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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.

bavc

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.

There were two categories of interviewees I planned to connect with during PPOTR – photographers and prison reformers. I didn’t expect to meet many individuals who satisfied both definitions. Ruth Morgan does.

Morgan became director of Community Works, a restorative justice arts program in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994. Prior to that, she was director of the Jail Arts Program, in the San Francisco County Jail system (1980-1994).

It should be noted that the county jail system is entirely different to the state prison system and operate under separate jurisdictions. County jails hold shorter term inmates.

For three remarkable years, Morgan and her colleague Barbara Yaley had free reign of San Quentin State Prison to interview and photograph the men. In 1979, it was the sympathetic Warden George Sumner who provided Morgan and Yaley access. In 1981, a new Warden at San Quentin abruptly cut-off access.

“I think there were a few reasons [we were successful],” explains Morgan. “Despite the fact I was a young woman, I had a big 2-and-a-quarter camera and a tripod and so they took me seriously. That helped us get the portraits and the stories we did.”

The San Quentin News (Vol. I.II, Issue 11, June, 1982) reported on Morgan and Yaley’s activities. The story Photo-Documentary Team Captures Essence of SQ can be read on page 3 of this PDF version of the newspaper.

Ruth and I talk about how the demographics of prison populations remain the same; her original attraction to the topic; the use of her photographs in the important Toussaint v. McCarthy case (1984) brought by the Prison Law Office against poor conditions in segregation cells of four Northern California prisons; why she never published the photos of men on San Quentin’s Death Row; and the emergence, funding for, and power of restorative justice.

LISTEN TO THE DISCUSSION WITH RUTH MORGAN ON THE PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY PODBEAN PAGE

Ruth Morgan, San Quentin (1979-81)

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