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Reentry in Los Angeles

Darlene Escalante with her grandmother, Veronica, she is on a home visit that she earned at Walden House. Darlene talks about how both parents were in prison and affiliated with gangs. As young girl, she remembers going to Chino State Prison to visit her father. When her mother went to prison too, Darlene’s grandmother took her to make visits. “Both my grandmother and my mother were drug addicts. In 1989, my dad died after he changed his life, he was a nurse. He was gunned down and shot nine times. I want so much to change my life now, that’s why I came to Walden House. I don’t want to continue this horrible legacy that has existed in my family.” Los Angeles, 2008. From the series Re-entry.

IN CONVERSATION WITH JOSEPH RODRIGUEZ

A long time ago Joseph Rodriguez and I chatted. An edited version of the conversation just made the webs.

If you know Joe, you know he’s not short of words. We covered a lot, but given Mark Ellen Mark‘s recent passing, I wanted to highlight this anecdote with which Joe closed the interview.

I was shy. I gotta tell you. I did it at ICP. Going to school there was amazing. I remember Salgado looking at my pictures, and all I could do was photograph my life as a taxi driver. I was really very shy, and I just I wound up shooting through the windows a lot—stuff on the street. It was pretty cinematic, but he saw the pictures, and he didn’t say anything. I fucking blew it. That killed me!

Then I took a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark, and she was the one who really kicked my ass. She said, “You don’t believe in who you are.” I got defensive and said “What do you mean?”

“Well, you don’t believe in yourself as a photographer,” she said. So, she gave me this exercise. “When you get up in the morning in your underwear stand in front of the mirror and tell yourself you’re a photographer for 15 minutes.”

Doesn’t that sound a little hokey to you? Believe it or not, your boy did it, and I began to slowly believe more in myself as a photographer.

Now, I tell my students the same. If you don’t go out with reverence when you say you want to photograph somebody, they’re not going to take you seriously. You’re going to get a snapshot, nothing more.

I found photography in a very amateur way; it gave me happiness, gladness, and made me want to produce something that I was interested and excited about. To this day, though, I’m still nervous when I’ve got to go out and photograph.

Read the full conversation at the ICP website.

L.A.P.D.

Homicide Detectives Dobine and Cedric Pacific Division. From the series LAPD.

JR.ESS.93.97.23

The Quiles family at home. Ramiro and Danny from Marianna Maravilla, with their mother Aida, and sister Maria. East Los Angeles, CA, 1993. From the series East Side Stories.

L.A.P.D.

Rampart Officers search the house of a family of a man who was shot by a gang member in his living room. They check the building for the suspect. From the series LAPD.

East Los Angeles, CA, 1993.

Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, CA, 1993. From the series East Side Stories.

Boyle Heights

A Clarence Gang member is hit with five bullets from an automatic weapon on the night of a gang truce in East Los Angeles. His fellow gang members rush him to the hospital. From the series East Side Stories.

From the series Juvenile.

L.A.P.D.

Rampart Division Officers detaining an arrested woman. From the series LAPD.

JR.ESS.92.22.15A

A family gathers the round of the coffin of Thomas Regalado III, who was killed by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. East Los Angeles, CA 1992. From the series East Side Stories.

Officers responding to a domestic violence call.

Officers responding to a domestic violence call. From the series LAPD.

The minors are leaving the facility and are chained down for transporting. San Jose Juvenile hall. San Jose, California 1999. From the series Juvenile.

From the series Juvenile.

© Richard Ross. Cell of a 15 year old boy on the mental health wing of King County Youth Service Center, Seattle, WA. Many of the children on the wing here are on psychotropic medication. He didn’t leave his house for three years; he hasn’t gone to school in three years. He is locked up because he assaulted his mother and his mother doesn’t want him. Placement will be difficult. The first step will be reconciliation with his mother. Alternatives to Secure Detention (A.S.D). He is under 24-hour observation and checked on every 15 minutes.

“The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in two homicide cases testing whether it is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a 14-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole,” says Nina Totenberg (Do Juvenile Killers Deserve To Be Executed)  for NPR. “There are currently 79 of these juvenile killers who will die in prison.”

Much of the coverage on JLWOP, an undeniably emotive issue, can be skewed. Totenberg, however, deals with the facts very evenhandedly (as she always does when reporting on the labyrinthine legal SCOTUS cases).

She gets to the heart of the matter, which is to ask ‘Are 14-year-old killers always killers who either can never – or do not deserve – to be rehabilitated?’ Essentially, in the 18 states where JLWOP has been handed down, the law believes that is the case.

It is Bryan Stevenson (whose TED appearance I mentioned last week) that is representing the two boys in this case. He argues that it is cruel and unusual to lock up until death a child who does not have the developmental capacity to appreciate his or her actions nor the ability to fully grasp consequence.

“We’re not saying that juvenile offenders who commit homicide can’t be punished severely,” Stevenson says. “They may even end up spending the rest of their lives in prison. But it’s premature, excessive and unfair to say we know this juvenile will never be rehabilitated.”

The problem is that law prohibits the consideration of an individual’s history or the circumstances of the crime in sentencing.

“Judges can’t consider it. Juries can’t consider it. No one can consider it,” says Stevenson.

Totenberg offers the example of Kuntrell Jackson a 14-year-old who robbed a video store with two others. An employee was shot dead but Jackson was not the gunman. “Under Arkansas’ felony-murder law, Jackson was deemed just as responsible as the triggerman. He was tried as an adult for aggravated murder and, under state law, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” explains Totenberg.

Sadhbh Walshe has just written (What JLWOP means: life without parole for kids) about a similar case in Pennsylvania. Robert Holbrook was look out for a drugs deal in which a female was killed.

Also in the Guardian, Ed Pilkington video interviews Quantel Lotts who murdered his step-brother in a fight aged 14 (Jailed for Life at 14: US supreme court to consider juvenile sentences). Lotts is in Missouri.

Pilkington puts it to Lotts that he might be a different person now as a 26-year-old. Lotts characterises his childhood – during which he was told violence solved everything – as a “phase.”

As I said in my last post, retribution cannot be eternal. We cannot justify it and we can only tolerate it if we make it invisible.

I close by repeating the words of an adult I met who had served three decades in prison on a LWOP sentence before winning a governor’s clemency against all odds. He said, “LWOP means you’re dying inside. It’s no different to a death sentence. It IS a death sentence.”

Natasha, Women’s Prison, 2009. © Michal Chelbin

For the past three years, Michal Chelbin has made portraits in the prisons of Russia and Ukraine. You can see a selection of the works from her series Locked on the New Yorker Photobooth blog.

Chelbin’s doleful portraits are striking – something different – and, of course, given their subject matter I was compelled to mention them here. However, without any specialist knowledge of the prisons in Russia and Ukraine, I struggled to think of a worthwhile statement to accompany with them. Is it enough for me just to say that work is beautiful and interesting? I don’t think so.

Therefore, this conundrum becomes the focus of this short post.

The way Chelbin describes it, her portraits are the first step on a journey (of undetermined length) to at least attempt to “know” her subjects:

“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. Who is this person? Why is he dressed like this? What does it mean to be locked up? Is it a human act? Is it fair? Do we punish him with our eyes? Can we guess what a person’s crime is just by looking at his portrait? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time? My intentions are to confuse the viewer and to confront him with these questions, which are the same questions with which I myself still struggle.”

It seems to me that this the type of curiosity we should expect of all photographers and their works; it’s partly how we are drawn into the previously unknown.

But the unknown has its dangers. As Fred Ritchin stated:

“Photography too often confirms preconceptions and distances the reader from more nuanced realities. The people in the frame are often depicted as too foreign, too exotic, or simply too different to be easily understood.”

Beautiful photography is easy to come by these days, and so, for me at least, viewing beguiling portraiture becomes an act of enjoying the beauty but then stepping further and using it to get at something deeper. That might involve a dialogue with someone over coffee; it might be to find comparative examples [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]; it might be to read up on the conditions for juvenile prisoners in Russian prisons; it might be to read the photographer’s statement or even contact the photographer directly to seek the missing pieces.

Photographs, and particularly portraits, are often a door unlocked but often in our busy lives we don’t even try the handle.

Perhaps now is a good time to return to some thoughts on what makes a great portrait, here and here.

“The statistics are embarrassing to the state [of Texas]”

Mona Reeder, Poynter Online, May. 20, 2008

60% of children under the Texas juvenile prison system come from low-income homes. Texas spends more than twice as much per prisoner as per pupil. Laying on the floor, thirteen-year-old Drake Swist peers out from underneath the bars on his cell door in the security unit of the Marlin facility. Kids get their first glimpse of life in the Texas Youth Commission through the Orientation and Assessment facility in Marlin, Texas.

41% of children in the juvenile justice system have serious mental health problems. Joseph, 17, got a little bit of sunshine in the yard outside the security unit at Marlin. The facility, which once housed adult prisoners in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Damon Winter recommended the work of Mona Reeder, a former colleague of his at The Dallas Morning News.

Reeder won the ‘Investigative Issue Picture Story’ at the 2008 Best of Photojournalism Awards for The Bottom Line. Through pictures, Reeder explored Texas’ poor rankings in a number of categories including health care, executions, mental health statistics, juvenile incarceration, voter apathy, poverty and environmental protection.

This is not solely a photography project about prisons, and thereby lies its strength. Reeder successfully links the stories of numerous state institutions that are left wanting when put under close examination. It is truly a Texan story for Texan constituents. Reeder explains, “As I was wrapping up a project about homelessness in Dallas, a social worker who had helped me with contacts on the streets handed me a set of statistics issued by the state comptroller’s office ranking Texas with the other states in the U.S.”

Photojournalism was an effective medium for this breadth of information, “This project represented a well-researched, in-depth piece about serious issues affecting the entire state of Texas, and it was presented in an innovative manner that even the busiest person could get through and absorb in a relatively short amount of time” states Reeder.

60% of children under the Texas juvenile prison system come from low-income homes. Texas spends more than twice as much per prisoner as per pupil. Laying on the floor, thirteen-year-old Drake Swist peers out from underneath the bars on his cell door in the security unit of the Marlin facility. Kids get their first glimpse of life in the Texas Youth Commission through the Orientation and Assessment facility in Marlin, Texas.

60% of children under the Texas juvenile prison system come from low-income homes. Texas spends more than twice as much per prisoner as per pupil. Laying on the floor, thirteen-year-old Drake Swist peers out from underneath the bars on his cell door in the security unit of the Marlin facility. Kids get their first glimpse of life in the Texas Youth Commission through the Orientation and Assessment facility in Marlin, Texas.

Mona Reeder has worked on numerous criminal justice issues in Texas, including death row stories and sex-offender rehabilitation.

As well as the BOP (2008), Reeder won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for The Bottom Line. She was interviewed by the Poynter Institute about the project and her approaches to photojournalism.

The Dallas Morning News gave The Bottom Line the full multimedia treatment with an impressive online package featuring eight slideshows of the stories of individuals wrapped up in the statistics. IT’S A MUST SEE.

Texas: First in capital punishment, second in the size of the income gap between rich and poor, and second for the number of people incarcerated. Behind every set of numbers is the possibility that yet another child will live a lesser existence. Does Texas not know what to do, or does it just not care? Texas has the most teen births and the most repeat teen births in the nation, earning a ranking of 50th in the U.S. Barely one day old, Jasmine Williams sleeps on her mother’s lap as they wait for the baby’s paternal grandmother to come and take custody of her. Her mother, Kimberly Williams, 15, is in TYC custody and correctional officers shackled her feet shortly after giving birth to her baby. Both of Jasmine’s parents were 15 when she was born.

Texas: First in capital punishment, second in the size of the income gap between rich and poor, and second for the number of people incarcerated. Behind every set of numbers is the possibility that yet another child will live a lesser existence. Does Texas not know what to do, or does it just not care? Texas has the most teen births and the most repeat teen births in the nation, earning a ranking of 50th in the U.S. Barely one day old, Jasmine Williams sleeps on her mother’s lap as they wait for the baby’s paternal grandmother to come and take custody of her. Her mother, Kimberly Williams, 15, is in TYC custody and correctional officers shackled her feet shortly after giving birth to her baby. Both of Jasmine’s parents were 15 when she was born.

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

These images are the result of a collaboration between photographer Steve Davis and the girls of Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center, Tacoma, Washington State in the US.

Davis was forced to think of the camera as a tool for different ends, essentially rehabilitative ends. For legal reasons and the protection of minors, Davis and his female students were not allowed to photograph each others faces. It became an exercise in performance as much as photography.

We see portraits of the girls with plaster masks, heads in their hands. The girls limbs outstretched made use of evasive gesture. The long exposures of pinhole photography resulted in conveniently blurred results.

remann hall kids 2002-7

 

remann hall kids 2002-8

remannhallkids 2002-10

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPHY vs ROTE DOCUMENTARY MOTIFS

Photography in sites of incarceration often depicts amorphous, vanishing forms within stark cubes; it is usually black & white, and often from peep-hole or serving-hatch vantage points. When this vocabulary is used and repeated by photojournalists, visual fatigue follows fast.

Heterogeneous architecture doesn’t help the documentary photographer. Limited and repetitious visual cues make it tough to work in prisons. Images, shot through doors, by visitors only on cell-wings by special permission, are dislocating and sad indictments of systems that fail the majority of wards in their custody. 

I celebrate all photography shining a light on the inequities of prison life. Having said that, very occasionallyonly very occasionally, do I wish a “prison photographer” had expanded, waited or edited a prison photography project a little longer … but I do wish it.

Photojournalism & documentary photography have taken a battering from within and been asked some serious reflective questions. I don’t want to accuse photographers of complacency. To the contrary, my complaints are aimed at prison systems that so rarely allow the camera and photographer to engage with daily life of the institution.

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

remann hall kids 2002-13

remann hall kids 2002-11

remann hall kids 2002-3

remann hall kids 2002-12

Therefore, I stake two positions on the issue of motif/cliché. First, repeated clichés have developed in the practice of photography in prisons. Second, prison populations have had little or nothing to do with the creation, continuation or reading of these clichés.

As a general criticism, I would say photographers in prisons struggle to achieve original work. But, prisoner-photographers – whose experience differs vastly from pro-photographers, custodians and visitors – cannot be held to that same criticism.

WHEN THE PRISONER CONTROLS THE CAMERA

These images by the girls at Remann Hall are distinguished from the majority of prison documentary photography, because the inmate is holding the camera. When an inmate repeats a motif it is not a cliché.

These are images of all they’ve got; concrete floors, small recreation boxes, steel bars, plastic mattresses and chrome furniture … all the while lit brightly by fluorescent bulbs and slat windows. These aren’t images taken for art-careerism, journalism or state identification. These are documents of a rarefied moment when, for a while – in the lives of these girls – procedures of the County and State took back seat.

When a member from within a community represents the community, the representation is above certain criteria of criticism.  A prison pinhole photography workshop has very different intentions than any media outlet. Cliche is not a problem here; it is a catalyst.

The simulation and reclamation of visual cliche (in this case the obfuscated hunched detainee) is doubly interesting. Why the frequent use of the foetal position? Why did the girls choose this vulnerable pose to represent themselves? Was it on advice? Was it mimicry? Was it part of a role they view for themselves? Why don’t they stand? Emotionally, what do they own?

As in evidence in some images, one hopes that some of these girls are friends. This selection of shots share a single predominant common denominator; the psychological brutality of cinder block spaces of confinement. Companionship seems like a small mercy in those types of space.

remann hall kids 2002-4

remann hall kids 2002-9

These photographs should knock you off your chair. I am in doleful astonishment. In the absence of faces, how powerful and essential are hands?

For now, consider how visual and institutional regimes square up.

remann hall kids 2002-6

Girls' Pinhole Photography Project

Since the original publication of these images, they have been viewed tens of thousands of times. More than any other photographer – famous or not – these images by anonymous teenage girls have been by far the most popular ever featured on Prison Photography. That appetite shows that when prisons and struggle and creativity are presented in a meaningful way, images can be used as a segue into wider discussion of the underlying issues.

The Remann Hall project was done as a part of the education department program at the Museum of Glass in partnership with Pierce County Juvenile Court. This comment sums up the importance but also the fiscal fragility of these arts based initiatives:

The Remann Hall project was an incredible project, which culminated in an outdoor installation at the museum and many of the participants coming to volunteer and participate in education programs at the museum after they were released. It was one of the many incredible programs I was lucky enough to be part of there. A book of poetry, artwork (and I think some of the photos in that link) was produced as well. The whole program was a great model for how arts organizations can do meaningful outreach in their communities. Unfortunately, the program was cut one year before the planned completion, due to budget concerns.”

[My bolding]

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