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This is the first part of a two part interview. Part two was published on published Thursday, 23rd July, 2009.

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Steve Davis. Green Hill, 2000

You already know the work of Steve Davis, you just don’t know it. Prison Photography‘s most popular post was that of pinhole photographs made by the young ladies of Remann Hall, Tacoma. Steve Davis conceived of and led the workshop.

Concurrent to workshops, Steve worked on his own project, Captured Youth (1997 – 2005) turning his lens on the juvenile offenders and institutions within Washington State. Steve’s introduction to the Captured Youth book reads, “What are officially referred to as “schools” are, in fact, youth correctional facilities – jails for juniors. It’s a world kept secret from the general public, but there are no secrets inside. Everyone is watched.”

Steve and I sat down to talk about the circumstances of the workshops and portraits, the involvement of – and benefit to – the teens, the atmosphere in the facilities and how the practice of photography manifests in sites of incarceration.

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Prison Photography: Steve, you photographed in four institutions in total?

Steve Davis: Yes, Maple Lane, Green Hill School, Oakridge and Remann Hall.

PP: How did you pick those?

SD: I fell into it years ago. It was fairly unintentional. I was doing PR photography for an [non-profit] organization called The Experimental Gallery that was trying to bring in art teachers on residencies into juvenile facilities. It came up they were interested in maybe having a photography workshop. I said it was something I was interested in.

And, nothing happened for a couple of years, but then I got a phone call and they asked if I’d like to teach the kids photography and double up as a photographer for their publications.

I thought about it and I asked if I could do something different. I wanted to slow the process down and bring in a large 8×10 camera. I just wanted to do portraits; focus on who the kids were without all the trappings, bars, etcetera that go along with images of young offenders.

So, I went in and worked with the kids [within a photographic workshop format] and then organized outside of that to take in the large camera.

Essentially, I was working under the umbrella of The Experimental Gallery, which had a grant, so I could only be there when they said I could be there. And when they were done and the grant was over, I had no more access.

Steve Davis, Remann Hall, 2002

Beginnings

SD: It started in 1997 at Maple Lane, then later the Green Hill School and Remann Hall. Each of those placements was under the direction of Susan Warner and The Experimental Gallery. Susan is now the Director of Education at Tacoma Museum of Glass. Between time, Susan had a job at the Children’s Museum in Seattle and they supported her doing this and she continued through them. And likewise, since she has worked at Tacoma Museum of Glass they have supported her as well. So the name has always been the same.

Lastly, at Oakridge – that was all my own work, with anyone’s sponsorship.

PP: You returned to Oakridge and the project in 2005. Why did you decide to return?

SD: Well, at the time the project didn’t seem resolved. I wanted to do something a little different. Oakridge is a transitional facility so they are not so much under lock and key, they are allowed to wear their own clothes and they have day jobs. That is where they reside just prior to release.

Soon after [Oakridge] I felt like I was getting to the point where I was taking the same picture.

PP: How did you respond to that?

SD: I tried contacting other facilities. I really wanted to get in to Clallam Bay, which is an adult institution but has a juvenile facility. It is really hidden from the public. But none of that panned out.

Overall, my interest with portraits has pretty much been about people who are controlled and lack all sorts of freedoms. I haven’t only focused on prison; I did a lot of work at an institution for the mentally disabled.

Steve Davis, Green Hill School, 2000

PP: What’s the attraction to these types of subjects?

SD: When I got into the work, I fell in with these mini societies with their own economies and their own rules and they’re all over the place. They are thoroughly hidden by intention from the public – who have no interest in examining it.  It doesn’t benefit the public to do that.

I found these places intriguing partly because once you are there in the middle of it, the people you come across, they’re linked together by reasons that are not of their own choice. It’s not the type of community where people have something in common so they create their own economies. They are like dogs in a pound. They might be friends, they might not, but they share common concerns.

I was interested in trying to zero in on these people as individuals with personalities and hopefully open up a lot of questions with the viewer. That s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to reach conclusions or force anything down anybody’s throat. I am just trying to acknowledge that this is 20 miles from home.

All these [sites of incarceration] have names that sound like country clubs! You’d never know that Maple Lane was anything but a nice street or golf club. When you drive past, it is a beautiful place, but you won’t see a kid outside. It looks good from the road, but it is not a place you can walk around.

When I did workshops, they’d love it if I walked them over to the fence; they’d never been! Just little things like that were huge thrills to them.

PP: So the youth were always willing participants?

SD: The first residency at Maple Lane was the best organized. The kids were engaged – some were working with painting and music. The goal was to create a mixed media large exhibition that would go into the high schools of King County, and other areas that had a lot of at-risk youth.

So the kids [inmates] would present the information of their own lives. The message was for the exhibition was generally “You don’t want this”. The young prisoners understood that and got behind it.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

Method

PP: Tell us about your portrait work. How much direction did you give the boys as sitters?

SD: Well, they knew the reason why I was there. And all they knew was that their portraits were to go into a catalog. In all, three catalogs were produced. They knew the photos would be published and shown. Other than that, the motivation from these kids to have their picture taken was overwhelming.

I did go in with a bit of theater. I had a large camera, I had lights and I had an assistant. So they were just begging to get their picture taken. It wasn’t hard at all. Direction was minimal. I’d ask them to turn their head or look into or away from the camera. Because I was shooting 8×10 on a limited budget, I’d take a limited numbers of pictures of each person, maybe 2 or 3, and then they were gone.

PP: The personalities of these kids comes through very strong. Are these images an accurate reflection of the individuals in the group?

SD: Yes, each photograph is one accurate reflection. Many of the sitters look very somber, but in fact they’d be laughing their heads off a lot of the time.

Some of the portraits I feel stronger about than others. There are some portraits I don’t have a particular connection with and there’s other I really love. Kids that really struck a chord with me, part of it was the experience of them sitting with me, knowing their character.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

PP: Can you talk about a few of them?

SD: This guy. The nicest guy in the world. Total white racist. Had as many black friends as white, but he was basically raised to be a white racist. Once you got to know him you fell into that world, his world. He got along with everybody, but if you asked him he would’ve told you what his views were. I shot a lot of him, indoors and outdoors, more complicated environments.

PP: This portrait?

SD: I like that one. I don’t know if it’s the picture or the kid. But out of all the time I was there, he was the only one where the staff said, “He should not be here.” He was a Mexican who got busted for being a drugs mule from Mexico. Apparently, some rivals burnt his house down. He couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. He was scared and totally out of his element. But over about three months he started playing the role of the tough guy and you saw this transition. He was becoming what he was assumed to be to begin with. Becoming a hard guy – it was sad.

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

PP: And this guy?

SD: This was in the psychiatric ward and they were all seriously medicated. This kid here was heavily medicated. He’s got blood on his teeth.

PP: Explain the blood.

SD: He told me he was in a fight the day before and he was walking around like this. Maybe he was continuing to bleed.

PP: Did he always have that look?

SD: Probably not. I didn’t really know this kid. But when I saw him I really wanted to photograph him. I was never demanding, but he was the only one I had to cajole. I said “If you want to make a dent, let me take your picture.” He said okay. That was just his gaze. I really thought his look was gripping. And there was a whole wing of them.

PP: Was it a common attitude among the juveniles, that they knew they were medicated and they knew they didn’t want to present themselves as such to the camera?

SD: He was the only one. I only took two pictures in the psychiatric ward.

Steve Davis, Maple Lane, 1997

PP: And this young man?

SD: He was the only other one I photographed on this wing and he was fine with it. A couple of years later when I was working at Green Hill, I was showing the staff my work and they recognized him and told me he’d got out and was later murdered on the street. He was involved in a knife fight.

PP: This one may stick with viewers but maybe for the wrong reasons? This is your only image where the sitter comes across as full of attitude, possibly angry?

SD: Yeah, he’s got a smirk. This picture never struck me as much as others, but many people have commented. I just never really connected with the portrait.

Steve Davis, Green Hill, 2000

SD: One thing I learnt from putting the work out is that people respond to these portraits for their own reasons. A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prison justice. Some of them like pictures of handsome young boys; they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.

But on the other hand, I don’t want to force people into thinking that these portraits should be considered in one particular context. Just, here they are. Portraits are really charged that way.

PP: My wife’s favourite is the kid blowing gum. What was that scenario?

SD: He was the nicest kids. He was overweight. He had a massive pack of bubble gum and it was in Oakridge, so he was on work release during the day. He seemed like a nice kid and so I asked “could you blow a bubble”. He did. I like that picture precisely because he looks as if he doesn’t belong.

Steve Davis, Oakridge, 2005

SD: But more than the portraits, the pinhole photographs from Remann Hall are my favorites.

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Please return on Thursday, 23rd July to read Part Two of this Interview.

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Yana Payusova’s Russian Prison Series is a complex portrait with embedded cultural memes and fierce visual détournement. It is a strong and committed project. Russian Prisons Series, painted photographs of forgotten incarcerated Russian youth is Payusova’s most extensive use of photography in her many series. In response to email request, Yana replied with the detailed account below.

PP: I am particularly interested in your experience within the prisons, your ability to photograph, your understanding with the boys & men in your images and your thoughts on photography and prisons generally.

I understand you joined your mother, who was working as a social worker, in Lebedeva and Kolpino prisons, St Petersburg. What were your initial reasons & motivations for working with the young men in these institutions?

YP: I first visited the Lebedeva prison in the fall of 2003. I was able to gain access to the prisons because my mother had been working with incarcerated teenagers there for the past nine years. She belonged (my mother has retired in 2007) to an organization called Rainbow of Hope. This organization initially specialized in working with street children, either homeless (orphans or abandoned children) or homeless by choice (those avoiding abusive situations at home). Street children are a brand new, post-perestroika phenomenon for Russia. Before the breakup of the USSR, unwanted and disabled children were housed in a Soviet-style orphanage system out of sight of society. However, there were also numerous social organizations, which created public programs for children, thus filling in where the family institution was lacking. Unfortunately, today, ragged, unwashed children hanging out in front of subway stations begging for money, smoking cigarettes and sniffing glue, are a common sight.

Rainbow of Hope formed a day-center where homeless children could eat, play, attend classes, and receive medical attention. Shortly after the inception of this new program, the social workers noticed that as some of ‘their’ kids matured they relapsed into their previous street behavior. They started disregarding any kind of authority; began consuming alcohol and hard drugs; getting in trouble for breaking into cars; and various small theft. Eventually, after either several minor offences or after one serious transgression, and if the kids were fourteen or older, they wound up in prison. When my mother first started visiting the prisons, she learned that in fact, many of the teenage inmates came from similar backgrounds: alcoholic parents (often single mothers), other incarcerated family members, chaotic upbringing without any positive adult supervision, childhood exposure to psychological and physical violence.

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YP: I decided to accompany my mother in one of her weekly visits to the prisons. I cannot say that I was shocked the first time I entered one of these facilities. Having grown up in the Soviet Union and having seen royal palaces in extreme decay, I did not expect a vacation spa. The security guards were grim and humorless, the environment was filthy and unkept, and the barred-windowed buildings were rundown. There was a sense of complete surveillance, barbed wire and high brick fences always visible, a near complete blockage of the city’s activity beyond the walls. There was an eerie silence broken only by occasional savage barking of guard-dogs. The atmosphere was even more depressing once inside the prison building.  The entire structure had an intolerable stale stench. It was later explained to us that this was the smell of lice being burned off the prisoners’ clothes. As we walked upstairs, we caught glimpses of the adult inmates. Their faces were gray and expressionless and they stood with their hands behind their backs.

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YP: However, I was truly shocked when I saw the teenage convicts in person. When we arrived they were in their cells, mostly sleeping and passing time. They were brought out in front of us into the main hallway for lineup. I was expecting to see tough guys and intimidating criminal types, but instead I saw a group of scrawny, pale, shaven-headed young boys, many of whom were covered in warts and sores. I knew that all of them had to be ages 14 to 21, but the majority seemed like they could not be older than twelve (as I later learned, an indication of malnourishment in childhood). Many had tattooed limbs and torsos. A few of the tattoos were masterfully executed, but most were crude amateur drawings. Many of the tattoos were grossly infected. Ironically, the tattoo designs displayed harsh arrogance and aggression, which was markedly missing from most of the boys’ faces. Also, many of them spoke ‘blatnaya fenya’ (special cryptolanguage used among criminals) partially out of habit and partly to show off and flaunt their connections to the criminal culture.

PP: What did you discuss/teach each other?

YP: I was supposed to conduct an English class, however, we ended up simply talking in Russian. When they got over the initial cocky boy-talk and the showing-off in front of each other, we were able to enjoy a normal conversation.  I was surprised to find out that for many, it was not their first time in prison. Paradoxically, many boys seemed to either enjoy or be ambivalent to being in prison. I got a sense that it was similar to belonging to a fraternity of sorts; with its own secret lingo and rituals. I knew that I wanted to learn more about this strange place, to find out why this hellish dump was so romanticized, while being so intolerable.  It all seemed like such a paradox. I knew I wanted to come back to investigate.

PP: Exactly how long did you work there? How often did you visit?

YP: After my initial visit, I began volunteering at both Lebedeva prison (SIZO 47/4) and Kolpino colony (VK g. Kolpino) on a weekly basis. We usually visited the Lebedeva prison twice a week and the Kolpino colony on the weekend. In total, I spent around eight months visiting the prisons.

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PP: At what point did you decide to take your camera into the prisons? I have read the prison staff made an exception for you and allowed you to shoot 5 rolls of film. Why was this? What sort of discussion/negotiation made this possible? What was the nature of your interactions with the young men? How much of the project did you explain to them?

YP: Two weeks before I left for the States, I was able to bring my camera inside the prison to take some pictures. I was only able to shoot five or six rolls because photographing inside the prison is prohibited, but the guards made an exception since I had worked there for an entire year. The boys were completely aware of me photographing them (in fact, I gave them copies of all of the images I shot). Since so many wanted to be photographed, the boys generally had only one chance to pose. Surprisingly, most were very relaxed and confidently confronted the camera.

PP: Had you even finalized the future use of your prints in your own mind at that time?

YP: While I was photographing the boys, I had no preconception of the future project.

After I developed the film, I felt dissatisfied with the images. The black and white portraits seemed so one-dimensional and flat, they did not even begin to scratch the surface of the complexity of my experience. The pictures captured the personality of a few individuals, but the images said nothing of history, character, or story. Similar to the way in which a prism expands plain white light into the entire color spectrum, I had to find a way to render these photographs; a way that would offer perspective and a unique angle; that would give me a vocabulary and a way to begin to speak about my experience.

When I began searching for a ‘prism’, it occurred to me that the entire experience working with the prisoners had a strong religious undertone. Most of the Rainbow of Hope’s sponsorship comes from Western missionary organizations (mostly from Southern states: Texas, Alabama). The raised and donated money is used to pay teachers to conduct classes in prisons, to buy hygiene products (such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes), celebrating the boys’ birthdays, buying medicine, socks, slippers and gloves in the winter, etc. However, all this comes with an additional non-monetary cost.  Most missionary groups wish to see how their money is spent and like to personally visit the prisons. Since I am bi-lingual, I was to accompany such groups and serve as an interpreter during missionaries’ encounters with the prison’s residents.

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YP: It was always mind-boggling for me to see how these foreigners could come into a country, knowing little about its culture and history, and speak with such aplomb about all of the country’s problems and offer their solutions. Naturally, most missionaries wanted to convert the sinful prisoners to Christianity and have them ‘invite Jesus into their hearts.’ While the boys were busy playing the roles of thieves and recidivists, the missionaries enacted their wild dreams of the great saviors, who could save an entire prison full of lost souls all before lunch. One day while translating the Jesus story for the fiftieth time, I began to ponder this concept of saints and sinners. While to the missionaries, the power dynamic was crystal clear, to me it was becoming progressively ambiguous.

As a starting point, I have decided to begin thinking about my experience using the religious terminology. Since the only official religion in Russia is (and has been for quite some time) Christian Orthodoxy, it seemed only natural to start my explorations there. Russia adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity (as in the Baptism of Kievan Rus’) in 988 A.D. As centuries passed, Christian Orthodoxy has penetrated every aspect of Russia’s social and cultural life; it is closely intertwined with its traditions and folklore. Even after seventy years in which the Soviet government actively had been trying to choke all aspects of spiritual life, most Russians will define themselves as Orthodox Christians. Although, for the majority, being a Christian, involves going to church twice a year for Christmas and Easter. In fact, most boys in prisons consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians and wear gold and silver crosses around their necks (sign that one has been baptized). Their tattoos involve quite a bit of religious iconography as well.

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YP: I have always been fascinated by Orthodox icons. Beautiful objects hung on the wall, commanding such reverence, have always been mysterious to me because of their cryptic visual language. Similar to the obscure language of prison tattoos, the icons offered only glimpses into the rich exegesis of their symbolism and narrative. The individual symbols could be recognized (people, buildings, trees, animals), but when examined as a whole, lacked any coherent meaning. Originally the language of the icons was designed to be simple, its objective was accessibility to the illiterate and literate alike, but the clarity was lost as centuries passed. Conceptually, icons worked well with my idea; I wanted my work to speak of the boys’ experience while demonstrating my respect and compassion for their lives.

The word ‘icon,’ derived from the Greek ‘eikon,’ means an image, any image or representation, but in a stricter sense, it means a holy image to which special veneration is given. Unfortunately, the true intention for an icon to be an object only depicting that which is worshiped, is lost. Historically, the iconodules (the defenders or lovers of icons) had to come up with convincing formulations to prove that icons were not worshiped but venerated and that such veneration was not idolatry. Today, in a sense, the object itself became the thing that people worship, this is why I anticipated that the portrayal of prisoners in an iconic form may be offensive to some Orthodox Christians. I decided to proceed with my research and found myself getting ever more deeply fascinated by what I was finding.

It is curious that most representational formulas and compositions used in icon painting today have been established several centuries ago. One can compare an icon from the thirteenth century with one from the nineteenth century and notice virtually no major differences. There will be the exact same positioning of the figures, same gestures, and colors employed. Once one becomes aware of the grammar of the icon painting and learns the key characters of the stories, reading an icon becomes no different than reading a graphic novel or even a comic. This discovery enabled me to begin using the orthodox visual language in a post-modern form. Essentially, the iconographic structuralism of the church, gave me the means to create my own visual and cerebral language so that I could begin to analyze and interpret the complexity of the boys’ experience.

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PP: Alex Sweetman has said. “She took this little world of prisons and looked through it to see the totality of Russian society – its corruption, its caste system, its misery.” How accurate a reflection is this of your position?

YP: In a country like the Soviet Union, where a significant part of the population (not necessarily criminals) went through labor camps, prison sub-cultures are very well developed and complex.

Not a very long time ago, it was considered shameful to admit to ever having been convicted or to having any family member in prison even though according to statistical study, one in four adult males in the former Soviet Union has been convicted at some point in time. Today, the criminal way of life is gaining wide acceptance and even gets glorified in the media. Countless movies and soap operas are produced about the glamorous lives of criminal ‘authorities’; they are endlessly written about in books; there is even an entire song genre of ‘blatnaya pesnya’ (criminal song) that exists. With the recent appearance of the infamous ‘New-Russian’ figure, having any relations to the mafia is considered cool, glamorous and prestigious. The New-Russian character has had a similar affect on Russian boys as Barbie has had on American girls. New-Russians are considered to be young (late twenties, early thirties), cool, loaded with cash, driving expensive cars, followed by henchmen doing all the dirty work, ex-criminals, sleep with attractive women, and have no one to answer to. They are appealing role models for young boys, many of whom lack any other alternative male role models in their lives. For many, prison functions as prep school for the criminal world. It offers a glimpse of a rigidly structured autonomous community where every member has their specially designated place and function. Some scholars argue that the rest of Russian society is modeled after the world of thieves and actually compare Kremlin principles and ideologies to those of a ‘pakhan’ (criminal authority) and his gang. If a government mimics such a model, what can be asked of teenage boys?

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PP: What were/are the futures of the young men? Will some of them still be institutionalized? Will some be out?

YP: Some of the boys get out of prisons and move on with their lives. It obviously is easier if one has some kind of a support system (family, relatives). Many of the boys that I knew in prison have been to prison before and did not seem to think to be in some unfortunate predicament.

For many of the boys, who grew up neglected and unwanted, this situation is novel. For the first time in their lives, they had an opportunity to belong to a group with limited membership and clear sets of rules. As opposed to the chaos of street life, prison community offers established ground rules, protection, security, stability, a plan for the future, and most importantly, a family.

Unfortunately, with the current penitentiary system in place, these young fourteen-year-old boys become the perfect recruits for the criminal world. Generally, once detained, the teenagers are sent to pretrial detention (SIZO) prisons, either the Lebedeva SIZO or the infamous St. Petersburg’s “Kresty” prison. Both of these are adult facilities, where the minors are kept in a separate section of the floor, away from the adults. Both minors and adults are held in SIZO until they are tried in court. Until recently, the prisons have been so overcrowded that it was not uncommon that minors would have to wait up to three years to receive a court trial. Fortunately today (due to recent changes in jurisdiction), the majority waits approximately six to twelve months. Unfortunately, that still leaves plenty of time for any kind of peer pressure, physical violence, and rape, to take place. Therefore even a short time in prison can mark an individual for life.

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YP: A prison stay also poses some very serious health threats. Russian prisons are infamous for epidemics of tuberculosis.  Stale-aired, filthy, confined spaces hardly promote good health. According to GUIN’s (The Chief Directorate of Penitentiary Facilities) statistic, nearly one in ten convicts get infected with TB; many cases are fatal. The numbers for HIV-infected prisoners and prisoners suffering from AIDS are also extremely high. Lice, scabies, cockroaches, rats and other vermin are all the everyday reality of prison life.

However, prison must offer something unique in order to compensate for all of the dreadfulness. As complex as the prison sub-culture is, there are several key elements that are important to consider.  One of the most important attributes of prison culture is its rigid hierarchy. Life in prisons is regulated by the unofficial ‘vorovskye zakony’ (thieves’ law), an oral collection of rules, norms and traditions for all ‘thieves’ to follow.  Some of these laws date back to pre-revolutionary Russia. The majority, however, were formed during the GULAG years and have undergone many changes over time.

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YP: For the young men with no family, prison becomes a place of acceptance and gives them a sense of purpose. Everyone aspires to become a ‘pakhan’ (criminal boss) and no one dreams of ever being an untouchable (lowest in prison hierarchy).  Although the boys that I have met are far from resembling the macho superheroes they wish to be, many imitate the expected behavior. Many of the boys display a strong sense of camaraderie. I was immediately struck by an unusual display of affection among them as they constantly hang on to each other and wrap their arms around the others’ shoulders (some of that is evident in the photographs that I shot). Their community mirrors the hierarchy of an adult prison, although according to experts it is even more pronounced and cruel. Brutality and strength are the dominant forces. One is immediately able to discern the ‘bugri’ (alphas), the ‘blatnie’, and the untouchables. I was once speaking to a group of boys (8-10 people) who were all seated on a bench in front of me, when the two ‘bugri’ (alphas) came up to us. Without saying a word, all ten boys immediately got off the bench to let the ‘bugri’ sit. Apparently, the punishment for failing to show respect can be rather brutal.

Curiously, no matter how cruel the boys can be to one another, they show unusual kindness when it comes to kittens. It is not uncommon for each cell to have a pet kitten for which everyone gently cares. The cats breed inside the prison, catch rats, and have no problems moving between the bars. It was also interesting to see the ‘bugris’’ cells. The walls are covered with fake green vines, flowers, and stuffed animals (their girlfriends from the outside sent them). Hanging along side these niceties are posters depicting porn stars. Apparently, it is considered cool if one’s cell resembles a ‘normal’ room outside of prison.

PP: In a 2008 Boston Globe article said “you’d given up using photographs”. Explain that decision.

YP: I am not using photographic imagery in current projects, but it doesn’t mean that I will not do so in the future.

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Yana’s CV is here. Yana won the juror’s prize at the 2005 CENTER Santa Fe awards. She is a member of the 6+ collective.

Massive thanks to Yana Payusova for her erudite, balanced and insightful words. It is a privilege for Prison Photography to host such a comprehensive account. Many, many thanks!

Please visit Yana’s website.

Bilingual Signs © Andreina, IDRA/Albuquerque Public School District, Critical Exposure Photography Project

Images Unseen, Images Unknown written by a guest blogger on Prison Photography last week was well received by readers, provoking more questions and some intriguing possibilities.

Change.org offered a synopsis of the article. Change.org focused on the concluding points of Images Unseen, Images Unknown which described the culture of shame shrouding California prisons created by the control of images and manipulated invisibility.

Too many prisoners are hidden from view to serve out their time. Many prisoners refuse visits from family because they don’t want loved ones to see them in institutions that deny them individuality, work to subdue the general population, hide prisoners from society, and keep them docile.

So, the issue of self-representation and empowerment arises. Specific to my interest would be the possibilities of empowerment through photography.

Recently, Stan Banos asked me, “Are you aware of any photography programs in prison for prisoners.”

My answer, in short, is no. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means for all my searching I have unearthed nothing.

Art therapy has been explored among prison populations and recently San Quentin piloted it’s first ever ‘Film School’. The project did many things at once, teaching inmates the technical skills of documentary film making, building team work and trust; and it allowed inmates to communicate narratives of their choosing from prison life.

Inmates documented the work of the prison nurses distributing medications; filmed the prison kitchens; recorded the “wasted talent” of artists, musicians and writers within San Quentin; and studied American Islamic faith in prison.

With that in mind, we can say empowerment through the arts has been well explored and apparently successful in a number of penal institutions. However, it would seem photography in prisons has not been used as a tool for self-representation and rehabilitation … yet.

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

Turn Away © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

The model for this type of program exists. Dozens of important non-profits use photography as a means for at-risk-youth to tell their stories. Organisations such as Youth in Focus, Seattle; AS220 Youth Photography Program, Providence, RI: Focus on Youth, Portland; New Urban Arts, Providence; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; First Exposures by SF Camerawork in 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; The Bridge, Charlottesville, VA; and Emily Schiffer’s My Viewpoint Photo Initiative are exemplars of empowerment through photography.

The Red Hook Photo Project New York offers photography opportunities specifically to a community blighted by crime. The photo project is run by the Red Hook Community Justice Center which operates many programs to improve the lives of teens within the geographically and socially isolated Red Hook Neighbourhood.

Only slight tweaks would be necessary to these types of programs for them to be effective as rehabilitative tools among prison populations. The central driving philosophy is to offer individuals a method of self-representation they’ve never been afforded previously.

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

A Backwards Eye © Gwendolyn Reed, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

It seems the main factor, aside of funding, for rehabilitative programs establishing themselves in prisons, is the philosophy of individual wardens. San Quentin Film School was pitched repeatedly across 47 states until Warden Robert Ayers decided to launch it at San Quentin. Likewise Burl Cain, at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) has become well known for maintaining a varied roster of programs to keep inmates occupied. They include the renowned (and ethically questionable) Rodeo, an American Football league and a hospice program in which inmates volunteer to carry out the palliative care tasks.

On this evidence, it would make sense that criminal justice reformers and those interested in increasing the visibility of prisons should actively seek out wardens currently supporting novel, or even pilot, projects. Wardens currently accommodate programs in education, the arts, dog-training, first aid, video and much more. Photography could be added to that list.

There is a lot of mainstream media programs featuring American prisons – Lockdown, Americas Hardest Prisons, Inside American Jail – but of course these are all made for cable distribution and ultimately profit; their common denominator is a heightened sensationalism.

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

© Wayman, Inner City Light Student Photography Project

Documentary projects upholding rehabilitation and education as their core purpose are a distinctively different type of exposure. There would be no need for regional or national television channels to provide financial backing as an end (marketable) product would not be the motivation. That said, if the narratives of such documentary projects could be shown to enhance the image of an institution the prison authority might be open to trying them. The prison warden has the decision making power, so if under a wardens leadership a prison is given (positive) exposure it makes sense that the warden would be interested.

All successful rehabilitative arts programs presumably share a cooperative approach from the outset. Wardens and authorities are not to be feared or misunderstood, but can be convinced, cajoled and open to novel suggestions and programs.

Matt Kelley has suggested that the criminal justice reform community take note of wardens who are open to more transparency within their institution. Could coordinated media access drive a movement against the “invisibility” of prisons in America today?

The ideal program I envisage, would have only a small operating budget allowing pre-screened inmates to learn the practical skills of photography and apply them for the purposes of self representation.

If San Quentin can mount a film school I am sure any prison in the future can develop a Photography School? What do you think?

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

I Reach © Stephene Brathwaite, Red Hook Community Justice Center Photo Project

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

During the warm-ups, Ms. Barr asked the crew, "How cold does it have to be to get hypothermia? Only 50 degrees. But if you're cold you're probably not working hard enough." Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Sunday’s depressing article in the  New York Times detailed the political battle in Sacramento to keep hold of California Conservation Corps (CCC) through this period of recession. Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to cut the program to eat into the $45billion deficit California currently bears. Interestingly, Jerry Brown – who initiated the program as Governor in 1976 – is one of the leading voices to save the CCC from the chop.

The Corps. offers low paid work, but work nonetheless, to youth who for whatever reason do not fit the typical work history. Consider not the gaps in your work history, but work histories in your gap! This is a program that considers the individual and not the CV first – which is truly noble these days. The Corps is an employment gateway and an opportunity for young persons to complete unquestionably worthwhile work.

California’s program is modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put three million young, unemployed men to work from 1933 to 1942. Last year, I may have argued that the model was out of date, but given recent twitter comparing today with the Great Depression, I wouldn’t now question programs indebted to good ol’ fashioned graft. Indeed for many work crew, this is one of the few structures of employment that makes any sense.

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Jason Prue, 21, said he was living as a drifter in an old Dodge Intrepid with a dog named Buddy before joining the corps. "I decided I needed to do something, to find a job I loved." Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

A California Conservation Corps crew repaired trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The corps employs 1,300 young adults. Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

A California Conservation Corps crew repaired trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The corps employs 1,300 young adults. Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

While reading this article in the hairdressers, I was surprised to see Van Jones’ name once again. I have mentioned his previous work with incarcerated youth and now with sustainable energy policy. He sees the necessary link between these two issues and calls for former prisons, alienated youth, new unemployed and urban poor all to jump on to Obama’s “green economy employment juggernaut”.

“To cut off the opportunity for disadvantaged kids to get their feet on the first rung of the ladder to future green careers is criminal,” said Van Jones, author of the best-selling “Green Collar Economy” and founding president of the Oakland-based nonprofit agency Green for All.

Mr. Jones said the California program was the prototype for at least 13 similar corps in other states and an inspiration for conservation work programs being considered by the Obama administration.

“How can you be a green governor and be taking the tools to green the state out of the hands of young people?” Mr. Jones said.

That Schwarzenegger might gut the corps even as President Obama’s new administration evokes themes of public works, national service and overcoming odds galls some youth advocates, who say the program serves as a model for the type of “green collar” jobs promised by the Congressional stimulus package.

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Members of the corps cleaned their breakfast dishes in the dark before going out to repair trails and build a wheelchair-accessible trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County. Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Edward Alvarez, 18, packing the group's lunches for the day. Mr. Alvarez comes from a long line of corps members. His father fought fires with the California Conservation Corps in the 1980s and his great-grandfather served in the Civilian Conservation Corps established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Does this effort to eradicate the CCC in order to save $34million/year suggest we have become too over ambitious? Are we realistic with the number and type of programs Obama’s stimulus package may bring? Is it really the “Christmas Tree” the Republican’s describe? How are we to design, support and administer a new movement in green jobs and environmental agri-service if we can’t maintain the simpler, tried-and-tested, restoration based programs?

For more pictures please view the full California Conservation Corps photo essay by Heidi Schumann for the New York Times

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