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This is a story about how one photographer went from documentarian to facilitator of a camera workshop inside a women’s jail.

The FAIR (Future Achievers In Reentry) program, run by Welcome Home Ministries, at Las Colinas Detention and Rehabilitation Center helps women prepare for a successful return to society. A few years ago, Sheriff Gore of San Diego County was keen to promote the program. It does appear to be a shining light in a department that has had significant troubles.

Sheriff Gore approached photographer Michele Zousmer, who he knew from past involvement with a local foster care agency, and asked if Zousmer could, through her images, help “change the perception of the female convict.”

“I jumped at the opportunity not knowing how life-changing it would be for me,” says Zousmer. “I was confined to the small room in which the women lived. I started by photographing the women while they were in group with their facilitator.”

Zousmer has collected her own images in a series titled Making the Invisible Visible (more here). She has made slideshows of her photographs for Welcome Home Ministries and conferences on the FAIR program. Here, in this article, only images made by the women prisoners are featured. They can also be seen on Zousmer’s website in the blogpost Photography as Healing Art.

The images were made in the old Las Colinas Detention and Rehabilitation Center. It closed in August 2014. It held over 1000 women. The few dozen women in the FAIR program were selected by the administration through an application process. If selected, they lived in a separate dorm.

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At first, Zousmer visited with her own camera to document the group and their progress. She wanted to show the softer side of the women.

“I wanted to capture the victimization, sadness, remorse, and despair, but also the beauty and transition they showed in group. I wanted others to look at these women and see them as ‘us’! Media portrays people in prison as people unlike ‘us’. I quickly learned these women were very much like ‘us’. My heart opened.”

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Gripped by the FAIR environment of positive change, Zousmer soon upped her level of involvement. She coordinated, with a friend, a Women’s Empowerment group once a week.

“When people feel better about themselves,” explains Zousmer, “they take better care of themselves, and do not allow bad things to happen to them. They begin to have hope and want things for themselves and their children. The women started to feel better about themselves. They recognized how to deal with their triggers. They opened themselves up and released their shame and bonded with others. They learned to trust again!”

Soon thereafter, Zousmer wondered if cameras in the hands of the female prisoners had therapeutic potential.

“I broached the idea with the women about learning basic photography and taking photos of themselves and their experience in the FAIR dorm,” she explains. “They jumped at this.”

Zousmer put a call out to friends on Facebook for donations of old point-and-shoot cameras. She got 15. After a basic camera lesson, the women made images.

“I impressed on them I wanted them to express themselves and their experience.”

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The women were as comfortable behind the camera as they were in front, reports Zousmer.

“Photos were limited to inside the FAIR dorm and in the front yard. The one thing off limits for them, and for me, was taking photos of their food! Interesting?” says Zousmer. “They only had access to cameras for the two hours I was there.”

Back at home, Zousmer would upload the images and make an edit of the most useful images. She’d send files to a local store to make prints. Zousmer has always approached photography – hers or others – as a means to advocate. In this case, she believed these photos could help these women tell their stories. Unfortunately, these weren’t images the women could fully own.

“They were not allowed to keep any of their photos,” explains Zousmer ruefully. “I would have liked to have put them up in the dorm. The women were proud of what they had done but authorities said no. The women did own photos from their families, but our images were not allowed. I thought it was punitive and another means of control.”

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The photo therapy class led by Zousmer had only a short life. In November 2014, there was a security breach (unrelated to the FAIR program) at the new Las Colinas facility and she was never let back in again.

“I tried to go back as a guest to visit some of the women I couldn’t say goodbye to and was treated like a criminal. I was not allowed in main area but had to visit behind glass,” she says. “I kept writing to my ladies and most are out now. I still maintain relationships with some of them through Facebook.”

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Despite being short-lived, the program left its mark.

“Getting close to these women in this way allowed me to feel their pain and realize they all are victims of abuse on some level. Most of these women do not need to be locked up. To me, being in a good treatment program and not separating them from their children would have greater impact.

“Removing people from bad environments and allowing them time to see and feel the difference, surrounded by people who are compassionate and caring, has a bigger influence on them then being locked up.”

Now, Zousmer runs a Women’s Empowerment group at a long term offenders pilot program for the WestCare group. She has a proposal in the pipeline to introduce cameras there too.

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Imprisonment frequently dehumanizes people and can cause anger and depression, says Zousmer. Punishment has a place for people who have transgressed and abused but we, in freer society, forget all too often that the majority of women in prison have suffered abuse also. In many cases, horrendous degrees of abuse. They need healing, not warehousing.

“Incarceration won’t change,” asserts Zousmer, “until the many administrators and legislators change their mindset and realize the long term [negative] effects prison and jail causes to these women’s psyches.”

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Angelo on his cell bunk

Marc and Brett of Temporary Services shared a tribute to Angelo this week. They collaborated together on Prisoners’ Inventions, and although I never knew (very few people did) Angelo (not his real name, his artist name), I wanted to mark his passing here on the blog.

Prisoners’ Inventions started as a collection of more than one hundred annotated illustrations of inventions that Angelo made, saw, or heard about while incarcerated. From homemade sex dolls, salt & pepper shakers to chess sets, from privacy curtains and radios to condoms and water heaters–all “attempts to fill needs that the restrictive environment of the prison tries to suppress,” writes Temporary Services.

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Battery Cigarette Lighter

It seems so long since Prisoners’ Inventions landed on my radar and even then, I was years late to the project. Someone showed me a copy of the book in 2011. But the first edition of the book was published in 2003, and new editions followed. In 2003 and 2004, Prisoners’ Inventions was presented as an exhibition at MassMOCA, complete with a full replica of Angelo’s cell, and later travelled to numerous venues. Around that time, international press blew up around the originality and the cheekiness of it all. This American Life did a bit.

Prisoners’ Inventions set a standard in many ways for artists and incarcerated individuals working in tandem–the way Angelo insisted on anonymity; the way Temporary Services held the space; the way together they let the illustrations do the work; the manner in which they (despite the barriers and censorship) communicated transparently and studiously; the way they fired public imagination with recognitions of human spirit, ingenuity and agency among a prison population so frequently vilified; the way Angelo and Temporary Services resisted any over-politicization of the project; I could go on and on.

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Coat Hanger

Too often we think of art as being things not doings, as objects not relationships or as things that can exist on a shelf instead of in our hearts and minds. While Angelo and Temporary Services made objects based upon the drawings, objects were never the goal. Prisoners’ Inventions existed to demonstrate the innate creativity we all hold and also the potential in even simple written (and drawn) correspondence. It was about meaningful relation and understanding of people in very different circumstances. Temporary Services call Angelo their greatest ever collaborator, which is a huge statement from an art collective known for it communal underpinnings.

“Angelo’s writings and drawings about the creativity he observed in prison collapsed the distinctions between art and everyday survival,” said Temporary Services. “He transformed our thinking in ways that have influenced everything we’ve done since.”

In truth, Prisoners’ Inventions has influenced many an artist’s thinking and methodology since.

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Steamer Cooker

A common problem with artwork that deals (even tangentially) with the issue of mass incarceration, or with prisoners directly as art makers, is that the art can often fail to break down the inherent power imbalance; that the prisoner is packaged by the outsider for outside public consumption. Furthermore, some art and language can’t help but fall into patronizing stereotypes about how the artist is helping the prisoner … and that the prisoner is helpless. Prisoners’ Inventions never trivialised, infantilized or boxed Angelo’s work. Nor did Temporary Services and Angelo ever try to argue it was something it was not which I think is a reflection of their trust, equity and confidence.

“People seem willing to accept the inventions of prisoners as creative objects that merit our attention and thought without us having to force them into goofy critical constructs like *Outsider Art*,” said Temporary Services in the book Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues (PDF). “These objects don’t need critical help to become interesting. New terminology does not need to be invented to create a niche market or new genre for a stick of melted-together toothbrushes and bits of metal that can be used to make apple strudel in a prison cell.”

If you can take the time to read Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues, please do. It lays out the origins, conversations, adaptations and logistics of the multi-year project. It elaborates on subtle concepts. It shows that good art rests on a solid idea and no-bullshit presentation of the idea. The way Prisoners’ Inventions moved through cultural space, both IRL (galleries, vitrines, fabricators’ hands) and virtual (image, video, online featurettes, audience mind and assumption) and through real economic systems is fascinating. The way Temporary Services discuss the negotiation of these things in relation to their promises and shared goals with Angelo is grounding and, I think, instructive.

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Stinger (Immersion Heater)

Marc and Brett explain that since Angelo’s release in 2014 he lived quietly in Los Angeles, keeping to himself, catching up on TV and films he missed while locked up for 20 years. They also mention that Angelo had to wait until release before he could see and hold a book of his drawings; the prison administration banned any copies entering the prison because (and you can’t help but laugh) the drawings would show Angelo how to jury-rig objects and homebrew solutions!

The threat was imagined and the logic flawed, of course, but this brings me to a final point. Prisoners’ Inventions did not advocate for Angelo. Never did he and Temporary Services get involved in discussions about his case or legal matters. Not once did the work threaten prison security or reveal anything unknown to nearly every prisoner locked up in America. Opportunities for meaningful, collaborative and non-combative artwork within the prison industrial complex are few and far between. I think it is vital that we recognize art and activity that amplifies the existence of some without ignoring that of others; that we seek projects that lift us all. Mass incarceration is a depressing thing, but there are moments of humor, surprise quirk and enlightenment. Be ready for them! Prisoners’ Inventions succeeded in closing the gap between us and them without forcefully or uncomfortably insisting on the defining terms of us and them. Prisoners’ Inventions occupied a rarified space and we do well to learn from it.

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I’ll close with a story about when, during a cell search, guards found photos of the full replica of Angelo’s cell.

“Stunned and angered that an inmate had somehow acquired photos of his own cell, the guard demanded information on how he got the pictures. When Angelo pointed out the fabricators’ subtle discrepancies in the cell recreation and explained a little about the exhibition, the guard’s anger quickly turned to wonder and amusement.”

Angelo, you mined your memory, you humbly shared your knowledge, you made drawings that confounded expectations and shifted minds. You never wanted fame or fortune. You made a thing that will last. RIP.

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It is every artist, collector or photographer’s dream; the discovery of an archive of thousands of negatives. For artist and professor Nigel Poor, it became a reality. In late 2012, she was making a routine visit to Lt. Sam Robinson’s office in San Quentin State Prison. She’d just finished teaching her class in photo-history and collaborating on image interpretation project with her incarcerated students. Knowing her life in the medium, Robinson pulled out a bankers box.

“He lifted the lid,” recalls Poor. “Inside were hundreds of yellow envelopes that I recognized instantly as those which hold 4×5 photo negatives.”

Poor’s heart “exploded.” More than three years on, Poor has only just finished going through all the negs: she estimates there’s more than 10,000.

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In the weeks, after the discovery, Poor took some negatives and scanned them. She showed the prints to Robinson to prove what she could do and he gave her permission to take the entire box. So far, she’s scanned about 600 of the 4×5 negs. There’s four or five other boxes still to scan and categorize.

I anticipate that there’s hundreds of similar archives gathering dust inside cupboards and administration buildings in prisons across the United States. Kudos to the San Quentin authority for empowering Poor to share the finds with a wider public. The archive ultimately belongs, in my opinion in a California State-run Museum.

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Nigel Poor San Quentin

Nigel Poor San Quentin

The other wonderful thing that has come out of this is that Poor is using the images as teaching aids. Just as she had done with iconic images from art history (see the William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander and David Hilliard images above), Poor asked her students to deconstruct, examine and interpret the newly-found images from the San Quentin archive. After she had scanned and printed them on card-stock with large white borders, Poor gave them to the men to interpret.

She has given the prisoners first go at interpreting San Quentin’s history. They are writing the latest stories of a very-storied institution.

Read my article about the archive discovery Rarely Seen Images of the Real San Quentin on the Marshall Project. The article was also cross-posted to The Atlantic — Unearthing San Quentin: Resurrected photos capture moments of daily life at the California prison.

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Nigel Poor San Quentin

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Nigel Poor San Quentin

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01_Escape _ Confinement

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HERE NOW: Digital Stories from the San Francisco

In December, I was a guest at San Bruno Jail, near San Francisco, for morning of screenings of HERE NOW: Digital Stories from the San Francisco Jails. The 18 film-shorts were made inside San Bruno Jail drawing on both the drama therapy expertise of  the University of San Francisco’s Performing Arts and Social Justice Department and the community media skills of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC).

The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP)a longstanding collaboration Community Works and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department with programs inside the numerous San Francisco County Jail system–hosted the 12-week course and that inaugural  screening.

Tomorrow, January 27th, a screening of HERE NOW will be held for the public. It’ll be at Noh Space which is in the Potrero Hill neighbourhood of San Francisco, specifically at 2840 Mariposa St (b/t Florida St & Alabama St), SF, CA 94110. The screening will include a panel discussion with restorative justice practitioners and members of the project.

Full details about the HERE NOW screening event.

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Full details about the HERE NOW screening event.

Within the confines of one of San Bruno’s jail pods, the 20-or-so prisoners made use of every space, surface and angle to visualise their stories. The “digital stories” they developed include percussion, spoken word, movement, writing, and visual imagery. There’s some large leaps of faith to be made here. Firstly, the men must be comfortable sharing personal tales, then they must be willing to process them with a group, firstly and for a general public audience latterly.

“The men came in with strong visual concepts and artistic choices and we followed them as they were the directors for each of their stories. I approached each production as a camera operator and followed their carefully crafted shot list,” says Kristian Melom, one of the facilitators with BAVC and HERE NOW.

Furthermore, not being experts, the prisoners handed over some control of the editing and sequencing. At least those bits that they couldn’t master on their successful, short and steep learning curves!

“In the editing process, the students from each of the classes worked together and essentially learned digital film editing as they collaboratively made these pieces. It was really inspiring to see how much can happen in the edit when you have very little recording time allowed and lots of improvisation is needed,” says Melom. “We had a blast.”

Full details about the HERE NOW screening event.

MY FAVOURITES

In advance of tomorrow screening, I wanted to share a handful of notable videos.

In Motivation Through Life’s Struggles, J. Howard organizes the loneliest dinner party. One at which photographs of his loved ones substitute for the persons themselves. A lone 4×6 print on each seat.

You don’t even see Delon Barker’s face in Where I Grew Up, which is a clever tool because it makes his powerful story–about knowing where a hidden gun was and using it at the age of 5–all the more powerful.

“Where I grew up, I was taught to be bad and fight everyone.”

JDJ’s ode to his daughter simultaneously shares his joyful memories of her earliest words but also the pain of being apart. All this plays out to a video track composed of dozens of portraits of her.

June’s Baby Skee is the comic turn of the bunch. June recounts the first time he was charged with changing a diaper.

Testimony Of A Moth is Jack MacLennan’s space to reflect upon, and reenact, a moment he was the victim of gun violence. But also in that moment he reflexively protected those close to him, by literally putting his body on the line. How conflicting to find pride amidst violence. This is a reconciliation of those contradicting emotional memories.

I Kill Time is a bittersweet look back at, well … it’s your guess. Is this a clear metaphor for drug selling? Or is that a presumption? Either way, Vinnie was adamant from the very start that the 2 minutes would be played backward, meaning that action were acted out in reverse. Killing time? He’s playing with time. Very effective and a little disconcerting. Great soundtrack too.

The participants made four short interludes to sit in the middle and at each end of HERE NOW. These four shorts make use of the most expansive cinematography, song and percussion. They’re also the moment that most participants are actors in a single reel.

Full details about the HERE NOW screening event.

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Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins, from the series Supplication

Bit of housekeeping folks! I need to let you know three things about Prison Obscura:

  1. Prison Obscura is going to Washington State.
  2. Prison Obscura is going to Oregon.
  3. Prison Obscura will be retired in June, 2016.

WASHINGTON

The exhibition opens at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington this Thursday, January 16th, from 4pm-6pm. I’ll be there giving a curator’s talk.

Evergreen is hosting Prison Obscura as part of Kept Out/Kept In, a series of talks, shows and presentations examining carceral culture.

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Prison Obscura Installation in progress, Evergreen State College.

The show is up January 14 – March 2 at Evergreen Gallery, Library 2204, Evergreen State College, 98505 (Google Map)

OREGON

Between April 1 – May 28, Prison Obscura is on show at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon.

Mark your calendars waaaaaaay in advance for the opening reception 6-9pm on Friday, April 1st (no joke). I’ll be in Portland all weekend, giving a curator’s talk at the opening and then convening with others for events and panels.

1632 SE 10th Ave., Portland, OR 97214. (Google Map)

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Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.

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Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.

RETIRING ‘PRISON OBSCURA’

To say that the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford had never travelled a show before, they–namely Matthew Callinan–have done a magnificent and utterly-indispensible job in administering Prison Obscura over what will be seven venues.

I didn’t know exactly what was involved in traveling a show such as this and I’m so so grateful that Callinan had the support of his peers at Haverford College to produce an exhibition that could stretch beyond Philadelphia where it all began. We learnt together.

It’s been a great run. After Olympia and Portland though, it’s time to say goodbye. I celebrate Prison Obscura‘s unexpected and gratifying success, but I know that after 2-and-a-half years, it’s time to move energies on to other things. I need to step back and to think about what next, if anything, is appropriate for a prison-based exhibition.

There are massive amounts of vital work and organizing being done around prison activism, policing, power and community-empowerment. I’d like to learn more; take the time to hear and see. Observe and act more; perhaps talk and type less–for a while, at least.

No doubt, I’ll have more to say when Prison Obscura wraps up in Portland, the final show, toward the end of May. For now, I hope that if you are in the Pacific Northwest you’ll be able to check out the show and engage with the ideas its artists propose. Thanks to Alyse EmdurRobert GumpertSteve Davis, Mark Strandquist, Kristen S. Wilkins,  Josh Begley and Paul Rucker and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the men of the Restorative Justice Project at Graterford Prison.

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David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Alyse Emdur.

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Alonso Castillo is a freelance photographer based in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico. Predominantly, he works as a stringer for Reuters. Most of his work focuses on the border and he is a specialist in reporting on migration and social issues. He has instructed workshops in the past, is a college teacher and, since 2009, has worked as an editor at www.numerof.org.

Mauricio Palos, a mutual friend of Castillo and I, contacted me to tell me of Castillo’s 2013 photography workshop in a local youth prison, the Instituto de Tratamiento y de Aplicación de Medidas para Adolescentes (ITAMA) which is in the city of Hermosillo, in Sonora, northwestern México.

ITAMA houses approximately 450 boys and men. All the prisoners were convicted as juveniles but currently 70% of the prisoners are adults as they’ve turned 18 during their incarceration. Castillo led a photography workshop with 10 boys aged between 15 and 21. When he sent me the photographs I was floored by how sparse and rudimentary the environment for these kids appeared. I wondered if this was a case in which, more so than others, the camera didn’t lie?

All these photographs were made by the 10 participants. Castillo and his colleagues only made technical recommendations in order for the boys to take advantage of available light and framing. “The boys decided how to work and what to photograph,” says Castillo.

Kindly, Castillo answered some questions about the project to accompany this exclusive showing of the juvenile prisoners’ photographs.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Did you find prisons/social justice first? Or did you find photography first?

Alonso Castillo (AC): It is hard to say, I come first of photojournalism but this area is combined with social justice; that is, I do believe that our work is for the other. In this case this two territories are combined with an equal third one that is working with young people who have committed crimes.

Anyway, due to my job, I suppose I found photography first.

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Alonso Castillo and his students in the middle of a workshop session.

PP: What gave you the idea to do a workshop in the prison?

AC: I’ve taught, and participated in, workshops before—in Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Ecuador and Colombia. I try to make workshops part of broader and more complete projects of research into specific topics, or provide media training, or instruct on the practices of street journalism.

I knew a writer, Carlos Sanchez, who taught literature and creative writing at ITAMA. Together, we planned to work with young prisoners and teach photography. Carlos usually facilitates writing workshops so this was the first in which we worked with photography. For me, as a journalist and teacher, it was also a means to research and observe [the prison]. And the way things worked out, it was a very enjoyable observation.

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PP: How did you get access?

AC: The workshop was organized in conjunction with Fotoseptiembre an annual photography festival which recently celebrated its 25th year anniversary. Although Fotoseptembiere no longer takes place in all countries, it still exists in the city where I live. The festival served as a pretext to get authorization and work with these guys as part of a program that also included an exhibition to show the end results.

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PP: How long was the course?

AC: It lasted about 40 hours but we sometimes relaxed the formal schedule to adjust to the schedule of the boys or what was needed to complete the exercises. It is more accurate to say that we worked during the months of July and August 2013, and mounted a small exhibition in September. First we worked in the classroom with classes on theory; we saw some portfolios and documentary photography and we talked with the group and watched movies about photography. Later, disposable film cameras were given to each participant.

Participants were ten young people from five cities in central, northern and southern Sonora. Some of them came from the border municipalities for drug trafficking and murder.

The first exercise was carried out, then the cameras were processed and together we reviewed the work they had done. Then they were given yet another camera and had a chance to improve the ways they were seeing.

Much of the discussion topic was “everyday life”—their daily lives within ITAMA.

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PP: What was the aim of the course?

AC: We wanted to share with them tools and skills to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration; they could acquire knowledge and then approach a job when they finished their detention. We also wanted to give them occupational therapy during their time inside the ITAMA.

As we move forward in the activities it became a very human exchange of experiences between us and them, in which analyzed and talked topics of art, history, music, cultural references and social problems.

The photography and talk about photographs was as a part of healing.

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PP: Did you achieve the aims?

AC: It is difficult to know if what we did at that time will serve for something when they came out, which was an important part. With what happened in the classroom, yes, I am satisfied.

While in detention because they committed crimes (and some of them very serious), it was very emotional to reveal their “other faces”, the other sides to these young people.

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AC: Although criminals, they remain children. This plain fact is something that the system ignores or cannot sufficiently deal with. All these boys are in the middle of a long learning process and maturation; they experience the same intangible fears as any of us. It is a matter of influencing the values ​​and beliefs they have, rather than corrective measures and punishments.

There are also other related matters. The environment has a very strong and decisive weight. These facilities provide for the operation of organized crime on the streets and in the offices of government. Rehabilitation doesn’t work if the institution operates in the midst of corruption. The Mexican political system besides not favoring conditions for social security and education, seems to be working to do otherwise.

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PP: Any unexpected surprises?

AC: They showed huge interest in the workshop, which very often does not happen when you’re outside teaching boys in the regular education system and even in college. It is sad but sometimes you find more resistance in a student who had better educational opportunities. With this group, everything happened in an easy way.

There was a boy with a natural look, he made some of the best photos of the workshop; he had a sophisticated way of seeing that gave the images a very contemporary look.

That happens sometimes in the workshops: anyone can worry so much about making a picture look easy and then someone comes in and just do it.

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PP: Anything you’d want to do differently if you wanted to/could teach another prison photography workshop?

AC: Of course. Working on more personalized projects. The conditions are limited but we could work with them in a better recognition of the environment. Projects could be designed for collective or personal response — online journals, a newspaper produced by themselves, and so on.

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PP: Why did the prison authorities let you in?

AC: I think they did not take us seriously to consider us as a threat, except for us to fulfill the security conditions such as the introduction of dangerous objects or not allowed.

PP: Had you been in a prison before? What did you expect to find? What did you find?

AC: Yes, I had been before taking pictures for a story. The access we now had was restricted only to the area to teach the workshop, so we only saw facilities from afar … and in photographs!

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PP: What were the boys’ reactions? How did they work?

AC: The first reaction kept at a distance but then it broke. There were different profiles and even some involving more than others, empathy was virtually total. Then we work with maximum freedom. Sure, they are young and at some point they laughed at us but at no time was any kind of rejection or problem.

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AC: After the workshop we had a very modest exhibition in the courtyards of ITAMA, with some family and other visitors. When we worked on that, we processed some film close to the date and we found a picture of the soles of the boys feet. As the exhibition was to be called Desde Adentro (From Within), the boys did a special photo for that—they sat on the floor and wrote the name of the exhibition on the soles of the feet. That was something we were not expecting.

In 2014, a selection of work from the boys won an honorable mention in a local photo competition.

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PP: What was the staff’s reactions to the boys walking around with cameras?

AC: We did not know of any reaction. You know, reading the photograph depends on the social construction and context. It is that possible for them and the staff of the detention center, there was no threat from outside, were themselves taking pictures around. We did not go as journalists and we weren’t there to make a report or complaint or observation of human rights in the prison.

In a subtle way, these photographs depict these young people for whom we have used the prison to delete their presence and hide them … and we’ve done so only for our own convenience. These photographs confront us with facts that lay counter to our simplistic thinking.

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PP: Do prisons work?

AC: Prisons serve as a reflection of human behavior in which the administration of justice becomes confused with revenge.

We want justice but don’t think very deeply about its application. People go to prison for many different types of crime but when they’re inside we make no distinctions. Initially, justice is operational and later it is a process that becomes bureaucratic, expensive and exhausting for those who experience it. The legal part of the system is a mess; it is much harder to get out even with the law in your favor. Prisons may be where all traffic comes to a dead end.

Young Offenders Workshop - México2013--51

Young Offenders Workshop - México2013--54

PP: Can photography heal social ills?

AC: Yes. It is an effective tool to communicate, to visualize and generate impact to social problems. Although it’s not a massively used tool for educational purposes, I think no efforts are small and everything we do is important.

In the near future, I want to train groups of people to jump-start local journalism projects involving vulnerable sectors of population and minorities (native groups, sexual minorities, neighborhoods, and others.

PP: So reach is a big factor too.

AC: Yes. César Holm, who works on a project for the professionalization of photographers in Mexico, in a conversation we had recently, mentioned the need to get an audience for photography and the promotion of a profile for teaching. I agree with him.

I say it is not a massive tool because although photojournalism represents a broad global distribution circuit, I have the impression that we are producing for ourselves. This phrase I heard a few years ago and I still like it, “only photographers know photographers”. We like to publish books that we read, there are contests and scholarships for specialized circle of consumers, who are we and our friends.

I think we could expand that circle.

rajashree

Rajeshree Roy with Carolyn Miller, a close friend, on a visit at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF).

IN SOLIDARITY

Something very significant is brewing in California right now. Female prisoners in the Yuba County Jail are organising in solidarity with immigrants in detention.

Yesterday (Monday 14th December) a group of women began a hunger strike, joining hundreds of other detainees taking part in hunger strikes at facilities across the country.

You may or may not have heard about the fasting and hunger strikes going on in immigrant detention facilities across the country. Up and down the country–in the Hutto Immigrant Detention Center in Texas; in an immigrant detention center in the high desert city of Adelanto, California; in the Krome Service Processing Center in Florida; and in Alabama, in El Paso, Texas and in Lasalle, Louisiana, too.

Vikki Law has covered these as a trend. And they are. Collectively, the strikes are known as the #FreedomGiving Strikes and they were launched on Thanksgiving by hundreds of South Asian and African detainees at three separate facilities. The movement has grown.

Never before (to my knowledge) has the political resistance of detained immigrants run in cohort with the political action of citizens in county or state facilities. The Yuba County Jail rents space to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain people. For the first time, women in criminal custody are fasting with detainees in immigration custody as an act of solidarity. Phenomenal. Principled. Inspiring.

The Yuba Co. Jail hunger strike is led by, and in support of, Rajashree Roy (above). You can read a longer detailed account of Roy’s journey here.

To be brief, Roy faces deportation back to Fiji where she has not lived since she was 8-years-old. As a child, Roy suffered sexual abuse and upon relocation to the United States never received counseling or help. By the time she was in her teens she was both attempting suicide and robbing and beating people. She was very troubled and the undelrying causes had never been addressed.

Sentenced as an adult at age 16, Rajashree spent 17-years at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). Nine years later, struggling to survive and feed her children while in an abusive relationship, she stole a garden hosepipe from a store, a misdemeanor petty theft.

Due to her priors, the District Attorney set bail at $1million and offered a 25-to-life sentence. In 2011, Roy accepted a plea bargain of seven years. In November 2014, she qualified for release under Prop 47. When Rajashree Roy stepped foot out of CCWF, she was picked up by ICE and slated for deportation back to Fiji, away from her children.

After years of silence due to shame and stigma as an abuse survivor and ‘criminal’, Rajashree Roy has gained confidence through peer and advocacy support and decided to be public with her story and fight for herself and others.

“We are locked up together and refuse to be divided into immigrants and citizens. None of us belong in this cage separated from our families. We join the brave immigrant hunger strikers across the country in fasting to force recognition of our humanity,” says the staement of Roy and her fellow hunger strikers at Yuba County Jail.

WHAT TO DO

  1. Join community organizers at ASPIRE, the nation’s first pan-Asian undocumented youth-led group, at a fast in solidarity outside Yuba County Jail.
  2. Support the #FreedomGiving strikers by signing the petition.
  3. Help raise funds for Rajashree’s $10,000 bond.
  4. Write letters of support to the women on hunger strike:

Rajeshree Roy
Booking No. 229860
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Jessica Bullock
Booking No. 235161
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Tisha Sartor
Booking No. 233892
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Kyra Beckles
Booking No. 234664
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Juanita Thomas
Booking No. 235553
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

Ana Marquez
Booking No. 235550
Yuba County Jail
P.O. Box 1031
Marysville, California 95901

The websiteDangerous Minds picked up my story Prison Yard to Paris Photo LA: How an Art Market Hustle Put a $45K Price-Tag on Prison Polaroids about the rapid inflation of price of a few hundred lost Polaroids.

I am not surprised by the art market capitalising on this subculture within its general thirst for vernacular photographs. I do urge caution though; the people who made and are in these photos are not the ones profiting from their cultural appropriation.

There are two general and conflicting positions on this matter.

The first position, expressed by Dangerous Minds says it’s a good thing for folks who were inside because they can potentially make money.

“Whether the art market is fetishizing African-American gang members or not, the likely result of the exorbitant price for these photos will be to incentivize owners of similar collections to make them public, which is good news …”

Potentially. Maybe.

Even if someone in the photos is impartial and happy to let their image loose on the market, are they likely to have the connections to buyers and the desire to negotiate a deal? My thinking is that the art market benefits those in it and the dealers will be the ones with the luxury of time, network and collateral to leverage most profit from exchanges of collections such as the Los Angeles Gang and Prison Photo Archive.

Untitled 3

The second position on all of this, by contrast, at the World’s Best Ever blog post from which Dangerous Minds sourced the story has an alternative view. One comment reads:

“also we paid for them pic someone stole them from poppy or pj and east coast has nothing to do with new york its in la and who gives you guys the right to post or flicks some of us or out and would like to forget about that time in the 80s.”

Who gives you (us) the right?

Who polices this stuff? Nobody. Who is responsible for these images being on the market? A uncoordinated group of individuals.Who is responsible for these images being on the market? I am. The original Harpers Books listing from which I sourced the images was deleted after sale. I had to use Google cache and Wayback Machine to source the jpegs, after which I gave them a permanent home under an article with good SEO returns. Otherwise, these images would’ve been and gone. But my intervention allowed them to be copied, shared and has made them quite permanent on the web.

What gave me the right to condemn these images to permanence and deny the subjects their right to forget?

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