Think Outside The Cell, a NYC based advocacy group, and VII Photo Agency recently collaborated to make and distribute a media campaign to educate the public about the continued struggles for felons post-release. This is part-two of a five part series, Ending The Stigma Of Incarceration.
Ron Haviv, one of four photographers on the project, was kind enough to take a Skype call from me. Ron and Ed Kashi photographed and videoed Ronald Day‘s story.
Prison Photography (PP): How did you become one of the four photographers for the VII Photo/Think Outside The Cell partnership.
Ron Haviv (RH): Ed, Jessica, Ashley and I were brought in after the project was agreed and secured. To be honest with you, we hope this project to be a long term and expansive project going beyond New York.
PP: You want to cover the issue all over the country. Why is that necessary?
RH: It’s important that not all the subjects look alike or sound alike. We must emphasize this is not a New York problem; the stigma of incarceration is a national problem. So, it is imperative that we look to … maybe not in all fifty states … but we look to get to a number of states in order to give the audience a real variety of ideas and illustrate different problems that former prisoners are going through. Some of those problems are going to be state specific; that variety is going to be an important aspect for people to understand.
PP: Let’s talk about your subject, Ronald Day. He works in advocacy and service. He has earned a Masters degree since release. He teaches at John Jay College. He has started his PhD program in Criminal Justice at CUNY/John Jay. This guy is a success story. What sort of a relationship did you develop with Ronald?
RH: Before we started photographing, we went to meet him and he was incredibly open about his life – from very basic things to personal details. When we asked him questions he was very forthcoming.
He is an incredibly articulate and smart man as proven by what he has done inside and outside of prison. Ed and I couldn’t have asked for someone better through whom to illustrate some of the issues. To think that someone of his caliber struggles, means that people that don’t have that same skill set must really struggle.
PP: What did Ronald want out of the multimedia piece?
RH: Well, his job is in helping others acclimate to society; people who’ve gone through the same things that he has gone through. His whole life is directed toward helping and informing people; people like myself who know very little about the stigma that felons deal with.
Ronald is informing the public and hopefully trying to have some impact on policy-makers and lawmakers. That being said, he is absolutely not the type to sit down and preach to you. He’s more like, ‘Look at what I’m going through, look at all the hoops through which I’ve had jump to get to where I am,’ and showing us by example [what is practicable], not just railing against the system.
It’s interesting. Usually a photographer will learn about their topic, in this case criminal justice and parole, through research and secondary sources, but here, in Ronald, we had the best resource, a primary resource, someone who has lived and is living the issues wrapped up in reentry to society after incarceration.
I think he is for sure remorseful and recognizes the mistakes he made. It’s not as if he claims he is innocent or was framed, but at the same time, he sees that was a very different person who went to prison 18 years ago. He’s a different man now. He has a son who is very important to him and a mother and a sister and her kids and they’re all living in a three story home in the Bronx – a very lovely place. So he has the family components that are all vital to a successful life.
PP: How often did you photograph Ronald?
RH: We did a week with him over the course of six weeks.
To be perfectly honest, we didn’t spend huge amounts of time with Ronald. We’d see him at work and in the home and for different events but there was no huge emotional crisis that Ronald was going through that Ed or I had to witness or deal with. We were there for fathers day which was lovely – lots of friends and family at his house.
PP: You were paired with Ed Kashi – you making stills and Ed making video. Similarly, Jessica [Dimmock] and Ashley [Gilbertson] followed Mercedes Smith, the female subject. Had you and Ed worked closely on anything before?
RH: No, but obviously, we are business partners in VII. This was our first collaboration, the result of which will be a mixed media piece.
PP: You said before that the issue of stigma among the formerly incarcerated hadn’t been on your radar.
PP: What have you learned?
RH: Society *says* that if you commit a crime, you pay for it by time in prison and then, once you are released you are supposed to be able to continue your life.
I’m amazed that prison continues to haunt the people coming out to the point of often driving them back because they can’t get a job or they can’t get housing or it’s very difficult for them to go to school. That was very surprising to me.
With voting [disenfranchisement], you hear a lot about whether felons can vote or not, but I didn’t realize that if you’re filling out an application to rent an apartment or trying to get just a basic job, at McDonald’s for example, that there are boxes felons must check. As soon as they do [check that box], they’re out.
There’s no home, there’s no basic job, and so when you talk about recidivism in America, well, it is very obvious why a large part of it is happening; it is because there is no way to survive on the outside. For me, that was very disturbing and something that on many levels this country needs to deal with.
PP: How did we get to this state of affairs? Is America an unforgiving society? Is it bad policy put in place by misinformed politicians and voters? Let’s be frank, many of these laws have come about recently. How is it we treat the 700,000 released prisoners per year like this?
RH: It’s a combination of a number of things. In New York, the drug laws that were passed were, are, harsh and absurd in relation to the actual crime.
Plus, the break down of the family. Parents going to prison breaks up families. Children who grow up without a father have a much higher chance of going to prison. That’s not a problem for which the system must be blamed. That comes down to individual responsibility and must be taken a lot more seriously. I think it is incredibly important but not something we discuss.
Obviously, there are laws that are causing problems but a huge reality of it is people not being responsible for their children, basically. That is not the main cause but it is a large cause. And that applies to the white community, the Black community, the Hispanic community; it’s not a racial thing, but it is definitely a gender thing. Men are just not stepping up. That’s my personal position.
PP: Do you suspect there is a crisis among men in America? Is there an issue with male identity?
RH: Absolutely. There’s a lot of factors … but, men carry a huge responsibility. It’s probably controversial [to say] but I think there’s a real problem with the use of, and ideas surrounding, birth control.
I don’t understand why people are having so many children or why fathers are so proud to say, “I’ve got three kids with that girl and two kids with that girl.” It’s ridiculous and I’m not sure what the reason for it is but it really comes down to personal responsibility. If you’re going to have children then you need to be able to take responsibility for them, and if not then there are ways to not have children.
PP: Did you have any ideas how you would shoot this story? This is an issue about emotions somewhat but also about intransigent rules. How do you photograph someone being denied food-stamps or housing? How do you photograph bureaucracy?
RH: That’s exactly why Ed’s video element of this is incredibly important. There’s certainly ways to photograph the frustrations that Ronald and other people go through but by having multiple components where you’re going to see him in action, share his voice and hear him not just reading a caption but having a conversation. The combination of audio, video and stills makes it much more powerful and dynamic – compared to a straight up photo essay with captions.
PP: I think it interesting that VII has focused specifically on reentry. My position is to look at prisons and those invisible sites and think exactly how and what power is being played out, whereas reentry goes on in “free” society and so the assumption might be it is a subject more accessible for the photographer.
PP: Is this one of the major, ongoing initiatives at VII?
RH: We have a number of different partnerships, from projects with the United Nations, to Médecins Sans Frontières, to traditional media partners – TIME, the New York Times and Vanity Fair for example, but this is definitely something we think is extremely important and we’re very excited to hopefully take it further. Right now, it is just the beginning.
PP: It sounds like you’d be interested in doing a second stint on the project?
RH: Yes, and I’m also interested in following Ronald some more. I hope to see how he does at university. We’re not going to let him go! We’re going to continue to follow his story.
VII Photo: “The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. For the first time US history, more than one in 100 American adults are in prison. China is second, with 1.5 million people behind bars. An estimated 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States every year. Where do they all go?”