Windows from Prison Provides Visions of Home

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From Juvenile Justice Information Exchange:

The women in Clearman’s workshop who chose to participate wrote letters detailing the location they wanted photographed, instructions for the photographer and, in some instances, a brief explanation of why the location was important to them. Requests were also received from a nearby juvenile detention facility. Strandquist’s only stipulation was that the locations be within the New York City metropolitan area.

But it is hard to put stipulations of any kind on the creative process. One woman requested a location in South Carolina. Another wrote a fantasy piece, Clearman said.

People who took part in the New York workshop included professional photographers, criminal justice reform advocates, the formerly incarcerated, students enrolled at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and others simply interested in the project, including Clearman herself. Strandquist intentionally placed at least one member from each category into the smaller groups.

“As people went across the city, they were able to have these really powerful conversations and have these various experts within each group so that they became these kinds of mobile classrooms,” he said.

In order to facilitate that dialogue, Strandquist distributed booklets along with the photo requests. The booklets contained prompts of their own. Among the questions posed was this one: What do you think is the main cause of mass incarceration?

Participants shared their thoughts aloud with other group members and then recorded their responses in the booklets to document the conversations.

There were six photograph requests received from Clearman’s group of women at Rikers. One group went to the Bronx to photograph Yankee Stadium, another wound up in Central Park, yet another found its way to the Hudson River. Clearman’s group traveled to a neighborhood in Astoria, Queens.

Clearman said she understands the need for a fresh view inside a drab prison cell. In a book published earlier this year, which contains some of the work that has been produced in her Rikers workshop, Clearman described her first visit to the women’s facility.

“Windows showed a bleak courtyard with cracked cement, a basketball hoop, one dispirited tree,” she wrote.

Some workshop participants were concerned that rather than helping, the images would exacerbate the harsh realities of imprisonment. Rather than providing temporary relief, wouldn’t viewing a location that could not be visited simply make matters worse?

No, says Anisah Sabur, project associate for the Correctional Association’s Women In Prison Project. She was once incarcerated and chose to participate in the workshop on her only day off that week.

“When you’re looking at the same sad, dull environment every day, it kind of takes away from your positive thinking,” Sabur said.

Read more about the Windows from Prison project and the CA’s participation here.