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The Collaborative Process of Unbroken by Bars

Photo: Katie Fuller

Photo: Katie Fuller

Unbroken by Bars is a collaborative process between the artists and the women who agree to have their stories shared. For (Our Love Is) Unbroken by Bars, artist Jess X Snow and I were invited to present our idea to a roomful of women who lived and worked with Hour Children, a New York based organization that helps women with children transition from incarceration to living on their own. The women had the opportunity to ask us questions and express their concerns. Jess and I learned an invaluable lesson through this: we decided to provide total transparency and allow the women to be as involved as they want through every step of the process. We also agreed to only use their first names in order to protect their children.

Jess and I set up times to meet with and interview the three women who were interested in participating. Because Hour Children has a nursery and a daycare, Jess was able to photograph the women and children that same day. Carole and Jahmil’s circumstances were a little different since Carole’s period of incarceration was throughout the 1980s, and Jahmil is a grown woman. We met with them together at Carole’s apartment. Jahmil and Jess instantly bonded over their common connection of working in film. They are both working towards receiving MAs in film at UCLA and NYU, respectively.

Jess is profoundly empathic. This characteristic enables her to access the loving bonds each woman shares with her child, and it helped the women feel safe. The photo shoots felt effortless despite place or context because of the genuine relationship between artist and woman.

I was introduced to Topeka Sam through Carole, who has become a dear friend of mine. Topeka was just finding her voice as an activist, and one piece of advice she shared with me that stuck was to not romanticize the crimes by focusing on victimhood. She explicitly told me that women in prison have broken laws and need to hold themselves accountable. Doing so helps them reconnect with their true selves and to heal. Topeka also explained to me how important the bonds are that justice-involved women form with each other, how these bonds strengthen women who have experienced the worst of humanity. Her authenticity stayed with me. When it was time to build ideas for the second installment of Unbroken by Bars, the sisterhood Topeka explained was the obvious choice for a topic.

The circumstances around (Our Sisterhood Is) Unbroken by Bars were different because Shyama lives in Washington DC, and Topeka and Ivy travel constantly for their work with prison reform; therefore, I interviewed them and sent recorded and transcribed interview to Shyama. This allowed her to hear the emotions in their voices as well as to get closer to the content. Once she had a chance to process the interview, we chose some quotations that we thought best expressed the loving bonds the women developed while incarcerated at Danbury. I sent the quotations to Ivy and Topeka, and they participated in the editing process. Shyama’s use of the symbolism from her Indonesian culture, such as the third eye, an expression of intuition, emphasizes the power of these two women and the work they do to build up their sisters who are still incarcerated.

When I was in Seattle last fall to meet with the incredible people at CoCA, I was struck by how present homelessness in the city is. Our justice system does so little to support people re-entering communities after incarceration that many formerly incarcerated people become homeless. This is where Unbroken by Bars may go next: gathering the stories and experiences of women who became homeless because they were repeatedly denied housing. But like learning about women giving birth while incarcerated and the sisterhood formed in prisons and jails, the content needs to reveal itself, through organizations I work with and the women I encounter, driven by the issues that matter to them and to the artists who bring these stories and issues to life.

— Katie Fuller, curator of (Our Love is) Unbroken by Bars

Earlier Event: March 27
Kamari Bright: Art for Change
Later Event: May 6
Unbroken by Bars: A Discussion