Without context, or if you glance only briefly, the photographs from the Fresh Eyes Project seem dull, banal. With a closer look you note climb-proof fencing in the background of one photo and barred windows in several others. If by that point you’re still wondering what’s going on, here’s the big reveal: these were all made by juvenile inmates in three New Mexico youth correctional facilities.
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?
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.
In another photo, titled “Portrait of My Teacher” the blurred silhouette of a man, a shaky flagpole and some bare trees are reflected in a window – all normal indicators of a school campus. But through the glass a corkboard with manila folders labeled “Grievance Policy” and “Grievance Forms” catches my eye. These children don’t have their parents to speak out for them; they have to make appeals to a higher authority to protect themselves. This is a world where children must advocate for themselves.
Concertina wire is captured bluntly, without hesitation or metaphor. The angle suggests an examination of the dangerous. It says, “I live here, and these keep me here, and they make interesting curves.” It’s not denial exactly, but a lack of recognition of the problems around penning in children with barbed wire. Perhaps many of these young photographers, captives, have been in and out of the facility many times. Is the system’s failure to help them improve their outcomes evident in the way they document their surroundings?
This is a bleak world these kids exist in. I have visited facilities in California before, and was deeply struck by the blankness, the monotony. As Ira Glass writes in the introduction to Richard Ross’ landmark book “Juvenile In Justice” documenting juvenile detention in the United States, “It’s the sterility of these places – the bare, freshly painted concrete walls, the unadorned floor – that makes the truth of what they’re for so obvious and make them so impersonal. These are cages.” These too are testaments of the impersonality of imprisoned life.
So I present them as artifacts requiring your patience to digest and understand how truly accurate and tragic they are. Some are lovely and some are simple, but they all contain within them the sad truths of the juvenile justice system.
Now, look again. What do you see?
[The Fresh Eyes Project is a New Mexico-based organization that, since 2005, has led photography workshops for boys and girls at three youth incarceration facilities in the state. Bokeh examines what the resulting work reveals about the state’s juvenile justice system:]