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TEACHING PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE

I’ve known about Vance Jacobs work in a Medellin Prison for as long as it has been in published form, but this recent post by StoryBench reminded me of the excellent and brief video reflection Jacobs gives about his time teaching prisoners to use cameras to document their own lives. Originally, Jacobs was going to be the only person photographing, but at the eleventh hour the sponsoring NGO for thre project changed the concept and he was asked to educate a dozen men in prison.

“You could tell it had been a long time since the prisoners in my class had received this much attention. But I also had high expectations and those expectations led to it being a very important experience. They started taking a tremendous amount of pride in their work and they started to understand that criticism could be a really important part of their work and theta they could grow from it,” says Jacobs.

This type of introspection and self-documentation is vital, in my opinion.

At the final exhibit inside the prison of 35 images, 5 went missing. “To have a photo stolen was a badge of honor,” says Jacobs. “It meant someone thought they were worth stealing.”

BIO

Vance Jacobs, a San Francisco-based photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Books and Esquire magazine. He talks about his creative process and behind the scenes details of his different shoots at his ‘Behind the Lens’ YouTube channel. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

See features on Jacobs’ work at GOOD, WonderfulMachine, Photographer on Photography and PDN Online.

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Photojournalist Vance Jacobs talks about teaching a workshop in a maximum security prison in Medellin, Colombia.

PREVIOUSLY ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY

In November 2009, I described Jacobs’ prison workshop as an exercise in self-documentation overturning stereotypes and the ‘exotic fetish’.

After working closely with his legal team for more than three years, Alan Crotzer feels alone as he sits in the CNN spotlight for his first live solo television interview, days after his release. “The whole world is out there and I am all alone.” Photo Credit: Vance Jacobs

There’s a thorough Q&A with photojournalist Vance Jacobs at Photographers on Photography.

Vance covers his work in Medellin Prison with Colombian prisoners (which I’ve dissected before) and talks about his compulsion toward friendship with Alan Crotzer, a man who was exonerated after serving 25 years for a crime he did not commit, and the subject of Jacobs’ Exonerated: Alan Crotzer.

“From a purely journalistic standpoint, it was hugely fulfilling to be able to draw a line between a story about Alan that appeared on the front page of the Miami Herald and the car a local doctor decided to donate to him after reading about his plight or to see how one three-minute appearance on Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN led a total stranger to give Alan a nice apartment in a safe neighborhood to live in at a very discounted rate.”

“But at the end of the day, I felt my responsibility was to help Alan in any way I could—not just to take pictures and I think that can be at odds with what some people think of as the journalistic oath not to intervene—just to witness and document. I ended up spending over 30 days with Alan and I spent a vast majority of that time just trying to help him set up his life. Whether it was his first cell phone, first bank account, first driver’s license, first apartment, first job and so on …”

I read this on the same day the New York Photography Festival opens and co-curator Elisabeth Biondi says:

“There are no more discoveries to be made. Anyone can take a picture now, so it’s forced documentary photographers to have a more personalized vision.”

Within the field of prison photography, it is my observation that the best projects incorporate elements of collaboration with prison inmates, staff and/or volunteers. Have we moved toward a norm where the photographers’ story is the story; that personal perspectives are what the audience wants?

If photojournalists are getting personally involved with the people in front of the lens – especially if they’re making positive contributions that no-one else provides – then so be it.

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Often it seems photographs of South American prisons are presented in North American media only to emphasise the gulf that exists between the conditions of incarceration in the two regions.

I have posted before about prison beauty pageants in Bogota, Colombia; about the rise and fall of prison tourism at San Pedro in La Paz, Bolivia, and I have looked twice at Gary Knight‘s photography at Polinter prison in Rio de Janeiro – latterly featuring the conspicuous acts of a celebrity evangelical minister.

(Nearly) all photo essays I see coming out of prisons in South or Central America fall into one of two categories, or both:

1) A colourful contradiction to the dour, authoritarian environments depicted in US prison photojournalism.
2) A claustrophobic assault on our emotions as witnesses to desperate overcrowding and poor hygiene. The example par excellence of this is Marco Baroncini’s series from Guatemala.

What leads me to a narrow, ‘boxed’ categorisation of such documentary series is that I am convinced photographers know either the media or their editors well enough to know what flies with Western consumers and as such deliver an expected aesthetic.

I was therefore left without anchor when cyber-friend Nick Calcott sent over this latest offering by GOOD magazine on Medellin’s prison in Colombia. The images are by the inmates themselves:

On the invitation of the Centro Colombo Americano, an English language school for Colombians in Medellín, Vance Jacobs ventured to the Bellavista Prison with an inspired assignment: to teach documentary photography to eight inmates in one week.

“One of the things that gets the inmates’ attention is responsibility, that there is a stake in what they do. In this case, their ability to work together as a team, and to pull this together in a very short amount of time would determine whether other similar projects were done not only at this prison but at other prisons in Colombia,” says Jacobs. “Once they bought into the idea that there was a lot at stake, they really applied themselves.”

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In the past, I have wondered how the camera can be used as a rehabilitative tool and it is a question that can be answered from different angles. In this case the responsibility given to the inmates is how we can derive worth. I have shown before that performance and team work in front of a camera can be good for exploring the self and ones own identity (and the results are of huge intrigue). The common denominator for any photography project is surely that it immediately relieves the boredom of incarceration.

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After spending the last 50 years of his life behind bars, 75 year old Earl Reinhardt is about to be set free. He is completely unprepared and has no money, no destination, and no family or friends to help him when he walks out the prison door. Sarah Bones

After spending the last 50 years of his life behind bars, 75 year old Earl Reinhardt is about to be set free. He is completely unprepared and has no money, no destination, and no family or friends to help him when he walks out the prison door. Sarah Bones

“What happens when a 75 year old who has spent his last 50 years behind bars gets released?” This is the questions Sarah Bones asks in a careful study of Earl. Earl has no plans, no money and no destination. He makes this clear to those in positions to aid his assimilation into society and yet, after he leaves prison, he predictably turns up homeless and seemingly alone.

At an exit interview in Laural Highlands SCI in Somerset, Pennsylvania, Earl tells the prison social workers that he doesn't want to leave and he is confused about where to go and how to survive. Sarah Bones

At an exit interview in Laural Highlands SCI in Somerset, Pennsylvania, Earl tells the prison social workers that he doesn't want to leave and he is confused about where to go and how to survive. Sarah Bones

Bones does an excellent job with the captions pointing out the realities of Earl’s modest life – keeping warm in the library, eating at soup kitchens, avoiding queues at the health center, unable to find work, wearing the same prison jacket – only with his name crossed out. Earl explains over coffee that living homeless is tough and he wishes he was back inside. Bones’ photography is evidence that for a lot of former inmates the common experience after release is homelessness. Being outside the prison walls is to be outside all walls.

Earl thinks that if he keeps a low profile and stays quiet they will forget to release him. Sarah Bones

Earl thinks that if he keeps a low profile and stays quiet they will forget to release him. Sarah Bones

Earl is unable to wrap his head around his imminent reentry into the free world so he shuffles and hides around the prison hoping the prison authorities will forget about him. I think the same denial would strike pensioner who hadn’t walked free since the early 1950s as a young twenty-something.

Still wearing his prison jacket only now with his name crossed out, Earl stands underneath an abandoned storefront roof to stay dry. Sarah Bones.

Still wearing his prison jacket only now with his name crossed out, Earl stands underneath an abandoned storefront roof to stay dry. Sarah Bones.

After Earl’s release Bones searched for him. She found him in his home town a few hours from the prison. He had taken greyhound. For three months, Earl lived on the streets. He fell down some stairs, and thereafter was admitted to Reading hospital. Earl was hospitalised for 8 weeks and then taken into permanent nursing home care. During his three months on the street, Earl often showed his prison ID to people he met. His institutional identity was one of the few things he had, and when he ended in up in permanent nursing care one feels that a return to an institution, without the stresses of life outside, was a positive result for Earl. Maybe.

Earl flashes his prison ID photo card when approached. It is all that he has to show for himself. Sarah Bones

Earl flashes his prison ID photo card when approached. It is all that he has to show for himself. Sarah Bones

There have been several photo essays done about prison release, but often they feature men with a story to define based on their own choices. These men are younger prisoners who usually return to complex communities, daily decisions, and family interaction. Or the inmate is the exonerated after an overturned sentence. Vance Jacobs did a great series covering Alan Crotzer’s story of exoneration after 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Earl’s case seems very different. It doesn’t seem Earl had many choices … or ones that he was aware of. Sarah Bones completed this series in 2002/03. Earl died in July 2005.

Of Bones’ other work, I am particularly struck by three photographs from East Africa which includes two heartwrenching portraits of AIDS sufferers shunned by their families and a top-drawer portrait which deserves an essay in itself. Please view Bones’ other photo essays on Rwandans lives 15 years after the genocide and her Lightstalkers gallery which includes her work for the Sierra Leone Global Action Foundation.

Sarah S. Bones is a self-taught, award-winning, internationally-exhibited photographer. Sarah saved for her first 35mm camera at age 13. She has documented peoples’ stories in Cuba, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Tanzania. In the Pennsylvania area, she has photographed in prisons, homeless shelters and on political campaigns. Bones tells the stories of men, women, and children who are voiceless and too often ignored by the popular media.

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