Talking to Ara Oshagan about His Photos of Youth Behind Bars in California
The Criminal Justice Caucus hosted Dr. Heather Ann Thompson for an event last week entitled "Why Mass Incarceration Matters to Social Workers." Meanwhile, a big clue to one of the answers can be found on the 4th floor of the Social Work Building. On display is a series of photographs by Armenian American photographer Ara Oshagan—part of his "collaborative portrait" of high-risk juvenile offenders who had been placed in youth detention facilities and adult prisons across California.
As Oshagan's work shows, prison has become part of the destiny for many of America's most disadvantaged youth. In several cases, the photos of young men and women are accompanied by heir own writings and drawings—a combination that illustrates the horror of transitioning into adulthood from within the criminal justice system.
Curious to know what had led Oshagan to be drawn to this topic (most of his previous work had to do with the Armenian disapora in the United States), I tracked him down to a remote part of Armenia, where he'd gone for an arts festival, to ask a few questions I thought would help the CUSSW community appreciate his photos even more.
I understand you are the son of Vahé Oshagan, the prominent Armenian poet. Where were you born?
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, into a very traditional and insular Armenian community. Even though we lived in an Arabic country, we had very little contact with the local culture or people. Fortunately, my father and mother were very progressive and open-minded. We fled the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 when I was 11 and lived for 6-7 years in totally American towns—in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. I returned to the Armenian community when I started college.
Do you self identify as American, Armenian, or some mix?
My identity is a complex one and, yes, a mixture—though I like to speak about it more like a hybrid, where several types of identities, cultures, ways of life, ways of thinking, co-exist. There is constant movement from one to the other, a constant shifting. My identity is a kind of process.
What made you decide to become a photographer?
For a long time, I wanted to be a writer. At one point, I was writing very very short fictional pieces and I wanted photos to accompany the work. I could not find anyone to take photos like I wanted them so I went out to do it myself. Soon, I realized taking photos came much more naturally to me, in terms of my character and how I interact with the world, than writing. After that I pretty much dived into photography full time. Though I still have a couple of novels still bouncing around in my head—which, one day, I will put on paper.
You've been photographing Armenians in exile who are survivors of the Armenian genocide, as well as the Armenian diaspora in Los Angeles. What made you decide to photograph high-risk juvenile offenders in California's youth detention facilities and prisons?
I have always been interested in photographing lives on the margins of society. When photographing the Armenian diaspora in LA, I sought out and found Armenian bikers, drug addicts, people with alternative lifestyles and others outside the mainstream. To me, they are as much part of my community and my identity as the schools and churches. I am also interested in social issues—in addressing pressing human problems with photography. So, in this project I had the opportunity to combine both these things that interest me a lot. It was a natural project to embark on.
Did these juvenile offenders have anything in common with your Armenian subjects, or did it represent a very different direction for you and your work?
Some of these youth are actually Armenian. So, yes, they had a lot in common in that sense. But also this project is a departure for me because it is collaborative in nature. I combine handwritten texts and words by the youth with my own photos. I meld them together. And also in this project I use diptychs and triptychs. This is also a departure from my other single-image-oriented work. And I do these things in this project because the issue of incarceration is a very complex one and to be able to encompass that complexity, collaboration is necessary. The youth’s emotions and words bring a new dimension into the work. And the multi-image constructions (the diptychs and triptychs) expand the visual horizons of the work and infer or speak to these complexities. This is also, I feel, necessary to get beyond the surface.
Can you say a little more about why you find incareration more complex than some of your previous photographic subjects?
The social and human issues that bring someone into a situation where they are incarcerated are overwhelming. Like abuse in someone’s past that drives them out of the home and into the streets and eventually into prison. Or crimes committed when someone is part of “neighborhood” and they must adhere to the iron-clad laws of the 'hood or else face reprisal.
What do the words say that the pictures can't say?
These stories cannot be told purely visually. Photographs from prison show you what things look like at the terminal station, but what is also critical is the journey that person has taken to get there. Because finally, if we want to advocate for change we need to intervene in that journey, that path that leads to incarceration, early on. That is where we, as a community advocating change, will make the most impact. So, to me, their own handwriting and their own words that speak about their internal emotional and psychological state or talk about their “journey” are critical in addressing the complexity of this issue. They are the only ones who can give us a glimpse into that journey, into the “how” they got here.
What was the most unexpected discovery you made about these youth?
That they are no different than my own children, in their capacity to live and hunger for a full live, for their humanity, for their embrace of hope and the future.
Do you have any advice for our social work students who are thinking about working with youthful offenders in the American criminal justice system?
Youth offenders, I believe, have a tremendous capacity for reform. This has been studied well and it is also my own experience with them. One needs to get beyond the surface, beyond the tattoos and machismo posturing and treat them as if they are or can be your best friend. Be accepting of who they are, and the rest will fall into place.
What project are you working on now—will you be doing any more work on American social issues?
Social issues, American or Armenian, are an essential part of my work. Currently, I am working on portrait of a small agriculture town in the Central Valley of California. I am concentrating on one town and trying to dig deep, from a visual standpoint. The social issues in that context are huge—from exploitation of farmer, to emigration, to the problems youth face in a small community with little to do. And they appear in different ways in the work.
Thank you, Ara! We will enjoy your photos even more as a result of knowing more about you and the impact that this project had on you and your work.
—Interview conducted by ML Awanohara
- For more of Ara Oshagan's photos of incarcerated youth, go to Juvies on his personal Web site.
- For more of the background and context for Oshagan's "Juvies" photo series, go to his artist's statement at the Open Society Institute, where Juvies was first displayed as part of Moving Walls 17.
Images: "Juvies: A Collaborative Portrait of High-Risk Juvenile Offenders in the California Prison System"—No. 18 (one of the photos on display in the 4th-floor exhibition); Ara Ohshagan.