Once Behind Bars, Now Behind the Camera Lens

Pine Grove, a rehabilitation camp in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, is the last prison of its kind in the state, for juvenile offenders. During 'count,' when guards make a headcount every hour, Inmates Tello, Kermit and Tapia (L to R) work out at their bunks to stay fit for their physical work schedule.  (Brian L. Frank/Catchlight Fellow/The Marshall Project)

There's an uneasy feeling that invades your body the second you walk up the steps and through the metal detectors of the gray concrete edifice that is 850 Bryant Street.

Even if you know you haven’t committed a crime—perhaps you're there to fight a parking violation, or report for jury duty—if you're a person of color, there's always an innate fear while visiting government agencies. Often, the ones who work inside those walls hold a position of power over your livelihood, with the ability to arrest, sentence or jail you at their discretion.

The most unimaginable reason to be inside this building: to visit the art exhibit currently housed on the walls of the third floor. Visions of Justice is a story in photographs told by those who've been put behind bars, in some cases by the very people who walk these cold, eerie hallways of the Hall of Justice. Introduced with the question “What Does Justice Mean to You?," the exhibit gives the formerly incarcerated the chance, if only for a brief period, to flip the cards and hold the upper hand in the form of breathtaking photography.

The entrance to 'Visions of Justice' at 850 Bryant in San Francisco.
The entrance to 'Visions of Justice' at 850 Bryant in San Francisco. (Azucena Rasilla)

“[The exhibit] puts you back in a position of power,” photojournalist Brian L. Frank says of the work hung on the hallway walls. Frank, who had his own share of run-ins with the law before turning his life around, served as an instrumental part of Visions of Justice. As a 2017 CatchLight Fellow, he visited Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, California’s first and last remaining rehabilitative prison camp for offenders who were sentenced as teens. With his camera, he followed a group of them from their incarceration at the facility to their release and journey back home.

It was his own past experience with the law that helped him gain their trust.

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“I saw all these guys who were in this slice of time from my own adolescence, and it was staring me back in the face,” Frank says of his time spent getting to know the inmates at Pine Grove. “Having that similar background, I instantly connected with them on a very personal level.” For Frank, it was important that the guys were not solely the subject of his storytelling; he keeps in touch with many of them. “I want to be there as a mentor,” he says. “A lot of them don’t have good male role models. Just being there, they can call me for advice.”

The result is an intimacy in Frank's photos, hung all alongside the left wall inside the Hall of Justice. (On the day we visit, three of the framed photos have been removed from the walls; the perpetrator remains unknown. “Someone has some serious huevos stealing stuff there, standing on the jail, basically,” an unfazed Frank says.)

A homeless man lays wrapped in an American flag in front of the gleaming San Francisco Bay Bridge.
A homeless man lays wrapped in an American flag in front of the gleaming San Francisco Bay Bridge. (Eugene Riley/Visions of Justice)

Opposite Frank’s work is a wall of photos taken by formerly incarcerated folks, a collaboration between CatchLight, Project Rebound, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Together, the three entities facilitated a photojournalism workshop at San Francisco State, Frank’s alma mater, where he served as a mentor for the participants of the workshop.

“The big deal to me isn’t that my work was going to be there, but it was that the work of my students was going to be seen in this place where people come who affect public policy,” Frank says of their photos. “The fact that my students were going to be empowered in that way and feel like what they have to say can be heard. That to me is a powerful moment.”

The student photos—including portraits, candid shots of people going about their day, even a police officer—were taken in the streets where they're from. All representative of the world they live in, both pre- and post-incarceration.

After serving nine years behind bars and under surveillance, photographing the police was a difficult and empowering experience for Chris Shurn in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. (Chris Shurn/Visions of Justice)

One of Frank’s students with a natural ability for photography was Christopher Shurn. “One of the things he did when I was teaching him [about photography] was go out and photograph a cop,” Frank says. For Shurn, it was the opportunity to use something he learned while doing time.

“I knew not to come from certain angles, or do certain things,” Shurn says of approaching the officer. He ended up striking up a conversation about the officer’s cell phone, and how Shurn had served time. That conversation served as a bridge to make the photo happen.

Shurn hopes that those who walk by the exhibit, whether purposely or casually, see the photos beyond an artistic eye and think, “these are the people I’m putting away or people I’m hoping to set free,” he says. “Jail is not about crime and punishment. It’s about money. It’s all about numbers.”

'Visions of Justice' at 850 Bryant in San Francisco.
'Visions of Justice' at 850 Bryant in San Francisco. (Azucena Rasilla)

Frank knows this exhibit wouldn’t have been as effective in a typical gallery, where wealthy donors would be likely to view the photos primarily as artistic expression instead of a tool for conversation about the need for reform in the criminal justice system. More than anything, Frank wants people to see his students as more than just a statistic. As people with the desire to turn their lives around, but who are working with a limited support system.

“It’s important to take our work to places where it can have a direct impact on the issues that the work addresses,” he says. “It feels revolutionary.”

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