Ronald Day in the midst of his workday at a New York City subway station. Photo by Ron Haviv / VII
VII Photo has partnered with non-profit organisation Think Outside the Cell to help end the stigma of incarceration. Lauren Heinz speaks to VII's photographers about the project
Author: Lauren Heinz
15 Oct 2012 Tags: Vii photo
A staggering 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States each year, and upon rejoining society they often face discrimination with regards to employment, housing and public benefits, and are even denied the right to vote.
Non-profit organisation Think Outside the Cell was founded as an attempt to put an end to the stigma attached to the formerly incarcerated and in doing so decrease the number of re-offenders who end up back in prison. One of the ways in which it hopes to achieve this is through a recent collaboration with VII Photo, which assigned four photographers to create a series of multimedia productions that tell the stories of former offenders and the challenges they face in reassimilating into society.
In part one of the series, photographers Ed Kashi, Ron Haviv, Jessica Dimmock and Ashley Gilbertson focus on two former prisoners from the New York/New Jersey area, resulting in a 10-minute film that weaves together both stories. Ronald Day's is the more positive of the two – he is currently studying for a PhD in criminal justice and, for the most part, has been able to overcome the stigma associated with his 12 years in prison. Mercedes Smith, who recently served a 20-year sentence, is unable to find housing due to parole restrictions and the lack of a credit history. The variation in stories will no doubt be a theme that is continued in the forthcoming production, as one of the aims of the collaboration is to look at a cross-section of problems faced by people such as Day and Smith from around the country.
Kimberly Soenen, director of business development and project funding at VII, initiated the project. "Think Outside the Cell's ever-growing community is comprised of policy-makers, criminal justice employees, legislative thought leaders and grassroots organisations," she says. "Their reach, combined with VII's editorial clients, allows our reporting to expand the dialogue. Add to that the journalistic integrity and combined professional experience of Ed Kashi, Ashley Gilbertson, Ron Haviv and Jessica Dimmock, and the audience – and public awareness – expands exponentially."
For Kashi, who focused on Day's story with Haviv, the project was an obvious fit due to his filmmaking background (Kashi did the filming while Haviv shot the stills), a history of working on prison stories and his proximity, being based in New York. For him, the project may as well have been a personal one. "I'm lucky as a lot of projects that come my way feel like personal projects. At this point in my career, I really want to create work where I feel like I'm making a difference."
Shooting the project did present some difficulty for both photographers as they had to deal with sensitive issues in representing Day. "There were some touchy situations," says Kashi, referring mainly to one shot in which Day is shown queuing up for his parole meeting – faces of the other people in the queue were blurred. "We had to be careful out of respect to these people and could not risk getting Ronald in trouble either. But, overall, we were proud of how it was handled."
Pete Brook of Prison Photography is publishing a series of blog posts on the project, including in-depth interviews with each photographer involved. Brook hopes the collaboration will affect positive change for former prisoners, and alter preconceptions that other US citizens might have. "Most people who are unaffected by the prison industrial complex live in a society brimming with ready-made excuses to ignore this issue and many others related to incarceration. Those are the people VII and Think Outside the Cell must reach. This creative campaign should help. The effects of the stigma of incarceration bubble quietly and constantly; it's a difficult issue to portray. The work by Ed, Ron, Jess and Ash is the latest effort to make sense of this invisible issue."
Mercedes Smith reads a letter from her incarcerated son. Photo by Ashley Gilbertson / VII
Kashi and Haviv will continue to follow Day, as he is released from parole and is allowed to vote for the first time this November. "Ronald Day is an obvious success story at this point in his life," says Haviv. "I think he is a great example of what can be achieved and how the formerly incarcerated can become valued members of the community."
The ultimate goal, says Kashi, would be to make a feature length documentary by doing more work with Day and Smith, and expanding it to show other scenarios faced by former prisoners. "In undertaking more advocacy-driven projects, there is of course the hope that they are presented editorially, broadcast on television and seen on the web. And creating a documentary film that goes into theatrical distribution would be the ideal. All of those goals exist, but at the heart of it is to create compelling work that can be used by advocates and organisations that can influence law and ultimately improve a situation."
The film can be seen on www.thinkoutsidethecell.org and will also be screened during Imagining America, comprising a consortium of universities and organisations dedicated to advancing public and civic issues, on 05 October in New York City and during the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, on 04 December.
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