Interview by Shawn Nee and Julie Haire
Ara Oshagan is a Los Angeles-based documentary photographer who delved into the world of the juvenile criminal justice to make “Juvies,” a moving series about the bleakness and despair of kids who are caught up in a broken system that has nothing to do with rehabilitation.
The project was developed in tandem with filmmaker Leslie Neale, who created her own documentary on the subject. Oshagan graciously submitted to a long interview with us, and he has a lot of good insights on getting access, his process and the state of documentary photography today.
Leslie Neale’s documentary Juvies focuses on juvenile offenders in an LA County detention center. Can you tell us how you became the set photographer for the film?
Leslie had seen some of my work from Armenia and she invited me to shoot with her. From very early on in the project, I did not consider myself to be a set photographer but in a sense a collaborator, a documentary photographer working in parallel with the aim of developing a parallel project, a book that would be about the same kids and same topic.
For a project like “Juvies,” we’re always interested to know how the photographer was able get to permission to photograph such a difficult subject that involves state government and the prison system. It seems like you must have jump through a lot of hoops while cutting endless strands of red tape. Can you explain how you were able to gain access?
Leslie Neale was a magician when it came to access. She was politically very well-connected in high places (for instance she knew the DA well), and she had some very key people in Corrections supporting her work. She also had an assistant who dealt with access on a continual basis. Often we would get shut down during a shoot and then we would have to wait in a waiting area until Leslie or her assistant made some calls and then we got clearance to shoot again. It was a HUGE and tireless effort on her part because, as you know, no one wants to give you access. I was supremely fortunate to be part of her crew.
What was the routine like that you went through each time you entered the prison?
We came with a cart-load of equipment—camera man’s equipment, sound person’s equipment, myself with my camera gear. A list of all our equipment would have to be sent in ahead of time and then at the entrance to the prison, our equipment would be checked against that list. Then we would be allowed in. Always one or two corrections officers would be with us the whole time we were there.
Photographers are artists who are generally allowed to be creative and free-flowing, so was it at all challenging to photograph inside a place where there are many rules and restrictions?
This was the most challenging part of the work for me. My usual process is to wander and photograph whatever interests me in, for instance, a certain region or around a topic. And I tend to spend a lot of time with people until they are comfortable with my camera and myself. To make the kind of images I am interested in, I need people to be in their natural way of life and ignore my presence. My book Father Land is based on this process. And I always work alone. So, in prison, not only are you not allowed to wander too far away from the two corrections officers who are accompanying you, but you also have to deal with a film crew shooting at the same time and basically shooting the same thing you are shooting. And when you are in the yard for instance, all the prisoners are interested in you and looking at you and want to speak to you. Plus to be able to shoot anyone besides the youths who were in the film, we needed to get signed releases. So, the whole process was very cumbersome and not at all intuitive.
Did ever you feel as though your access was being limited, or that you were being censored regarding the people and things you could photograph?
Due to Leslie’s magic, we went in as a documentary crew and were able to shoot in places very, very few people can—in the yard, in the dorms, in the eating areas, pretty much everywhere. But every once in a while we would get shut down as I wrote above. I personally was not censored on any specific occasion—like someone never told me “Do not photograph this.” But there were ground rules, which were: do not wander away from the officers who were accompanying us and no photos without releases. As long as we stuck to those rules, we were fine. If they felt you respected their ground rules, they respected us in doing our work. This was in the state prisons.
In juvenile hall, it was totally different story. The same respect was there, but you absolutely could not photograph anyone’s face besides the kids who were in the film. And there the corrections officers did not want to be photographed either. And in juvenile hall, we met the kids in the film in a “video production” classroom and rarely went anywhere else. When we did go to shoot their “dorms,” for instance, it was just us and our kids, no others.