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This is the first part of a two part interview. Part two was published on published Thursday, 23rd July, 2009.
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You already know the work of Steve Davis, you just don’t know it. Prison Photography‘s most popular post was that of pinhole photographs made by the young ladies of Remann Hall, Tacoma. Steve Davis conceived of and led the workshop.
Concurrent to workshops, Steve worked on his own project, Captured Youth (1997 – 2005) turning his lens on the juvenile offenders and institutions within Washington State. Steve’s introduction to the Captured Youth book reads, “What are officially referred to as “schools” are, in fact, youth correctional facilities – jails for juniors. It’s a world kept secret from the general public, but there are no secrets inside. Everyone is watched.”
Steve and I sat down to talk about the circumstances of the workshops and portraits, the involvement of – and benefit to – the teens, the atmosphere in the facilities and how the practice of photography manifests in sites of incarceration.
Prison Photography: Steve, you photographed in four institutions in total?
PP: How did you pick those?
SD: I fell into it years ago. It was fairly unintentional. I was doing PR photography for an [non-profit] organization called The Experimental Gallery that was trying to bring in art teachers on residencies into juvenile facilities. It came up they were interested in maybe having a photography workshop. I said it was something I was interested in.
And, nothing happened for a couple of years, but then I got a phone call and they asked if I’d like to teach the kids photography and double up as a photographer for their publications.
I thought about it and I asked if I could do something different. I wanted to slow the process down and bring in a large 8×10 camera. I just wanted to do portraits; focus on who the kids were without all the trappings, bars, etcetera that go along with images of young offenders.
So, I went in and worked with the kids [within a photographic workshop format] and then organized outside of that to take in the large camera.
Essentially, I was working under the umbrella of The Experimental Gallery, which had a grant, so I could only be there when they said I could be there. And when they were done and the grant was over, I had no more access.
SD: It started in 1997 at Maple Lane, then later the Green Hill School and Remann Hall. Each of those placements was under the direction of Susan Warner and The Experimental Gallery. Susan is now the Director of Education at Tacoma Museum of Glass. Between time, Susan had a job at the Children’s Museum in Seattle and they supported her doing this and she continued through them. And likewise, since she has worked at Tacoma Museum of Glass they have supported her as well. So the name has always been the same.
Lastly, at Oakridge – that was all my own work, with anyone’s sponsorship.
PP: You returned to Oakridge and the project in 2005. Why did you decide to return?
SD: Well, at the time the project didn’t seem resolved. I wanted to do something a little different. Oakridge is a transitional facility so they are not so much under lock and key, they are allowed to wear their own clothes and they have day jobs. That is where they reside just prior to release.
Soon after [Oakridge] I felt like I was getting to the point where I was taking the same picture.
PP: How did you respond to that?
SD: I tried contacting other facilities. I really wanted to get in to Clallam Bay, which is an adult institution but has a juvenile facility. It is really hidden from the public. But none of that panned out.
Overall, my interest with portraits has pretty much been about people who are controlled and lack all sorts of freedoms. I haven’t only focused on prison; I did a lot of work at an institution for the mentally disabled.
PP: What’s the attraction to these types of subjects?
SD: When I got into the work, I fell in with these mini societies with their own economies and their own rules and they’re all over the place. They are thoroughly hidden by intention from the public – who have no interest in examining it. It doesn’t benefit the public to do that.
I found these places intriguing partly because once you are there in the middle of it, the people you come across, they’re linked together by reasons that are not of their own choice. It’s not the type of community where people have something in common so they create their own economies. They are like dogs in a pound. They might be friends, they might not, but they share common concerns.
I was interested in trying to zero in on these people as individuals with personalities and hopefully open up a lot of questions with the viewer. That s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to reach conclusions or force anything down anybody’s throat. I am just trying to acknowledge that this is 20 miles from home.
All these [sites of incarceration] have names that sound like country clubs! You’d never know that Maple Lane was anything but a nice street or golf club. When you drive past, it is a beautiful place, but you won’t see a kid outside. It looks good from the road, but it is not a place you can walk around.
When I did workshops, they’d love it if I walked them over to the fence; they’d never been! Just little things like that were huge thrills to them.
PP: So the youth were always willing participants?
SD: The first residency at Maple Lane was the best organized. The kids were engaged – some were working with painting and music. The goal was to create a mixed media large exhibition that would go into the high schools of King County, and other areas that had a lot of at-risk youth.
So the kids [inmates] would present the information of their own lives. The message was for the exhibition was generally “You don’t want this”. The young prisoners understood that and got behind it.
PP: Tell us about your portrait work. How much direction did you give the boys as sitters?
SD: Well, they knew the reason why I was there. And all they knew was that their portraits were to go into a catalog. In all, three catalogs were produced. They knew the photos would be published and shown. Other than that, the motivation from these kids to have their picture taken was overwhelming.
I did go in with a bit of theater. I had a large camera, I had lights and I had an assistant. So they were just begging to get their picture taken. It wasn’t hard at all. Direction was minimal. I’d ask them to turn their head or look into or away from the camera. Because I was shooting 8×10 on a limited budget, I’d take a limited numbers of pictures of each person, maybe 2 or 3, and then they were gone.
PP: The personalities of these kids comes through very strong. Are these images an accurate reflection of the individuals in the group?
SD: Yes, each photograph is one accurate reflection. Many of the sitters look very somber, but in fact they’d be laughing their heads off a lot of the time.
Some of the portraits I feel stronger about than others. There are some portraits I don’t have a particular connection with and there’s other I really love. Kids that really struck a chord with me, part of it was the experience of them sitting with me, knowing their character.
PP: Can you talk about a few of them?
SD: This guy. The nicest guy in the world. Total white racist. Had as many black friends as white, but he was basically raised to be a white racist. Once you got to know him you fell into that world, his world. He got along with everybody, but if you asked him he would’ve told you what his views were. I shot a lot of him, indoors and outdoors, more complicated environments.
PP: This portrait?
SD: I like that one. I don’t know if it’s the picture or the kid. But out of all the time I was there, he was the only one where the staff said, “He should not be here.” He was a Mexican who got busted for being a drugs mule from Mexico. Apparently, some rivals burnt his house down. He couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. He was scared and totally out of his element. But over about three months he started playing the role of the tough guy and you saw this transition. He was becoming what he was assumed to be to begin with. Becoming a hard guy – it was sad.
PP: And this guy?
SD: This was in the psychiatric ward and they were all seriously medicated. This kid here was heavily medicated. He’s got blood on his teeth.
PP: Explain the blood.
SD: He told me he was in a fight the day before and he was walking around like this. Maybe he was continuing to bleed.
PP: Did he always have that look?
SD: Probably not. I didn’t really know this kid. But when I saw him I really wanted to photograph him. I was never demanding, but he was the only one I had to cajole. I said “If you want to make a dent, let me take your picture.” He said okay. That was just his gaze. I really thought his look was gripping. And there was a whole wing of them.
PP: Was it a common attitude among the juveniles, that they knew they were medicated and they knew they didn’t want to present themselves as such to the camera?
SD: He was the only one. I only took two pictures in the psychiatric ward.
PP: And this young man?
SD: He was the only other one I photographed on this wing and he was fine with it. A couple of years later when I was working at Green Hill, I was showing the staff my work and they recognized him and told me he’d got out and was later murdered on the street. He was involved in a knife fight.
PP: This one may stick with viewers but maybe for the wrong reasons? This is your only image where the sitter comes across as full of attitude, possibly angry?
SD: Yeah, he’s got a smirk. This picture never struck me as much as others, but many people have commented. I just never really connected with the portrait.
SD: One thing I learnt from putting the work out is that people respond to these portraits for their own reasons. A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prison justice. Some of them like pictures of handsome young boys; they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.
But on the other hand, I don’t want to force people into thinking that these portraits should be considered in one particular context. Just, here they are. Portraits are really charged that way.
PP: My wife’s favourite is the kid blowing gum. What was that scenario?
SD: He was the nicest kids. He was overweight. He had a massive pack of bubble gum and it was in Oakridge, so he was on work release during the day. He seemed like a nice kid and so I asked “could you blow a bubble”. He did. I like that picture precisely because he looks as if he doesn’t belong.
SD: But more than the portraits, the pinhole photographs from Remann Hall are my favorites.
Please return on Thursday, 23rd July to read Part Two of this Interview.