This “participatory photography” project is now available in both a book and documentary format.

Over the course of two years, New York City residents sentenced to probation snapped photos, like this one from participant Alisha, in order to dispel misconceptions about their everyday lives.

Rehabilitation Through Art

Out on Probation, They Photograph Their Lives to Counter Stereotypes

Over the course of two years, New York City residents sentenced to probation snapped photos, like this one from participant Alisha, in order to dispel misconceptions about their everyday lives.

September 2023

BY MARK SAXENMEYER

Here’s some trivia you probably don’t know: If every American serving a term of probation today were gathered together in one place, they’d form the third-largest city in the country, with 2.9 million people. That’d put this new population center right between second-biggest Los Angeles, home to 3.8 million folks, and Chicago, with 2.7 million residents–bumping the Windy City to fourth place. (New York City would remain tops with its population of 8.5 million.)

And get this: People now on probation easily outnumber the 1.3 million Americans currently locked up in prisons, the 600,000 behind bars in jails, and the 800,000 out on parole.

Yet few of us actually understand what the sanction of probation really involves.

In a Whole New Way: Undoing Mass Incarceration by a Path Untraveled is both a new book and documentary that aims to clear up the confusion and misconceptions about probation, as well as counter negative stereotypes affecting people on probation. Creators Jonathan Fisher and George Carrano do so in a truly innovative way—they hand out cameras to people in the New York City probation system, as well as their neighbors and other allies, and have them capture images of their everyday lives. They call the process “participatory photography.”

 

New York City participatory photography contributor Pelrique, as she appears in In a Whole New Way.

 

The result is a fascinating collection of photographs and personal testimonies that offer groundbreaking insight into both the probation system and the people immersed in it. The true goal of the project is to reform the entire justice system toward decarceration, returning probation to the rehabilitative program it was originally intended to be.

“The story of their lives is told visually by the individuals themselves and their neighbors,” states the book’s Preface. “None is in a position to tell it better—not the courts, not the usual nonprofits, not the bureaucracy…This is photography ‘from the inside out,’ expressing the visual perspective of those actually living the life.”

 

George Carrano (left) and Jonathan Fisher (right) co-edited In a Whole New Way. Both grew up in New York City’s Bronx borough. 

 

In a Whole New Way’s Introduction further explains, “This is a book about second chances for New Yorkers who by definition did not take full advantage of their first—including many individuals who, it could be argued, never had much of a first to begin with. And this is also a work about a second chance for the criminal justice sanction that provides that second chance.”

The Reporters Inc.’s Mark Saxenmeyer went in-depth with the project’s writer and director, Jonathan Fisher. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.

 

What prompted the project?

In 2015, our nonprofit, Seeing for Ourselves, was invited to embed itself within the New York City, New York Department of Probation by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, helmed by Chirlane McCray—the wife of the then-mayor Bill de Blasio. This came following the success of our initiative in the city’s housing projects that led to the book Project Lives. McCray evidently thought that our practice could prove helpful to New Yorkers on probation, another marginalized population like residents of public housing.

If you asked 10 different people to define probation, they might all describe it quite differently. How would you define it?

Although it’s sometimes combined with a sentence of incarceration, most often it’s a substitute offered to those whom a judge feels can be safely supervised in the community.

Probation is said to lead to lower rates of recidivism than incarceration because probation does a better job than jail or prison of rehabilitation. Moreover, on a per-person basis, probation is much less costly than incarceration.

But there’s one undeniable advantage of locking someone up as opposed to supervising them in their community: they can’t commit another crime in the community in the meantime. Fortunately, not that many of those on probation do commit such crimes.

So that, in effect, has been the deal that probation has implicitly struck with society since its founding: the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Probation is also known as a second chance, which is a definition we endorse, as it’s an appropriate sanction in a country founded as a second chance for so many.

 

Photos taken by New York City residents on probation, who agreed to take part in the participatory photography project, include both self portraits and images and scenes from their everyday lives. (Top) Photo from Elsa; (Bottom) Photo from Dylan.

 

What’s the difference between “on probation” and “on parole”? Isn’t this something people get confused by?

Probation is most often a substitute for incarceration, while parole is early release from incarceration. Together they make up Community Corrections, as they involve supervision in the community. It’s extremely common for members of the public to confuse the two.

Explain how probation evolved from a rehabilitative practice to a punitive one in the United States.

It was the national 1972-92 crime wave that turned the practice punitive. Crime rates had been inching upward after World War II, then began to explode as the 1970s got underway.The crime wave has been attributed to many factors, from drugs like heroin and crack, to the Vietnam War, to more single-parent families, to even lead paint and fumes.

Americans were traumatized by the crime wave—echoing the trauma that underlay so much criminal behavior in the first place—and no longer so inclined to attempt rehabilitation. And so those ensnared began pinballing between probation and prison, continually tripped up by lengthy and arduous stipulations. Ironically, another response to the crime wave was a mocking media coverage of probation as a slap on the wrist, if not a joke.

What’s the range of offenses of the people on probation who are profiled in this book? What’s the average length of time they’re on probation? And what crimes are most likely to get probation as a punishment as opposed to incarceration?

The sentences of those enrolled in the NYC probation program range from 10 months to five years, stemming from drug possession offenses to crimes of violence.

Of those profiled in our project, we only know for sure that two were found guilty of domestic violence, one for drug possession, and one for gun possession, because these four individuals are the only ones who chose to reveal their offenses to us. Perhaps more would have revealed their offenses had I probed but this was something I did not want to do.

Similarly, we know only that the individual found guilty of drug possession received a five-year probation sentence. The probation agency is forbidden by statute to reveal such information to outsiders like ourselves.

Overall, Americans on probation have committed crimes of violence, drug offenses, and property offenses to a roughly equal degree; public disorder is a less common crime. Among crimes of violence, murder and rape rarely earn a probation sentence.

 

(Top) Photo from Kalefe; (Bottom) Photo from Patrice.

 

How exactly did you get the criminal justice system in NYC to participate in this project? Were the powers-that-be resistant at first? And what about the folks on probation—weren’t many of them hesitant to have their lives become fodder for public judgment?

When NYC pointed us to the probation department in 2015, we found keen interest by the agency; officials even helped us apply for funding to support the project. When we obtained funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (with our application supported by New York’s U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) in 2017, the department greenlit the effort to begin in January 2018.

When those on probation or their neighbors (whom the agency invites to take part in programming like ours as a matter of course) signed up, they knew that their photography work would wind up promoted in galleries and a publication and were OK with this. Of course, some people, unknown to us, may have not been onboard with these aims and accordingly chose not to enroll.

What exactly is “participatory photography,” how did it come to be, and why did you choose to utilize it to tell this story about probation? What can it convey that a more traditional form of storytelling cannot?

Participatory photography involves turning over the camera to those usually on the other side of the lens so that they can take charge of their own public narrative. It was quite a revolutionary concept when originated among American aid workers in rural China in 1992, who discovered that photos taken by peasant women about their own lives were far more revealing and impactful than the alternatives produced by local officials.

Up until this century, it was mostly the well-off in Western countries who had access to high-end photography. But even in the Instagram age, many individuals like the justice-involved find their public image defined by powers quite foreign to themselves. And so we are accustomed to only viewing people on probation in a mug shot or wearing an orange jumpsuit.

Participatory photography is our nonprofit’s practice, so we could have used only this tool to tell the story of probation.

How many people on probation did you get a camera to, how did you train them, how long a period of time were they taking photos, how many did you have to go through when all was said and done, and how many are included in the book?

Around 200 people on probation, or their neighbors, were equipped and trained in person during the period essentially covered by the book, from January 2018 to March 2020. Our photography teacher, Chelsea Davis, developed a course in the art of visual storytelling. The photos that resulted from the probation classes led by Chelsea were posted by the participants in an online repository she set up and made available to me for the book and film. Many of my final selections for the book originated in recommendations by the participants themselves. Thousands of photos were taken from which 145 were included in the book.

As I paged though the book, it seemed as if the majority of people photographed are people of color. Why is that?

That is overwhelmingly the case in New York City, where we conducted our practice. Walk into any criminal court in the city (where individuals are sentenced if they’re found, or plead, guilty) and it’s people of color whom you will see. Had another locale—say, Spokane, Washington—invited us in, the people would look much different. Most Americans on probation are White.

 

(Top) Photo from Rham; (Bottom) Photo from Nicodemus.

 

So many of the photos are quite artistic and truly professional in appearance. How did you manage to get such quality from amateur photographers on probation?

This was a function of our coursework we offered, the dedication of our teacher, Chelsea, and most of all the enthusiasm and talent of the participants who eagerly embraced this new way of telling their stories.

How many cameras in all were distributed, did you get them all back in one piece, and who paid for them?

Sigma Corporation of America kindly donated around a dozen Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras, while George (Carrano, co-editor of the project) permanently gifted several of his personal Canon DSLR models. Participants supplemented this equipment with their own cell phones. During the period covered by the book, only one camera was damaged—by an NYPD officer.

What did you instruct the photographers to focus on? What exactly conveys “probation” in a photo?

We were looking for photos that showed what was important to the photographer. Most would concern their daily lives apart from the probation process itself.

Tell us about some of your favorite photographers, photos and stories that are featured in the project.

We love the photo taken by Moshelle of her daughter, which became the photo most often used by film festivals to promote the documentary. It seems to symbolize the gutsiness of all the participants and many of their photo subjects. Meanwhile, her photo of her son seems to echo a Rodin sculpture. Moshelle’s story, about the positives and negatives of her probation experience is a unique, thoughtful take on the subject.

 

(Below) Probation client and participatory photography contributor Moshelle also wrote about her experience; below, her story as it appears in In a Whole New Way.

(Below) Photos Moshelle took of her daughter and son appear in In a Whole New Way.

 

Any other favorites?

Yes,  the many taken by Henry, whose own story arc is equally dramatic, of the probation process itself. These reveal a heretofore hidden world. My particular favorites of his are two that illustrate the unannounced home visit and reporting into the probation officer, long the twin essential features of American probation.

 

(Below) Probation client and participatory photography contributor Henry’s story, as it appears in In a Whole New Way.

(Below) Two of the photos probation client and participatory photography contributor Henry snapped, with accompanying captions, as they appear in In a Whole New Way. 

 

 

Why did you only use the first names of the participants?

We do this out of respect for the participants and in line with their preferences. Although our initiative will hopefully over time lessen the stigma associated with probation involvement, it still exists.

Why would the average person, with minimal if any contact with the probation system, care about this project? Why should they check it out?

They might care to learn about what is, after all, the dominant sanction offered by our criminal justice system. Probation has huge, unrealized potential for helping to undo mass incarceration, which victimizes so many, costs so much, fails to keep us safe, and prevents our country from realizing the benefit of so many human resources. The more positive imagery of those on probation offered by this project can help it be viewed more widely as an effective alternative to locking people up, which our country does more so than any other. We hope the project can also help change the media depiction of the practice and encourage a return to rehabilitative aims.

What’s one of the main reader or viewer takeaways from the project?

Folks on probation are just like other Americans, and no one should find themselves defined by the worst mistake they make. Anyone can wind up on probation given the right circumstances; I myself did stupid things when I was young and, had I been caught, I would have been lucky to have wound up on probation.

Do tell! 

I journeyed on the Hippie Trail to the East in 1972 and agreed to do a favor for a fellow traveler from a different country, carrying something of his in my own backpack when we crossed an international border. The way he told it, the backpacks of Americans were never searched.

Thankfully, mine wasn’t, but God only knows what that item of his was! Then, in the journey’s aftermath, I did another stupid favor for someone else I had met on the Trail. Not sure of the statute of limitations, so I’d better leave things there.

The path to American incarceration has often been paved not by greed or aggression but this kind of social pressure that young people find hard to resist.

 

This photo from Andrew was chosen for the book cover of In a Whole New Way.

 

If your ultimate goal of this project is to help reform the entire justice system toward decarceration, how have you succeeded thus far?

Thousands around the world—from China and Russia, to Ukraine, Iran and Israel—have enjoyed the film at more than 200 festivals since June 2021; the film has won more than 60 awards. Thousands more caught the documentary on PBS this past summer. In January 2023, I personally screened the film for NYC’s Deputy Mayor for Public Safety.

Meanwhile, the growing publicity accorded the book, encouraged by wonderful advance reviews, have brought word of our enterprise to a new segment of the American public. To date, I’ve been interviewed on podcasts including The Criminologist, In Conversation with Frank Schaeffer, Lean Left, Conversations with Cyrus Webb, and Stories from the 78, as well as the trucker radio show Dave Nemo Weekends (as the grandson of a Teamster who delivered milk for decades in NYC, I feel that if you get America’s truckers on your side, you can’t miss). I’ll also be featured on Free Thinking with Montel Williams in October.

As the saying has it, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It will take several years for the project’s impact on the justice system to be felt by decision makers. We’ve made an initial connection with Reform Alliance, the most prominent organization in the reform space, and we hope for great things to result.

Meanwhile, following an April ACLU event promoting probation reform in Delaware, state probation leaders there reached out to the NYC Department of Probation for coaching, to set up their own participatory photography program.

The documentary was also screened in June for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the public organization most involved with criminal justice education, and hopefully it will permeate this group’s teachings.

How can the general public now find, explore and enjoy In a Whole New Way?

Both the book and the documentary are available at https://www.inawholenewway.com. All monies we earn from sales and rentals will help with our continuing outreach, as well as ongoing funding of the photographers and arts programming serving New Yorkers on probation.

 

Mark Saxenmeyer is the Executive Director of The Reporters Inc. You can read more about him here on our Team page. Mark can be reached at .

 

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