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Be Their Megaphone
At 5 o’clock on Friday evening, advocates for juvenile justice system reform are marching on the General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. You can join them.
The Justice Parade for Incarcerated Youth will present, to the powers that be, the work produced by incarcerated youth this summer, as part of the Performing Statistics project. In the parade, a broad coalition of artists, legal and policy experts, community activists, faith leaders and returning citizens will champion the work. It’ll bring art onto the streets and ask the public to imagine a society without prisons for children.
Take drums, banners, trumpets, instruments, foghorns and your loudest songs and chants.
Carry art and banners made by incarcerated youth. Be their presence on the streets.
Take your own signs that answer the question, “How can we create a world where no youth are locked up?”
Friday, October 2 at 5 p.m. Speakers at 5:30 p.m. Walking begins at 5:45 p.m.
General Assembly Building 915 E. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219.
Parade goes from the General Assembly Building to the ATLAS gallery at the ART 180 art center for teens and youth. ATLAS is currently showing the Performing Statistics exhibition featuring creative work by incarcerated youth that talks about their experiences being incarcerated and alternatives to the system.
Be Their Megaphone
Mark Strandquist — 703-798-6379
Trey Hartt — 703-946-5217
Performing Statistics is a Richmond-based art and advocacy project that connects incarcerated teens, artists, and Virginia’s top legal experts. The project is part of Legal Aid Justice Center’s RISE For Youth campaign.
Be Their Megaphone
IS THE INTERNET BECOMING LESS SNARKY?
They internet, a space known to often bring out the worst in people has had a special place for trolls as far as images of American prison and prisoners are concerned. Often photographs themselves are bypassed in discussion in order for commenters to shortcut straight to their long held positions — by they left or right, sympathetic or not, nuanced or short-sighted, familiar or prejudiced. Prisons are a divisive issue and often people miss the point of prison photographers who, in the first instance at least, are merely trying to hold a mirror to a system. In this case, Davis holds a mirror to a nation that locks up 65,000 youth on any given night at a cost of $5billion per year.
In my own prejudice, I would’ve expected THE INTERNET + BUZZFEED + KIDS IDENTIFIED AS CRIMINALS would be an equation for vitriol. Not so.
Why would I be so pessimistic? Well, despite BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s insistence that serious, longform news can exist beside listicles — and despite recent pieces — on last meals of the executed, a trans-activist transforming a prison from within, reflections on wrongful conviction, and the shacking of women prisoners in labor — BuzzFeed content still leasn heavily on shock, innumerable pet vids, “27 things you only know if…” nonsense, and flashes of celeb flesh. The lowest denominators remain our and BuzzFeed’s bread and butter.
All that said, let’s just be thankful for this comment thread:
Some of these faces are so hard. Some are bewildered. And some are just heartbreaking. So beautiful and tragic.
Each one of these faces should never have ended up there. Their incarceration marks the failure of society to raise contributing citizens.
That would imply that society failed every person who has made bad choices. That’s simply not a generalization that pans out entirely. I don’t disagree that we have failed many of these faces as a society, just the generalization.
Look to the parents. Well, perhaps they are/were also incarcerated. Sad all around.
There needs to be a better solution to helping these kids achieve more in life. Yes punish them for their crimes but surely there is better way! Locking them up like this gives them no hope of something better! Nobody but them know the full story so why jump to saying they “deserve” it? some of these kids have been failed by family, peers, society which has resulted in this! Tragic!
I think we should look to the systems used in Scandinavian countries — humane prisons, lots of community service, a focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. …Or we could just stop monetizing the prison system, that would help.
The system makes money off of these children, and I guarantee you there is not one child in there whose parents have a little bit of money! Our prisons are filled with poor people! Justice is definitely not blind!
I can see where you’re coming from, but in my personal experience (two relatives that have been incarcerated both as youth and as adults), there are individuals who will, regardless of the number of chances given, continue to make the wrong choices. You can not force, coerce, or convince someone to act and live as you see fit. They will make choices of their own. These are individuals that do, in fact, deserve the punishments they receive. Like you said only they know the whole story, but regardless of that fact, there are some choices that incarcerated individuals have made that have impacted the lives of innocent people. Do those choices, then, not merit the fullest punishment?
I DO, however, believe there are also individuals who can be guided into a better life because they’ve only known one way. These are the individuals that CHOOSE to make themselves better, both in their own eyes and in societies eyes. They make the choice, and seek out those that can help guide them.
One summer in college, I had an internship in WA for an office of juvenile probation. I went to one of these places with one of the counselors because one of the kids was going to be getting out soon and heading home. This kid was probably 14 or 15 and I remember him sitting there crying because he didn’t want to leave. He had been in out of the system for years and I remember him telling us that no matter how bad it was there, he knew he was going to get fed and have a place to sleep. He told us that he was going to do something as soon as he got out that would send him back. It was tragic on so many levels. Everyone had just given up on this kid and he had pretty much given up on himself.
Locking up a young person in prison is always a shocking and sad thing, but what concerns me is people’s knee jerk reaction that all youth incarceration reflects society’s ultimate failure. Remember, most of you are also the same people who regularly rage against the violent and intolerable stories we read about rape and murder that we regularly see on this site. There are thousands of teenagers (perhaps some of the faces you are seeing here) who are guilty of these crimes. Are you saying that we needn’t incarcerate minors who commit violent crime? Should these individuals only be counseled then allowed to return into society? Despite the fact that several here have unilaterally declared that each of these incarnations are the wholesale fault of society’s failure?
But our prisons out not filled to the brim with people who have committed the kinda of crimes you speak of, and THAT is the failure.
I work in the teen department of my library system, and every librarian takes turns to go visit our JDC to talk to the kids there and find books for them in the collection we maintain at the facilities for them. It’s hard seeing them…especially when they’re super young (I swear a couple I’ve seen couldn’t be older than 11), or especially when you’ve helped them in your branch before. It sucks, and I just always hope that they can come around and learn from the experience and never become a repeat offender.
I have a serious problem with photographers leaving their [captioning on] photos blank when it comes to picturing at risk groups. Each has their own valuable story to tell and name. They are not just “black kids: or troubled youths or street punks etc…the categories that pop up due to the viewers own prejudices. We live in a fucked up world. Such photography should be there to give names to the victims and not participate in their being reduced to a number in the “incarceration game.”
Perhaps the Facebook-linked comment board has sophistication to remove idiot comments and promote those exhibiting most human thought?
Internet, you have my faith again.
Even the commenter that wonders about an anonymous portrait showing a youth with painted nails and foolishly labels the child as possibly “a fabulous homosexual” goes on to demonstrate a knowledge of the system that is unable to adequately care for LGBQIT youth; “In adult prisons obviously gay or transgendered individuals are usually put in solitary confinement for their own protection.” We know that is an unacceptable situation. LGBQIT prisoners are denied access to programming because prisons cannot guarantee their safety in general population.
Unfinished: Incarcerated Youth
Steve Davis is currently taking pre-orders for a book of his photographs from Washington State juvenile prisons, titled, Unfinished: Incarcerated Youth.
You can preorder with Minor Matters Books.
This is the first part of a two part interview. Part two was published on published Thursday, 23rd July, 2009.
– – – – –
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.