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No people, no explosions. Just heavy, damped-down, grounded-down city streets. Franco Pagetti‘s images of strategically positioned sheets in the Syrian city of Aleppo is powerful work.

From the VII Photo website:

Sheets line the devastated streets of Aleppo, Syria, acting as shields to obscure Free Syrian Army soldiers from the view of Bashar al-Assad’s security force snipers. Before the war, these sheets served a very different purpose as residents used them for privacy or to protect their homes from harsh weather. “Aleppo’s sheets serve the same purpose: they protect lives,” says Franco Pagetti. “But you’re always aware how fragile they are.”

It would be trite to say that the images look like stage sets and the sheets like backdrops; it evades the seriousness of the sheets’ necessity. It would be more appropriate to liken the sheets to those laid over the face of a body following death; huge covering-veils marking the death of a neighbourhood and its people.

Ultimately though, it is a cruel loop of irony inherent to these images that has me crushed.

Both photography (generally) and Aleppo’s sheets (specifically) are about vision and its manipulation. It is not necessary for these sheets to physically repel a bullet, they just need to negate the ability of a gunman to fire one.

And, even though it is fashionable these days to completely disown the notion that photography has agency to change attitudes, let alone directly change events (it would be insulting beyond measure to suggest photography could stop a war), we clamored for images of the conflict in Syria as it took hold in 2011 and 2012.

For many months, Syria’s war was top of the news-cycle; a surprisingly long time for our current attention spans. I think part of the persistent — almost nagging — interest was the fact that we were involved in debates about the veracity of citizens’ and fighters’ mobile footage. We wanted to know accurately of the events but we were also affronted by the fact “our” named journalists and outlets couldn’t or wouldn’t get into Syria.

Photographers such as Thomas Munita, Rodrigo Abd, Goran Tomasevic, Robert King, Jonathan Alpeyrie eventually got in and showed us the horrifying violence from both sides. Remi Ochlik died while he made photos in Homs in February 2012.

Today, nearly two-and-a-half years on from the start of the unrest, Pagetti’s work is a less frantic look at Aleppo; a look at the battered foundations of a city; at the persistent sadness of conflict; at the pathetic shreds that remain. It’s a requiem.

The sheets are death-masks and the fact they hang so poignantly and that Pagetti’s photographs are so poetic has me doubly crushed.

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Mercedes Smith, a formerly incarcerated person, reads a letter from her currently imprisoned son, at a relatives house where she lives after working all day on July 13, 2012, in Manhattan  New York. Ms. Smith is not allowed to live with her family while she is on bail because her mother still lives in the same building as where the crime took place. Ms. Smith served 20 years for 2nd degree manslaughter and was released in 2010. (Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII)

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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to create a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This conversation with Ashley Gilbertson is the final part of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’

(Part One): Think Outside The Cell / VII Photo Partnership
(Part Two): A Conversation With Ron Haviv
(Part Three): A Conversation With Ed Kashi
(Part Four): A Conversation Wtih Jessica Dimmock

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This text has been edited from longer conversation.

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PP: In part four I spoke with your colleague Jessica Dimmock. How was it working with her?

AG: It was easy. Jess is a photographer as a primary, so she knows how photographers move. We went back to Mercedes’ home one night and Mercedes went into her room and opened a letter. I looked through the door and I saw that it was a handwritten letter and I knew that her son was in prison. It was from her son. She started reading, I took some frames and moved out the way and Jess could shoot. That was an isolating scene that was very poignant – reading a letter from your son, while you are on parole, in a house that you’re trying to get out of.

PP: Why should we care about prisons and their aftermath?

AG: In the aftermath of prison, ideally, prisoners are changed members of society. Prisons are a place where people can at least try to signify to society that they have made recompense for crimes they’ve committed. Why is it important that we pay attention? The size of it. Until I met Mercedes Smith, I had no idea of the intensity of the problems former prisoners are facing.

PP: What type of problems?

AG: Housing. Mercedes living with a family member in housing projects in Manhattan. She wants to move on from that, but housing is so expensive that for her to actually afford something is really hard. And this is where all these elements that former prisoners face come together; she’s working two jobs part time and she’s looking for a third job. But it is very difficult for her to find any type of third job because she has curfew hours. Getting back to her apartment after curfew means she’ll break her terms of parole and potentially face going back to prison. For her to get an apartment she needs a third job.

Say if she wanted to move to New Jersey where housing is cheaper, she can’t. Her terms of parole require her to stay in New York State.

PP: Does she have good support?

AG: She was in a fortunate position because when she came out of prison to a very supportive and loving family. It is not quite accurate to say that Mercedes is fortunate because, in fact, she has worked very hard to get to where she is. Her children had been cared for by her mother and they visited her regularly while she was in prison and they had relationships. So, even after having done 20 years in prison, she had a warm and supportive environment to come back to and that’s something that – as I came to understand the issue better – a lot of people are lacking.

Mercedes is a really supportive mother who is doing everything she possibly can for her children. Two of her children live with her mother, one is down South and one is in prison. I saw her speaking a couple of times with her son that is in prison and it was a really warm and loving exchange – the tone of conversation that we all wish we could have with our mum.

PP: What did Mercedes hope of the project? Why did she go in front of cameras?

AG: Mercedes never said she felt like a role model, but she has figured out how to get out of the hole and she wants to save other women time and energy as they try to do so.

Both of Mercedes’ jobs work around her existence today as a parolee and as a former prisoner. She works with Women On The Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), a group that lobbies for women who are imprisoned and particularly women who are giving birth in prison. The work plays directly into Mercedes’ experience, as she gave birth to her youngest child in prison, I believe.

Her other job is working with women just out of prison and giving them advice about what they have at their disposal; what organizations that might get in touch with. It is a mentor role. And she works at that second job with her own mentor.

PP: Your work is always about America.

AG: I research ideas and become interested in issues at a concept level, then I’ll start meeting people – community leaders in Pontiac, Michigan, for example, or in the case of Bedrooms Of The Fallen, family members. Everything I do is about America.

I see America as this sort of social experiment. I grew up in Australia; in the Commonwealth. I’ve lived in America for nine years, yes, but it remains so foreign to me. I hadn’t met a large group of Americans until 2003 when they marched into Iraq. I learnt more about America in Iraq than I did in America over those first few years [of the War on Iraq].

Working on different issues, here in America, is to continue to look at this experiment. The way Americans wave flags. It’s the same as how Australians wave flags, but in many ways it is very different.

The way Americans carry guns, the way they incarcerate people – it’s the world leader in so many poor statistics, but then in many great statistics too. I find it so bizarre to work here. There’s just an endless wealth of material. I don’t work on things I have a passing interest in. I have to be actively engaged … and, usually, angry.

Each aspect of American culture I look at, whether that’s politics, incarceration, war, treatment of veterans at home, suicide, post traumatic stress disorder, the auto industry, the economy – each thing adds to this tapestry that I’m trying to understand, and I want to, I just don’t know if I ever will.

PP: Why has VII pursued a partnership with TOTC?

AG: This partnership appealed because it was looking at a project in a way that offered solutions, with stories of people who were actively getting out of the problem, trying to create solutions to it. That is compelling.

I’d say it is a traditional approach to go to a prison and photograph the scenes and problems there. Or, to go to “convict alley” in Harlem, where there is the highest concentration of parolees living within a certain numbers of blocks in Harlem.

I was reading about speech-writing the other day and they were saying at the end of strong speech is a call to action. Both Ronald Day and Mercedes stand as a call to action. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been convicted of crimes because they’ve gotten beyond that and turned into people who empower those around them.

PP: VII wants to extend the project. Do you think you’ll continue involvement?

AG: I hope very much that the project goes on, and that it goes national. Think Outside The Cell is an incredibly powerful approach to this problem, so to see it produced on a national level would be compelling. I’d like to be involved, but I’d like more to see other photographers brought in.

It turned from an issue that I cared about into something that I all of a sudden became involved in. For a lot of us working in the press, it takes a significant amount for us to be shocked by certain things we see people come up against.

The opportunity that I’ve had to meet these inspiring people who are working to get out of this rut and try to change it at a policy level – that should be regarded by as wide a swathe of people as is possible.

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Jessica Dimmock. Credit: Unknown

Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This conversation with Jessica Dimmock is the fourth of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’

(Part One): Think Outside The Cell / VII Photo Partnership
(Part Two): A Conversation With Ron Haviv
(Part Three): A Conversation With Ed Kashi
Part Five): A Conversation with Ashley Gilbertson

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Prison Photography (PP): In the first two interviews of this series, I’ve spoken with Ed Kashi and Ron Haviv who followed Ronald Day. You collaborated with Ashey Gilbertson to tell the story of Mercedes Smith. Tell us a little about her.

Jessica Dimmock (JD): Mercedes spent 20 years in prison. She was 24-years-old when she was convicted. She has been out for only two years and she is in her late forties. Her energy is pretty amazing; if you met her you’d have no idea she’d spent so long in prison. She’s the perfect subject in that people ask, ‘what does a person who has been in prison look like?’ and she overturns the stereotypes.

She’s so warm. There’s a giddiness to her energy which, to me at least, indicates a lack of bitterness. Whether or not she’s guilty or innocent doesn’t matter. The reality is that she was in prison for 20 years and she is a lovely person to be around. Her relationship with her children is good. She is close with her granddaughter. They are a strong family for sure and it is good to see.

PP: Could Mercedes success not also have been problematic for you as a storyteller? It might be that you’d present a subject and the audience think, ‘Oh, well, people have no problem readjusting, there is no issue here.’

JD: I don’t wish her situation upon anyone, but in terms of her standing in for a large population in similar circumstances – people going through difficulties with housing, employment, family and reintegration – she is a good subject.

PP: What issues specifically is Mercedes dealing with?

JD: Housing. She currently lives with an aunt. She could stay with her mother – who is an amazing influence in her life – but because her mother’s building is where Mercedes was arrested Mercedes cannot live there. So, she has to stay elsewhere, which in her specific case, is probably more detrimental to her wellbeing and to her chances of reentering successfully.

Employment for her right now is good. That employment is not a problem for her but housing is, is in itself very interesting because you can see she is very high functioning with the type of work she does.

PP: Why were you attracted to the project?

JD: There has been a lot of stories and documentaries about prison – about the wrongfully accused and the exonerated – which are all important stories, but I don’t feel like I’ve seen many documentary treatments about the reintegration process.

In movies we often see an opening scene in which the prison gates open, the main character walks out and that’s the beginning of a character arc. It is a trajectory commonly used in fiction. I realized I didn’t know what the real life version of that was, or is.

PP: How did you approach it then?

JD: We wanted to spend some real time with Mercedes. To see how she reintegrates with her family; how she is with her kids, who are great, by the way; and what it is like for her in the workplace.

PP: What did Mercedes want to get out the project?

JD: Overall, she realizes there’s a lot of stigma attached to former prisoners. Now, she works with at-risk populations and with women who are currently incarcerated. She’s really involved in the church. She prays and that is a process tied very much into decision-making for her. She’s an open person. I don’t think she was overly moralistic about it – she was just thinking, ‘that sounds as if it would break down stigma, go ahead.’ We didn’t feel driven by any agenda of hers.

PP: During the project did you discover anything about how male and female populations function differently inside prison?

JD: Yes. There’s not the same amount of educational programs in women’s prisons.

I know a woman who had been imprisoned at Valhalla [Westchester County Jail], which has a very small female prison population of girls that have been, for example, convicted for shoplifting or prostitution. But because it is such a small prison there are no programs. This woman spent 10 months there and didn’t go outside once. It’s not the longest sentence, but could you spend 10 months indoors? I don’t want to do that.

Mercedes talked about how overall Bedford Hills was a pretty supportive environment in terms of the actual women; there wasn’t a lot of drama; there wasn’t a lot of fights; there wasn’t a lot of craziness; they all took good care of each other. That’s maybe the other side of the gender issue.

PP: The project is on reentry. Does Mercedes feel like she has adequate support?

JD: In some areas, yes, but in housing definitely not. She wants to have her own place – she’s a woman in her late 40s who has a job. It’s valid that she wants that and she’s finding it difficult.

She also doesn’t have credit. If you’ve spent twenty years of your adult life behind bars you’ve not been able to build up credit. It’s not that she has bad credit; she just doesn’t have a credit score. Compared to other adults her age, that is a significant disadvantage and that won’t change unless of some direct intervention. Even though it doesn’t seem like the most soul wrenching part of it – maybe the family reintegration stuff is more emotive – there is a reality that makes credit scores an issue.

PP: I am interested by the word ‘stigma’. How would Mercedes characterize her situation?

JD: One of the things Mercedes discussed was that she will always wear the label ‘felon’. She will always have this version of a scarlet letter. She doesn’t get to walk around free of that. It will interfere with job applications, housing applications, and so on.

The paradox for her and the thing that feels very unfair is that she served time and that’s supposed to be the punishment, so to find you’re still being punished for the one act you were told you served time for is a frustrating process. You want to feel like you’ve done the time. But the reality is, you have to go around and tell people all the time that you’re a person who served time. Mercedes’ frustration makes sense to me.

PP: Was it an emotional story to cover?

JD: Not emotional, more enjoyable and that is down to Mercedes’ personality. She was very forthcoming about all aspects of her life. Mercedes has a son who is currently incarcerated – that’s got to be really hard. A son, who several months after she came home – went into prison. As a parent it’s potentially shameful and difficult to discuss but she would totally talk about it. She had received a letter from her soon one night when we went over and she read it out loud to us. She didn’t say, ‘This is an aspect which should stay hidden’, but rather, ‘This is all of me and you can share it.’

PP: VII has done other partnerships in the past? Starved for Attention probably the biggest example. MSF is international. US Aid is national. Think Outside The Cell is a much smaller organization.

JD: If you dive into the VII archives you’d find similarly small or lesser known organizations in addition to big ones such as Human Rights Watch with whom Marcus Bleasdale works.

VII and other photographers are more and more linking up with NGOs. What is less common, and particular to our work with Think Outside The Cell, was that there were several of us doing it.

People are moving toward more collaborative efforts – a) because people are doing more video, and filming is not a solo project, and b) because there is an interest in watching how several people can work together, even on a single subject.

PP: You’re invested in constructing a narrative, dealing with an issue. My angle for the longest time has been political – I believe there are serious structural problems with the criminal justice system. Some times those arguments can be quite abstract. You’ve said Mercedes wasn’t bitter but how did she feel about the prison system in America?

JD: Mercedes is actively involved with programs that support people still inside and about to reenter. It’s about how she wants to lead her life. I think she thinks, ‘If I don’t get weighed down by my past and I continue to engage with it, I’m not in any denial but instead I am emotionally and psychologically moving forward with it.’

That’s the sense that I get; now that her sentence is over, it is a decision to have that time be over. Even though she struggles, her energies and emotions suggest she is not staying stuck in the past.

PP: What do you hope the VII/TOTC campaign might achieve?

JD: I always try to show things as they are. I really try to not say, ‘Look at how outrageous this is.’ My storytelling might come from a place of thinking there is a problem but I try not to show a story in that light.

If people see something that is authentic and they observe the real things that are happening then they will then come to their own conclusions. I don’t have to be moralistic in my telling of the story. And so what I most immediately hope is that people watch it – I want exposure – and but more than that, I want people to spend time in someones elses experience. I hope we convey it accurately so the audience says, ‘Okay, now you’ve just watched that. That’s what her life is like. That’s what her situation is like.’

PP: You’d be really satisfied if people identified the story with someone in their own lives – a friend, family member, or someone on who lives on their street?

JD: Yes, then they have a reference point and they get it. But, if you push people too much to feel bad for this or that person, it might not happen or translate much in their real life. I want the audience to understand the issue; I don’t want them to feel bad.

PP: You don’t want audiences to say of your subjects, ‘Oh, they are different, and I’ve always thought that.”

JD: Right.

PP: Outside of you as a story teller, and instead you as Jessica Dimmock, do you feel the criminal justice system works?

JD: Definitely not. I am a political person but this project on stigma is not overtly political; it comes from my curiosity about correctional facilities. What it is that correctional facilities do to prepare people to come back to society and not fail? What do they do to make sure that after serving time prisoners are better equipped to come out and not repeat their actions? The locking people up part is happening, but the reentry part is not.

All you must do is look at the statistics in populations that the criminal justice system is directly effecting. How many people on the street have gone through a correctional process? Those figures start to go off the charts. If it’s really failing – and looking at the numbers – it is, then we have a massive problem.

PP: Any thoughts on the intersections between prisons and photography?

JD: There is an organization that takes requests from prisoners in solitary confinement …

PP: Yes, the Tamms Year Ten Project organised by activists based in Chicago. They accept photo descriptions and requests from prisoners in Tamms Supermax Prison in the south of Illinois. Fascinating and unique project.

JD: Some of those requests are so sweet. No one at the Tamms Year Ten Project is saying how you should feel about people on death row. All I did was see these requests and it changed everything. “I would like a picture of a horse galloping in the sunset” – words so sweet and that I could never make up. “I want a picture of a woman and I’m on my knee holding a rose for her.” It’s what every woman would want. Sweet and romantic, which was very surprising. If I’ve ever read paragraphs that break down stereotypes, then those requests are them.

PP: Jess, thanks.

JD: Thank you.

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Ronald Day en route to work, NYC. © Ed Kashi / VII Photo

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Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This is the third of a five part series, ‘Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.’

(Part One): Think Outside The Cell / VII Photo Partnership
(Part Two): A Conversation With Ron Haviv
Part Four: A Conversation With Jessica Dimmock
Part Five: A Conversation With Ashley Gilbertson

Ed Kashi, together with Ron Haviv, photographed and videoed Ronald Day‘s story. Ed and I chatted about his experience and the issues at stake.

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Editor’s note: On September 27, 2012, Ronald Day was discharged from parole. He has since obtained his passport and registered to vote. On November 6, he will vote for the first time in his life. These interviews were conducted prior to September 27.

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Prison Photography (PP): When the idea of this partnership cropped up, how was it that yourself, Ron, Ash and Jess became the first four photographers?

Ed Kashi (EK): To some degree we were chosen on proximity to the subjects. Proximity to New York … and budget. We sense that we’ll expand this work dramatically into a bigger documentary series – not only in terms of going more in depth with our two subjects but with two more subjects.

EK: I’ve done a lot of work on prisons and similar subject matter. I don’t know about the other three. I am driven by examining social and political issues and increasingly it is frustrating to be able to do that for publications and the editorial world. I can speak confidently for all four of us and say our hearts lie in examining social and political issues, but it is so hard to get the funding let alone the interest and the buy-in of the editorial world, so whenever the chance to partner with NGOs or foundations or organizations and go out in the world and do honest and good visual reporting and know that the work will be used in an effective way to advocate for these issues, we take it.

PP: Can you give us a brief background on those stories you’ve done on prisons before?

EK: The first project that I did was in the late 80s. I pursued a personal project on the issue of private prisons looking at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) based in Nashville. I was fascinated back then by the issue of privatization that began under Reagan and Bush Snr. I was concerned that we were privatizing such a critical function of society. I went to four facilities around the country.

Over the years, I’ve also had assignments to go to San Quentin or Folsom to do one or two day shoots for TIME magazine, that kind of thing.

The next really big encounter with prisons was during my aging project. During the very first stage of what became an eight-year project on how America is growing old, I did a story on aging prisoners. I went to a couple of prisons with dedicated geriatric facilities. I did the fieldwork in 96 and 97 and the story eventually ran in the New York Times Magazine in 1997. It seems to be an issue I’m always bumping up against in one way or another.

PP: Compared to most photographers, your experience with and within prisons is incredibly wide and involved. Most photographers if they touch on the subject – and sometimes it might be accidental – might do do only once. Repeated visits to prison across the states is unusual. Access to private prisons is very unusual.

EK: I’d be amazed if CCA would give me or another photographer access again. They let me go to a juvenile facility in Nashville, an immigration facility in Houston, a maximum security prison in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a prison in Panama City in Florida. That the early operating years of CCA and maybe they were seeing it as a PR/marketing effort. I mean, I wasn’t even on assignment. To think that CCA would allow in the late eighties a freelance photographer from San Francisco to photograph in their facilities figuring, ‘Well, we’ve not had bad publicity yet, we’re just getting started, this is a way for people to know what’s going on.’ In the state of California, years ago I believe, they set down a policy in which journalists are not allowed in any of their facilities. More and more today, things are really shutting down. Access is in general shutting down for journalists in many ways. We’re perceived as having lost our neutrality and are now considered partisans!

PP: Well, we hear the term “liberal media” constantly. It is one of the most meaningless slurs I can think of. NPR is not liberal.; it’s journalism organization and it is neutral.

EK: The fact that anyone would call Obama a socialist is ridiculous. You should be sent back to school!

In terms of media, the type of person to go in to journalism should have an open and progressive mind. And I don’t mean progressive in a political sense; I mean you’re looking at the world trying to find out what’s going on; trying to figure out how to move forward; seeing the problems and then looking for where there may be solutions. By the nature of this work, you should be progressive and open minded, but unfortunately that has been translated into, ‘You’re Liberal.’

Quite frankly, I think there is something much more venal and dangerous this represents. What we’re now experiencing is something that was begun under the Nixon White House in the sixties and Pat Buchanan was very much behind it … and truthfully Cheney and Rumsfeld and the older Bush were part of it. It is in many ways, no different to what fascist and authoritarian regimes have done – which is to debunk and attack the media. If you don’t kill them physically, you delegitimate them. Really, that’s my very firm feeling of how these political movements work and it is very sad to me to see that this is happening in America.

I don’t see it happening in Europe, but America is such a huge country, a huge swathe is under-educated or naive. I think it is the nature of a large country. It is not that these are bad people, it’s just that they are not educated. It pisses me off and it scares me.

PP: Let’s talk about how that relates to this partnership. Does that landscape you just described, does that imperil the way potential this work and it’s products could be seen, interpreted or understood? Or do you look at it another way, a more positive way, that there wouldn’t have been a pressing need in the past to reach down and give a helping hand to a young, fledgling NGO. How does VII Photo, Think Outside the Cell and Sheila Rule anticipate that this work will be consumed?

EK: The way I look at this advocacy journalism, which is what I call it, is we gain access to subject we would otherwise have trouble getting access to. That’s number one. Number two, we’re doing it in cooperation with an organization that we know will disseminate the product to the policy makers and the people and organizations who can make a real difference and drive change – be it on a legislation for funding level.

Then, VII or the photographer can take that work and have a free hand to distribute it in the media landscape. The difference is that in the past I’d have to convince New York Times magazine or whoever it is [ahead of time] to give me time and money to go and do the work. Theoretically, I’d have been able to gain access because of the guarantor of a reputable organization and then the work would be funneled through that media organization for good or bad effect. In a sense, I prefer this [way of doing things] which sounds kind of weird. Just so you understand, on a process level, I’d rather just be working all the time for New York Times magazine or National Geographic or whomever, just because I love that being a journalist and having the support and protection of a media organization, but given the way things have changed and given the reality – both economically, politically and structurally of media in our society today, this is an exciting development that is taking place. As long as it is done in the correct way, where there is no slanted or biased reporting.

PP: You’ve been liberated but not compromised? And you use the phrase ‘advocacy journalism’ which is the most fitting term I’ve heard.

EK: On a deeper level – and this is definitely a product of my age and the stage I am in my life. Being mid career in terms of my work and certainly being mid career in terms of my life span and being a parent of teenagers and being engaged with the world not just as a journalist but as a citizen – I want this goddamn work to make a difference.

It’s not just about, ‘Hey, look, I got the cover of National Geographic magazine’ or ‘Hey, I’m on assignment for the New York Times Magazine.’ Its not that those things don’t have value any more, it’s that they are not the purpose. The purpose is, ‘How do I make work that makes a difference. How do I make work that can be utilized to make positive change?’ I think it is critical for us to find ways to tell stories that give optimism and a belief that there’s a way forward. We need to bear witness to the worst things that are going on in the world and not sugarcoat them. Obviously we need that objective first hand view of things. Whenever we can tell a story that exposes a problem but proposes a solution, I think that is the height of journalism.

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Ronald Day at his home in the Bronx, during a Father’s Day barbecue, held on June 17, 2012 in New York City. © Ed Kashi/VII Photo.

PP: That’s what you want out of it. What do you think your subject, Ronald Day, wanted out of it?

EK: That’s a great question because it cuts through to the potential naked ambition of the photographer or the journalist. You’re getting points by shooting in a prison because it is gritty and it is edgy and it is tough and cool. You know what I mean? Characterized in that warped way the professional can work. Whereas, I am at a point now where I wouldn’t want to go into a prison or do a story on Ronald or anyone if I were to hurt the subject in any way.

What does Ronald want? I think he wants his story to be told, and it is common among people who agree to cooperate with journalists – it’s a little bit of vanity and a little bit of hope. At the very least, their situation will improve and for those who are a little more magnanimous, telling their story may help others in similar positions. I believe Ronald is a selfless man. He’s a pretty brilliant dude; he’s a smart and totally impressive. He is a poster-child for this particular issue. He is not your average ex-prisoner. I left the project missing him.

PP: How long have you lived in New Jersey?

EK: I moved here Christmas 2004, so eight years. I was born in New York city and raised in the New York area. In 1979, I moved out to the Bay Area.

PP: What did you learn, as a resident of the region, about New York State? VII and Think Outside the Cell intend to expand the initiative to other states. At that point the stories will change because each state carries different laws. But did you learn anything through Ronald peculiar to New York State when it comes to the stigma of reentry.

EK: I was surprised to learn about how a one size-fits-all nature of bureaucracy ends up shafting extraordinary guys like Ronald. The probation rules are a central theme of Ronald’s psyche and story.

PP: I’m presuming you think he should’ve had a faster track through probation and been able to take on student loans and start his PhD and make international travel.

EK: Yes, and for instance, now he is in this position where because of the job he has and the teaching at night, it forces him to break his curfew rules. He has to get up a 5 in the morning, to catch the bus to the train at 6:30, so he gets to Brooklyn in time for his work, but technically he’s not supposed to be out of his house until 7am. He could potentially be penalized for that. Or he has to go to some event in the evening, where he is teaching or speaking or taking a class and technically then he’ll get back home after his curfew. I understand that with tens of thousands of parolees in the state of New York you can’t have tens of thousands of different sets of rules, but it would be great to find a way to bend and accommodate for people when it is so clear they are on the right path. That might seem like a minor thing, but it is not minor to him.

PP: Anything else?

EK: I don’t know if I expressed this adequately but ultimately the goal of this work is to further break down the stigma of people who have been in prison and – as is the case with any journalism – to educate people. We have to look at the formerly incarcerated in a different light and in a sense we need to look at how the structures of our society deal with the formerly incarcerated. At a functional level, that is more important for former prisoners – so that when they go for housing or employment, they don’t face hurdles that basically leave them in a self perpetuating negative cycle.

PP: Do you think your media of choice, photo and video, are entirely appropriate? Inasmuch that you are battling stereotypes and many misleading stereotypes that have been created through mass media images, TV and film.

EK: That’s where this partnership with Think Outside The Cell is different. In a perfect world scenario, the work gets presented through big outlets, but ultimately this work will be used by Sheila Rule and her organization to advocate in the trenches. Progress occurs when a few minds who actually have some influence on the system are changed. So, they go into their next hearings, congressional meetings or classrooms and they open up others’ eyes. It is something I believe in – even despite all the cynicism and the over-mediated world we are living in, I absolutely believe in that, because I’ve seen it happen. You change one mind and then there is a ripple effect.

PP: Hear, hear. Thanks Ed.

EK: Thank you, Pete.

Image: Ron Haviv / VII Photo

UPDATED: 06/27. 4:25am EST

Following the September launch of VII Photo/Think Outside the Cell’s collaboration, Prison Photography will roll out four related interviews with each VII photographer to capture first hand the journalists’ perspective on reentry, on the images and video they made, on the stakes at hand for subjects who are navigating a precarious time following their incarceration and on the relevance of image to public attitude.

– – – – – – – –

On Saturday afternoon, I listened to Michael Shaw’s lecture about how governments and corporations are increasingly influencing flows of images through strategic releases and staged ops. In a time of shrinking budgets, especially among printed media, we are all aware of how the modified – or sometimes not so modified – press release is quickly reworded and passed off as news. It goes without saying that this is a sad state of affairs. It goes with saying because below I am  presenting an unmodified press release from VII Photo.

I should also add that I have spoken with a few representatives of VII Photo over the past few days and my decision to post this was also shaped by my keen personal interest in their professional pursuits as well as the personalities working away in VII’s Dumbo headquarters.

When I started blogging, I was a Billy-Nobody … and I rarely knew the photographers or organisations I was writing about. As time has passed, however, I am more frequently in the position of writing about the activities of people I know or with whom I may have shared a drink or meal.

Such a growing fraternity may not be unusual for anyone wending her or his way through any field – and this might be a disclaimer of unusual length – but I wanted to say that things feel different now.

I am not invisible anymore.

PRESS RELEASE

VII PHOTO AGENCY ANNOUNCES VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS PARTNERSHIP WITH THINK OUTSIDE THE CELL FOUNDATION

VII Photo Agency today announced a new long-term partnership with the Think Outside the Cell Foundation to produce documentary film and photography features that raise awareness about the experience of formerly incarcerated persons.

Think Outside the Cell is a non-profit organization founded in 2010 that works with the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and their families to help end the stigma of incarceration. Through personal development workshops, storytelling and other creative approaches that provide building blocks for productive lives, the Foundation helps those affected by the prison system to create their own opportunities.

The first documentary feature project of this partnership will include a short film and photography essays that capture two subjects in New York City as they experience the daily challenges of reintegrating into society after being released from prison. The project will be launched Tuesday, September 18 on the Think Outside the Cell website and screened nationally at conferences, education forums, debates and in policy circles addressing legislation related to mass incarceration. The imagery and film will be syndicated by VII Photo internationally.

Each year, an estimated 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States, including approximately 26,000 in the state of New York. Often, people are branded as felons for life, and the stigma creates societal barriers that make successful reentry unattainable and staying out of prison with limited access to resources unsustainable.

VII photographers Jessica Dimmock, Ashley Gilbertson, Ron Haviv and Ed Kashi are collaborating as a team shadowing the subjects day-to-day as they deal with the challenges of reintegrating into society.

The partnership launches a long-term collaboration between VII Photo and Think Outside the Cell. VII will act as the Foundation’s exclusive visual communications partner with the aim of raising awareness about incarceration’s stigma and the local, state and federal laws that prevent formerly incarcerated persons from accessing the resources necessary to establish a stable and productive life.

“Think Outside the Cell is delighted to work with VII Photo in tackling head-on the stigma of incarceration,” said Sheila Rule, the Foundation’s co-founder. “Countless men and women who’ve been to prison have extraordinary potential, yet this crippling stigma has led to laws and policies that make it legal to deny them the essential components of full citizenship; employment, housing, educational opportunities, public benefits and the right to vote. Our visual partnership with VII Photo will open hearts and minds to the true impact of the long shadow of incarceration.”

Contact:
Kimberly J. Soenen
, Director of Business Development
Tel: 718.858.3130
kimberly@viiphoto.com

“The unseen subject of these photographs is Power. They show us the human limits to the understanding of Power. There are many things we don’t know about Power. We don’t know if Power is the same everywhere, if its manifestation in one place and time is meaningful, measurable, subject to the same laws as another.”

– – Donald Weber, ‘Confessions of an Invisible Man’, Interrogations, pg. 158

Given that Donald Weber‘s Interrogations has just been awarded a World Press Photo award in the Portraits category, now is a good time to look at the book of the project.

– – –

At passport control my fingerprints flagged an “interaction” with the police authorities five months prior. Directed to a waiting room, I was told to take a seat and remain there until a customs and immigration officer could clarify the details of said interaction.

I wasn’t told how long the wait would be.

Thumbing around in my bag for some reading material to pass the time, I broke a wry smile when I pulled out Donald Weber’s Interrogations. He’d mailed it a few weeks prior. This was the first chance I’d had to look it over.

– – –

Held by a stitched spine, the 160 pages taper to the centre on the outside edge of the book (see image above).

Weber and publisher Schilt also made the decision to bind it in the same wallpaper stock that hangs on the wall behind many of the detainees. Weber has come to see the modern State as “a primitive and bloody sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.” The choice of the outmoded wallpaper is an unnerving nod to the Power of a throwback era and brings us closer to the outmoded policing within these outmoded spaces.

Weber spent months – possibly years – building a rapport with the police department in order to sit in on their questioning and to make photographs. “I would just sit there from 9am in the morning to the evening, and just wait. I went days without actually taking pictures. It’s a game of chicken, and I always flinch last,” Weber told Colin Pantall. I’m a little disappointed Weber doesn’t provide the name of the station or town it is in. All we know is that it is in Ukraine.

Interrogations is an unorthodox, shocking and depressing portraiture project. A juvenile, with words scrawled on his forehead in black marker-pen, sobs; a woman in a dirty sheepskin coat resembles more a carcass than a human; in a sequence of three images we witness one detainee first, terrified; second, threatened by an open palmed strike; and third, with a gun to his temple.

– – –

I was sat awaiting the inconvenience of an unnecessary interview, but I was certainly not awaiting the psychological and physical abuse meted out to Weber’s subjects.

After our brief chat, the immigration officer asked me if I had any questions and assured me I wasn’t on camera. In a relatively powerless position, to not be recorded was a small victory, I considered.

– – –

This idea of being seen during an interview goes to the heart of Weber’s series.

– – –

Here I was, subject to networked systems of law enforcement and U.S. Homeland Security, but I could be sure I’d not face the intimacy of abuse depicted in Weber’s photographs.

– – –

The strength of Interrogations is that it teeters on an ethical dilemma: should Weber have been present? In attendance, was Weber complicit? Are his photographs further abuse and violation?

The answers to these questions are ones that Weber is happy to take on and he has done so in public forums here on Prison Photography and also at Colin Pantall’s blog and at DVAFOTO.

The answers are also easier to find than we might think.

I’d argue Weber’s presence had little to no effect on the behaviours of the interviewers. Given the time he spent in interrogation rooms (evidenced by 51 portraits no less) I’m inclined to subscribe to the reasoning that eventually a photographer’s presence is taken for granted/forgotten and behaviour is less and less effected by the camera-wielding observer.

Diane Smyth, for BJP, describes the interrogations as violating theatre, “Igor and his partners play good cop, bad cop (“or actually, really bad cop, and bad cop”), using threats and intimidation to break the suspects they are questioning in the seemingly anodyne pink room.” Weber sat in the stalls, watching.

One presumes that if Weber’s attendance did alter activities it was to lessen the abuse, not escalate it?

When we are faced with decidedly uncomfortable (abusive) scenes in photography, we cannot help ourselves but to think of the photographer as in some way complicit. This is a sure way to derail inquiry; it is an emotional response that centres on the act of photography instead of the subject. As Susie Linfield lays out in The Cruel Radiance, photography of atrocity can as easily provide an opportunity to dismiss the act, distance ourselves from the images, and move away from topic at hand.

Weber’s work is in our face, but that doesn’t mean we should turn away. An illustrated prologue of Weber’s six years in the former Soviet provide some context for Interrogations. These darker, exploratory more ambiguous images temper a presumption that Interrogations was a smash-and-grab job; we know Weber spent years in the region and that he built-up to this particular project.

Similarly, Weber’s essay, ‘Confessions’ and Larry Frolick’s epilogue provide insight into living within the milieu of policing, crime and punishment in Russia and Ukraine. These elements of the book together provide opportunities for us to enter into the complex society in which Weber lived and worked.

Bluntly put, the superimposed dilemma of a photographer’s ethics are the least of the concerns for the people in the region and in Weber’s photographs.

Weber provides no caption information for his subjects. Did he ever have access to it?

In his brief essay, Weber is aware of his role as photographer within a web of power (with a capital P); how else would he be granted entry to interrogation rooms? Weber puts the meaning of his photographs not fully on the lives of his unknown subjects, but in the context of institutional power.

“We do know that Power is dangerous and exhilarating,” says Weber in the book’s essay, “It expands in proportion to its invisibility.”

With that, instead of asking what does it mean for a photographer to witness institutional abuse, we should be asking what does it mean when there is no witness, photographer or otherwise?

Interrogations, (160 pages) by Donald Weber (2011)

Published by Schilt, Amsterdam.

Designed by Teun van der Heijden of Heijdens Karwei, Amsterdam.

Printed by Wachter GmbH, in Bönnigheim, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Distributed by Thames & Hudson worldwide. Distributed by Ingram in North America.

UPDATED: 9:30AM PST, NOV. 10TH

Car thief. © Donald Weber / VII Photo

Since first coming across Donald Weber‘s series Interrogations, I wondered how the hell Weber got the shots and how he handled the ethics of the work. Colin Pantall tapped him up and got some answers.

Weber:

“Watching the methods was not pleasant. Humiliation, violence, degradation. How could you not be repulsed? But the reasons I was there were not for judging them, but was to actually show something very special in the terms of the secrecy of the act. I made a special document precisely because it was about the ‘absence of the void,’ that it showed humans at their most vulnerable and most cruel. This series could easily be judged along the same lines as a war photographer that constantly gets criticized for not doing anything, for not jumping into the fray.”

I’m going to sit on the fence on this one, but I can see a lot of criticisms heading in Weber’s direction. I will say that this is not a cheap project; Weber has demonstrated his commitment to the former Soviet countries.

If we demand photographs to make us think, photographs to show us things we would not otherwise see and for photographers to be cognisant of – and close to – communities in which they work, these are the types of images that will result.

UPDATE

9:30AM PST, NOV. 10TH

As you know, so often I think it is important that a photographer really describes the circumstances of their work. Donald Weber must be aware that I harp on about access (as it relates to photography in prisons) because he emailed me and asked me to pass on this information:

Weber:

“As you know, I’ve spent almost six years living and working in this area. On my very first trip I met a police detective with whom I got along with. Over time, we developed a bond and a trust. Every trip I would bring him photographs and was always very upfront with my work, who I was and what I was doing. Never hiding the results, however critical they may be of him and the methods the police employ.”

“About five years ago I witnessed my first interrogation, and was utterly shocked at its violence, not just physically but mentally as well. Solzhenitsyn talks for almost a third of his book The Gulag Archipelago about the nature of interrogation, and the importance of the interrogation not just through Soviet history, but universally. He would think everyday about the moment of his interrogation how he was broken, and everyday about the moment of his execution. So, the seed for this story was planted.”

“For obvious reasons I could not just ask to photograph inside an interrogation. As my work progressed, so did my police contact, who rose over time to the rank of Major. He had gained a position of authority to grant permission. Since we had spent so many years together photographing, he was aware of my methods and how I worked. We rarely spoke to each other, during work or after hours. I felt it best to maintain as much distance as possible but still respectful of his role. When he finally granted permission he still made me work for the access to the actual accused.”

“I sat almost everyday for four months on a bench in a hallway of the police station waiting with the people who were to be interrogated. The first month, not  a single frame was photographed. Each day I would show up 9am, and leave approximately 12 hours later. Most days were spent with nothing to photograph, many of the accused were not interested in having there photo taken. On average, I was lucky to photograph maybe two people a week over a four month period.”

“This was not simply a case of walking in saying hello as a privileged Westerner and flashing my camera around. This was a project five years in the making. So before anybody rushes to quick judgement, I felt the facts as to how the work was created should be shared.”

Between April and now, right under everybody’s noses, Visura Magazine only went and interviewed about over a dozen of the really important folk in photography. Here’s a few:

Interview: Jessica Ingram
Interview: Michael Itkoff
Interview: Mark Murrmann (Mother Jones)
Interview: Claire O’Neill (NPR Picture Show)
Interview: Nathalie Herschdorfer (Curator, Musée de l’Elysée): reGeneration project
Interview: Brian Storm (MediaStorm)
Interview: James Estrin & Josh Haner (NY Times Lens Blog)
Interview: David Alan Harvey (Burn Magazine)
Interview: Nelson Ramírez de Arellano (Curator, Fototeca de Cuba)
Interview: Jon Levy (FOTO8)
Interview: Ricardo Viera (Curator, LUAG)
Interview: Idurre Alonso (Curator, MoLAA)

And in plain sight of everyone, Gerald Holubowicz went long-from and interviewed on film some of the sharpest minds and forward thinkers in the industry (Sharpness is a must to mastermind the diversification and survival of leading collectives such as VII and Magnum.)

Gerald’s interview series “Sortir du Cadre” (Think outside the box) has so far quizzed

Interview: Stephen Mayes (Director of VII)
Interview: Mark Lubell (Managing Director of Magnum)
Interview: Paul Melcher (Cofounder and Senior Vice President of PictureGroup)
Interview: Jean Pierre Pappis (Founder of Polaris Images)

– – –

First class efforts from Gerald and from Adriana Teresa and Lauren Schneidermann at Visura

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