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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
10, 11, 12, 13 & 14. © Steve Davis.
TRY YOUTH AS YOUTH
Currently on show at David Weinberg Photography in Chicago is Try Youth As Youth (Feb 13th — May 9th), an exhibition of photographs and video that bear witness to children locked in American prisons. As the title would suggest, the exhibition has a stated political position — that no person under the aged of 18 should be tried as an adult in a U.S. court of law.
In the summer of 2014, selling works ceased to be David Weinberg Photography’s primary function. The gallery formally changed its mission and committed to shedding light on social justice.
Try Youth As Youth, curated by Meg Noe, was conceived of and put together in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Here’s art in a gallery not only reflecting society back at itself, but trying to shift its debate.
The issue is urgent. In the catalogue essay Using Science and Art to Reclaim Childhood in the Justice System, Diane Geraghty Professor of Law at Loyola University, Chicago notes:
Every state continues to permit youth under the age of 18 to be transferred to adult court for trial and sentencing. As a result, approximately 200,000 children annually are legally stripped of their childhood and assumed to be fully functional adults in the criminal justice system.
This has not always been the case in the U.S. It is only changes to law in the past few decades that have resulted in children facing abnormally long custodial sentences, Life Without Parole sentences and even (in some states) the death penalty. In the face of such dark forces, what else is art doing if it is not speaking truth to power and challenging systems that undermine democracy and our social contract?
Noe invited me to write some words for the Try Youth As Youth catalogue. Given Weinberg’s enlightened modus operandi, I was eager to contribute. Here, republished in full is that essay. It’s populated with installation shots, photographs by Steve Davis, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, and video-stills by Tirtza Even.
Scroll down for essay.
Image: Steve Liss. A young boy held and handcuffed in a juvenile detention facility, Laredo, Texas.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Image: Steve Liss. Paperwork for one boy awaiting a court appearance. How many of our young “criminals” are really children in distress? Three-quarters of children detained in the United States are being held for nonviolent offenses. And for many young people today, family relationships that once nurtured a smooth process of socialization are frequently tenuous and sometimes non-existent.
Try Youth As Youth Catalogue Essay
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Isolated in a cell, a child might wonder, “What am I doing here?” It is an immediate, obvious and crucial question and, yet, satisfactory answers are hard to come by. The causes of America’s perverse addiction to incarceration are complex. Let’s just say, for now, that the inequities, poverty, fears and class divisions that give rise to America’s thirst for imprisonment have existed in society longer than any child has. And, let’s just say, for now, that the complex web of factors contributing to a child’s imprisonment are larger than most children could be expected to understand on a first go around.
As understandable as it might be children in crisis to ask “What am I doing here?” it should not be expected. Instead, it is we, as adults, who should be expected to face the question. We should rephrase it and ask it of ourselves, and of society. What are WE doing here? What are we doing as voters in a society that locks up an estimated 65,000 children on any given night? In the face of decades of gross criminal justice policy and practice, what are we doing here, within these gallery walls, looking at pictures?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility, Albany, Oregon, by Richard Ross. “I’m from Portland. I’ve only been here 17 days. I’m in isolation. I’ve been in ICU for four days. I get out in one more day. During the day you’re not allowed to lay down. If they see you laying down, they take away your mattress. I’m in isolation ‘cause I got in a fight. I hit the staff while they were trying to break it up. They think I’m intimidating. I can’t go out into the day room; I have to stay in the cell. They release me for a shower. I’ve been here three times. I have a daughter, so I’m stressed. She’s six months old. At 12 I was caught stealing at Wal-Mart with my brother and sister. My sister ran away from home with a white dude. She was smoking weed, alcohol. When my sister left I was sort of alone…then my mother left with a new boyfriend, so my aunt had custody. She’s 34. My aunt smoked weed, snorts powder, does pills, lots of prescription stuff. I got sexual with a five-year-older boy, so I started running away. So I was basically grown when I was about 14. But I wasn’t doing meth. Then I stopped going to school and dropped out after 8th grade. Then I was in a parenting program for young mothers…then I left that, so they said I was endangering my baby. The people in the program were scared of me. I don’t know what to think. I was selling meth, crack, and powder when I was 15. I was Measure 11. I was with some other girls — they blamed the crime on me, and I took the charges because I was the youngest. They beat up this girl and stole from her, but I didn’t do it. But they charged me with assault and robbery too. This was my first heavy charge.” — K.Y., age 19.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
I have spent a good portion of the past six-and-a-half years trying to figure out just what it is that images of prisons and prisoners actually do. Who is their audience and what are their effects? If I thought answers were always to be couched in the language of social justice I was soon put right by Steve Davis during an interview in the autumn of 2008.
“People respond to these portraits for their own reasons,” said Davis. “A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prisons or justice. Some people 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.”
My interview with Davis was the first ever for the ongoing Prison Photography project. It blew my mind too, but in many ways it also prepared me for the contested visual territory within which sites of incarceration exist and into which I had embarked. Davis’ honesty prepared me to face uncomfortable truths and perversions of truth. It readied me for the skeevy power imbalances I’d observe time and time again in our criminal justice system.
The children in Try Youth As Youth may be, for the most part, invisible to society but they are not far away. “I was just acknowledging that this juvenile prison is 20 miles from my home,” says Davis of his earliest motivations. If you reside in an urban area, it is likely you live as near to a juvenile prison, too. Or closer.
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Prisoners, and surely child prisoners, make up one of society’s most vulnerable groups. Isn’t it strange then that rarely are they presented as such? Often depictions of prisoners serve to condemn them, but not here, in Try Youth As Youth.
As we celebrate the committed works of Steve Davis, Tirtza Even, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, we should bear in mind that other types of prison imagery are less sympathetic and that other viewers’ motives are not wed to the politics of social justice. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it’s a different thousand for everyone. We must be willing to fight and press the issue and advocate for child prisoners. Our mainstream media dominated by cliche, our news-cycles dominated by mugshots and the politics of fear, and our gallery-systems with a mandate to make profits will not always serve us. They may even do damage.
Image: Steve Davis. A girl incarcerated in Remann Hall, near Tacoma, Washington State.
Given that the works of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross circulate in a free-world that most of their subjects do not, it is all our responsibility to handle, contextualize and talk about these photographs and films in a way that serves the child subjects most. It is our responsibility to talk about economic inequality and about the have and have-nots.
“No child asks to be born into a neighborhood where you can get a gun as easily as a popsicle at the convenience store or giving up drugs means losing every one of your friends,” said Steve Liss “They were there [in jail] because there was no love, there was no nourishing, there was anger in startling doses, and there was poverty. Tremendous poverty.”
Image: Steve Liss. Alone and lonely, ten-year-old Christian, accused of ‘family violence’ as a result of a fight with an abusive older brother, sits in his cell.Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Davis, Even, Liss and Ross understand the burden is upon us as a society to explain our widespread use of sophisticated and brutal prisons more than it is for any individual child to explain him or herself. The image of an incarcerated child is an image not of their failings, but of ours. We must do better — by providing quality pre and post-natal care for mothers and babies, nutritious food, livable wages for parents, and support and safety in the home and on the streets. Most often, it is a series of failures in the provision of these most basic needs that leads a child to prison.
“Poverty would be solved in two generations. It would require an enormous change in our priorities. Look at how we elevate the role of a stockbroker and denigrate the role of a school teacher or a parent, those who are responsible for raising the next generation of Americans,” says Liss.
(Top to Bottom) Installation shot; video still; and drawings from Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez’s Natural Life, 2014.
Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez. Natural Life, 2014. Cast concrete (segment of installation). A cast of five sets of the standard issue bedding (a pillow, a bedroll) given to prisoners upon their arrival to the facility, are arranged on raw-steel pedestals in the area leading to the video projection. The sets, scaled down to kid size and made of a stack of crumbling and thin sheets of material resembling deposits of rock, are cast in concrete. Individually marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of each of the five prisoners featured in the documentary, they thus delineate the brief time the inmates spent in the free world.
Each of the artists in Try Youth As Youth have seen incredible deprivations inside facilities that do not — cannot — serve the needs of all the children they house. Ross speaks of a child who has never had a bedtime. A social worker once told Davis of one child in the system who had never seen or held a printed photograph.
Documenting these sites is not easy and brings with it huge responsibility. Tirtza Even has grappled with the weight of her work “and how much is expected from them is a little heavy.” In some cases, these artists are the outside voice for children. Liss acknowledges that expectations more often than not outweigh the actual effects their work can have.
“People ask how do you get close to kids in a facility like that. That isn’t the problem. The problem is how do you set up enough artificial barriers so you don’t get too close. So you’re not just one more adult walking out on them in the final analysis,” he says. “I, at least, convinced myself into thinking it was therapeutic for the kids. At least someone was listening to them.”
So far, the efforts of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross have been recognized by those in power. Liss’ work has been used to lobby for psych care and an adolescent treatment unit in Laredo, Texas. Ross’ work was used in a Senate subcommittee meeting that legislated at the federal level against detained pre-adjudicated juveniles with youth convicted of committed hard crimes.
“That’s a great thing for me to know that my work is being used for advocacy rather than the masturbatory art world that I grew up in,” says Ross.
Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, Wichita, Kansas, by Richard Ross. “Nobody comes to visit me here. Nobody. I have been here for eight months. My mom is being charged with aggravated prostitution. She had me have sex for money and give her the money. The money was for drugs and men. I was always trying to prove something to her…prove that I was worth something. Mom left me when I was four weeks old — abandoned me. There are no charges against me. I’m here because I am a material witness and I ran away a lot. There is a case against my pimp. He was my care worker when I was in a group home. They are scared I am going to run away and they need me for court. I love my mom more than anybody in the world. I was raised to believe you don’t walk away from a person so I try to fix her. When I was 12 my mom was charged with child endangerment. I’ve been in and out of foster homes. They put me in there when they went to my house and found no running water, no electricity. I ran away so much that they moved me from temporary to permanent JJA custody. I’m refusing all my visits because I am tired of being lied to.” — B.B., age 17.
Richard Ross’ works in the Try Youth As Youth exhibition at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
The walls of David Weinberg are not the end point of these works’ journey. An exhibition is not a triumph it is a call to action. The work begins now.
Programming during the exhibition — phone-ins to prison, discussions with ACLU lawyers and experts in the field, conversations with formerly incarcerated youth — will all direct us the right way. The gallery space works best when it sutures artists’ creative processes into a larger process that we can shape as socially informed citizens. Our process of building healthy society.
“Kids need us,” says Liss. “They need our time, they need our involvement, and they need our investment. If you own an automotive shop, open it up to kids and the community. It does take a community.”
There are a host of wonderful arts communities doing work, here in Chicago, around criminal justice reform and social equity — Project NIA, 96 Acres, AREA, Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, Lucky Pierre and Temporary Services to name a few.
The arts can trail-blaze the conversation we need to be having. Photography and film are the ammunition with which we arm our reform arguments. First we see, then we do. If art is not speaking truth to power, then really, what are we doing here?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
David Weinberg Photography is at 300 W. Superior Street, Suite 203, Chicago, IL 60654. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Telephone: 312 529 5090.
Try Youth As Youth is on show until May 9th, 2015.
Text © Pete Brook / David Weinberg Photography.
Images: Courtesy of artists / David Weinberg Photography.
Jerome at 15. © Zora Murff
Hey y’all. You might have heard about the launch of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system. You might also recall that I was excited by the launch.
Excited because I think we’ll all benefit from having focused, smart and quirky analysis of America’s carceral, criminal and correctional territories. But, excited also, because I’ll be contributing features of photographers’ work.
My first piece about Zora Murff, Tracked: A Photographer Reveals What It’s Like To Be A Kid In The System was published this week.
Here’s an excerpt.
In addition to slinging his camera, Murff works as a “tracker” for a program that provides low-risk juveniles alternatives to incarceration. He coordinates transportation to therapy and counseling sessions, contacts schools to make sure that the juveniles are attending classes, collects urine samples for drug tests, and monitors the juveniles’ locations through data from their ankle bracelets.
“My job is to be a consequence, to insert myself into their lives while the adolescents themselves are struggling to exert control over their development,” says Murff who wanted to capture how juveniles in the system are supervised and monitored, and how the resulting lack of privacy can impact their development.
“Cameras are typically used by the state to surveil,” he says. “I too am recording, but my camera is there in a collaborative capacity. I feel that the people I’m photographing have taken back a level of control.”
If you want to learn more about Zora Murff’s work you might be interested in this long interview I did with Murff on Prison Photography in January, 2014.
I really can’t recommend enough the daily newsletter of criminal justice news put together by The Marshall Project’s Andrew Cohen. It’s called Opening Statement and it brings together the best links and most pressing stories. Indispensable. Get it!
BEYOND PRISON PICTURES
“It is,” she says, “about a family and the battle between love and loss.”
Given that approximately a quarter of the images in the series were shot inside a locked facility, that initially seems a strange claim. Furthermore, as I look through Vinny and David, it seems as if the only certainly in the lives of they and their family is uncertainty, specifically an uncertainty brought about by incarceration and its collateral effects.
However, this is where we need to feel as well as look. This is where we need to spend time with Kosofsky’s subjects. If we do, we realise the photographer’s insistence is spot on. She wants to portray the boys not as prisoners, but as young people who happen to have spent time in prison. The distinction is important; it’s the only way she thinks her audience can empathize and connect.
YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHER, YOUNG SUBJECTS
Kosofsky met the younger brother, Vinny, first. It was late on a Tuesday night in a New Mexico juvenile detention center. As he posed for his mug shot, Vinny turned to the police officer to check he was standing on the right spot. Kosofsky watched Vinny enter the D-unit and silently sit in front of the television. He picked an isolated chair.
“When I met Vinny, I was 18 years old,” says Kosofsky. “I had previously documented young males in three different juvenile detention centers and youth prisons. Photographing my subjects in a detention environment limited their identities for I could only show a fragment of their lives. Vinny stood out amongst many of the males I met. He was the youngest boy in his unit, just age 13, but full of wisdom and sensitivity.”
Vinny was detained because he stabbed the man who was assaulting his mother.
“When my mom was being beat up, I was so scared. I wanted to defend my mom,” Vinny told Kosofsky. “I’m tired of seeing my mom get hurt.”
While Vinny was in the juvenile detention center, his older brother David, then age 19, was released from a nearby adult facility. David had been in and out of juvenile and adult correctional systems. He had been introduced to drug dealing at age 10. After his father went to prison, David was placed in foster care. At 14, David’s mother, Eve, was given custody, and David joined Vinny and two younger siblings, Michael and Elycia.
“David and Vinny have experienced deep loss and betrayal but yearn for love and a restored family,” says Kosofsky. “In the midst of turmoil, Vinny and David try to assume the hopefulness of youth. Vinny describes David as a father figure, and David views Vinny as the only person who appreciates him.”
COVERAGE AND RESPONSE
Soon after the TIME feature, I received an email from a previously incarcerated man who described himself as an artist-activist. His opinion would suggest that Kosofsky was successful in her efforts to build a connection between the brothers and her audience.
“Unlike much work out there, this project shows humanity,” emailed the former prisoner. “People who have not been incarcerated may not realize the impact of this project but it is revolutionary. I have looked through a lot of photography, art and writing about incarceration. Kosofsky shows incarcerated males in a sensitive light. The pictures are heartbreaking and necessary. For a young girl, only 18, to have the courage to do a project like this is mind blowing. It is a rebellion.”
Coming from somebody familiar with the system, such an endorsement is better than anything I could give.
In spite of widespread coverage of Vinny and David in mainstream media, she and I were determined to produce something here on the blog, so I pitched a few questions that try to needle the gaps in the previous pieces and to bring us up to date on how Vinny, David and the family are doing now.
Please scroll down for our Q&A.
You can click any image to see it larger.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): You’ve mentioned a particular an ineffable connection with Vinny. How did that create moments for you to make powerful photographs?
Isadora Kosofsky (IK): In a prison environment that often promotes restraint, Vinny immediately revealed vulnerability, and tears fell down his cheeks as he spoke to me.
PP: He was different.
IK: The more intimate I am with my subjects, the more affective the image. Individuals, especially young males who are typically guarded, show vulnerability in front of the camera when they sense commitment and earnestness. I must share in my subjects’ struggles over a sustained period of time in order to forge a bond. I knew it would be a lengthy process before I could photograph moments from David’s life when his “mask,” as he calls it, was off.
I can’t drop into someone’s life, take pictures and then leave with those memories. The relationships I form with the individuals I photograph are more important to me than the actual image making.
Since I have never been incarcerated, I initially couldn’t empathize with Vinny’s incarceration. No one can say they know what it felt like for Vinny, at age 13, to be taken from his mother, handcuffed in the back of a police car, brought to a unit of strangers and handed a pillow. Yet, partaking in his and David’s life over time allowed me to recognize shared characteristics and emotions that brought me even closer to them.
PP: Do you think the power of the work might also rest on the fact that Vinny (as well as David and the family) is representative of so many children effected negatively by criminal justice in America?
IK: I hope the impact of the work lies in my intent to document Vinny and David’s story as I would that of my own family. I didn’t choose to photograph them because I felt that their situation was emblematic of a larger social issue. I chose to photograph them because I have an affinity to the love between two brothers who happened to both experience incarceration. Above all, I wanted this project to command a humanistic standpoint. I feel that there is already so much work about the system itself. Shooting solely at the jail site made it difficult for me to create a documentation that the greater society could identify with. I wanted to photograph Vinny and David in a relatable manner so that those looking at the images might feel that they could be their friend, sibling or son.
PP: Why did you want to shoot in a prison? Frankly, it’s the last thing on the mind of most 18 year olds.
IK: Ever since I was 15, I wanted to photograph inside a detention center. Unfortunately, due to my status as a minor, the administrators of the domestic facilities to which I submitted proposals rejected me. However, when I turned 18 and resubmitted my applications to the same facilities, some responded favorably, and I was granted access. I draw inspiration for my projects from childhood and personal experience. I began photographing when I was about 14, focusing mainly on the lives of the elderly. Around this time, I had a group of friends for whom delinquency resulted in police intervention. Some of them had been in juvenile detention, while others were on probation or had just been released from boys’ disciplinary camp.
We would meet at a shopping mall, where many teenagers gathered every Friday night, and they would tell me about their experiences with the juvenile justice system. I became particularly close to one male, and we began to spend time together outside our social group. He was the emotionally present listener whom I deeply needed at that time in my life. Unfortunately, my friend was arrested, and I lost contact with him.
Almost a year later, as I was photographing elderly women in retirement homes, I began to envision new projects and started to write proposals to correctional facilities. Even though 18 is young, I never thought of my age as a deterrent. I consciously wanted to be a young person photographing other young people.
PP: How have your thoughts about the prison industrial complex changed over the course of the work?
IK: One aspect that has struck me profoundly is that when one member is incarcerated, the whole family is too. 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.
Incarceration is, paradoxically, a solitary and collective experience. Detainment isn’t localized just to a facility, for it leaves profound psychological effects, as it did on Vinny and David’s development. When David was cycling in and out of jail, a looming fear of loss hovered over the entire family.
PP: What can photography do, if anything, in the face of mass incarceration?
IK: I don’t know what photography can do in the face of mass incarceration. Every documentary photographer wants his or her images to repair the world. Ever since I shot my first picture, I have been guilty of this idealism. I strongly feel that a form of change occurs every time a viewer internalizes poignant images. We need more humanistic photography of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth. They are often individuals who come from troubled homes, and when we reject them visually and orally, we participate in reenacting their trauma.
We need to stop making their stories that of “others” and make their lives part of ours. When people look at the photographs of Vinny and David, I can only hope they empathize. I would then feel I have accomplished what I told this family I would do.
PP: How is the family doing today?
IK: Vinny, who just turned 16, has moved in with David, who now has a job and lives in his own apartment. David is committed to his role as a father. Both brothers are trying to establish a peaceful life after a traumatic upbringing and are optimistic that they will succeed. Healing is a slow process.
PP: Thanks, Isadora.
IK: Thank you, Pete.
“I had buddies that couldn’t take the job and wound up quitting because of the mental abuse and, sometimes, physical abuse,” says Steele. “You could be responding to a fight, not knowing that they’re setting you up to stab you with a shank. It’s a very dangerous job. Corrections officers don’t have guns. At that time we weren’t even carrying mace. The only weapon you really have is your mind — how you used it dictated if you were going to have a good 8 hours or a bad 8 hours.”
COP TURNED ADVOCATE
Lorenzo Steele Jr. worked as correctional officer on Rikers Island between 1987 and 1999. Most of his time was spent in the juvenile units. When the officers had retirement parties and other events, he was the one with the camera. In 1996, Steele began talking his small compact film camera into the units and making photographs of the dirt, the filth and the despair. All without any official approval. As part of his work, he also made evidence photos of injuries following violence inside the Rikers Island.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF MUTILATION
When Steele decided to leave the job, his “leap of faith” took him back to community instruction. As founder of Behind These Prison Walls Steele gives public lectures and brings pop-up exhibitions to New York neighbourhoods. It’s a mobile show & tell to shock and educate youngsters on the destructiveness and terror of prison. Steele estimates he has made close to 1,000 presentations in schools, churches and community centres since 2001.
I came across Steele’s archive when some of his images accompanied For Teens at Rikers Island, Solitary Confinement Pushes Mental Limits, a Center for Investigative Reporting article that was also adapted and cross posted to Medium as Inside Rikers Island, part of the excellent ‘Solitary Lives’ series.
It is very unusual for photographs made by correctional staff to surface, let alone for there primary use to be as tools for street-side exhibition and engagement. I called Steele and asked him some questions about his self-propelled cop-to-advocate career change, his motives for making the images, the efficacy of his methods and what we need to start doing differently to decrease the numbers of kids we lock up.
Prison Photography (PP): When did you decide you wanted to be a correctional officer?
Lorenzo Steele (LS): At 21 years old I took a [New York] City test. At that same time I was a para-professional for the New York City Board of Education working with Middle School children. I was there for 8-months and loving the job. I got a letter from the city saying that if I could pass a physical, if I could pass the psychological, if I could pass the drug test, I could become a correction officer.
The only reason I became a correctional officer was because it was paying more money than the Board of Ed. I didn’t know I had to experience the system for 12 years, in order to know the system, and later to help people avoid the system.
I’m 22 years old, and it is just a job — no one in my family went to jail. In the neighborhood I grew up in, nobody went to jail.
The academy was 2 to 3 months at that time. They could never prepare you mentally and physically for what you were about to experience working in a prison. On the first day took the ‘on the job trainees’ OJT’s into an actual facility. Now, they would tell you things — don’t talk to the inmates; don’t stare at the inmates but that was about it. I was afraid, but later I realized that in a prison you can not show fear because you will be manipulated. OJT was about 2 weeks, and after that we were assigned to our facilities.
I worked the C-74 Unit, the Adolescent Recession Detention Center (ARDC) for 14 to 21 year olds. Within that age range, of course, half are adolescents and half are adult inmates. One day you’re working with the adolescents, the next you’re working with adults. I dealt with mental health issues, behavior issues, socio-economical issues. I found out what our people actually go through and why they come to jail.
PP: What were your early impressions of the job?
LS: I’m young, I’m making good money. I have my own apartment, but I have the mind of an officer now.
Can you imagine sitting in a day room with a capacity of 50 inmates and you’re one officer that’s in charge? Your main function is to make sure they don’t kill each other or rape each other and if you see a fight you push a personal body alarm. Depending on which housing area you are in, you can sit there sometimes for 8 hours. I remember the day when I thought, “I can’t do this for twenty years. There are bigger and better things out there for me.”
I’m a photographer. I wondered what I could do legally. I started formulating a mentoring program. I used to volunteer my time in schools as a correction officer and share my insight on what the prison system’s really like. The average person doesn’t really know until its too late. It’s my mission to let these young children know that jail is the last place on earth they want to be.
PP: Do you consider yourself fortunate in that you came to that decision? Because for a lot of people in a lot of jobs, sometimes the stress is so high and the options seem so few they can’t even step back for a minute to see a change in circumstances.
LS: It was very rare for anyone to just resign from the department, unless they were brought up on charges. It was almost unheard of. People asked, “What are you gonna do? This is the best job.”
The last day that I knew I was going to be there, I walked around the jail and I grabbed a little object where I could and wrote on the wall. I carved my name in some wood objects and on some metal doors.
It was around the time of Mother’s Day. My Grandmother was in town and I took her to church. Sometimes, the preacher is actually talking to you. He said, “If there’s anything on your mind just leave it behind you, step out on faith.” That next day, that Monday, I went downtown and turned in my shield, turned in my gun.
PP: What year did you resign?
PP: In between which years did you make photographs in Rikers?
LS: I began maybe around ’95 or ’96.
I was the photographer for COBA, the NYC Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. People retire or you have parties or special events. I always had a camera on me. After that, I used to take pictures of inside of the prison not knowing that I was to turn it into an enterprise to save people from going into the jail.
I had a camera with no flash. Can you imagine taking out a camera? You’ve got 200 prisoners coming down the corridor to the cafeteria — they’re going to see the camera going off so I had to disguise it somehow. You get an adrenaline rush knowing that you can’t get caught. Once that shutter button is released its almost the best feeling in the world. Its like a high once that shutter button goes off and you’ve captured that image. And you know.
PP: Where did you keep the camera? In an office or did you take it home with you every day?
LS: I had it in my pocket. Sometimes I would take pictures of the officers in their uniform because the average officer never really has a picture of himself in uniform. It was a good time back then because the camaraderie was great. We had one team; the officers, the captains, the deputies, the warden. We were all one team back then, but you couldn’t do it today because after twenty years things change in the department.
PP: What type of camera did you use?
LS: A 35mm. One of those CVC store cameras. Digital cameras weren’t even out then. I put some black tape around the flash and disguised it almost like a cell phone or a beeper.
PP: How many photographs do you think you took, in total, inside the prison?
LS: Over 200 photos. Shots of prisoners in cells, of the solitary confinement unit, pictures of prisoners who were physically cut. In colour. You can’t imagine the power of those images when I show the kids: “If you don’t change your ways, this could happen to you.”
LS: Children cannot relate to prison, yet they see the negative violence on television and sometimes a rapper will glorify prison. Some rappers are promoting violence, promoting gang activity, and that’s some children’s reference to the criminal justice system.
But, once you step foot in that criminal justice system your life changes forever. Sometimes they might not even make it out. At 15-years-old we’ve had adolescents that end up taking 25 years with them upstate because they caught jail cases cutting and stabbing individuals while they was on Rikers Island.
PP: How do you exhibit those 200 photographs to the public?
LS: It depends on the audience. I have a lot of graphic images so I don’t put those in the schools with the kindergarten kids and the third graders.
I have select images that I use when I exhibit on the sidewalk in at-risk communities. About 20 images at a time but it depends on where and what message I’m trying to get out.
PP: I’ve seen only a few images like the ones you’ve published. One example is the selection of images leaked by a Riker’ Island officer to the Village Voice two years ago.
We don’t see many images shot from the hip. If we do, they’re usually anonymous. Such images do exist but one must work hard to seek them out. How many people see your presentations? Are people shocked? Surprised? Do people respond to the images in the way that you hope they will?
LS: The first time they see the images, yes, they are shocked, especially students. Students that I deal whether in the church, in schools, in the community, are shocked. Images are powerful but the knock out blow is information, the experience, that actually goes behind what’s in that image.
PP: How dangerous was Rikers? In the 12 years you worked there how many incidents of serious assault and possibly even murder occurred or occurred on your shifts?
LS: Let’s talk about the adolescents first. Rikers Island was considered the most violent prison in the nation. We used to average sometimes 50 to 60 razor slashings a month. Slashing with the single edge razor blade. Cut somebody over the face multiple times inside. There was a lot of blood.
When I went into corrections, I didn’t like the sight of blood [but] I saw so many people get cut that it became normal. I was so desensitized. And that’s scary because that normalcy meant somebody had a scar on their face for life and for every cutting there was a repercussion; if a prisoner got cut he had to get revenge on the other guy and catch another jail case.
PP: I have no idea how politics, street politics or gang culture — in or out of prison — work in New York today let alone in the late 80s and 90s. Over your twelve years, was there consistent gang activity or did it change?
LS: In ’87, there weren’t gangs in the New York prison system. In the early ’90s, we realized we had a gang problem in the prisons. The gangs had their own language. 300 prisoners in the cafeteria and five officers. We had to learn the language real quick and that is what established the Gang Intelligence Unit. By conducting cell searches, we would get the paraphernalia and the by-laws of the gangs
Later on, they flipped gang members into telling the department what the language meant; that’s how the Department of Corrections infiltrated the gangs. We passed the information on to NYPD.
It was very dangerous. You had to be on your toes all the time. The gangs recruited younger people whom they would force sometimes to do harm on officers or do harm to prisoners. We did the best we could.
One of the blessings was that I always had good supervisors. When the captain said ‘go’, you went, and when he said ‘stop’, you stopped. You put your life in the hands of your captain; it’s almost like being in a war. I am old school. That’s what really kept us on top of the prisoners. The jail would never be overrun because you had a select group of officers that demanded respect and that knew how to take care of the business without anybody getting hurt. When prisoners saw that select group of officers, nothing was going down that day.
Part of being a Correction Officer is knowing your prisoners and you always wanted to know the gangster, you always wanted to know the person who was running the housing area because that’s the one that you would use, you know. “Listen man, while I’m here today, nothing’s gonna go down. Tell the boys man to shut it down while I’m here.”
PP: Clearly, I’m opposed to prisons as they exist. I think we lock too many people up and I think when we’re locking people up we’re not providing the right sort of conditions or services for them. Obviously, what goes on in the jails and prisons relates to outside society. The reason you do your work now, I presume, is because you see that link between poverty, what goes on in the neighborhoods and what happens in the jails.
What do we need to do better? How do we rely less on incarceration and when you must imprison people, how do you make it safer for everyone in the place? How do you stop people from coming back? Do we need smaller prisons, do we need more money, do we need different sentences for different crimes?
LS: It starts before prison. I worked in the neighborhoods classified by criminal justice books as “high-crime areas” and it starts with parenting.
Bill Cosby said on National TV that we have parents more focused on giving their kids cell phones, expensive gear and expensive pants. And they condemned Cosby. They found some black guy on CNN to come on and say ‘Cosby, you are wrong.’ But he was right. Unless you are inside the school system you wouldn’t necessarily know.
That’s why I hit the streets. I try to let the parents know that without that proper parenting their child has more chance of going through the criminal justice system.
Imagine being in a first grade class in an impoverished neighborhood (it depends on the school district) with 30 to 35 students in one class. 1st grade. Half the children can read, half the children cannot read, now you have one teacher. How is that teacher going to really teach? There’s two different dynamics going on in that classroom. We have children across America that are coming into the public school system unprepared to learn.
LS: Poverty is a crime, because poverty comes with where you live. Those in impoverished neighborhoods are subjected to crime, shootings, and drugs, and then children have to go into a school system that doesn’t have the necessary resources. It’s a ticking time bomb.
Unless a parent or guardian is there to break down that math homework, for them, some children don’t know what’s going on. Unless there’s a parent there that could check the homework that the teacher gives every night. Its not going to get done. There’s a lot parents in poorer communities who are uneducated themselves. Look at the statistics coming out of poor neighborhoods — many young adults are not finishing high school and are not going to college. If a parent is not educated, then probably education is not talked about in the home.
The point of attack, strategically, needs to be that early childhood.
PP: Parenting and education. I can agree. But we can’t roll back the years’ generations to correct past mistakes. So what about the situation as it stands now? Say, you have a 15-year-old who’s acted out, he’s been pulled in by the police, he’s got a serious charge over his head. Is Rikers Island the best place to deal with that kid? Is Rikers Island the sort of institution in which — while they are kept away from the public for public safety — they themselves are kept safe?
LS: If you break the law there are consequences. There are necessary disciplines in place so we have a civil society. But is it Rikers Island or is it a juvenile detention center?
If you would have asked me this question as an officer, I’d have said, “Rikers, yeah.” But, now, when I go into the communities and hear what the parents have to say about a lot of these children just mimicking their parents, I wonder is that child at fault? Why did he steal that cell phone? Maybe his father was a thief, or maybe they don’t have structure in the home. Maybe there needs to be a place where a child’s whole history needs to be examined? What’s going on in that child’s home. Does he have a support system? He lives in a high crime area, how much do we expect him to succeed?
LS: Yes, I feel there needs to be places where children can go to receive those special considerations, not thrown into a place like Rikers Island in which you’re housed with murderers.
Let’s create places and bring in the necessary mentors. And I’m not just talking about doctors in psychology. Sometimes, it takes the correction officer. Sometimes, it takes that guy that did 25 years in jail.
Create a first offense type place. “Young man, we give you a year. If you do the right thing in this place we’ll seal your record, but if you don’t, you gotta go to the next level.” Sometimes, some people have to go through that prison system if they’re going to turn their lives around.
Create a place where they could come in and get properly mentored to. You understand? Some people have degrees and others not, but there’s only a select few who can really get through to these children.
PP: So, the prison system is too rigid?
LS: It doesn’t always work. Prisons are putting way too many adolescents with mental health problems behind bars. They’re banging on the cells for 3 or 4 hours. These young children need advocates. They can’t speak. Not too many kids are writing a letter to mommy saying, “I’m thinking about suicide tonight; being locked in a 8×6 foot cell for 23 hours, I can’t take it no more.”
PP: Your photographs were used in an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting about solitary confinement. Over your time as a correctional officer did you see the use of solitary for youngsters increase, decrease, or stay the same?
LS: We had one unit, about 66 cells. Prisoners that cut, stabbed, or assaulted officers, were locked in solitary confinement.
Warden Robinson implemented a program called Institute for Inner Development (IID). The warden put together a team. Hand-picked. A select few that you could trust and you knew they weren’t going to violate any prisoners rights. We did two weeks of training and took it to a select housing area. We transformed that housing area. Imagine going from 50 slashings a month, [among the] adolescents, to zero for four years.
Programs work if you can get the necessary personnel to properly run and maintain them. When we ran the IID program, we took another housing area — a hundred more prisoners — then another housing area. Eventually, we had 200 prisoners in the nation’s most violent prison in America and and next to no violence.
PP: What was different about that program? What was it that you provided the youngsters?
LS: I love children. I’m a disciplinarian, I love reading, so I had tons of knowledge about slavery and the connection between slavery and incarceration, so when you start talking about this new thing, they just love it. These 14, 15, 16 year-olds didn’t have any type of discipline at home, didn’t have the male role models at home. “This is what men do young man. Pull your pants up. Grown men do not walk around with their pants down.”
PP: So it was more about developing different interactions between the correctional officers and the prisoners, and changing the culture within the unit?
LS: Out of all of those officers, twelve officers, we had no psychologists, no therapists. We were the psychologists we were the therapists. Just because you have a degree that doesn’t mean that you can work in an area like that. There’s a lot of passion that’s involved in that.
PP: After you resigned, when did you begin exhibiting the photographs?
LS: I detoxed for about 8 months, just not doing anything. From being on the drill to taking it back to normal. Then I started going into the schools and just sharing my information.
PP: With the images?
LS: I laminated some 8×10” color prints and put them on the blackboard. Then I got a laptop and a projector, and went from holding the pictures in my hand to projecting them agains auditoriums and classrooms walls. My first printed use of the images came in a 2005 Don Diva Magazine feature. They gave me 5 or 6 pages. I provided my phone number. Soon after, a police officer who worked with youth called me and asked, “Could you come in a talk to my youth?” That was the start of giving back.
PP: How do you evaluate your work?
LS: Seeing that look on somebody’s face when they think they know what jail was like, but then I show them the reality. Talking to 500 students in an auditorium and asking them, “Is this new information?” and they all say yes. Many of them have to make a change right there. For others its going to take longer to make that change.
PP: Is what you do anything like Scared Straight!?
LS: I’m not trying to scare you straight I’m trying to inform you straight.
When you’re looking at somebody and they got a thousand stitches on their face, the shock is there but along with the shock is the information behind it. Prison is a violent place and the criminal justice system is a for profit agency and so I break down a lot of information within the program.
PP: What images do we need to see?
LS: We need to see the graphic images of the young guy that was in solitary confinement unit who just cut himself with a razor blade because that was the only way that he could get out.
LS: We need to see the images of a young girl in shackles walking down the corridor with a hospital gown on. We need to see images of somebody crying in their cell at night and the only reason he’s in the cell is because his parents didn’t have the money to bail him out. We need to see those images of the abuses, we need to see the dirt, we need to see the filth.
We need to see the pain the officers go through — the officers that get cut and the officers that get feces thrown in their face hoping that they don’t have Hepatitis. An image is what stays in the mind. Every time you think about doing bad you need to think about that image.
Hollywood uses images too to glorify the rich and powerful with the jewelry on their neck. But it is fake. I use images to bring awareness to what really takes place behind bars and what young adolescents are actually going through. Everyday. It has to be traumatic.
Is the prison system still in the business of rehabilitation? That’s a question that needs to be asked in the Department of Corrections nationwide. Are prisons and jails in the business of rehabilitation? Yes, he did commit a crime, but does he have to be put into a cell for 23 hours. Is that rehabilitation? Or is that torture? We have to define cruel and inhumane treatment. We have to bring up those: terms, rehabilitation or torture.
What we do with this young child while we have him here for a couple years could make or break him for the rest of his life. There’s volunteers that go into the prison and mentor. Recently, I had the week off so I went back to Rikers Island, and did some workshops, talking to the kids. I felt obligated because we’re in a place that could make or break them. Some are going to the street. Some are going upstate. If you’re going to the street, prepare their minds while they’re here. If we’re trying to rehabilitate.
PP: Over the 12 years that you’ve been doing this work, if you can estimate, how many times have you presented to groups speaking and how many times have you presented images?
LS: I’ve done close a thousand presentations — in churches, schools, and sometimes putting them on the streets. Just taking the images right to the high crime areas and putting them right on the sidewalk. People in the poor neighborhoods are not going to go to the museum so I bring the museum to the streets.
PP: Thanks, Lorenzo.
LS: Thank you, Pete.
Photo: “Me & Myself” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
ONO ŠTO SE VIDI A NE ČUJE
If you happen to be in Belgrade, Serbia over the next couple of weeks, I encourage you to head to the Kulturni Centar Beograda (KCB) and see Seen But Not Heard, an exhibition I’ve curated of photographs from American juvenile detention facilities. The show features photographs made by incarcerated youth in photography workshops coordinated by Steve Davis in Washington State and by As220 Youth in Rhode Island, as well as well known photographers Steve Liss, Ara Oshagan, Joseph Rodriguez and Richard Ross.
The invite to put together Seen But Not Heard — which is my first international solo curating gig — was kindly extended by Belgrade Raw, an impressive photo-collective who have operated as guest exhibition coordinators at the KCB’s Artget Gallery throughout 2013. Belgrade Raw called it’s year long program Raw Season. and it was 10 exhibitions strong, including Blake Andrews, Donald Weber and others. Here’s Belgrade Raw’s announcement for Seen But Not Heard.
I’ll update the blog next week with installation shots and a loooong list of acknowledgements (the hospitality, skills and hard work of everyone here has been so overwhelming.)
Beneath, is a long essay I wrote for Seen But Not Heard . Beneath that is a selection from the 200+ works in the exhibition. Beneath the works are the details of the photographer and/or program who made them.
Photo: “Flip” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
USING PHOTOGRAPHY TO COMMUNICATE NOT CONTROL
“Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time … Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in his pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb.”
– Mark Twain, writing satirically in the voice of King Leopold in condemnation of the Belgian’s brutal rule over the Congo Free State. King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905).
The United States of America is addicted to incarceration. In the course of a year, 13.5 million Americans cycle through the country’s 5,000+ prisons and jails. On any given day, 2.2 million American’s are locked up — 60,500 of whom are children in juvenile correctional facilities or residential programs. The United States imprisons children at more than six times the rate of any other developed nation. With an average cost of $80,000/year to lock up a child under the age of 18, the United States spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.
What do we know of these spaces behind locked doors? What do we see of juvenile prisons? The short answer is, not a lot. However, photographs can provide some information — provided we approach them with caution and an informed eye.
Seen But Not Heard features the work of five well-known American photographers who have taken their cameras inside. Crucially, the exhibition also includes photographs made by incarcerated children on cameras delivered to them by arts educators and by staff of social justice organizations. Many of the children’s photographs are being exhibited for the first time.
Cameras are used by prison administrations to maintain security and enforce order, so when a camera is operated by a visiting photographer — and especially by a prisoner — a shift in the power relations occurs. All the images in Seen But Not Heard prompt urgent questions about what it means to be able document and what it means to be prohibited from documenting. What difference is there between being the maker of an image compared to being the subject of an image? What happens if you put kids behind the camera instead of in front of it? What stories do children tell that adults cannot? Can a camera can be a tool for artistic expression instead of an apparatus of control?
“Light Paintings” made by students of the Rhode Island Training School (RITS) prove a camera is essential to the artist’s toolkit. The anonymous RITS students’ images conjure angelic limbs and alter-egos from the dark. The images contain the frustration of incarceration; the longing of a (new) time; the aspirations of youth; the childishness of comic drawing. The photography outreach program taught by AS220, a community arts group of long-standing in Rhode Island, is an extension of workshops taught to teens in the free-world. In fact, children have graduated out of RITS and into the many studio arts programs offered by AS220 Youth in the town and neighborhoods of Providence, RI. An adult would or could never make these images; it is a privilege for us to share in them.
The workshops that Steve Davis coordinated in four youth detention centers in Washington State provide us a window into the incarcerated children’s lives. For legal reasons, at Remann Hall, no images could identify the girls and so Davis made use of pinhole cameras with long exposures. The girls treated the opportunity as one for performance enacting torment, official restraint procedures and bored isolation. The blurry images are eerie and evocative; as if the girls are capturing the moments in which they are disappearing from society’s view.
By contrast, the boys’ photographs are very much embedded in reality; they carried cameras outside of structured class time with instructions to make general images and construct photographs along a weekly theme. The boys had one another as immediate audience. We see unfiltered views of their activities, cells, day rooms, programs and priorities; we see costume, computer games, machismo posturing, childlike play and even boring moments. Accidentally they collectively constructed a visual narrative in which motifs such as t-shirts, playing cards and institutional furniture recur. The photographs would be monotonous were it not for the splashed of life the children provide — perfectly communicating why and how humans kept in boxes is not the natural order, nor the ideal circumstance.
The photographers in Seen But Not Heard all had different motivations for going inside. After the experience, they all had the same attitudes.
Without exception, the photographers’ experiences had them wide-eyed, sometimes angry, usually frustrated and certainly more conscious of the politics of incarceration. Consequently, they feel a responsibility to share their images and to describe youth prisons to many audiences.
Steve Liss had watched the children of a Texas juvenile prisons perform a choreographed marching routine for then Texas Governor G.W. Bush. After the ridiculous spectacle, the ridiculous Bush gave a ridiculous moral instruction to stay out of trouble. Liss was furious at the patronizing tone of the event and particularly Bush. As a press photographer, Liss had parachuted in and out of that prison as quick as his subject Bush did. He vowed that if Bush ever made it to be President, he’d return to Texas to photograph the children’s lives. Bush would never see those children, but perhaps the world should. It is alarming how often we see very young and tiny children subject to shackles and apparatus designed for dangerous 200+ lb. men. It’s as if the system is blind to the physicality of its young prisoners. That being the case, how can we presume they understand or provide for the more complex psychology of these children?
Joseph Rodriguez was locked up as a young man. He also experienced homelessness, for a time, and was addicted to drugs. He was sent to the infamous Riker’s Island prison in New York twice — first, for a minor charge related to his anti-war protest activity; second, for burglary. His mother could not afford the $500. He spent 3 months locked up awaiting his court date. Post-release, Rodriguez found photography and it gave him a means to process and describe the world. Having seen the inside, Rodriguez empathizes with children who are going through any prison system. More than 20 years after his incarceration, Rodriguez felt it a duty to use his storytelling skills to tell the stories of incarcerated children. In 1999, he photographed inside the San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties juvenile detention centers and followed children through the cells, courtrooms and counseling of the criminal justice system.
Ara Oshagan’s opportunity to photograph at the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall (the largest juvenile prison in America) was pure happenstance. He met with Leslie Neale a documentary filmmaker for lunch on a Monday. Neale was filming inside the juvenile hall and needed a photographer to shoot b-roll. Oshagan was inside on the Tuesday. He was so moved by the experience that he applied for clearance to return on his own. He followed six youngsters as they progressed through their cases and, in some cases, into California’s adult prison system. Oshagan never felt like his photographs were enough to describe the emotions of the children and so he asked each of them to write poems and presents text and image as diptych. Random circumstance, fine slices of luck, peer pressure and other people’s decisions factor far more heavily in children’s lives than in adults’ lives. Throughout, Oshagan was constantly reminded how his subjects were very much like his own children.
Late in his career and having financial security through a Guggenheim fellowship and teaching sabbatical, Richard Ross turned his lens upon juvenile detention. Ross wanted to give advocates, legislators, educators the visual evidence on which to base discussion and policy. He provides his images for free to individuals and organizations doing work for the betterment of children’s lives.
Repeatedly, Ross met children who were themselves victims; frighteningly often he heard stories of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, suicide attempts, addiction and illiteracy. Many kids locked up are from poor communities and a disproportionate number of youths detained are boys and girls of color. Ross observed some really positive interventions made by institutions (regular meals, counseling, positive male role models to name a few) but he saw the use of incarceration not as last resort but as routine.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Unsurprisingly, many have lost faith in the juvenile prison system. Recent scandals have exposed systematic abuses.
In Pennsylvania, two judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private prison company to sentence children to custody; in Texas, an inquiry uncovered over 1,000 cases of sexual assault by staff in the state’s juvenile justice system; in New York, on Riker’s Island it has been alleged that young gangs (referred to as “teams”) organized within the jail itself, and controlled and enforced the juvenile wings while the authorities turned a blind eye. The rivalries resulted in fights, stabbings and in one case death. The New York City Department of Corrections denies the allegations, but interestingly it was NYDOC employees that exposed the violence by leaking internal photographs to the Village Voice newspaper.
Nationally, the private company Youth Services International (YSI) inexplicably continues to operate despite being cited for ‘offenses ranging from condoning abuse of inmates to plying politicians with undisclosed gifts while seeking to secure state contracts’ by the Department of Justice and also New York, Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Texas.
Not only is being locked up ineffective as a deterrent in youths who have not reached full cognitive development and don’t understand the consequences of their actions, it can actually make a criminal out of a potentially law-abiding kid. Dr. Barry Krisberg, director of research at the Berkeley School of Law’s Institute on Law & Social Policy, says, “Young people [when detained] often get mixed in with those incarcerated on more serious offenses. Violence and victimization is common in juvenile facilities and it is known that exposure to such an environment accelerates a young person toward criminal behaviors.”
Given the lessons from the failed practices of incarcerating more and more children, States are adopting more progressive policies. Certainly, authorities are turning away from punishing acts such as truancy and delinquency with detention; acts that are not criminal for an adult but have in the past siphoned youths into the court system. But more than that, incarceration for youth is widely considered a last resort.
States that reduced juvenile confinement rates the most between 1997 and 2007 had the greatest declines in juvenile arrested for violent crimes. It’s proof that incarceration doesn’t solve crime. And, it might suggest incarceration damages communities. Following repeated abuse scandals in the California Youth Authority (CYA) facilities in the 90s, California carried forth the largest program of decarceration in U.S. history. Reducing its total number of youth prisons from 11 to 3 and slashing the CYA population by nearly 90%, California simultaneously witnessed a precipitous drop in violent crime committed by under-18s.
The U.S. still has a long way to go if it is to reverse decades of over-reliance on incarceration, but as the recent Supreme Court ruling banning Life Without Parole sentences for children suggests, it seems Americans hold less punitive attitudes when it comes to youth’s transgressions, as compared to the apathetic attitudes to adult prisoners.
We need to expect and applaud photography that depicts imprisoned children as they are — as citizens-in-the-making, as humans with as complex emotional needs as any of us, as not lost causes, as victims as much as they may have been victimizers, as our future, as individuals society must look to help and reintegrate and not discard. Photography can help us appreciate the complexity of the issues at hand. Used responsibly, it can bring us closer.
Photo: “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
Photo: “Icarus” by an anonymous student of photography workshop at the Rhode Island Training School, coordinated by AS220 Youth.
AS220 Youth is a free arts education program for young people ages 14-21, with a special focus on those in the care and custody of the state. AS220 Youth provides free studio-based classes in virtually all media including photography. Staff including photography coordinator Scott Lapham and photography instructor Miguel Rosario (who I met when I visited in 2011) help students build a portfolio with help from a staff advisor. AS220 Youth maintains long-term, supportive relationships with youth transitioning out of RITS and the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF) care, and offers mentoring, transitional jobs, and financial support. AS220 Youth works to connect youth with professional opportunities in the arts — through exhibitions at the AS220 Gallery and others; through publication in the AS220 quarterly literary magazine called ‘The Hidden Truth’; and through securing photo-assistant jobs on commercial photo shoots for students.
Photo: Steve Liss. Prisoners, ages 10-16, wait in line to march back to their cells in the exercise yard at the Webb County Juvenile Detention facility.
Photo: Steve Liss. 10-year-old Alejandro has his mug shot taken at Webb County Juvenile Detention following his arrest for marijuana possession. Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Steve Liss photographed in Texas 2001-2004. His book No Place For Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention (University of Texas Press, 2005) won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2006.
Steve Liss worked as a Time Magazine photographer for 25 years, assigned to stories of social significance involving ordinary people. Forty-three of his photographs appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. For his work on juvenile justice, Liss was awarded a Soros Justice Media Fellowship (2004) for my work on domestic poverty he was awarded an Alicia Patterson Fellowship (2005). Recently, Liss received the Pictures of the Year International (PoYI) ‘World Understanding Award.’ Liss has taught graduate photojournalism at Columbia College, Chicago and Northwestern University.
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Photo: Ara Oshagan, from the series ‘A Poor Imitation Of Death’
Ara Oshagan photographed inside the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall and the California prison system. Oshagan’s book of this work A Poor Imitation of Death is to be published next year (Umbrage Books, 2014). Oshagan is twice a recipient of a California Council on the Humanities Major Grant for his documentary work on diaspora groups in Los Angeles.
Interested in the themes of identity, community and bearing witness, much of Ara Oshagan’s work focuses on the oral histories of survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Since 1995, Oshagan has been creating work for iwitness in collaboration with Levon Parian and the Genocide Project. Father Land, a book project made with his father, well-known author, Vahe Oshagan was published in 2010 by powerHouse books.
Photo: Steve Davis. ‘Tiny, Green Hill, 2000’
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Photograph made in response to the prompt “Vulnerability” as part of photography workshop led by Steve Davis.
Photo: Anonymous student at Green Hill School. Discussing photographs made during workshop led by Steve Davis.
Steve Davis coordinated photography workshops in four facilities in Washington State (Maple Lane, Green Hill, Remann Hall and Oakridge) between 1997 and 2005. Simultaneously, Davis made portraits and photographs for his own series Captured Youth.
Davis is a documentary portrait and landscape photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Russian Esquire, and is in many collections, including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Seattle Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the George Eastman House. He is a former 1st place recipient of the Santa Fe CENTER Project Competition, and two time winner of Washington Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowships. Davis is the Coordinator of Photography, Media Curator and adjunct faculty member of The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA. Davis is represented by the James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Photo: Joseph Rodriguez, from the series ‘Juvenile’
Joseph Rodriguez photographed in the San Francisco County Jails 2001-2004. The work is collected in his book Juvenile (PowerHouse Books, 2004)
Joseph Rodriguez is a documentary photographer from Brooklyn, New York. He studied photography in the School of Visual Arts and in the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Rodriguez’s work had been exhibited at Galleri Kontrast, Stockholm, Sweden; The African American Museum, Philadelphia, PA; The Fototeca, Havana, Cuba; Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama, Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls, New York; Frieda and Roy Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater at the Lincoln Center; and the Kari Kenneti Gallery Helsinki, Finland. In 2001 the Juvenile Justice website, featuring Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs, launched in partnership with the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival High School Pilot Program. He teaches at New York University, the International Center of Photography, New York. Rodriguez is the past recipient if Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 1993 photographing communities in East Los Angeles.
Photo: Photo: Richard Ross. Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. Downey, California.
Richard Ross is a photographer and professor of art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Juvenile-In-Justice (2006-ongoing) “turns a lens on the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them,” says Ross.
A book Juvenile in Justice (self-published, 2012) and traveling exhibition continue to circulate the work. Ross collaborates with juvenile justice stakeholders and uses the images as catalysts for change. For Juvenile-In-Justice, Richard Ross photographed in over 40 U.S. states in 350 facilities, met and interviewed approximately 1,000 children. Juvenile-In-Justice published on CBS News, WIRED, NPR, PBS Newshour, ProPublica, and Harper’s Magazine, for which it was awarded the 2012 ASME Award for Best News and Documentary Photography.
Photography has innumerable uses, but one of its greatest qualities is it’s ability to tell stories. Sometimes that is through direct description of events and sometimes through evocation of emotion through colour and form.
In the rare cases when photography is used as a rehabilitative artistic tool for incarcerated peoples, straight documentation may be effected (even manipulated) by control and access privileges put in place by a prison administration. In the case of incarcerated youth, the essential and appropriate legal control which prevents identification of a child means that photo-education must be purposefully designed.
That is why when projects of light painting emerge from detention facilities such as the Rhode Island Training School (RITS), I applaud the invention and persistence of AS220, the Providence-based arts non-profit that conducts the program.
“In the striking images from AS220‘s If These Walls Could Talk, the magic made is not an illusion. Like a surrealist painting, the manipulated photos employ metaphor and symbol,” writes McCarthy.
The images are like electric bolts from the darkness; not something we’d necessarily expect but that is because our imagination may not soar like those of imprisoned children.
Photography has glorious potential to unlock the emotional needs of locked up youth. (A few weeks ago, I featured the work of those locked up in New Mexico, enrolled in the Fresh Eyes Project.) However, given the dearth of photo-education in juvenile detention facilities in the U.S., I can only conclude that the sensitivities to publication/distribution, and the road-blocks to getting a potentially security-threatening camera inside any prison inhibit the development of programs such as those run by AS220 at RITS and The Fresh Eyes Project in NM.
Are we missing massive opportunities to connect by not embracing the camera as we would embrace, say, a pen or paintbrush? Clearly, much more goes into helping children through emotional and behavioural difficulties — rounded and relevant education, vocational skills, counseling, substance abuse help — yet propping up these efforts is the need to steady emotional and self-esteem needs says Anne Kugler, AS220 Youth Director.
“Unless you address underlying emotional issues you can put all the services in place that you want and it doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be able to move through adolescent development in a positive way. That’s where I think self-expression and creativity come in. Unless children have the experience of being recognized for doing something creative and good it’s a hard road; inside in their heart they must feel there’s a purpose to moving forward with education and counseling,” says Kugler.
Youngsters are responsible for the lion’s share of the 1.3 billion images made everyday worldwide. It seems a little perverse to deny photo-based activities and visual literacy to incarcerated youth, no? Especially as it’s so relevant.
“When you watch young people with cameras they immediately want to use them,” says Kugler. “They know how to do so. They want to get their hands on the camera and they want to take pictures of themselves and they love being able to see — especially with digital cameras — their pictures right away. It’s fun and very accessible. Bear in mind, there are some children who — because of self-esteem issues — feel a sense of horror if you ask them to write a poem or draw a picture, but I think a photo in particular has accessibility that works great out there.”
Bravo to AS220. And let’s see more programs for incarcerated youth like AS220’s If These Walls Could Talk! A special shout out to Scott Lapham and Miguel Rosario who coordinate and teach the If These Walls Could Talk program.
All photos: Courtesy of students of the AS220 RITS photography program.
Young Russian Prisoners. Source.
Last week, TIME’s Lightbox published Michal Chelbin’s portraits from Russian and Ukrainian prisons.
Michal Chelbin‘s work includes adults and juveniles, but there is a strong persuasion in her work to consider youth and beginnings. Much of Chelbin’s past work depicts children who are fighters, gymnasts, miners or contemporary dancers – it as if they’ve been fast-tracked to adult lives of graft, competition and discipline. In that regard, her portraits of imprisoned children continues a theme and I’d argue we are not only presented with the seriousness of their confinement but also glimpse the awareness these children have of their deprivation.
On top of those winning elements (in terms of hooking the viewer) there is the obvious exotic; Chelbin communicates the exotic – and manipulates it too – with clear emphasis on, as Lightbox lists, “tropical wallpapers, lace-covered tables, furniture painted in glossy blues and greens […] floral house-dresses, cloth jackets and rubber sandals common to village life in the region. Religious icons seem as ubiquitous as tattoos.”
Fair enough. But let us not just subscribe to Chelbin’s heavily constructed view. A few months ago a friend sent me a link to the spuriously titled and information-vacant Young Gangstas. I think you’ll agree, the images catch the eye. First, because of their novelty and second because these are self-representations.
People aren’t going to be swayed toward feeling empathy for these posturing “gangstas” as they may for Chelbin’s maudlin subjects and even though Chelbin worked fast on the single days she had access to prisons it doesn’t mean she didn’t work fast to create a myth. In a previous conversation with Prison Photography, she described her approach:
“While I shoot almost all my work in Russia or the Ukraine, I feel that my interest is not social or geographical, but rather a mythological one. I return to these countries because they provide me with the visual contrasts that are the basic set up I am searching for – between old and new, odd and ordinary, as well as fantasy and reality. When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles so that not everything is resolved in the image.”
How different is this to the self-made camera phone photographs? In their naive posturing, and certainly in their tattoos, the young Russian prisoners are pushing their own mythology. One cannot know what the “photographer” holding the mobile phone had in mind, or if any of the subjects would expect their snaps to make it onto the web for a foreign audience.
If riddles are Chelbin’s game, and mystery her currency, maybe she’s found a match in these anonymous camera phone portraits? Forget about the gulf in aesthetic intent and you quickly realise there are as many unanswered questions, as many riddles about the cameras’ presence, and the photographer-subject relationships in the two bodies of work.
It might just be that Chelbin’s serves a much more palatable representation (for Western audiences). And that’s why her images are on a gallery wall right now.
Sergey, imprisoned for violence against women, juvenile prison, Russia © Michal Chelbin
Young Russian Prisoners. Source.
© Michal Chelbin