced to senate by Cory Booker (co-sponsored by senators Elizabeth Warren, Richard Durbin and Kamala Harris).

In October 2017, Kosofsky was awarded the Getty Images Instagram Grant.

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