For two young boys living in New Mexico, America’s criminal justice system is about more than statistics and trends--it’s a harrowing tale of love, loss and sorrow.
Vinny and David’s story, illuminated in Los Angeles-based documentary photographer Isadora Kosofsky’s intimate portraits, begins when 13-year-old Vinny is sent to juvenile detention after stabbing his mother’s attacker. Before he’s released, his beloved 19-year-old brother David is also imprisoned for aggravated assault. Kosofsky’s photographs document Vinny and David’s lives through several years as they struggle to find stability amidst a tumultuous criminal history and troublesome home life.
The photos shed light on the realities of America’s criminal justice system, and how it affects the vulnerable population of children left behind when a loved one goes to prison. Vinny and David humanize the challenges that families and communities affected by incarceration face—the stigma, poverty, instability and inequality. Kosofsky captures, in heart-wrenching detail, the melancholy world of these two boys as they struggle to raise themselves and search for a loving and supportive family structure in each other.
We live in an era of mass incarceration in America. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.2 million individuals are currently in jail or prison. That amounts to 1 in 110 adults. Even more individuals—4.5 million—are currently on parole or probation.
The “war on drugs,” started in 1971 by U.S. President Richard Nixon, has had a profound effect on the American population, and disproportionately its minority population. Policies aimed at eradicating the illegal drug trade have placed millions of nonviolent offenders in prison serving often unjust and harsh sentences. But today, many are calling for reforms. According to a 2011 report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” Now, advocates are promoting reforms that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences and focus on rehabilitation and treatment rather than incarceration. Politicians are taking up the cause--this year, the federal government announced it would phase out the use of private prisons that offer questionable benefit to public safety.
But while politicians and advocates confront the complexities of mass incarceration, often overlooked is its effect on those who remain on the outside--those left waiting at home for their father, mother, husband, son or daughter to come home.
Incarceration can be a vicious cycle, one that affects low-income communities more than others, and one that can spread like a virus within a single family or community. The problem touches men more than women, and has ballooned in recent years. In the two decades between 1980 and 2000, the number of children with a father in prison rose by 500 percent, according to the report, A Shared Sentence, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Scot Spencer, associate director of advocacy and influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation who has worked in Baltimore and similar cities to break the incarceration cycle, believes that children like Vinny and David are placed at a significant disadvantage when a parent or guardian is incarcerated. “Almost two-thirds left behind have a difficult time meeting their basic needs…often this means that family policy decisions have to be made, like do they pay rent and forgo buying necessary medicine? Do they not buy food in order to pay utilities?”
In state and federal prisons, 45 percent of men age 24 or younger are fathers and more than half of incarcerated women in the same age group are mothers. This places a significant financial burden on families left behind, and is perhaps the largest barrier children with a parent in prison face to leading happy and successful lives. It is even more difficult for children whose incarcerated parent is the family’s breadwinner. According to A Shared Sentence, the result perpetuates poverty “from one generation to the next.” When families can’t provide basic needs like food and healthcare, children are less likely to succeed in school and grow into productive adults. They are more likely to experience housing instability, and are often sent to live with relatives or forced to relocate to more affordable homes. And this uncertainty in a child’s formative years, when they need it most, often results in longer-term insecurity.
Spencer expresses specific concern for the education of these children: “the instability in the household and in school can be really difficult--just imagine being a child and having to move from one school to another in the middle of the school year and how disruptive that might be.”
The emotional toll on children whose families are broken apart by prison sentences is also profound. According to the Sentencing Project, 59 percent of parents in state prisons and 45 percent in federal prisons have not had a personal visit with their children while incarcerated. For a child, that can be devastating. Even if a child is living in a stable environment throughout the time his or her family member is incarcerated, the stigma associated with it can have a lasting impact on their success in school and access to opportunity. Children typically fear discussing their anxieties about their incarcerated loved one, and counselors and teachers are often ill-prepared to help, according to Spencer.
Many of the solutions that advocates and concerned politicians suggest would allow children to maintain a connection with their loved ones on the inside while also receiving the support they need on the outside. Groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Sentencing Project suggest that prisons need to better facilitate family visitation to allow children to see an incarcerated family member more regularly and in a less intimidating environment. Schools need to learn basic skills like how to help children affected by incarceration understand the feelings of loss, anger and anxiety they often experience. And the government could provide legal and financial advice, and other counseling services, to families while a loved one is in prison. Spencer believes, ultimately, that America has reached a critical point in its almost 50-year history of mass incarcerations brought about by the “war on drugs.” He therefore calls for a more intense focus on the broader impact of mass drug incarcerations on America’s vulnerable populations. “We need to learn lessons from what hasn’t worked and use other good examples from around the country to garner greater support for communities and families,” Spencer said. “That’s what’s really important.”
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with more than 1,500 photographers from around around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,000 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Fall 2016 Vol. 2/No. 2
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Copy Editor: John Rak
Intern: Kelly Kollias
Social Documentary Network Advisory Committee
Barbara Ayotte, Medford, MA
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
Management Sciences for Health
Kristen Bernard, Salem, MA
Marketing Web Director
EBSCO Information Services
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Steve Horn, Lopez Island, WA
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Contact Press Images
Steve Walker, New York, NY
Consultant and educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
Jamie Wellford, Brooklyn, NY
Photo Editor, Curator
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2016
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
Digital ISSN: Forthcoming
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
Cover photo by David Verberckt. From The Stateless Rohingya. Children playing in makeshift refugee camp for Rohingya from Myanmar. Shamplapur, Bangladesh, June 2015.
Photographers and writers featured in this issue of ZEKE Magazine.
Caterina Clerici is an independent multimedia journalist based in New York. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she’s currently a freelance photo editor at TIME and the Special Issue Editor at SDN. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, La Stampa, Libération, Die Zeit, among others. You can follow her at @caterinaclerici.
Susan S. Bank
Susan S. Bank lives in Philadelphia, PA and Portsmouth, NH. Largely a self-taught photographer, she studied through Maine Media Workshops with masters Mary Ellen Mark and Graciela Iturbide in Oaxaca, 1997-98, David Alan Harvey, Havana, 1999 and with Constantine Manos, Havana 2000.
Bank’s self-published first monograph Cuba: Campo Adentro, an intimate portrait of daily life of Cuban tobacco farmers and their families, was selected as “One of the Best Photography Books of the Year” 2009 PHotoEspaña and named “Best Books 2009”, photo-eye Books.
Her award winning documentary photography has been exhibited in the United States, Mexico, and Cuba, including The Fototeca, Havana. Bank’s work is collected by museums in the United States, Cuba, Spain, and Mexico, most recently The Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson.
Piercing the Darkness, a personal reflection of that maddening mythical port city of Havana, is her second monograph, published by Brilliant Press. A selection from Piercing the Darkness was exhibited in “100 Years of The History of Photography of the City of Havana” at the 9th Habana Bienal 2006. Throckmorton Fine Art in NYC recently selected work from the Havana series in a group exhibition, “Under the Cuban Sun”. Piercing the Darkness was selected for the 2016 Lucie Awards as First Place, Non-Professional Monograph. Images from the series are included in a traveling exhibition, “Los Dios” as Latin Fotografia V winners in NYC, LA, Brazil, and Brooklyn Photoville 201
Bank continues to work with her Leica M6 on projects close to home, including the Salisbury Beach series. Website: susansbank.com
Fulvio Bugani is an Italian freelance photographer based in Bologna, with more than 20 years of experience. He actively collaborates with Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International. His work has been published on international magazines and websites such as TIME LightBox, LFI–Leica Fotografie International, and Cubadebate.
Among other recognition, in 2015 he was awarded at the World Press Photo, and has received two honorable mentions at MIFA-Moscow International Foto Award, for his work about Indonesian Transgender. In 2016 his reportage about Cuba was selected as one of the 12 finalist at the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.
He has several ongoing photographic projects in Cuba, Kenya, Indonesia, Turkey and Georgia. He teaches photography in his private photographic school in Bologna, as well as in seminars an workshops around the world. More info at www.fulviobugani.com
Susi Eggenberger is a freelance documentary photographer based in Arundel, Maine.
She originally worked as an RN for twenty years before making a career change into photography. As in her nursing career, her focus in photography is with children and her emphasis is working with non-profit organizations who address children’s issues including Seeds of Peace, Ronald McDonald House, Map International, and Camp Sunshine. She has won numerous national and international awards for her imagery and her self-generated film project on a transsexual woman living in Southern Maine was nominated for “Best Documentary Film” in the Maine Short Film Festival.
For seven years she has been documenting the journey of a young Iraqi girl who she has been bringing to Maine for surgeries after she was shot in the head by a U.S. sniper.
Isadora Kosofsky is a Los Angeles-based documentary photographer and filmmaker. She received the 2012 Inge Morath Award from the Magnum Foundation for her multi-series documentary about the lives and relationships of the elderly. She was a participant in the 2014 Joop Swart Masterclass of World Press Photo. She is the recipient of a 2015 Flash Forward Magenta Foundation Award and a 2015 Commended Award from the Ian Parry Foundation. Her projects have received distinctions from Women in Photography International, Prix de la Photographie Paris and The New York Photo Festival. Isadora’s work has been featured in The London Sunday Times, Slate, The Washington Post, TIME, Le Monde, American Photo, VICE, NationSwell, Mashable, PDN, The British Journal of Photography, The Huffington Post and The New Yorker Photo Booth, among others. “Vinny and David: Life and Incarceration of a Family” is featured in the Thames and Hudsons’ anthology Family Photography Now and Public Private Portraiture by Mossless.
Margaret Quackenbush is a freelance reporter based in Boston. She graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in January 2016. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Business Journal, The Dorchester Reporter, Eater Boston and other publications in the Boston area.
She was the 2016 coordinator for Boston University’s annual Power of Narrative conference, and was previously the managing editor of the Boston University News Service and a teaching assistant at BU. Margaret received a BA in English and history from St. Lawrence University in 2010 and previously worked at WGBH, Boston’s PBS station.
Anne Sahler is an internationally published writer, photographer and graphic designer who divides her time between Japan and her homeland of Germany. She holds a master’s degree in Cultural Studies, History of Art and Religious Studies which fuels her interests in Japan, art and social activism. Her curious nature and never ending need for travel helps lend a clarity of prospective to an evermore complicated world.
David Verberckt, originally from Belgium, is an independent reportage photographer currently living in Budapest, Hungary. He has studied photography at “le 75” in Brussels, and afterwards pursued studies in International Development at Bioforce in France. After exhibiting his first documentary reportages in the early nineties, David has turned to aid agencies and has spent 20 years working worldwide in humanitarian emergency and development with Médecins Sans Frontières and later the EU.
David’s reportages portray peculiarities of an often deprived civil society affected by latent or bygone conflicts. David has been working on several projects. Frozen Conflicts in the Caucasus depicts ordinary people whose lives are in limbo following the conflicts of the nineties. Palestinian Chronicles is a continuation of a series started in the early nineties, focusing on the daily realities of the numerous refugee camps’ population.
Recently, he is working on subjects depicting hard labor and seasonal migration flows in the overpopulated Bengal Bay and documenting statelessness of Bihari and Rohingya. More information at www.davidverberckt.com