Social Impact Authors:
How & Why Authors Jonathan Fisher and
George Carrano Are Helping To Change Our World
8 min read
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Fisher.
Jonathan Fisher is a native of New York City who fulfilled a childhood dream by working for the city’s subway system for 26 years. After retiring, he joined the “participatory photography” nonprofit Seeing for Ourselves as its storyteller in 2010. In this capacity, he wrote and directed the film In a Whole New Way and co-edited the film’s eponymous companion book.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I’ve long been interested in photography, only throwing in the towel in the 1970s when I realized that my tiny West Village garret apartment could never encompass a darkroom! But I’ve had considerable marketing experience at the subway system and thereafter, and I think that’s why Seeing for Ourselves founder George Carrano brought me on in 2010. Meanwhile, the nonprofit’s social justice aims conformed to my own preferences.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I participated in selecting one of our nonprofit’s members in 2010 for our housing project initiative. The individual turned out at the last moment prior to submitting our manuscript for publication in 2014 not to be fully aligned with the enterprise’s aims as George and I saw it. It was nightmarish getting the toothpaste back in the tube. Then when our probation initiative started up at the end of 2017, rather than taking steps to ensure the member was fully aligned or selecting an alternative if not, I blithely took the shortest route and simply assumed an alignment. Our nonprofit is still paying a penalty for this lack of due diligence. It’s kind of funny considering that George and I had a combined managerial experience of four decades! What did I learn? Maybe the old saying: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Serving New Yorkers on probation brought me into contact with individuals I otherwise would never have crossed paths with. I first encountered Roberto when he hesitantly entered the green, dimly-lit confines of the Bedford-Stuyvesant probation center. He was dressed in black, average height, goateed and slim, seeming to blend in with the surroundings. He took one of the empty seats amidst other empty seats rather than among the seated students. He didn’t speak during the session and barely raised his eyes, except when the teacher asked him about his interest in photography and what drew him to the class. He evidently had been experiencing probation as something to clench your teeth and get through.
Word had it that he surprised the instructor by actually continuing to attend classes — and then delighted her as he apparently grew more and more animated as time went on. And then when a gallery exhibit was mounted in a tony section of Brooklyn of the best work from the course, Roberto was one of the students who had a photo selected for the show.
When I saw the local TV news clip of his interview at the opening of the gallery, the transformation was startling. Now dressed in bright green, Roberto exclaimed to the reporter, “This is so cool!” He was lively, even joyous.
He reportedly told his probation officer later, “That was the best experience of my life.” The TV reporter herself summed up the exhibit opening as “Seeing their world — and themselves — in a whole new way.”
We were deeply gratified on hearing about this. But we recognized that his reaction stemmed partly from the contrast with his own life until then. It’s no coincidence that many of those supervised have had very little positive reinforcement growing up. If we had had such an experience, we might ourselves be on probation today.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I’m inspired by social justice pioneers like Frederick Douglass because he embraced this country faults and all and did his utmost to win all manner of folks to his cause. But I’ve always had a soft spot for realists like Josephus, who warned his people contemplating a revolt against Rome that both the British and Gauls had tried that — and where did it get them? If his argument had carried the day, the entire trajectory of world history would have been very different. I think for the better, but as Stephen King’s “11–22–63” showed, preventing a bad thing from happening ultimately can lead to so much worse.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
George and I are trying to leverage the film and book coming out of our probation effort to encourage a new media depiction of the practice, which we feel would prod those jurisdictions following a punitive approach to return to the sanction’s original rehabilitative aims. This in turn will allow probation to be viewed more widely as an effective alternative to mass incarceration.
Meanwhile, we have begun our third initiative: “My Climate Future: High-Schoolers Picture Their World To Come.” We’re hoping the imagery to result from this effort will allow youths to be fully included in the national conversation around climate change. After all, they have the most skin in the game, unlike Boomers like me who caused the problem.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
When someone like George Carrano asks you to be part of his enterprise, stronger individuals than me would have a very hard time turning him down! But it was the pandemic that led me to make a film about our probation project. I had been planning to write a book like Project Lives (powerHouse, 2015), the work that commemorated our public housing initiative, when the pandemic suddenly brought the publishing industry to a halt. George told me I’d better think of something else. My “aha moment” occurred when I realized something else could be a documentary.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Henry probably traveled the most winding path to rehabilitation of any of those on probation whom we served. He did time when young and then caught probation in his thirties, when he suddenly discovered our photography program. He had an epiphany: this is what he was put on Earth to do. He mastered the course so well that we made him an instructor, and then perfected his photography practice to such an extent there was no choice but to make him the Associate Director of the program, now permanently institutionalized at the city’s probation department. He has been an inspiration to so many in this role.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Individuals can access the film and book and share or promote them to their own networks. Government can legislate a return to probation’s rehabilitative roots in those jurisdictions where it remains punitive. Society can decide that mass incarceration is not where we are as a country and agree to undo it — whether for the left’s concern for social justice or the right’s for redemption and saving money. Mass incarceration fails to help prisoners and fails to keep us safe. Maybe all would agree that locking up so much human capital diminishes America’s ability to compete internationally.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
It would have helped prepare me if someone had told me in 2010 what a long road this would be in terms of leveraging participatory photography for social change. This is indeed a marathon, not a sprint. While we may alter a public image of marginalized individuals upon releasing a book or film into the world, it will take some years for the impact to be fully felt.
It would have helped prepare me if someone had told me in 2010 that some of those whom we serve would become uncomfortable with my and George’s identity. We felt that as a nonprofit that equips and trains marginalized individuals to take control of their own public narrative, we would not have our whiteness held against us, but this would not be the case uniformly.
It would have helped prepare me if someone had told me in 2010 just how expensive our work eventually would become. As a newbie filmmaker, I had no idea how quickly costs would mount up and that I would be forced to raid my kids’ college fund.
It would have helped prepare me if someone had told me in 2010 to raise funds first. Thinking that we could ask people to pay us after doing the work to make us whole is completely nonsensical in the world of fundraising. But we were in a hurry to start work!
It would have helped prepare me if someone had told me in 2010 not be so socially isolated. I have always tended to limit my social circle to a few close friends and my immediate family. This handicaps you considerably when trying to spread word about your efforts!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The saying by Hillel the Elder always resonated with me: if not us, who? If not now, when?
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
When I determined on making a film, I began watching and rewatching Ken Burns films to see how it could be done. After all, he’s the master of issue-driven documentaries like mine would have to be. And so if he felt I could contribute something to one of his films, that would be awesome.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Rick Nelson, in his song “Garden Party” about a fabled appearance at a 1971 Madison Square concert, said it all: “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
How can our readers follow you online?
On LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanmfisher
And our website: inawholenewway.com
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!