A few years ago, I was invited to photograph in Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall by filmmaker Leslie Neale. She was working with incarcerated youth, all facing very harsh sentences, some even life in prison. In my mind, they were the worst of the worst. They were unimaginably far from my own life. I braced myself for the trip to the ‘inside.’
But that trip was much shorter than I imagined.
I did not meet any angry or tattoo-ridden or ganged-out kids in juvenile hall. Rather, I found a group of ordinary youth. When I spoke to them, they were deferential. They had brought ‘contraband’ candy and I listened to one of them play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from memory. And somehow I had come full circle: I had played that exact same piece to my own son the night before. And suddenly the distance between the inside and the outside vanished into thin air, a vast gulf turned into a thin veil.
From within this breakdown, my project, A Poor Imitation of Death, took shape.
I can understand why Mayra may get life in prison for shooting her girlfriend at point blank range. But why did first-time offender, 18 year-old Duc, get the same life sentence when he did not pull the trigger in a crime where no one was even hurt? And why did Peter—a 17 year-old piano prodigy and poet—get 12 years in adult prison for breaking and entering? Also his first offense. Why was the justice system so harsh on these kids who clearly have so much potential? Why were these kids being ‘discarded’ from society rather than lead back into it?
I was overwhelmed and angry and needed to find answers to these questions. And to show the world of incarcerated youth as it actually is: not a place of rehabilitation but a place of hopelessness and despair and where a huge injustice was being carried out with our, the public’s, tacit consent.
A Poor Imitation of Death is a complex and collaborative narrative: the youth’s own writings, drawings and words combine with my photographs to create a unique and authentic ‘voice’ that speaks about the realities of youth in prison. It tells a harsh story: full of despair, raw emotion and injustice but also of incredible inner strength and huge potential for change.
A Poor Imitation of Death is also a query to us, citizens of the world: do we know what we are doing to our children?
A Poor Imitation of Death title is from a poem by Liz, an incarcerated youth.
This project would not be possible without Leslie Neale and her film “Juvies.”
Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, CA, 2011