NEW YORK -- As Ara Oshagan rocked his first-born son to sleep he prepared to meet monsters.
While he bounced and cooed his boy, Sebouh, to sleep to the achingly plaintive melody of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata he was the image of a doting father, but in his mind he was quietly bracing himself to meet some of what many considered to be California’s youngest and most dangerous criminals.
The geo-physicist turned documentary photographer had never been behind the walls of the juvenile detention facilities that dot the outskirts of Los Angeles along the spine of Interstate 5 in the Central Valley, but the following morning he was going to take his camera, walk in, and take pictures of killers and gangsters.
“I expected the worst,” he said. “The worst of the worst; The ones glaring at you in those orange jumpsuits. You see how they’re portrayed. I expected them to be standoffish, imminently violent, unstable. Ready to do anything.”
What he encountered subverted his anxious expectations. He found a teenager, a piano prodigy before he was tried as an adult and put behind bars. The young inmate was tinkering with an electric piano, and in the grey gloom of the facility echoed the same funereal, haunting sonata he heard in the comfort of his son’s nursery the evening before. The inmate played Beethoven with precision and feeling.
“What I met weren’t monsters,” Oshagan, now 47, said. “They were normal kids. I knew the system wasn’t working -- I didn’t know exactly how bad it was until I started talking to these kids and seeing what happens to them.”
The pictures Oshagan took that day and for years after from 2001 to 2005, are part of a exhibition called “Cruel and Unusual” on display inside a massive 40-foot long shipping container stacked on the uplands of Pier 3 along the Waterfront in Brooklyn. The show features a collection of pictures by photographers from across the country chronicling life behind bars, some of which were gathered by co-curator Pete Brook during what he calls the Prison Photography on the Road.
Brook hopes the people who come to see the pictures will undergo the same sort of transformation that Oshagan did when he started his project.
“This installation doesn’t come close to describing the problems with the system and the need for reform,” he said. “But for many people who are uninformed with the subject matter I’m hoping it will be a jolt, an awakening, and a reason to go look deeper into these issues under their own steam.”
“Cruel and Unusual,” named ironically after the Eighth amendment (and, Brook notes, written into the English Bill of Rights in 1689) is part of a larger exhibit, described by its organizers as a “photography destination” called Photoville -- a 60,000 square-foot village featuring 30 containers with exhibitions ranging from the photojournalistic to the playful and bombastic, hands-on workshops, projections and lectures open from June 22 to July 1.
Last year, Brook and fellow blogger and curator Hester Keijster began talking about assembling an installation to showcase the work that so many photographers were doing to document the life of prisoners and the system of corrections. They curated a show in Noorderlicht, a gallery in Groningen, a town in northern Netherlands. The gallery decided to send “Cruel and Unusual” as its contribution to Photoville.
Brook, who started a blog featuring prison photography in October, 2008, said he became interested in prison reform when he started researching his master’s thesis on a prison museum in San Quentin. A native of England, who grew up in Lancashire, Brook said he does not want to be perceived as an outsider chastising the United States for what he sees as a deeply flawed prison system.
On a recent morning sweat dripped from Brook’s face as he put the finishing touches on the installation. He scrawled facts and quotes directly onto the grey sides of the containers, the red and black markers squeaking on the corrugated metal. Above him a string of bulbs casting a wan glow hung from the roof. He wore a pair of tan cut-off shorts, a T-shirt with a picture of faded palm trees and some scuffed black scandals. He blended in well with the gritty, frill-less presentation of the work -- raw, bleak photos taped to the wall without the formality of staged lighting and frames.
“Cruel and Unusual” is like looking at a fractured dimension of real life; A parallel universe much like ours but taking place behind bars. It captures the full range of the human experience, but rigidly contained to barren cells and cramped hallways.
There’s a pregnant woman, her swollen belly poking out of her prison issue clothes. Four couples beam at the camera, newlyweds, women who married serving time with no parole, who will never have an opportunity to consummate their relationship. Men squat in a circle around a small picture of Jesus with a heart engulfed in flames in a pantomime of a structured religious service. Grim faced men in Louisiana’s Angola state prison push a gurney toward the hospital ward to collect a corpse.
And then there are the young. In a number of pictures, the insecurity and confusion of adolescence is played out in rusty cells and behind thick security gates. In one shot, a boy swimming in his prison-issued uniform stares up at a wall inside a daunting metal cell that dwarfs him. In another, a girl hides her face behind her long blonde hair sitting on her bed.
Joseph Rodriguez, 61, who also has pictures of juveniles on display, said he was once one of those youths. He was arrested in Brooklyn for a number of minor charges. His mother
couldn’t afford the bail so he was shipped off to Riker’s Island. Rodriguez said there wasn’t a juvenile wing back then. He shared a cell with a 38-year-old man. He thought about suicide.
“It smacked me in the face the minute I walked in there,” he said. “It’s a life that people don’t understand. Anything that is humane is thrown out the window. Handcuffed, strip searched, a million guys trying to hustle you, you are challenged the minute you walk in the door.”
He said he knows the pictures that he takes now as a documentarian won’t be enough alone to change the system, but for him it was the camera where he found salvation.
“I’m standing there in the darkness, the darkest place of my life; you can see it in the letter I write to my mother. I said I want to change myself. When I got out I got a camera. I went from shooting drugs to shooting pictures. It saved my life, man.”
Oshagan, now a father of four, said working with juvenile inmates changed how he looked at himself as a parent. He always told himself that his children were different, special, an attitude he said he shared with many doting parents.
But after spending time with juvenile inmates, seeing their curiosity about photography, and their sense of humor and watching them weep when they talked about the mistakes they made he said he realized they weren’t monsters. In fact, he said, they weren’t that different than his own children.
“I could see the potential of, you know, ‘my kid could be like that,’” he said. “You can see these are really good kids and you can’t believe that they are where they are. And then you understand how it is that one little thing got them here. One thing. You can imagine your own kid making one stupid mistake. It opened my eyes. Anything is possible.”
Photo of Pete Brook by Jack Jeffries
There is no qualifying the corners of human suffering around the globe. It is all bad, from massacre sites, to famine zones.
Few places in the world hold the level of hopelessness of an African prison, for the most part vortexes that may release a human but never the human spirit. Now imagine a prison in a failed state in Africa. Now imagine a prison in a failed state in Africa that holds children.
This is the nightmare Moleres has found. No, it is not the worst place on Earth and yes there is human suffering that far surpasses what one finds in the Pademba Road Prison in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. But his work in this place, the images of the young and the hopeless, the squalor, the confines, the emotion, the dark cells streaked with precious sunlight, are a testament to how frightfully low a society can sink. And yet, it is also a reminder that the lack of amenities, if you will, are about the only thing that separates the misery of the Pedemba Prison from any given youth detention center in the United States.
If only Moleres’ work were about confinement and nothing else. There are wrongful convictions in this nation and other parts of the developed world, and structural deficiencies that put the poor at a disadvantage, to that question there is no doubt. But it is an understatement to say there is towering injustice in Sierra Leone, in Pademba Road and in Makeni Prison the decrepit provincial “facility” Moleres also visited.
Know this is not an easy journey for the viewer to take. Witness them though, because Moleres handles this horror with skill, grace and caring in a way that makes you understand the way of grotesque jurisprudence in another world. It is a strange soul indeed that would refuse to be stirred to outrage over these photographs.
So see it for what it is.
See a menacing guard with mirrored glasses, a necklace of handcuffs dangling around his neck, an image that foreshadows what is to come in Moleres’ essay. This power figure in uniform stands on the back end of a freight car, or more accurately a cargo of human beings. Then there is the more personal; a small boy named Abdul, in court, then the shock of him literally behind bars. Such a cliché shot is hard to get in the States these days, but here it is, in all its stomach-churning glory.
Farther down Pademba Road, into its hallways and inner cells you see the prison-scape that comes about when 1,100 men and boys are crammed into a space meant for 300.
The photography of this has been done before. It has even been done here, in this sprawling cage in Freetown. But Moleres somehow has found a deeper hopelessness, something that brings to mind slaving ships, the forgoing of freedom altogether.
He has managed to burrow so deeply into this subject because he cares so about what is going on here, the naked injustice of it all.
In a September 2011 interview with the British Journal of Photography, his frustration with the NGO community rose to the surface and exploded into the atmosphere. No one, not the United Nations, not the Red Cross, not Medecins du Monde, cared enough about the situation at Pademba Road Prison to do anything about it.
“When I was in Sierra Leone,” he told the Journal, a representative from the [United Nations] came to the prison to visit the detainees. I went with him. He talked with a few dealers, the guards, etc. But when other detainees came to see him to denounce the injustice of the entire system, his answer was: ‘I'm not here to solve your personal problems.’ This man, whose name is Antonio Maria Costa [was the former head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime], has access to the country's vice president and home affairs minister. He could have done something about it, but he chose not to.”
Cantankerous? You bet he is. Then again, he’s got a right to be. Fernando Moleres is a one-man advocate for the children in this prison, so much so that he’s set his own structure in place to bail them out before they are lost, forever. He calls it, Free Minor Africa and in time he may just shame the mighty NGOs of the world into funding it.
This is not a passing fancy for Moleres. He’s been working the Pademba Road Prison project since 2007 and he’s been at photography for half his life, winning numerous top honors in international photography, including the the Luis Valtuena International Humanitarian Photography Award for his work in Sierra Leone.
He’ll take the accolades but he’ll also use his stage to call out the unwilling and scream to high heaven the injustice of Pademba Road and beyond.
The Editors managed an email exchange with Moleres recently when he was briefly at home in Barcelona (he's on the road a lot) and took the opportunity to ask a few questions.
Question: Has the attitude of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations, international relief groups, non-profits) changed in Sierra Leone? Are they so still so insensitive?
Fernando Moleres: Not all the NGOs are the same, not all the people inside them function the same way. My experience with the NGOs is that they are slow to act, all their decisions have to be made by consensus and within a bureaucratic process. The big NGOs have inflexible structures where it is very difficult to contact the person in charge of making decisions. Plans have to be made years before they will be carried out and an enormous amount of energy is spent in the administration.
When I asked the NGOs in Sierra Leona if I could help the prisoners, young or old, no one could offer me any help, suggestion nor interest for my request for what I was telling them.
Question: What is the status of Free Minor Africa? Are you getting support, contributions, from organizations and individuals?
FM: No, the project FMA, at this moment has no support. I have been getting some money by selling my pictures, ...or selling some photos or videos to some small magazines interested in this subject. All the money, 100%, goes to the project. Up to this moment only two persons have donated a total of $80. In total, FMA has $4,000 and there is a volunteer who will go to Sierra Leona. She will be paying her own way.
Question: How can people help?
FM: Go to the web page where you can find information on how to help directly or you may buy a photo to help Free Minor Africa. If someone wants to travel to Sierra Leone put them in contact with me.
Translated from the Spanish by Rosana Ayala.
For the remainder of this year, Fernando Moleres and the children of Sierra Leone will have a voice in this space.
Seeing a blank page by mistake? Sorry for the inconvenience. Click here to continue on to the full "Saturday in the Park: Conversations with Kids" photo gallery.
Not too many years ago, the still photo was the domain of the professional and the dedicated hobbyist. Today, when school children routinely have iPhones at the ready, we’ve reached the point where the world is our collective subject, caught from a billion different angles.
And what a glorious addition to our gallery of life’s great riches it is, this daily chronicle of human life, the capture of otherwise forgotten moments, the tally of the small order of life's minutiae as well as the dramatic breaths in time that bring about outcries of emotion, the sparking of movements, the fall of governments.
With so many photos taken by so many photographers, though, the prevailing opinion may be that the art form has been eroded, that the cascade of mostly mediocre images pummels the viewer into disinterest. The riveting scene from a few years ago now ranges from mildly interesting to old hat.
But the truth is, stunningly wonderful photography exists at the top of the populace’s current body of work. These are the images produced by those who know the science of the trade and practice it with a passion, every day. You see their work in the giant metro papers, but also in galleries. The composition, if you will, is there. A nice picture, that on closer inspection tells a story that demands your attention and stirs your emotions.
Today, JJIE introduces Bokeh, what you might call our fine arts site. Here is a place where some very strong still images will reside, along with photo essays and written essays on the art of photography.
Some of this work will include those at top of the field. On Monday, we begin publishing photographer Richard Ross’ work. The Santa Barbara-based Ross spent five years photographing and interviewing some 1,000 inmates in youth detention centers all across the country. His project, Juvenile-In-Justice, was supported in part by the Guggenheim Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Other work on Bokeh (the name roughly means, ‘the aesthetic quality of the blur in that part of the unfocused image’) includes our own. Today, a photo essay, “Saturday in the Park,” by JJIE photographer Clay Duda runs on the site. This is our attempt to capture the voices and thoughts of kids on common, but important, questions of the day. (Click here or see the introduction to the essay below.)
And finally, through our partnerships with groups such as VOX Teen Communications, you’ll see the work of young photographers, the way they see the world and the issues dominant in their lives.
Youth as its subject and the quality of the work are the common threads in the photography of the professionals, the up-and-coming photojournalists and the dedicated beginners congregating on Bokeh.
What you see on Bokeh is meant to be craft, strong and compelling, a home for the best work on the issues of juvenile justice.
We hope you enjoy it.
“You got any weed?” is how William “Trash” Hansen introduced himself on a hot spring day in the Little 5 Points neighborhood of Atlanta. The heels of his socks peeked through the disintegrated soles of his steel-toed boots as he walked the strip in search of the drug.
If you passed him on the street you may have thought twice before striking up a conversation. If the soot- drenched, patch- woven outfit didn’t give you pause, the blatant drug references and casual cat-calls may have.
Sporadically he’d push back the small puff of dreadlocked hair sprouting from the crown of his head or run his arm across his forehead to wipe away sweat. With each swipe a new abstraction of brake dust and grime clotted against his pale skin.
The dirt on his back came from across the United States. The FourLoko in his pocket, an alcoholic energy drink, came from a nearby convenience store.
At 20, Trash has endured, experienced and seen more of the United States than most will see in their entire lives. He has been riding freight trains around the country for nearly eight years.
Just like everyone, his story is unique, but his tales of foster care, abuse and ultimate freedom are a glimpse into a culture existing on the fringes of society, rarely seen by the general public. Trash and many others like him have no home, yet they call home the hundreds of thousands of miles of railroad that cross the country, the rail cars that bump along the tracks and the expansive yards of gravel and steel found in nearly every American city.
They are the modern vagabonds of today -- sometimes abused and abused by the system without anywhere else to go, sometimes there by choice – young, independent and free to ride the freight lines into their own uncertain futures.
It’s like Trash said after eight years on the rails, his hobo days weren’t anywhere close to coming to an end. Then again, it may be hard to figure where you’ll be in five years when you’re still not sure about your next meal.
“There are some good people… it just depends.”
“When I hit the streets I was 12 years old,” he said. At 13 he hopped his first freight train.
Trash didn’t remember the day he entered foster care. He was young, maybe one or two years old.
At the age of 10, a couple adopted him near his birthplace of Seattle, Wash., He stayed with them until leaving for the streets two years later.
“[That was] two years of the most f*cked up sh*t ever,” he said, followed by a long pause. “I was afraid to walk down the hall to take a piss [when I was grounded], so I’d piss in my closet.”
When Trash was 11, he came in from playing in the yard with grass stains covering his new clothes. His adopted mother started screaming, forcing him to scrub the stains in the kitchen sink, but the streaks were there to stay. Then, without warning, she grabbed a mason jar of smoked salmon from atop the nearby washing machine and smashed it against Trash’s forehead.
“If I didn’t do something right the first time I got beat,” he said with a blank stare.
Eventually he only saw two options: stay in a group home or risk life on the street, eventually getting picked up and sent back to juvenile detention. Staying with his adopted family wasn’t an option.
Trash wasn’t the only foster youth faced with such a stark choice. An estimated 21 to 50 percent of homeless youth reported being placed in foster care or an institutional setting at some point, according to a 2007 report by the National Symposium on Homelessness Research.
“Group homes f*cking sucked,” Trash said. “Your home environment is just like your school environment. You don’t have parents, you have staff.”
“The whole idea about foster care is, it's a temporary arrangement while the state finds the kids a home,” said Amy Dworsky, Senior Researcher with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, adding that foster care and group homes weren’t designed to provide the same support system as a permanent family. “What often happens [before kids leave for the streets] is that young people end up with a couple of different foster families and the arrangements didn’t work out.”
Trash decided to take his chances on the streets. He spent about a year bouncing around Seattle before hopping his first freight train south. Trouble seemed to follow no matter where he went. He has seen the inside of a jail cell more times than he could count.
“I don’t want to ask the same people for change every day.”
While in town you could find him in the plaza at the heart of Little 5 Points.
“I’ll be here every day,” he said. “Just come find me.”
And that’s where he was with his pregnant dog Daisy and a cast of other homeless and nomadic characters only identifiable by their street names – “Trees,” “Twig,” “Torch,”“Karma” and so on.
After flying a sign in front of a nearby retail store Trash had enough money to make it through the day. It took him less than half an hour.
“I live off of kindness and how can’t you be kind if you live off it, you know?” he said. “How can you not?”
Trees, Twig and their dog Stumps – fellow travelers – welcomed the breadstick breakfast with open arms and hungry bellies. They sat on the cool concrete sidewalk and ate, sharing with their canine companions. Every train rider sported a skank, even the dogs.
Daisy, Trash’s pitbull, was due to have puppies in a month or so. Trash planned to give the dogs to other train kids. Daisy was his best friend, he said, and the closest thing he had to family.
The woodland trio of Trees, Twig, and Stumps had been together for about four months.
Trees, 24, had “Thug Lice” scrawled across the bill of his hat and a train track tattooed on his right cheek. He rode the rails on and off for eight years, but has spent the last three months housed up with Twig’s relatives and friends around Georgia.
He said he was from California, but declined to give his full name. He pointed at two tear drop tattoos on his face and explained they were for two close friends who died on the rails, but he didn’t feel comfortable telling their stories.
Lisa “Twig” Hogan, 18, was raised in Arizona, but later moved to Atlanta with her mom. Before she met Trees she had planned to move back out west. A few months ago, while working at a shop in Little 5 Points, “this cute train kid walked in…” Insert Trees, Stumps and a change of plans.
Now known as Twig, Lisa spent many of her middle-school years in private school. Her mother still wasn’t comfortable with her traveling, much less riding freight trains. But Twig wasn’t a complete stranger to the tracks. She did “a two-month tour” with a friend a few years back, but never really learned the ropes.
Both traveled very different paths to reach their intersection in life, but shared a common need for freedom and a lust for travel.
To me this is what field reporting is all about. We had a concept and a vague idea of how to make it happen. One reporter and a camera, not much else.
Looking back one of the biggest mistakes we made was setting out too early. At 10am I was already thinking about lunch and a third cup of coffee, but the kids we were looking for were still snoozing in their sleeping bags – and would be for another two hours.
I was on assignment in the Little 5 Points neighborhood of Atlanta with little guidance beyond the idea of finding these "train kids" and telling their story - whatever it may be. Just finding them would be a challenge. In the end it worked out, of course, and the story pretty much tells itself, but as the sun crept further overhead on that warm-lit day I had some serious doubts we'd actually pull it off.
Now, I know what to look for. I’d even go as far to say I could spot a train kid as fast as one of their own could, but that is probably a stretch. It turns out Atlanta isn’t a hub for the vagabonds of the 21st century. Even studies from the University of Chicago concluded there wasn’t a large enough homeless youth population in Southern and Midwestern cities to produce any sort of accurate statistics.
Trash and Trees, the only long-term hobos I had the pleasure of spending some time with, both fit the geographic mold of the university study. They were both from out West – Trash from Seattle and Trees from somewhere in California, where exactly I still can’t say.
I spent two days with Trash and one day with the woodland trio (Trees, Twig and their dog Stumps). Driving home after the first day I didn’t think of “them” as “train kids” anymore. They were just like you and me. They were just living their lives.
Professionally this assignment was a bit of a challenge. It was the first solo assignment I took on where I’d be doing both the visual and written elements of the story. I learned a few valuable lessons.
It’s hard to juggle the different aspects of a fast-paced assignment. I’d find myself scribbling notes with one hand and reaching for the camera with the other. I learned that the moments you feel uncomfortable grabbing the camera are usually the moments you should have it out. This can be anything from an expression mid conversion to a yell at a stranger across the street – both of which I missed this go around.
It may be cliché, but I don’t plan to cry over spilt milk. The best thing I can do is take notes and apply the hard-learned lesson on my next assignment.
Wherever Trash, Trees, Twig, and their dogs Stumps and Daisy end up, I’m sure they’ll enjoy the ride.