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This article was originally published as Vinny: David, Mon Frere, in French translation in Polka, Issue 39.

Vinny and David is a story about two brothers coming of age in New Mexico. Growing up with near absent fathers and a loving but struggling mother, Vinny and David came to rely on, and love, one another. They have both been incarcerated but their lives are more than the prisons, poverty and addictions that have inundated their young lives. Isadora Kosofsky has been photographing the siblings and their family for five years.

“You’ve taken the pictures that show what we are feeling inside,” says David. “The photos that go inside us.”

Kosofsky gets close. She consciously develops friendships first. Sometimes those friendships develop into a long-term project, sometimes not. At aged 24, she been documenting Vinny and David for nearly a quarter of her life.

“I must share in my subjects’ struggles over a sustained period of time in order to forge a bond. The relationships are more important to me than the actual image making,” she says.

 

 

The long association began one evening in 2012 in the juvenile detention center in Albuquerque. Vinny, aged 13, had just been arrested for stabbing a man who was assaulting his mother, Eve. Once he took his seat, Kosofsky introduced herself and listened. Though young, Vinny was full of wisdom and sensitivity.

“He spoke extensively about his relationship with his older brother,” says Kosofsky, “particularly talking about wanting his brother’s attention. What I had learned about Vinny and David’s brotherly relationship intrigued me, and I knew that in order to document Vinny’s life, I had to include David.”

One of the reasons Vinny was compelled to defend his mother was David’s absence. David was locked up, in the local county jail. Between 2011 and 2014, while awaiting trial for aggravated assault, David was repeatedly locked up for parole violations—either failure to check in with his parole officer or a dirty urine analysis.

After one-month, Vinny was released. The man he stabbed was not seriously injured. Vinny has not returned to jail since.

 

 

David got out of jail a couple of weeks before Vinny. Felicia, who was then David’s girlfriend, remembers only one good thing from that time: Vinny’s phone-call, from juvenile hall, on the day David was released.

“Vinny told David for the first time that he loved him, and that he was his brother,” says Felicia. “It brought them closer.”

Kosofsky asked the family if she could document them in their daily lives. Vinny doubted they’d agree to it, but they did. David was the most guarded. It was a year before his “mask” came off and Kosofsky was able to capture moments of his life.

Exposure to the prison system has marked effects on the whole family. Kosofsky describes Vinny, Davids and the family’s lives as ‘transcarceral’.

“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,” she says. “When David was cycling in and out of jail, a looming fear of loss hovered over the entire family.”

 

 

Furthermore, incarceration only adds to the emotional and financial stress of life, particularly so in New Mexico, the 49th poorest U.S. state. Children from lower-economic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by incarceration.

In 2015, the most recent year’s figures available, approximately 921,600 juveniles were arrested. On any given night there are 40,970 children behind bars. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention. The Justice Policy Institute estimates the long-term consequences of incarcerating young people could cost taxpayers $8 billion to $21 billion each year. New Mexico spends $74 million per year on supervision and services for youth in the system.

The rate of youth incarceration and spending wasn’t always so high. Throughout the 80s and 90s, politicians across the spectrum rallied votes by promising to be tough on crime. But, lawmakers failed to adequately distinguish between the transgressions of adults and the waywardness of youth. Juvenile systems built facilities that functioned like adult prisons. Youth were warehoused for longer sentences and rehabilitation was sidelined or suspended all together.

Fortunately, recent years have shown a move away from youth incarceration. States now realize that prisons do not reduce recidivism as effectively as other interventions. Prisons harm youth.

 

 

In April 2017, New Mexico received millions of dollars from the U.S. Justice Department to establish more appropriate, non-custodial, responses to parole violations. This will have real world effects. For example, had David’s parole violations occurred under these new rules, he would not have been in and out of prison more than ten times since 2011.

The number of youth now referred to the juvenile justice system is 50% lower than in 2009. The number of youth in New Mexico on probation has declined by 55%. There are fewer youth in New Mexico’s juvenile justice system now than at any time in the last decade.

 

     

 

 

As well as helping the public see the connections between poverty, addiction and incarceration, Kosofsky’s work has helped the family see themselves.

“All these pictures, every one of them,” says David, “bring back these memories to everyone in my family. It reminds us of what dope has done. What incarceration has done. What we have lost. The last five years,” says David. “It’s a fall out for my family. Especially myself.”

 

 

In the past, Vinny has looked at David as a father figure. David views Vinny as the only person who appreciates him. But David’s repeated absence has strained their relationship. Vinny feels his brother has let himself and his family down.

“I see two brothers who love each other unconditionally but one brother wasn’t there when he needed him to be. The younger brother,“ says Vinny about himself, “had to become the more mature brother.”

Now 18, Vinny is married with a one-year-old daughter, Jordyn. He’s staying away from trouble in a way he wishes his older brother would.

“I have my job, I’m relied on and I’m still employed. As long as I have income, I can support my child. It has brought responsibility and adulthood.”

 

 

Every time David strays he feels guilt. He wouldn’t argue with Vinny about having let him down.

“When I think about the photos of me in jail,” reflects David, “I think of how I don’t realize my actions until I’ve already reacted. You regret a lot of things in jail. A lot of things that you can’t change.”

Throughout Kosofsky’s photos, family members drape over each other, they hold one another and hold each other up. They entwine and grasp as if to tap some collective energy. A sense of exhaustion is pervasive, but exhaustion is held at bay by the love and (literal) support of loved ones.

The years have conjured visual repetitions too. In a recent photo, Vinny cradles his baby in the same way Eve cradled him and his siblings years ago. Vinny now lays on a motel bed with his wife Krystle, just as he did with his brother during their closer, more vulnerable times, years past.

 

 

In play, in grooming, in rest, the family gravitates toward physical touch. Perhaps they do this because they know that prison, child protective services and the courts can deny, and have denied, them proximity to one another. The project may have started in a prison but has extended far beyond.

“It’s about a relationship of a family,” says Vinny.

Vinny and David was part of Juveniles In Prison, and After, an exhibition of Kosofsky’s work debuted at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France, September 2nd-23rd. This Polka article was commissioned in response to the show.

Images from Vinny and David were shown on Capitol Hill when Senate Bill 1524, also known as The Dignity Act, was introduced to senate by Cory Booker (co-sponsored by senators Elizabeth Warren, Richard Durbin and Kamala Harris).

In October 2017, Kosofsky was awarded the Getty Images Instagram Grant.

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‘Chasing the Dragon’ © Robert Saltzman / Juan Archuleta. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”

I’ve heard from a couple of folk that when I started Prison Photography, they laughed at its folly. Not only had a bleeding-heart liberal thug-hugger come along to explain a world no-one cared about to no-one in particular, but silly-little-leftie-me would run out of projects and photographs in no time. Not only had I picked a subject nobody cared for, I’d neglected to do the proper amount of research and maths.

Well, more than eight years later, and I’m still stumbling upon scintillating projects that challenge my ever-evolving timeline of prison-based visual arts. Case in point La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, a collaboration between Robert Saltzman and the prisoners of New Mexico State Penitentiary, in Santa Fe, NM.

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© Robert Saltzman / Keith Baker. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”

Saltzman first visited the prison in 1982 to visit a friend and thereafter was fascinated by the lives behind the walls. Despite a massive riot less than two years prior, Saltzman convinced the warden to allow him in with his 35mm SLR, three lenses and camera-mounted flash. Saltzman gave assurances he was there as an artist and not as a reporter.

Over 9 months, Saltzman made 500 images on Kodachrome64 film. He picked the 35 strongest portraits but still wasn’t happy. They failed to tell a fraction of the stories or reflect even a small slice of the range of emotions he encountered. So he printed the 35 out and mounted them on white illustration board. He sent them back in, a few at a time, with a request.

“Please use the white space however you want,” Saltzman told Popular Photography in 1985.

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© Robert Saltzman / Jonathan S. Shaw. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)

Some photographers would be happy to get in and out with some portraits and call it a day. Plaudits to Saltzman that he distanced himself enough to make a hard call about the nature of his pictures. And with it adding more time and uncertainty to the project.

28 total works came back. In the first exhibition of La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, 11 were shown. Later, 14 were exhibited.

“The drawings and writings, coupled with Saltzman’s portraits, communicate a poignant and often tension-filled commentary on the prison experience,” writes James Hugunin, art historian, expert on prison imagery and curator of a 1996 show Discipline and Photograph which included Saltzman’s work.

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© Robert Saltzman / Ralph K Millam. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)

This work excites me because it avoids easy categorisation. This type of collaborative work is standard-fare these days with a new generation of practitioners inspired by the social justice priorities of photographers like Wendy Ewald, Anthony Luvera, Eric Gottesman and many more. In the early eighties however, when Saltzman et al. made these, collaboration was considered a bit amateurish. God forbid you allow scrawls upon photographs! Pencil was meant only for contact sheets, editing and for marking crops for the darkroom. Note that among famous photographers Robert Frank made some good scrawls on his stuff in the 70s for himself and for ad campaigns in the 80s and we all know Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1977-78) was before its time and the high-profile example of a photographer handing over prints for subjects to write upon.

With the exception of Danny Lyon, all the photographers I know that preceded Robert Saltzman in photographing inside US prisons–Steven Malinowski, Gary Walrath, Joshua Freiwald, Sean Kernan, Cornell Capa, Ruth Morgan, Douglas Kent Hall, Taro Yamasaki–were invested in keeping the camera, and thus the message and interpretation, in their own hands. Given the times and the preciousness of access, it makes sense that photographers would internalise society’s general attitude toward them as special messengers. (I should flag here, as I always do, that Ethan Hoffman’s work and book Concrete Mama was exemplary of this time in terms of giving over great space for his imprisoned subjects recount their stories.)

I wouldn’t say that photographing prison guards hadn’t happened by the early eighties, but it was unusual. So for Saltzman to get the written reflections of guard Ralph K. Millam (above) is significant too. Most photography projects within prison focus on the prisoners and very few focus on both the kept and the keepers.

In short, due to both its subject matter and approach, Saltzman’s La Pinta is landmark. Prisons weren’t photographed much in the early eighties and certainly not for as long as a year, the time it took Saltzman to complete the work. Its collaborative methodology allows for heightened emotional impact and positions it ahead of other works that later used similar formulas and embodied likeminded sympathies.

See more here.

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BEYOND PRISON PICTURES

Isadora Kosofsky insists her project Vinny and David is not centered in narratives of incarceration.

“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.”

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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

The series Vinny and David has received recent coverage in TIME and Slate. And plaudits.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Yellow Hand With Orange Glow. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

The potential for photography to change the lives of the incarcerated, particularly the young prisoners, is significant. Photography education provides all the therapeutic tenets of arts programming, but also develops new skills; visual literacy, computer and digital-darkroom skills, and (of course) the not-too-simple task of mastering the settings on a camera. Photography workshops flex different muscles than painting or writing workshops may. Photography allows storytelling beyond the pen and the paintbrush.

NOTE: I discuss many photography programs in this article, but all the images are by incarcerated children in New Mexico who’ve participated in the Fresh Eyes Project workshops.

THE FRESH EYES PROJECT

The Fresh Eyes Project in New Mexico is two years old. It delivers 10-week classes, twice a year in two New Mexico facilities – the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center (YDDC) in Albuquerque and the adjacent Camino Nuevo Correctional Center.

The planning, structure and accountability reported on the Fresh Eyes Project website is impressive.

Volunteer programs, cameras or not, must be water-tight, well-designed and directed. The Fresh Eyes Project clearly states its scope of work, it’s objectives, its internal assessment and feedback opportunities for students. I very much appreciate programs that share curriculum and lesson plans. Very valuable.

“Our purpose is to help the youngsters to see themselves and the community into which they would be released with fresh eyes as and for the community to see the youngsters with fresh eyes not as ‘the Other’ but as ‘our own,'” says the Fresh Eyes Project founder, Cecilia Lewis.

SCARCITY OF PROGRAMS INSIDE JUVENILE DETENTION

Sadly, projects like the Fresh Eyes Project are rare. In America, inside locked facilities there have been some occasional photography workshops but few consistent ones. I’ve mentioned many times Steve Davis’ workshops (there’s still so many photographs that remain unpublished). Fatima Donaldson recently led a digital photography workshop at Fort Bend Juvenile Detention Center, Texas (info and video).

Probably the best and most consistent provider of photography workshops to incarcerated youth is AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island. AS220 delivers education, including photography training, at the Rhode Island Training School (RITS), the State’s only juvenile detention facility. Classes are delivered as part of AS220’s Youth Photography Program which also works out of a downtown location and in local schools too.*

The Fresh Eyes Project and AS220’s work are the only year-on-year prison photography programs delivered in the U.S. that I know of. Please, contact me if there’s current programs of which I should know.

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Fear. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

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Ghost Hand. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

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These Bars Keep Me In. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR YOUTH STORYTELLING

Can a teen do without their phone? Is a phone ever without camera these days? Can that commonplace visual communication be leveraged to spark interest in other forms of image making? In other cameras? In film photography? I’d say so.

Thanks largely to the work of Wendy Ewald, literacy and personal development through photography is a familiar notion. Youth storytelling photo programs include Youth in Focus, Seattle: Focus on Youth, Portland; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; First Exposures, San Francisco; The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Inner City Light, Chicago; My Story, Portland, OR; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; and Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative.

This summer, at Photoville, I saw an exhibit Perspectives featuring the photographs of teens from Red Hook, Brooklyn. Perspectives came out of a specific PhotoVoice program, that itself is part of the ongoing JustArts Photography Program (formerly the Red Hook Photo Project)

The JustArts Photography Program (more here and here) is run through the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC) in cooperation with New York Juvenile Justice Corps and the Brooklyn Arts Council. As with all the RHCJC projects, the photography program exists to improve the lives of teens within the geographically and socially isolated Red Hook neighbourhood.

PHOTOGRAPHY AS INTERVENTION

Whereas JustArts uses photography as inspiration, working with kids from less advantaged communities to envision great futures, Young New Yorkers actually uses photography (as well as video, illustration and design) as intervention in the cogs of the youth justice system.

“Young New Yorkers a restorative justice, arts program for 16- and 17-year-olds who have open criminal cases. The criminal court gives eligible defendants the option to participate in Young New Yorkers rather than do jail time, community service and have a lifelong criminal record. The curriculum is uniquely tailored to develop the emotional and behavioral skills of the young participants while facilitating responsible and creative self-expression.”

Young New Yorkers (YNY) is remarkable. More to come on Prison Photography about their successes. This little shout out is the least YNY deserve.

If you want to support YNY’s work right now, their Second Annual Silent Art Auction is on October 16, 6-10pm, at Allegra La Viola Gallery, 179 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002. You can bid online, if you’re not in New York.

So much good work being done across the country. These kids are our future.

Fin.

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Shadow Portrait. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

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On The Outside. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

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Portrait Of My Teacher. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

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Scary Hands. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

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Mighty Me. Courtesy: Fresh Eyes Project

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* A couple of years ago, I interviewed the director of AS220 youth programs,  two of the photography instructors and a few kids. They also gifted me a portfolio of work and I’m long overdue to scan and present that material here on the blog. Please, stay tuned.

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I came across the work of the Fresh Eyes Project thanks to an article Capturing Captivity From The Inside, by Katy McCarthy for the Bokeh Blog on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Jérôme Brunet‘s photo essay Riding Shotgun with Texas Sheriff’s is a ferocious document of police activity and procedure in America’s ‘love-to-hate’ lone star state. I am in deep admiration of this project for it connects the dots and marries everything in a police officer’s routine from violent confrontation to mundane paperwork.

Brunet spent six months with Texas Sheriffs and the stark quality of his work demonstrates that.

Brunet’s work inevitably features sites of incarceration, but I contend viewers are more shocked Brunet’s depictions of inhumanity on the highways (and front yards) than they are of inhumanity within the confines of state institutions.

Prison Photography Blog embraces complexity and unanswerable questions and Brunet poses many. Prisons and jails are not isolated from society but a point of destination and departure throughout the cyclical mechanisms of state authority. It is right to feature a project that merges the chaotic unknowns (crime scenes) and prevailing controls (sites of incarceration) of police activity.

Brunet explains:

When asked why I’m interested in law enforcement, I’m compelled to reply, “We all should be.” The fact that we know so incredibly little about our ‘boys in blue’ all though we see them on our street corners and of course in more dramatized versions on television and in Hollywood, I’ve always been interested in the symbolic aspect of the modern day police officer; the man with the badge, gun and authority to dramatically change a persons life forever. Societies apparent answer to all life’s little and not so little problems. However bleak and insignificant a situation may seem, officers are constantly dealing with lost children, family quarrels, various assemblies of homeless and confronting each day, the violence and corruption humanity inflicts on each other everyday.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Much of the Sheriff’s department’s work is devoted to tackling drug-smuggling and again Brunet comments with incredible even-handedness

Roads linking Mexico to the U.S., such as the I-10, are sensitive arteries of a flourishing contraband. Even though another deputy in a deep sigh, admitted to me catching only ten percent of the actual traffic, a task force made up of U.S. Customs, D.E.A., Texas and New Mexico police have seized over 30 kilos of heroin, 2 tons of cocaine and 75 tons of marijuana. Even though these quantities sound enormous, actually landing on a large bust was a different story, only luck and perseverance enabled me to land on what was to be one of US’s largest single drug bust in US’s history. As a nervous Mexican driver arrives at the U.S. border and a routine check is made on his car, officers reveal neatly packed away in the trunk, 23.3 pounds of black tar heroin, estimated at 24 million dollars. This package is later revealed to the local press in Hollywoodesque fashion. I watch in amazement and think of the outcome of this Mexican peasant paid 1000 dollars to transport this load into the land of the free.

As an editorial decision, I have not included Brunet’s images of the station or officers’ meetings, but they are as vital as the images from within the jail. The images inform one another.

Here are two desperate images from the station and I’d like to know the exact context. I shall not speculate, only present.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Brunet offers insights into El Paso County Jail:

Texas, the second largest state in the U.S. also boasts the highest rate of incarceration (700 for 100 000). In an ultramodern county jail of El Paso, Texas, I witnessed different aspects of “the inside world”. Body searches, finger printing and delousing before the anonymous inmate dons the regulation blue overalls inscribed E.P.C.D.F. (El Paso County Detention Facility). On the top floor is the outdoor gym, from which you can admire the end of the Rocky Mountains and the beginning of the Sierra Madre into Mexico. Caged like lions, 40 federal prisoners await transport to a large prison. I am placed alone with one guard in this cage. Surprisingly enough, like a ghost, I hover through the crowd unnoticed, my heart beating for what felt like an eternity. Prisoners can only be exposed to the natural light of the gymnasium a sparsely granted privilege of only three hours a week.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

The photo essay even covers tactical training exercises.

An afternoon spent with the elite S.R.T. (Sheriff Reaction Team) proved to provide more excitement. This team made up of tough looking officers is specially trained to counter an unlikely riot in the prison. I was presented a billboard full of makeshift weapons made by previous inmates, everything from hand sharpened spikes, to knives made out of tooth brush handles with razor blades attached to their ends. All used for assassination purpose by gang members thriving too in the “inside world”.

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© 2009 Jerome Brunet Photography. All rights reserved.

Brunet has admiration for officers “just like you and me”, whose work is unpredictable and occasionally very dangerous.

We will find in the police officers, goodness, honesty, corruption and brutality. In many cases we are the police, and like it or not we are responsible of their actions as much as our own. The more we know about them, the more we observe and tie ourselves to them, and the more this society will feel secure. This realistic testimony succeeds in making us share a few privileged moments into the life of these Texas and New Mexico cops as well as revealing the true backdrop of American culture.

Unlike other reportages of state authority, Brunet is keen to impress the absence of racial inequalities of power.

The majority of the men and women I interacted with were primarily Hispanic. Because of their ancestry they were able to bring forth a much appreciated warmth and understanding that I and, I’m sure, the rest of the townspeople, who were also Hispanic, enjoyed and accepted openly.

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Jérôme Brunet is a freelance photojournalist Jérôme Brunet was born in southern France and raised in London, Ontario (Canada). After obtaining his O.S.S.D. majoring in visual arts, he started his post secondary education in Paris, France, at the E.F.E.T. School of Photography, graduating in 1997. Jérôme Brunet has been published internationally through such diverse publications as Rolling Stone Magazine, Forbes and The New York Times. His client list includes The Discovery Channel, Fender Musical Instruments, Nikon Imaging Inc. and is currently featured on the official websites of musicians Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and James Brown. Jérôme Brunet is currently working and residing in the Bay Area of San Francisco and is represented internationally by the Zuma Press agency.

Jérôme Brunet also takes portait pictures of musicians here and here.

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