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Over a period of six months, between the summer of 2014 and the winter of 2015, Amber Sowards shot 20 rolls of film in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The series of portraits she made is called Captured.

“The series hopes to expose the general community to what life is like for incarcerated youth in Dane County,” writes Sowards. “While at the same time creating a visual narrative that documents and puts a face to what racial disparity looks like in present day Dane County.”

The population changed over the months. Many young people left the facility during the project’s run. Others arrived. Some weeks, Sowards saw three teens. Other weeks she worked with 25.

Sowards’ directions to the youth were minimal.

“I asked if I could photograph the youth and then I picked the location of the shot,” she says. “Then we just had a conversation and photographed naturally. Most of the teens really liked having their photo taken; it made them feel valued.”

The conversations were so striking that it soon became evident that teens’ voices were central to portraying their life as those “in an unnatural environment”. The voices in aggregate challenge the audience to imagine alternatives to incarceration, something more natural.

They were collaged into a 5-minute track which you can listen to here.

“We did not intend to pair the photographs with audio [at first],” says Sowards. “That decision came later.”

As with most other portrait series of incarcerated youth, anonymity is a prerequisite. The genre of portraiture becomes a hell of a lot harder when you don’t have facial expression and eye contact to work with. The thing that strikes me about Sowards’ work (and it might just be the softer edge of analogue photography) is that the children seem to adhere to the palette of the place. The images are diffuse with the blues, beiges, grey and white light of the facility. The chess board and the green ball are sharp punctuations of color.

There’s an noticeable degree of civility in the environment too. While the interiors and hardware are unmistakably institutional there’s clearly an array of activities at the teens disposal. The viewer is left in no doubt that these prisoners are children and therefore, I hope, viewers carry with that an expectation and optimism that this is a space that will help the teens in the long term. If this seems a modest hope then consider that in many photographs of (adult) prisons a complete lack of care, protection and nurturing is most evident, and is the norm.

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Sowards says some staff at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center were fine with her presence and that of her camera. Other staff members were uncomfortable. This too suggests that the juvie depicted here might be for some therapeutic. In facilities where cameras are not welcome, where they are a considered a threat, one assumes that not all is right. Fortunately, for these teens, not the case here. Captured is a pleasant, modest look inside a previously unknown microcosm of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

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Captured was sponsored by GSAFE and delivered through its New Narrative Project. GSAFE increases the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators, and families to create schools in Wisconsin where all youth thrive. The New Narrative Project aims to foster self-determination through custom-designed workshops that help incarcerated youth access their potential and think analytically about the social justice issues they are impacted by.

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Discombobulated

Discombobulated

I was delighted to find this collection of “Jail Finds” recently. It is a quiet statement amidst the cacophony of dross we are subject to daily.

The person who documents these notes, scribbles and profundities works for a volunteer library service serving the local Dane County Jail and operated by the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

These are things I find abandoned in books or stuffed on the book cart at the jail where I volunteer. A little context: these come from a county jail, not a state prison – a very important distinction. Most inmates (approx. 75%) are short-term “holds.” They’re there awaiting trial (meaning they couldn’t afford bail); on probation violations; or are federal prisoners being shuffled around the system. About 1/4 are women and 1/3 are minorities. The vast majority stay less than 30 days.

Torture?

"Subject Mukasey, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to Guantanamo style Waterboarding. Then ask them if it is Torture."

Events and Consequences

Events and Consequences

Test

Health Testing Request

List

Childhood and Adulthood

Prison is Wrong

Prison is Wrong

A Mouse is Fast, A Cat is Faster, A Gun is Faster Yet, But i always Miss. That is not True, I AM A GOOD SHOT

The Mouse is Fast, The Cat is Faster, My Gun is Faster Yet, But I Miss a lot. NOT TRUE, I'M A VERY GOOD SHOT

List

Vocabulary

Letter

Letter of pledges, hopes and favours.

What ties these examples and the other 100 or so in the collection is humanity and surprise. Humanity we should hope of all and surprise we should absolutely insist on from all. Some of these scribbles are penitent in the old fashioned ideal, some are reflections of harsh reality.

I wouldn’t argue, that in my mini-curation, I may be biased. I have picked the most appealing and the most redemptive of scripts, but I feel this only goes some small way to redress the imbalance of mainstream media that a) simultaneously condemns and sensationalises criminals and b) cares little for the transgressor once locked away.

Spanish

"God give me serenity to accept the things I cannot change and give me valour to change those I can. And wisdom to recognize the difference. May your will be done and not mine."

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

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