Listening to those who are photographed
Isadora Kosofsky documented a New Mexico family wracked by addiction and incarceration. Now, they respond to her images.
This week we republish a poignant interview produced by Zara Katz of Everyday Incarceration. The conversation between photographer Isadora Kosofsky and David, a man that she photographed for five years, explores questions about the impact of incarceration on family and of the images themselves on the lives of the people represented. Everyday Incarceration, Everyday Migration, Everyday Black America and Everyday Climate Change are just a few of several Instagram accounts using the Everyday model to dissect issues beyond geographic boundaries.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three articles published on Vantage in March 2016 that investigate what images do in relationship to criminal justice reform. Do images inform? Do they distract? Do they complicate or dumb-down the issues? In each, we ask the people in the photographs — people whose lives have been shaped by policing, courts and prison — what they think of the images.
Read Part Two: I Ride a 9-Hour Overnight Bus to See My Husband in Prison and Part Three: Prison Is Where Families Go
VINNY is no different from other young men. Taped to the walls of his room are printed photos of his brother David, his mother, other family members, too. These pictures, however, differ from most family photos; they’ve been published worldwide. Made over the past four years by Isadora Kosofsky, the photographs — brought together in a series titled Vinny and David — depict unwavering brotherly love and the challenges violence, drugs, poverty and incarceration pose to family bonds.
It began in 2012. Vinny’s mug shot was being processed. Sitting in a plastic chair in the booking section of the Albuquerque Juvenile Detention Facility, Vinny stared at the television. His mother Eve had been physically assaulted by a family friend. Vinny had been arrested for stabbing the man. He was 13-years-old.
Isadora, also a teenager then, walked over and sat next to Vinny. They talked about his mom. They talked about David, who was also locked up, in the county jail. Vinny and Isadora formed a bond that night. To this day, Isadora continues to document Vinny’s life.
Critics, the public and media outlets have distributed and consumed the stories of Vinny, David and their family. Strangers have clicked through galleries. They’ve browsed captions. Some have offered understanding while others have passed judgement. The family has read hundreds of online comments about their lives and their assumed choices.
Through images of rare intimacy, Isadora seeks to contextualize the circumstances of these young brothers. She mirrors their focus on family. Yet, her photographs can only let us “know” Vinny and David up to a certain point: such is the nature of the photographic medium.
Two years on from the first publication of Vinny and David, we hear what the family sees in the photos.
“These pictures … reminds us of what dope has done. What incarceration has done. What we have lost. The last five years.” — David
Isadora talks and texts frequently with Vinny and Krystle, his live-in girlfriend, as well as with David and with Felicia, the mother of David’s daughters. But phones are often disconnected or changed. Living situations vary.
David walked to a pay phone to talk to Isadora about the images and his life. He tells us what we are looking at and what we can’t see.
Felicia called from her cell phone to tell us about her experience as a woman on the outside supporting David on the inside, while taking care of their daughters.
Vinny has been unreachable. Isadora is worried about her friend. She continues to reach out through his family and friends.
Isadora’s conversation with David and Felicia
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
David: We took this picture at what is now Walmart on Juan Tabo and Menaul Boulevard. God. I was 12, turning 13. Mom and Eddie took the photo.
I remember a lot of dealing with Eddie, our dad, who was always fighting with mom. Mom always worked at Wienerschnitzel. I was taking care of Mikey and Vinny everyday. She’d open the store in the morning. I’d take Vinny to school, Mikey to day care.
Isadora: What are some of the memories of Vinny in juvie?
David: Oh man. I remember I couldn’t talk to him.
Felicia: I was there when Jesse attacked Eve and Vinny stabbed him. He protected his mom and then he got punished for it. I wasn’t really focused on what was going on with Vinny when he got locked up because I was dealing with being pregnant and DJ (David) being in jail.
Felicia: I think the only good thing that happened from that was when Vinny called from juvie the day that DJ got out of jail, Vinny told him for the first time that he loved him and that he was his brother and that he was sorry for being mean when they were younger. It brought them closer.
Isadora: You know that photo I took of them crying in the visit? What did you feel when you saw that?
David: I know the feeling he felt.
Isadora: What about the image of Vinny in his cell with the glass?
David: I feel like I can’t believe he had to go through that. And it sucks. But shit happens. Bad shit happens to good people in life.
Isadora: What was it like during the times when you were segregated? In your cell. Alone for 23 hours?
David: Easier to do your time. A lot more mental time when you are by yourself.
Isadora: What does mental time mean?
David: You are thinking about nothing but reality. Your actions. If you have a family, you’re thinking about them. You’re telling yourself that you are a straight up fuck head. You’re asking yourself when you’re going to get out. And if it’s for sure. When I was locked up, I felt like a fish in a tank.
Isadora: Some hope to ban solitary confinement. Do you think it should be banned?
David: No. No it shouldn’t. Some people need to be separated. Some people need to have that mental time. The benefit of locking someone up for 23 hours is for a mental purpose. So they can be separated from everybody else and anything else. To be segregated. To have no privileges.
David: I remember every second in jail. Still ride around everyday with jail on my mind. I’m institutionalized. It’s still normal and it’s been a long time. I even got locked up in October. Still ready. Like, I’ll always be prepared if I get arrested. I just got bad luck. I’m impulsive. When I think about the photos of me in jail, I think of how I don’t realize my actions until I’ve already reacted. You regret a lot of things in jail. A lot of things that you can’t change.
Felicia: It was horrible [when David was in jail]. We didn’t always know when he would get out. Everything was unsure. Sometimes he’d get arrested and I’d be in a motel with Lily and I didn’t know how to pay for the room. I’d be thinking, “where are we going to go?” We didn’t have money or food. It was so stressful. I’d stress out about what would happen when we’d hit the street. All the times he was in there was traumatic. Again, sad. Life changed.
Isadora: Can you describe the visitation process?
Felicia: First you have to figure out a way out to the jail. There is no bus that goes out there. You have to get gas money or get someone to drive you. When I get there, I have to fill out a strip of paper with his inmate number. The waiting room is usually packed with people. It’s hot. It’s stressful. You wait for hours.
One time, I went out to visit him two days after he was arrested and they denied my visit because he wasn’t allowed a visit until after 48 hours locked up. I cried and cried.
It usually takes a few hours before they call you back to the room with the monitors. They have you go through a metal detector and tell you which monitor number he’s on. Then you sit down and wait for him to appear on the screen and pick up the phone to talk.
David: I remember that day. The visit was short. I only had, like, three of them. She brought Lily to see me the day before she was having an abortion with one of my babies. We both remember that I was in jail screwed up out of my mind.
“I don’t want people to see me over that little monitor. I don’t want to see any one over the little monitor.” — David
Seeing my daughter over the little camera makes it harder to go back to jail. It’s both positive and negative in the sense of it don’t really stop you from going back, you know. But seeing your little daughter over the little camera sure as fuck makes it harder to go back. I don’t want anyone to come visit me when I’m in jail. How do I say this? I don’t want people to see me over that little monitor. I don’t want to see any one over the little monitor. I don’t want people to remember that.
A window would be cool. I think that’s how it should be everywhere. Cause they can’t just cut you off. You have a time period. Then they cut you off. You’re on one side of the monitor. They are on the other. Then you get cut off after 30-minutes. Bam. Yes. Face-to-face visits where you can see the person.
Isadora: Can you tell me about the moments after your trial in 2014?
David: We all stood, smoked cigarettes and talked in the parking lot after I got proven innocent. Vinny, my mom, Mark, my dad, Krystle. I walked out of the courthouse with you and my dad. You and my dad were the only ones at my trial. Felicia was only there to testify then they made her leave. But you and my dad were sitting in the front row for those two days. When we walked out of the courthouse I saw Vinny, mom, Mark and Krystle walk towards me. I said “We won. We won.” And my mom hugged me. Vinny smiled. And I hugged him. I was relieved. That was two-and-a-half years out of my life.
Isadora: What would you change about the jail system?
David: The judges need to change. And the COs [correctional officers]. They need to change the minimum age requirement for COs. They shouldn’t have a young guy in charge of older people. They lack maturity. Some of them that are young have respect, but I think they should change. They don’t know enough about life. They have young guys ordering around elders who are in there maybe for life. What’s a prisoner to them? The judges don’t look at the person they are dealing with, only the charges. The pretrial system that I was on for two years that got me back in jail over and over because when I’d check in — I’d give a dirty UA [urine analysis] and they’d send me back.
“They need to change the minimum age requirement for COs. They shouldn’t have a young guy in charge of older people.”
Isadora: What have you missed out on in life?
David: Time I could have and could have had with my daughter.
Isadora: What about Vinny?
David: Yes. But that’s part of life. Part of life is doing your own thing.
Isadora: Why was your mom Eve crying in this image?
David: Because they had brought Vinny over to do a house check and he wasn’t allowed to come home.
David: That was the first time I saw Vinny in a long time. It was like he grew two-and-a-half feet long and lost a foot wide. Had bigger feet. He looked at me eye-to-eye. Man to man. He was 14 or about to be 15. We stood at the top of the mountain to look at the Raton sign. He was living with Aunt Vic. Me, him, Fefe and the baby went to the top of the mountain then back down. We dropped him off at his friend and then went home.
Vinny was younger than me. If I wanted to smoke weed, so did he. Everything I wanted to do. He wanted to do. When I turned 14 and didn’t need a toy car but needed a box of condoms, Vinny wanted a box of condoms. That picture right there is probably the best memories with Vinny and the worst memories. That was a time when a lot of shit was happening with Eddie.
Isadora: You know that image of you and Vinny on the bed in the motel when you got out of jail in January 2014? What is the brotherhood between you like?
David: Come on! You already know the relationship between me and Vinny.
Isadora: I know it but I can’t speak for you. I already know the answers to all these questions, but those answers need to come from you.
David: Vinny is my world. Those are my words. Vinny is my world. Little man.
David: I rented that room. I had just gotten out of jail a couple days before. Her and the baby were living with her mom’s boyfriend. I wasn’t allowed over there. One night, I slept in the park. Then a preacher let me stay at her house. That photo is from a private moment between us in a confined place.
Jail affected my whole life. My relationship with life. Jail didn’t affect the relationship with her. She affected the relationship with me. She’s supposed to be there for me when I’m in jail. She’s the one who is supposed to put money on the phones so I can call. She’s supposed to come visit me. She’s not supposed to cheat on me. Every time she was in need, I was in jail. Her grandma died and I was in jail.
David: Talking about all these photos goes to the negative side for me. It reminds me of the last five years of my life — the relationship with Felicia. A lot of these pictures remind me of exactly what I was trying to give to somebody who ruined love for me. Ruined parts of my life forever. Ruined the way I could be with someone else. To love. To trust. Yeah. I remember pushing that stroller and being the happiest guy on earth for that moment. I just kept pushing that stroller over and over.
Isadora: You know the image where you’re feeding Mary Jane her bottle? You’re wearing the suit for your trial in 2014.
David: I was feeding her in the morning. That’s the ultimate feeling to feed your daughter or your babies, for any man. Even the ones who don’t realize it. That’s the ultimate feeling. I miss them so much. I still haven’t had custody. I can’t even go see them because they are in state custody away from Felicia.
David: All these pictures, every one of them, bring back these memories to everyone in my family. It reminds us of what dope has done. What incarceration has done. What we have lost. The last five years.
Felicia has all the printed photos. If I had Internet connection or a laptop, I’d be pulling up those photos all the time. If I had a laptop, I’d pull that up for my mom to look over. It’s a documentary of a family falling apart. Government interfered. Drugs interfered. It’s a fall out for my entire family. Including myself. Especially myself.
David: We were sitting in the Denny’s. We were laughing about the food. We were trying to figure out what to order off the menu.
Isadora: What have you taught Vinny?
David: [Laughs] I taught him not to get high.
Isadora: What else?
David: How to be a dad.
Isadora: What has he taught you?
David: He taught me to be responsible, I guess.
Isadora: How do you feel about it being exposed internationally? It’s been published extensively. It’s been published in Europe. In Hungary, in France. It was in the London Sunday Times two months ago.
David: I love it. It’s reality. It’s raw reality.
Isadora: Do you have anything else you want to say about the project?
David: Some of the photos I wish they hadn’t gotten took. I read a lot of comments (on Lightbox) about tweakers. But that’s not what the project is about. It’s not about tweakers.
Isadora: No its not. It’s about a family.
David: Absolutely. You’ve always been a sensitive person. You’ve taken the pictures that show what we are feeling inside. The photos that go inside us.