Notes on Collaboration: “Women on the Outside”
By Lisa Riordan Seville and Zara Katz
When “Women on the Outside” opened at Photoville on September 21, it marked both the end of a long summer of work and the first iteration of an experiment. Since June, we had been working with the Magnum Foundation, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a photographer and a designer, trying to hash out how to use photography, text and video, design and data to tell the stories of a group of Philadelphia women who traveled hundreds of miles to visit their loved ones locked up in Pennsylvania state prisons. On the night of September 20, we snapped magnets on the corners of our final photographs and tested the video one last time. When Photoville opened the next afternoon, we’d see if this collaboration worked.
The idea for this project stretches back to the May 2015 Photography Expanded workshop with Magnum Foundation and Brown. Many of the photographers there were thinking about how to expand out of the kind of work they had traditionally done. We were in someway outliers—not photographers but a team of an investigative reporter (Lisa) and a photo editor/visual producer (Zara). For us, the workshop was about how to expand into photography, which we had began to do two years ago when we started @EverydayIncarceration.
Lisa Robinson pours a drink for Kristal Bush at the end of our meeting in Delaware.
Women gather at a private meeting at the Bronx Documentary Center to tell us about their experiences traveling to visit loved ones behind bars.
From the beginning, we wanted to try to create work that seemed true to those who know the experience best—the women who work to maintain ties with someone behind bars. A few months later, when we received a concept development grant as part of the Photography Expanded fellowship, we used the stipend to hold two workshops with women who had loved ones inside—boyfriends, husbands, daughters, cousins, friends, fathers and brothers. The idea was to ask questions—not simply what does it feel like to do this, but what is the experience you want people to see? As Fred Ritchin brought up during the closing panel of the Magnum Foundation symposium last fall, documentary work about marginalized communities sometimes overlooks “the agency of the people we’re depicting,” he said. “We’re not doing them a favor,” he added. “It’s a kind of a shared discussion.”
Kristal Bush was part of the discussions we began at the workshops. We originally met Kristal in June 2015, when her bus company, Bridging the Gap, posted an invitation on Instagram to its first annual customer appreciation cookout in North Philadelphia. We showed up with photographer Jacobia Dahm who along with Endia Beal and Zora J. Murff, is one of the photographers that has collaborated with us as the project evolved. From the moment we arrived, Kristal began to introduce us to customers and talk about her own experience as a daughter, sister and friend to more than a dozen people behind bars. Come ride the van, she told us, you should see for yourselves. This summer, we did.
Lisa and Jacobia Dahm at Eastern State Penitentiary museum before the cookout.
Working with Endia Beal in March.
Zora J. Murff takes a portrait of Lois while Lisa holds her daughter Jade.
We arrived back at the Magnum Foundation office with photographs and video from two rides, sound from the van and audio interviews with riders. Later, we came back from Philly again with the beautiful formal portraits and still lives taken by Zora J. Murff. Then we had to figure out how to put it together. With Michael Kirsch from the Brown Center, designer Dalit Shalom, and Noelle Flores Theard heading up the Magnum Foundation team, we worked and reworked the concept. How much video was too much? Could we create a soundscape in the container to give the feeling of riding the van? How do we create an interplay of the data visualizations Michael was working up and images to take viewers from photographs of individuals to the big picture?
The process was messy at times. Everyone had moments of frustration. We all took a turn at some long nights. It’s safe to say we each wondered at some point if this experiment by a bunch of non-photographers to create a photo exhibit might fall flat. But Magnum Foundation and Brown supported this effort to try to figure out what photography can do in the age of the photographic deluge.
What went up in that container was not a new kind of photography. It was, however, the product of shared discussion, and hopefully the spark for more. It was also the culmination of a lot of learning on our part. Over the last year and a half, woman after woman has taught us that her story could not be simply a narrative of struggle or hardship. Distance was hard. Supporting husbands, sons, daughters and fathers inside was expensive. Being without them took an emotional toll. But women maintained those connections out of love. They developed friendships with other women with shared experiences. When they looked in the mirror, they didn’t see defeat. They saw women trying to juggle careers and love, work and family, in the face of barriers life and history put up. They saw strength. On those van rides, so did we.
When we couldn’t fit what we saw into a single set of photographs, we expanded. We hung formal portraits beside visiting day photos. We cut together a video to capture time and mounted crisp visualizations that showed how the experience of these women was shared by thousands of families across Pennsylvania.
On Thursday afternoon, Kristal, her mother, three of her aunts and some riders walked into Photoville. The first thing they saw was a four-foot tall portrait of Kristal on the side of the container, alongside two-dozen photographs from her prison visits over the last 20 years. She looked at the snapshots as if for the first time, pointing out each of her family members as she posted to Facebook Live. Inside, Simone and Cassandra posed for photos in front of their portraits. Everyone stood and watched the video, beginning to end, seeing in a 10 minute loop the trip many of them take weekly. We laughed, “You ladies know what’s in that video better than anyone!” And they do. But they hadn’t ever seen it from a distance, or through our eyes—eyes of women on the outside of their experience, looking in.
Professionals no longer have a monopoly on storytelling. That forces us to examine our role, query our responsibility, and ask better questions. It requires we confront the fact that those being photographed are not silent actors, and that they may point out that the version of the story we tell is wrong. But all of that has not erased the power of documentary to allow people see the world around them in a new way, whether that be a place thousands of miles away, or the inside of the van they ride every week.
Kristal looks at the map made by Brown Institute, pointing out the 16 state prisons that Bridging the Gap travels to.
That weekend, we posted a couple of video clips on @EverydayIncarceration of people checking out the container. Kristal shot us a text: “It feels so good to see everyone reading our stories,” she wrote. Not long after, one of the videos popped up on Bridging the Gap’s feed, whose followers are mainly Kristal’s customers, friends and family. “What we think is normal to us is an interesting story to someone else,” Kristal posted in the caption. “This is our life!!”
Over the weekend, hundreds of people walked through that container. To our surprise, they spent time. There are things we would change, flaws made clear when the final pieces came together. But if the result of this experiment was to figure in how to get people to look, then this collaboration worked. People were looking. And in a way possible only in today’s Instagram world, the people whose stories they were looking at were looking back.
— Lisa Riordan Seville and Zara Katz