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How can images tell the story of mass incarceration when the imprisoned don’t have control over their own representation? This is the question Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood asks as editor of the latest Aperture (Spring 2018).

Prison Nation” can be ordered online today and hits the news-stands next week. Devoted to prison imagery and discussion of mass incarceration, the issue presents a slew of works across contrasting genres — landmark documentary by Bruce JacksonJoseph Rodriguez and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick; luscious and uncanny portraits by Jack Lueders-Booth, Deborah Luster and Jamel Shabazz; insider images from Nigel PoorLorenzo Steele, Jr. and Jesse Krimes; and contemporary works by Sable Elyse Smith, Emily Kinni, Zora Murff, Lucas Foglia and Stephen Tourlentes.

Equally exciting is the banger roster of thinkers contributing essays, intros and conversations — including Mabel O. Wilson, Shawn Michelle Smith, Christie Thompson, Jordan Kisner, Zachary Lazar, Rebecca Bengal, Brian WallisJessica Lynne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ruby Tapia, Zarinah Shabazz, Brian Stevenson, Sarah LewisHank Willis Thomas and Virginia Grise.

I have an essay ‘Prison Index’ included which looks back on almost a decade of this Prison Photography website–how it began, what it has done and what it has become. I highlight a dozen-or-so photographers’ works that are not represented by features in the issue itself. I wonder how PP functions as an archive and what role it serves for public memory and knowledge.

MATCHING QUALITY CONTENT WITH QUALITY DESIGN

I’ve known for years that Prison Photography requires a design overhaul. This past week, I’ve moved forward with plans for that. It goes without saying that the almost-daily blogging routine of 2008 with which Prison Photography began has morphed into a slower publishing schedule. There’s a plethora of great material on this website but a lot of it is buried in the blog-scroll format. My intention is to redesign PP as more of an “occasionally-updated archive” whereby the insightful interviews from years past are drawn up to the surface.

It’s time to make this *database* of research more legible and searchable. Clearly, as this Aperture issue demonstrates, the niche genre of prison photographs is vast and it demands a more user-friendly interface for this website. I’m proud to be included in “Prison Nation” but know it’s a timely prod to develop Prison Photography’s design and serve the still-crucial discussions.

 

 

Get your copy of Aperture, Issue 230 “Prison Nation” here.

Thanks to the staff at Aperture, especially Brendan Wattenberg and Michael Famighetti for ushering and editing the piece through.

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Before Christmas, I mentioned that Zora Murff‘s first photobook Corrections–published by Ain’t Bad Editions–was out. I was invited to write the introduction essay. Murff and I agreed that it’d be nice to share the essay with some images here on the blog.

The title of the essay “Off Paper” comes from a common phrase used by many of the children with whom Murff worked. It refers to the time when they will no longer be supervised, monitored, checked, tested or on probation. I thought it interesting that they describe paper documents as the form that control takes. Especially as it is networked, electronic, digital devices that are increasingly used to maintain the day-to-day control over their activities.

Paradoxically, Murff has tried to describe the children’s experiences and individuality beyond the formless, GPS surveillance, the case number and the rules under which each lives. Murff has used photography–and specifically the photobook–to do that. He has put them on paper. Unlike legal paper, the paper of art is non-binding and possibly more sympathetic.

The kids hope they are only temporarily on paper, in the legal sense, but Murff’s book locks them permanently in. And on.

Scroll down for the essay.

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OFF PAPER

“My therapist said that I’m a criminal because I think like a criminal. She’s wrong. I’ve just made some bad choices when I’m in the moment. It doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing right.”

– A youth in the Linn County Juvenile Detention & Diversion Services system.

The extreme cruelties and systemic failures of the United States’ brutal prisons are, at this point, well known. Far from being a solution, mass incarceration in America has exacerbated profound social problems, widened the gap between the haves and have-nots and set generations back. We’re starting to accept these truths and admit our collective mistakes. We’re starting to think less-and-less of prisons as institutions that solve the behaviors and social dynamics that lead to the state’s need to control; we’re starting to identify them as the problem. Across the country, prisons and detention are now considered a last resort for the disciplining of children.

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As criminal justice agencies employ community supervision more and more, monitoring systems are used more and more. James Kilgore — academic, activist and a man who was once electronically monitored — has described ankle bracelets as “going viral in the criminal justice system.”

In 2005, 120,000 people wore electronic monitoring ankle bracelets; in 2012, the figure was 200,000; and in 2015, we can assume the figure has grown further still. Proportionally, within the 7 million people under correctional supervision in the United States, a larger percentage of youth wear monitoring devices than adults.

Imprisonment is known to negatively impact young minds and bodies far more severely than those of adults and current policy — and carceral logic — deem ankle bracelets a palatable, convenient and more humane alternative. There are some blind-spots to this logic.

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Corrections comes at a crucial moment. Electronic monitoring (EM) has come into its own in the age of GPS. Faster, more accurate and more reliable than previously-used radio-based devices, GPS technologies provide the state agencies responsible for managing sentenced and pre-trial citizens with the rhetoric of control, the vision of the future and assurances to the public of total security.

EM is presented as a more humane, productive and progressive means of social control. Companies such as iSecure Trac, Secure Alert, Pro Tech, GEO and Omnilink which manufacture ankle bracelets also talk up the cost savings to their state clients.

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All this to say, that this moment, in which we as a society are turning ever more faithfully to electronic monitoring, is not based solely on enlightened policy based upon supposed enlightened morals and the prioritization of the humane. No, it is based in large part to salesmanship in growth industries and the rhetorical promise of redemption through technology.

Corrections is an opportunity to reflect upon what is means to rely on widespread, diffuse and near total surveillance to correct antisocial behaviors. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to interrogate the outcomes of such surveillance upon larger society and the problems GPS-powered panopticism purports to address. Do ankle bracelets prevent criminal acts? Does EM propel, distract or compliment our investment in educational, economic and healthcare systems–systems we know improve citizens and reduce anti-social behaviors?

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While many of the recent headlines about juvenile justice reform have focused on New York State, California and the South, ankle bracelets are utilized nationwide. It is fitting that Corrections emerges from Iowa, the heartland of America. The young men and women in Murff’s photographs are ordinary children, just like all children are ordinary. And yet, we have a propensity to think of urgent debates about the social contract we share as being those centered around the big cities. GPS tracks kids the same in the Midwest as it does in urban cores; it “knows” geography but does not adhere to our regional stereotypes. Corrections, in its modest way, puts the debate about electronic monitoring of youth into all our communities.

Helping children to modify and understand their behavior is a vital task — a fact Murff acknowledges. Ask any of the teens he monitored and they’d say they were happier being out in the community than locked up. Murff grew close to many of the children through face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis. He talks of “watching the youths grow throughout the probation process.” But that does not mean that all the teens evaluate their monitoring as fair or right. Having a clunky box strapped to ones leg can hamper ones feeling of freedom just as much as being locked within a box. This tension–this constant to-and-fro about the costs and benefits of EM–is what informs Murff’s photographs, and his images provide some avenues to explore the tension.

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The kids in Corrections are anything but armed and dangerous. The portraits came out of collaboration, discussion and sometimes accident. The evasive gesture and posturing of anonymous subjects is, for me, less a metaphor for the youths’ prior furtive behavior, but more a metaphor for our collective unknowing of the mechanism of the monitoring systems that we fund in order that they might inhabit them.

If the portraiture in Corrections is artful and poetic, then the studies of objects are pure documentary. Images of standard-issue deodorant, case files, uniforms, bracelets and other accouterments remind us of the regime and remind us of the industries behind it.

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A youth writes “I have what I need to be fine,” on a self-assessment form and reminds us of the gulf, often, between what a child in crisis needs and what a caring society might be able to provide. It puts us right there. In tension. By contrast, a beautiful sun-dappled portrait of a youth seems so very far removed from the contested system and its narratives. Until you notice the ankle bracelet.

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(But) seeing the system and understanding the system are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, the ability to see is a great privilege. GPS “sees” relentlessly. Can Corrections help us understand the psychology and control at play as well as EM purports to understand the needs of youth and community?

Some of Murff’s images fill our gaps in knowledge; others inhabit blind spots in our collective understanding of a legally protected arena. What we learn, mostly, from Corrections is that we’ve more to know about how we’re helping troubled kids. We know that we’re using electronic monitoring more readily. How far will we proceed with this brave, new technology? Some Texas school districts, which include a large number of black and latino students, have expanded the use of EM for kids with histories of excessive truancy.

What does Murff’s documentation of fracture and healing from Iowa tell us about this very 21st Century practice? What is this version of freedom and control? Do we accept it?

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One afternoon, Murff was sat in the bedroom of a young man for whom he was responsible for monitoring. The teen was playing his guitar and Murff was making a photograph. Then, a friend of the teen came to the bedroom window. He was confused by Murff, his camera, and the scene before him. Without missing a beat, the teen told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that Murff was from Rolling Stone Magazine.

I end with this anecdote because the teen, in spite of his circumstances, was witty and present. And he had agency. Lighthearted moments are harder to come by when people are implicated in the criminal justice system. Corrections is a serious body of work about a serious project, but it has been built on years of very personal interactions. For the protection of the youths, all of Murff’s subjects remain anonymous but that doesn’t mean they are distant.

What we think today affects what we do tomorrow. As you leaf through these pages, think about how you would feel as a kid under monitoring, think about your current attitudes about “delinquent” kids, and think about if those can change. Think about these things today because, certainly, there’ll be more electronic monitoring devices tomorrow.

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CORRECTIONS THE BOOK

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Title: Corrections, 2015
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
ISBN: 978-1-944005-01-6

ORDER NOW

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PHOTOBOOK

Earlier this year, Zora Murff contacted me and asked if would write some words for his debut book Corrections. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I’m a huge fan of the work. I interviewed Murff at length in January 2014 and I wrote about Corrections for the Marshall Project in December 2014.

Corrections is a collection of images made by Murff made between 2012 and 2015, while he worked as a Tracker for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Interspersed with his portraits of teens and still life studies of monitoring equipment are anonymised mugshots.

Today, the book was made available for pre-order. Books ship December 7th.

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Throughout Corrections, Murff is investigating the psychology, the coercion and the effects/costs/benefits of control. We’re dealt a teasing glimpse of how electronic monitoring works for the state and niggles against presumed natural freedoms. These frictions play out against the hormonal whirl of teenagers trying to find their place in the world.

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“By reconsidering the role that I played in the lives of the kids I worked with, I began to acknowledge the burden that comes with tasking young men and women with continued complicity,” writes Murff. “My stance as a consequence kept our relationships in a state of flux ranging from stable to tenuous – a constant motion mirroring the discord that develops between the system’s intentions and outcomes. Through employing ideas of anonymity, voyeurism, and introspection, Corrections is an examination of youth experience in the system, the role images play in defining someone who is deemed a criminal, and how the concepts of privacy and control may affect their future.”

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Murff provided services to youths who were convicted of crimes and were monitored while on probation.

“Juveniles in my charge were asked to comply with services which may include: electronic monitoring, therapies, drug screening, and community service; it is my responsibility to have continual contact with them to ensure these expectations are met,” he says.

Electronic Monitoring (EM) is becoming more and more common. EM is characterised–by its supporters–as a more humane, less forceful and cheaper alternative to incarceration. However, it’s use and long-term effects (especially for children) have been the subject of relatively little study or public attention.

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“These services, which allow juveniles to stay in their homes, show a higher rate of success than strict incarceration. Although community-based services are built to foster a collaborative relationship between juveniles and service providers, attaining the actualization of teamwork becomes problematic when juveniles feel that they have done nothing wrong, are victims of circumstance, or do not fully understand why they have committed a crime,” says Murff.

My essay/introduction focuses on the business practices, markets and language behind the electronic monitoring industry and how this boom sector of criminal justice may or may not be the panacea law enforcement hopes for.

“The system has been put in place to provide rehabilitation, but it is far from being a straightforward process,” writes Murff. “Many influences outside of the youths’ control such as education, socioeconomic status, and race all play a role in whether or not a youth reoffends — all of these factors possessing the propensity to lead them to extended periods of incarceration in the juvenile system or to involvement with the criminal justice system as an adult.”

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I’ll share my full essay (with Murff’s photos) in the new year, but at this moment I urge you to order a copy.

Murff and his publisher Ain’t Bad have manufactured a beautiful object about a crucially current and unexamined topic of criminal justice.

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BIO

Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. His work has appeared in The British Journal of Photography, WIRED, VICE Magazine and PDN’s Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora is a member of Strange Fire Collective with Jess T. Dugan, Hamidah Glasgow, and Rafael Soldi.

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DETAILS

Title: Corrections, 2015
Introduction: Pete Brook, Prison Photography
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
ISBN: 978-1-944005-01-6

Start shipping on December 7th. Pre-order now.

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Jerome at 15. © Zora Murff

Hey y’all. You might have heard about the launch of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system. You might also recall that I was excited by the launch.

Excited because I think we’ll all benefit from having focused, smart and quirky analysis of America’s carceral, criminal and correctional territories. But, excited also, because I’ll be contributing features of photographers’ work.

OPENING GAMBIT

My first piece about Zora Murff, Tracked: A Photographer Reveals What It’s Like To Be A Kid In The System was published this week.

Here’s an excerpt.

In addition to slinging his camera, Murff works as a “tracker” for a program that provides low-risk juveniles alternatives to incarceration. He coordinates transportation to therapy and counseling sessions, contacts schools to make sure that the juveniles are attending classes, collects urine samples for drug tests, and monitors the juveniles’ locations through data from their ankle bracelets.

“My job is to be a consequence, to insert myself into their lives while the adolescents themselves are struggling to exert control over their development,” says Murff who wanted to capture how juveniles in the system are supervised and monitored, and how the resulting lack of privacy can impact their development.

“Cameras are typically used by the state to surveil,” he says. “I too am recording, but my camera is there in a collaborative capacity. I feel that the people I’m photographing have taken back a level of control.”

Read and see more at The Marshall Project

If you want to learn more about Zora Murff’s work you might be interested in this long interview I did with Murff on Prison Photography in January, 2014.

OPENING STATEMENT

I really can’t recommend enough the daily newsletter of criminal justice news put together by The Marshall Project’s Andrew Cohen. It’s called Opening Statement and it brings together the best links and most pressing stories. Indispensable. Get it!

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“I want this thing off today … this fucking thing is an invasion of privacy, and goes against my well-being,” said the young boy about his ankle bracelet. He was speaking to Zora Murff, a BFA photography student at the University of Iowa and also a Juvenile Tracker for the Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services (JDDS) of Linn County, Iowa.

It was only when Murff heard this complaint that he began to wonder if he and his camera could interrogate the issue of control.

“He was angry,” recalls Murff. “The more I thought about his anger, the more I pondered the concepts of privacy and control in the juvenile corrections system and the role that I play inside of those concepts. I interact with these youths at a critical point in their lives where control is an integral part of the day-to-day. My job is to be a consequence, to insert myself into their lives […] while the adolescents themselves are struggling to exert control over their development.”

Linn County JDDS provides monitoring and rehabilitation services to youths on probation. Murff has been in the job eighteen months. In mid-2013 he began to photograph his employment and construct a project for submission as part of his studies.

The resulting series Corrections is made up of: photographs of locations of interaction with accompanying narratives about the transgression that took place there (images below with captions); anonymous portraits of the youths; handwritten reflections of the youths; and official paperwork and service documents.

Murff published his notes during the series on the Corrections Tumblr. He has self-published a limited edition book (Murff welcomes interest from publishers to do a larger run). Murff is taking a temporary hiatus from the project. Last week, my Wired colleague Jakob Schiller wrote about Corrections in the piece Peering Into the Digitally Tracked Lives of Youths on ProbationI wanted to do a bit more digging and ask Murff about the logistics, motivations and relationships inherent to the work.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Three youths broke into an abandoned home on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids. When Cedar Rapids Police responded to the scene, two of the youths surrendered themselves, while the third attempted to hide in the basement. Officers sent in a K-9 to retrieve him. Each youth was charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Can you start by describing your work?

Zora Murff (ZM): Tracking is one of the diversion programs that JDDS offers. Diversion refers to the youth being able to stay in the community, rather than being placed in detention or in a different type of placement like residential treatment. My primary responsibility is monitoring youths on probation. I have face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis to ensure that they are complying with the expectations of their probation. This may entail electronic monitoring, urinalysis, school follow-up, transportation to therapies (substance abuse, sexual offense, anger-replacement), and other things like completing community service hours. My caseload fluctuates – I believe the lowest number I had was nine youths and I have had up to twenty-one.

PP: Would you have managed to gain access if it weren’t for your job?

ZM: When I pitched the idea to my supervisor, she was very intrigued, but being an insider definitely gave me a leg up, and I was very lucky to have that level of access. My supervisor had a few specific guidelines, but gave me free reign, so I had a wide creative space to work with. I think there was a level of trust there, which made Corrections possible.

PP: How did you come to be studying photography if you’re also a probation service employee?

ZM: I started my degree in psychology. My professional background in human services started when I replied to an ad on a campus bus. I needed a job. I started in disability services working with a wide population of people. Those experience helped me get a job with juvenile criminal justice. I didn’t necessarily have a desire to work in this specific area, but it has been a great experience to watch the youths grow throughout the probation process.

I love my work but I have always felt I was missing out on a need to create, a desire to teach, and a love of the photograph. That is where my education in photography comes into play.

PP: Juveniles under the control of the state are vulnerable young adults. What sort of assurances did you have to provide for your employer, the children and the parents/guardians?

ZM: I have noticed that when working with any population in human services, it all comes down to trust. The real question is how do you build that trust with the people that you serve. I think that this can vary with any worker, but I usually broach this by being available and consistent. Having trusting relationships with the youths that I photographed was key to working on this project.

The biggest assurance that I had to provide was anonymity. It was also important to explain my project to them, which isn’t always easy to do, especially when I was starting out because I wasn’t sure where the project was taking me.

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PP: Is Corrections about delinquency or about control; about youth or about state?

ZM: All of the above. The youths do delinquent things that warrant some type of intervention and I wanted to document their experiences once they become a part of the juvenile corrections system. Youths are attempting to control their lives while workers are trying to exert some sort of control over it for them. There’s a dynamic at play between the two.

The use of narratives and documents add context to the project. I felt that portraits of the youths, while the most important component of Corrections, would have told an entirely different story if they were to stand alone.

PP: Is Corrections a voice for you or for your subjects?

ZM: I wouldn’t say that Corrections is my voice personally. The youths are allowing me to show them through their portraits and through some of their writing. My intent was to approach it from an ‘anthropological’ standpoint if you will, almost as if I am a recording device. I felt that it was important to provide a window into this world without editorializing, even though I am embedded in the system.

I feel that when it comes to children on probation a lot of stereotypes are thrown around and it would have been easy to fall into tropes. I want viewers to see inside of the system and draw their own conclusions.

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While hanging out with friends, a youth started verbally harassing a peer walking home from school. The youth started to follow the peer and punched him from behind in the side of the face. The youth continued to assault his victim until a car pulled up in the alley. While fleeing the scene, the youth kicked his victim in the head. The youth decided to turn himself in when the story aired on the local evening news, and told Cedar Rapids Police that he had no justification for the assault, that he was just, “mad at the world.” The victim was hospitalized for two days with a broken jaw, two teeth knocked out, and a severed facial nerve. The youth was convicted of felony charges and placed at the Eldora State Training School.

PP: How has the project effected your relationships?

ZM: In human services, the work is about the person that you’re serving, not about you, and typically sharing personal information is discouraged. However, I feel that opening up about my passion for and education in photography bought me a little more trust with some of the clients. It was kind of odd, really. The kids were either totally interested and invested in the project, or completely indifferent. When I walk through the detention center, one or two kids will ask if I’m still working on the project or what was my grade in my photo class. I have also earned the moniker, “that guy with the camera.”

PP: Any particular stumbling blocks?

ZM: My biggest barrier was not being able to photograph faces – I didn’t want to blur out faces or put bars over them. It almost became a game figuring out how to make faces unidentifiable and have the photographs be meaningful.

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PP: Any pleasant surprises?

ZM: A number of the compositions happened by accident – a kid blocking the sun from his eyes, or deciding to sit in a certain spot. There is one photograph of a youth playing guitar in his bedroom. While we were taking the photograph, the youth’s friend came to the bedroom window and had a perplexed look on his face when he noticed me with the camera. The youth told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that I was from Rolling Stone Magazine. We all had a good laugh about that – and it was a welcome change from the more difficult interactions that I have.

PP: What has been the reaction so far to the work?

ZM: So far, reactions have all been pretty positive. I was part a group exhibition for the class Corrections was completed for, and a number of people drew some sort of sentiment from the photographs. I also had a portfolio review at Midwest SPE last year, and the project was received well. However, I understand that working with a vulnerable population, specifically youths, can be a contentious territory so I have been a pretty hard critic on myself about the work.

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PP: Do you plan to continue photography and/or work in criminal justice?

ZM: I would like to teach photography as a means of creative expression to youths at the detention center, but that is just a lofty idea at this point.

PP:  It would be wonderful if you could achieve those types of workshops.

ZM: There are definitely some barriers. The biggest obstacles would be finding the time to teach a course, funding for materials, developing a curriculum, and figuring out when it would work into the residents’ schedule as their day at the detention center is very structured.

PP: What makes you think photography is useful for the youths? What skills does it teach? What can be achieved with photographic education, particularly to at-risk youth?

ZM: Any creative outlet is useful to children. I remember having a drawing journal when I was a teenager, and the amount of things I was able to work through by drawing.

Photography could be a good outlet for youths in the detention center as I feel that visually investigating their surroundings would allow them to build a sense of self-awareness, getting them to really consider where they are in life and where they would like to go.

Also, with the concept of control again, a number of the interactions that I have are usually based upon the youth feeling that they don’t have a say with what is going on in their lives and they are being told all of the things that they cannot do, the places that they cannot go, the people that they cannot hang out with. My hope is that by introducing them to photography this will provide them with a chance of self-expression – they can decide what they want to photograph and how they want to photograph it, getting some semblance of control back.

PP: What else are you up to?

ZM: I’ll continue Corrections until I reach a place where I feel that it is as complete as possible, but I am taking a break from it for the time being. I have an idea for a more intimate project, a case study of sorts, following the story of one individual on probation. I’m gearing up to start shooting for this project in the next few months, and have a youth interested in being a part of it, so I’m ironing out details.

PP: Is the camera a security device or an artistic tool?

ZM: Part of my statement for Corrections is how I, as a Tracker, am required to impose on these youths. This was problematic for me at times because by pointing my camera at them I was imposing upon them in an additional way, but it is important to understand the difference. The cameras that we use to surveil youths are all there in a reactionary capacity in order to provide some sort of control. With my camera, I too am recording, but my camera is there in a collaborative capacity – I feel that the youths have taken back a level of control as they have allowed me to portray them and document their experiences.

PP: Thanks Zora.

ZM: Thank you.

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