Puppies Behind Bars – The Fence, Brooklyn Bridge Park

puppies_behind_bars

I’m happy to announce that my work, along with those of a great group of photographers, will be unveiled at an outdoor exhibition The Fence at Photoville June 18th in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The Fence was a new happening in New York last summer and a great addition to city’s cultural scene. It was an awesomely fun way to view photography so I’m looking forward to being part of the exhibition this year.

Please join us for a walking tour and ice cream social by meeting up at Jane’s Carousel at 6:3pm. The exhibition is up all summer long if you miss the unveiling, but you will miss out on the free ice cream.

I’m making a shameless plea to please cast your vote my project for the People’s Choice Award here. They have cool prizes I wouldn’t mind winning! …Just saying.

The Story

Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) is a program working with inmates at prisons in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to train service dogs. Puppies are given to inmates for 20 months, to care for and train so the dogs can later assist wounded war veterans and law enforcement. The mission of the program is to not only to enhance the lives of veterans and assist law enforcement, but for prisoners to “learn what it means to contribute to society rather than take from it. The dogs bring hope and pride to their raisers, and independence and security to those they serve.”

I was given permission to visit Fishkill Correctional Facility to document the Puppies Behind Bars program. With only one day access to this medium security prison, and with 22 prisoners and their puppies to photograph, I had to dive right in to the assignment to quickly identify who to focus the story on. That can be challenging with a large group and no heads up about the individuals in the program and their backstory.

puppies_behind_barspuppies behind bars

Fishkill Prison wasn’t visually what we expect prisons to look like thanks to tv and movies; the prisoners weren’t required to wear uniforms (except for the olive green pants) and, at least in the area the puppies resided, there were no iron bars on the prison ‘cells’. I couldn’t photograph the outside perimeter and other things for security reasons. The visual cues we look for as photographers to set the scene and give a story a sense of place were a little harder to come by as a result. Not true for Oprah, though, since when they filmed at the prison after my visit, Albany directed all the prisoners to be in uniform for tv (enhanced reality).

One of the things I love about self-assigned projects is that I can change my approach and my storyline on the ground to suit the actual situation I’m in. It isn’t a top down situation, where the story has been laid out by a publication or an editor and it can sometimes be difficult  to diverge from the expected story angle. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve researched a story thoroughly, gotten on a plane to shoot, only to find that things aren’t quite what I expected.

After my one-day shoot, PBB asked me to do portraits of the prisoners and the puppies for their annual calendar, so I was lucky enough to get a second day in the prison. I had two hours for all 22 prisoners and their dogs. It was one of my most memorable shoots.

puppies behind bars

(L) TYRONE (SENTENCED TO 8 1/2 YEARS) AND 4-MONTH-OLD HAPPY – “I’ve learned not to let these walls make me a prisoner of my own emotions. The program has taught me to be patient, honest with myself, and how to work without ego. My last dog, Yankee, went to a war veteran somewhere in Colorado. Just knowing that I helped to change someone’s life makes me feel as if I have a purpose and a destiny. These dogs have a way of touching a person’s spirit.”
(R )ROBERTO AND 12-MONTH OLD FRANKIE – “I am currently incarcerated for murder in the second degree. I was sentenced to 16 years to life…I needed to change my ways of thinking. Frankie is being raised to become a service dog to a disabled veteran who is returning from the Iraq War. It helps bring atonement for all the negative misdeeds that I have contributed to.”

I’ve photographed animals a lot (puppies, giraffes, elephants…hey, I lived in Africa). I think what works is when you can show them with people-like reactions and emotions. I ended up enlisting two prisoners as photo assistants—one with a chew toy and another with a reflector. As I was taking the portraits I quickly realized these photos were all about showing the connection between trainer and dog and their feelings read loud and clear to me. When I looked at the images later, I felt the portraits told a better story in many ways than my documentary images did.  I knew nothing about the prisoners personally except for a couple I’d originally profiled because there was no time to interview them. I typed up a list of questions that I would’ve normally asked in person and sent it to the PBB instructor. I wasn’t sure I’d get any answers and was surprised when I received a very thick envelope back in the mail. Every prisoner took the time to write long, thoughtful answers. They weren’t obligated to tell me why they were in prison, but most did (some for murder), and many were very open with their emotions and the impact the dogs made on their lives. The full set of images with the captions that include their words can be seen here.

I’ve done many stories over my 20-year plus career. Often the happy, feel good stories aren’t quite as perfect as they sound. This was one of those rare situations that there seemed no downside, and the program accomplished what it was designed to do. It helped reform the prisoners, give them hope and self-esteem, and a way to redeem themselves. It helped society because these prisoners had more of a chance of getting out on the street to be productive citizens. It helped the people who received the dogs.

Win-win. So nice when that happens!

 

June 12th, 2013 Posted in photojournalism 4 comments