More images from Friends and Family of Incarcerate People 2013 Youth Retreat:
I began shooting this project in color on a DSLR. I chose to convert the images to black and white using a digital image editing program.
I used to believe that the benefits of black and white photography was that it inspires a certain feeling of the classic, a timeless act in motion, the spirit suspended. The notes of black and white photography allows for a less distracted aesthetic experience. The shapes, forms, tones, and the ennui of an image step forward forming a timeless space in which the viewer can choose to engage deeper. Working in grayscale allows for an easier transition into the surreal. This quality made me fall in love with photography, but what sparks my interest in image making also allows for a certain level of disconnection for the image.
Over time, I changed my mind. I think the suppression of details that the black and white aesthetic provides, one that I’ve subscribed to since the beginning part of this visual essay, may be antithesis to the my goals for the project. I could not shake this question, am I recreating the stereotypes I claim to be fighting against by using the traditional language of documentary reportage? I need my viewers to connect to the people in the photographs, not pull away and label them as “other.”
Color makes the details of life sing. But for me, there is also something political in returning these digital images to color from black in white. I wanted to move at least one-step away from the stereotypical images of minorities in America, to continue the construction of what bell hooks’ calls the “oppositional black aesthetic.”
“Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construction of an oppositional black aesthetic. In the world before racial integration, there was a constant struggle on the part of black folks to create a counter-hegemonic world of images that would stand as visual resistance, challenging racist images.”
–bell hooks, “In Our glory; Photography in Black Life”
One of my stated goals for this project is to confront and challenge the visual stereotypes that shackle African American communities. I began to wonder if color photography would serve the goals of the project in a more direct way.
Reclaiming this historic form of visual resistance motivates me. Concurrently, I want my viewers to see themselves in the lives of the people and communities featured in the pictures. I felt black and white subdues the subtleties of brown skin. Color intensifies it. It breaks the veil of the surreal, reopening a door into to present reality. It is possible that I projected this worry into my work. Maybe I felt black and white was a less threatening way of confrontation viewers with an uncomfortable message. The more direct approach using the complexity of color is a better way to position the images firmly within the American Dream.
The American notion of childhood is one of a space that exists separately from the polluted and tangled business of adult life. In reality, the experience of childhood is as varied as any other on the scale of human existence. But, since World War II this idea that children deserve a chance at an unpolluted childhood has been central to America’s ideology. Our tolerance for the violation of this sacred space is low. The interruption of this space has become an important theme for me in this work.
In searching for visual strategies for this larger incarceration and community project, I wanted to tap into that potential outrage felt by everyday people who deeply believe in an unpolluted childhood space.
I was documenting a day care program run by Friends and Families of Incarcerated People, a D.C. based nonprofit, that serves children affected by incarceration. The daycare was located in the basement of an apartment building in Southeast D.C. After a lesson, the kids gathered outside for a trip to swimming pool. Once the chaperons gathered all the children, they began to walk towards the bus stop a few blocks away. One of the little girls spotted bluish-green glass shards spread on the asphalt and sidewalk adjacent to one of the teacher’s car. The glass had spread through the front passenger seat and on to the floor board. The daycare instructor’s vehicle had been broken into the previous evening. She asked what happened to the window.
This image stands out to me because it combined the violence of a smashed car window with the sacred space of childhood. I watched her as she opened her thin arms, then I made a picture. In the moment of witnessing her reaction I was touched by the simple question she asked, Why? The explanation was short and technical. Someone broke into the car to steal a music player. The kids wrestled with the reality of what that meant. Their level of understanding was one thing I could not photograph, but the intersection of crime and the innocence of youth radiate throughout this moment.
This is even more poignant because this group of children, whether it’s a simple walk to catch a bus to the pool or any other act of daily life, must navigate a community that has been stripped of it’s fathers and mothers.
An estimated 60,000 Washington D.C. residents have criminal records. Nearly 8,000 returning citizens are released back into the city each year after serving sentences in prison or jail. The aftermath of the War on Drugs has had serious impact on children in the economically depressed communities of “nation’s capital.” At some point in many of their lives, they will lose one or both of their parents due to incarceration.
A boy sits alone during a picnic after seeing his father at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. Hope House, a non-profit, helps keep children connected with the fathers while they are in prison. For most of the children Hope House is the only chance they get to see their fathers.