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Seeing the World Anew

The Fresh Eyes Photography Project is a unique New Mexico-based organization that seeks to engage youth at three incarceration facilities with arts-making. In particular, the focus of Fresh Eyes is photography with project teachers and staff leading two, 10-week workshops in each facility during the course of the year. Guided by the mantra, “You have the ability to change the outcome,” the project’s mission is to provide court-involved youth with the tools and support to see the world anew. It is their belief that engaging in digital photography will help the young people with whom they work successfully re-enter society with the confidence that they have a real place in their community.

Bokeh, the visual arts blog of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange recently profiled the work of Fresh Eyes artists in a piece entitled “Capturing Captivity From the Inside.” Along with providing a curated compilation of photographs from the Fresh Eyes gallery, Katy McCarthy writes,

The images are startlingly anonymous — no faces, no full names or details like family photos and no books. And yet, even the simplicity of two hands in mittens clasped together is somehow painful. Is it a naïve attempt at symbolizing affection or a moment of insight into the kid’s yearning for touch and intimacy?

She continues,

An unnaturally indigo sky is streaked by a jet stream framed by the intersection of two imposing rooflines. A pink-veined sphere is caught in mid-air, in the background two big trees with outstretched limbs distract the eye only briefly from a tiny bit of fencing in the bottom right corner. The photos are compositionally dynamic, with great consideration paid to color. Still, the architecture of incarceration permeates.

McCarthy’s phrase “the architecture of incarceration” is haunting, reminding readers and viewers of the setting and context that frames the work and lives of these young people, yet it is important to note that sterility and impersonality do not define these artists. In the complete Fresh Eyes gallery from which McCarthy draws her collection, there are also images of hope and humanity, of beauty and movement— evocative gestures to a brighter future. Individually and collectively, the work of Fresh Eyes artists invite viewers into aspects of the life-world that these young people find meaningful. I know that I am thankful for their offering and hope that others are also moved by their vision.

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Juvenile in Justice Project

Juvenile in Justice is an image-based project aiming to document the placement and treatment of American Juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them. Richard Ross, a California-based photographer, began the project five years ago and it has been traveling as an art exhibit around the world for the last year.

From the website:

Juvenile in Justice includes images of over 1,000 juveniles and administrators over 200 facilities in 31 states in the U.S, plus extensive information collected from interviews. The hope is that by seeing these images, people will have a better understanding of the conditions that exist. Children’s identities are always protected and faces are never shown.

Juvenile In Justice is a unique source for images of the American juvenile justice system, which are made available to all institutions and non-profits aimed at youth justice system reform– including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Campaign for Youth Justice, Equal Justice Initiative, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

It was difficult to find any information about how Ross gained access into so many facilities and was able to interview so many young people. The only limited explanation of the process that I could find was in a press release for the Ronald Feldman gallery in New York City (one of the hosts for the traveling exhibit). It reads:

Ross gains access to the spaces of incarceration, and those working and living within them, through a complicated process of obtaining permission from all levels of administration, permission that is often at the discretion of individuals working in the system. [He says,] ‘I wanted to give a voice to those with the least amount of authority in any U.S. confinement system.’

It is interesting to consider the relationships among “youth,” “media” and “educational justice” as they intersect and emerge within the Juvenile in Justice project. Ross uses familiar art forms (photographs, video, audio recordings) to tell the stories of young people in the juvenile justice system. His work provides an incredible rarely accessible insight into what detention centers and incarcerated youth look like. While the quality of the footage both still and moving is quite beautiful, the images are chilling yet moving. At the same time, however, it is necessary to offer questions about space, audience, and power as they relate to this project.

By “space” I’m referring to the art galleries around the world that have hosted the traveling exhibition, displaying the project’s artifacts. I wonder about what we tend to associate with an “art gallery,” what assumptions we might make about who has access to these spaces? What kind of conversations are had in these spaces? Are the stark white walls and rather sterilized curation of the photographs meant to ironically mimic the environment of a detention center?

Closely tied to space, I think about how notions of “audience” relate to this project. Who is the target audience of this work? Who are the stakeholders? And which audiences have access to the spaces in which this work is shared?

And finally, “power.” It is always crucial to consider the inherent power dynamics that [tend to] exist between adults and young people, especially when the young people are already involved in a system that has rendered them completely powerless (in this case the juvenile justice system, specifically juvenile detention centers). Ross has documented and exposed this aspect of the juvenile justice system in an incredibly raw and unique way, and it is possible that drawing attention to this topic may result in a greater sense of accountability on the part of the justice system. Yet, we must also think about how Ross’ presence in the detention centers — his photographing, interviewing, etc. — may have been received not only by staff but by the young people. Where do we draw the line between voyeurism and educational justice?

I pose these questions not necessarily to elicit answers, but rather in attempts to encourage us all to remember, like John Dewey (1980), that “a work of art is not the object itself–the physical painting, sculpture or photograph…but what the work does ‘in and with human experience'” (cited by Hubard, 2013). Our lived experiences, the contexts within and lenses through which people may see and interact with these pieces are different and that is an important reality to keep in mind.

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