How do you make magic in a place where there is none? In Rhode Island a photography program inside of a youth detention center is asking just that.
In the striking images from AS 220’s “If these walls could talk,” the magic made is not an illusion. Like a surrealist painting, the manipulated photos employ metaphor and symbol to create dynamic portraits.
Two students pose with giant light wings blossoming out behind them: Her’s white and linear, his multi-colored confetti-like squiggles.
We all know the myth of Icarus. If you fly too close to the sun you’re bound to be burned, an appropriate analogy for young people reflecting on the decisions they’ve made and paths they have chosen.
Scott Lapham, the program’s photography coordinator, is the adult brain behind the project. As he sees it, “Ancient Greek myths are of great interest because their characters often posses both supernatural powers and human frailties … [the students] are also encouraged to reflect on how the myths of Icarus, Odysseus and Midas can pertain to their own past and future decision making.”
Yet the effects also serve a second purpose: confidentiality.
While permitting the kids to explore their personal legacies through ancient ones, maintaining their anonymity means they won’t be forever affiliated with this time in their lives.
In another series, the students simultaneously conceal and reveal their identities in masks and props made of comic book drawings, drawings of animals, and family snapshots.
The pictures are a little bit goofy, but that seems to add to their rawness. They remind me of moments of adolescent experimentation. Like when I got my first cell phone with a camera in it and proceeded to spend hours with my girlfriends composing silly scenes, using thrift-store relics as props, and upping the contrast until they were almost beyond recognition.
Another magic thing about cameras is that they let us reframe reality; rewrite our realities into something that makes more sense.
It seems especially crucial that children serving time for mistakes they have made should be able to re-compose their histories up to that point. Reflect on their lives and situations as something other than “system-involved.”
Everyone deserves to acknowledge that they desire more out of life than flying too close to the sun.
[For the past twelve years, the AS220 Youth Photography program has worked with incarcerated youth at the Rhode Island Training School in Cranston, R.I. Instructors teach digital and black & white film photo skills through workshops and collaborative projects.]