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  • jonmarkfisher

The Preface to the Coming Book

This book shows the world of some New Yorkers accorded an alternative to incarceration by the country’s dominant—yet often still mocked and all but unknown—criminal justice sanction. Generally offered in place of a jail or prison sentence, probation is a form of community supervision. To ensure their compliance with the often-arduous conditions of their supervision, offenders must report regularly to the probation agency and remain subject to unannounced home visits.

The story of their lives is told visually by the individuals themselves. None is in a position to tell it better—not the courts, not the usual nonprofits, not the bureaucracy, not the academy, and not photojournalists. This is photography “from the inside out,” expressing the visual perspective of those actually living the life, and, as a result, different from almost all other collections of photographs. When a high-end Sigma camera is distributed to those usually on the other side of the lens, the difference in perspective from culturally dominant imagery is striking.

For our part, we of the nonprofit Seeing for Ourselves equipped and trained these artists in the interest of countering negative stereotypes afflicting probation clients across the country. Our text simply provides context for the photography and the participants’ artistic statements. Something about what brought those serving probation terms to this point in their lives. In the process, something about what brought probation to this point in American jurisprudence. And where we all go from here.

We came to this role by conducting a similar “participatory photography” effort on behalf of the city’s housing project residents from 2010 to 2013 while embedded at the housing authority. This was an initiative that led to the publication of Project Lives: New York Residents of Public Housing Photograph Their World in 2015. The city evidently felt there were none more favorably situated to conduct a similar program for New Yorkers serving a term of probation—another marginalized population. And so, during 2018-2021, we found ourselves embedded in the probation department.

George Carrano had founded the nonprofit in 2010 with the encouragement of world-famous photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths. The latter had seen the show of participatory photography George had mounted in New York City in 2004 on returning home from London, where he had stumbled onto an exhibit of such imagery in a church basement.

We quickly noticed that, like residents of housing projects, those on probation do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly portrayed within the media and popular culture. Contrary to common belief, they have not simply caught a lucky break on the way to lockup. Rather, they were among those found to be—after extensive investigation—both deserving of another opportunity to live a law-abiding life and capable of being safely supervised in their community instead of in jail or prison. Such an outcome helps not only them but everyone else as well. At least as practiced in NYC and certain other jurisdictions, when completed probation leads to less lawbreaking than incarceration and comes in at a far lower expense. And don’t we benefit when we treat others humanely?

Still, there is a line we can’t cross. Almost anyone can screw up once, but in contrast most agree that not everyone deserves a second chance: a father killing his daughter for the insurance payoff; a mother framing her daughter for her own slaying of her husband, the girl’s father; the hunter kidnapping prostitutes and releasing them for sport, to be tracked in their terror and shot down…probation was obviously not an option in these cases. Those among us who aren’t kept up at night by these true crime tales of American perpetrators, who aren’t led to despair at times for our species, are made of stronger stuff than most. Fortunately, such offenders remain a rare breed. Meanwhile, many factors beyond the scope of this book help account for even the lawbreaking related here.

Where it does pose an alternative, probation has not lived up to its potential. By shining a light on the terra incognita of American justice, In a Whole New Way aims to build a constituency for making better use of probation—returning the practice to its rehabilitative roots from where it has gone astray. In doing so, we hope to make it easier to offer probation more widely as an alternative to locking people up.

The aim of ending mass incarceration has supporters across the political spectrum. By reforming probation and re-establishing it as a viable option for many ordinarily bound for jail or prison, we Americans will have embarked on one of the most promising paths towards this end.

Those with an interest in experiencing this tale in another medium are encouraged to view the eponymous half-hour documentary available online.

Had another locale—Spokane, say—invited us in, we would have served a far different probation population than in New York’s. As it was, we clearly differed from the program participants by race as well as class, the two great American divides. Yet we two New Yorkers of two different generations staffing SFO—or three of three different generations, if including photography teacher Chelsea Davis before she became a probation department employee as the enterprise began—saw our role as merely providing a platform for participants to take back their own narrative. In so doing, they would help millions, even if not consciously. Armed with a new artistic technique, they set off in a whole new way towards justice reform, while obtaining a marketable skill to chart a personal path forward.

We look forward to all the participants using the photography to further their own aims. Following the practice of probation’s nineteenth-century founder, John Augustus, we will not identify any by their real names.

George Carrano and Jonathan Fisher

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