Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Best Picture I Never Took

First haircut

In 1989, I did a story on a prison boot camp called Monterey Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility. It was in rural New York State, way at the end of a dirt road. There were no bars, no walls or guard towers, and no visible guns. The program was for young non-violent offenders and, if completed, reduced their sentence from three to nine years to just six months.

It was run like a military facility and the guards were called drill instructors. I spent a total of five days there over a two month period and was able to photograph the entire program with groups of different inmates, from arriving in shackles to graduation day with inmates in jacket and ties. The New York Department of Corrections gave me total access. I was there from 5:00AM to 10:00PM and I could shoot anything I wanted and talk to anyone, anytime. That freedom led me to the best picture I never took.

One morning after calisthenics and breakfast I was passing through the dorm area and went near a bathroom. I looked in and there was a line of toilets, most occupied. No walls between them, no stalls, no privacy whatsoever. Other people, guards and inmates were walking through, so I did too. There was beautiful soft morning light coming in windows opposite and the line of white porcelain, shiny pipes up the wall, gray cinderblock, and a range of skin tones made for an extraordinary image.

I actually brought one of my Nikons with a wide angle lens up to my eye and looked for a moment before lowering it. It was a great picture, no doubt about it. But it seemed unfair to take it. Is there any time when we feel more vulnerable and defenseless than when we’re sitting on the toilet? I don’t think so. I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of those young men’s vulnerability, no matter how good a picture it was.

I don’t regret not taking that photograph. But I often think about “the one that got away.”

The following are a few of the pictures from that story.
Waiting in line

Dawn reveille

Running to dawn physical training    

48 men shower in 3 minutes

Superintendent Ron Mosicki

Morning PT

Parole hearing
Graduation day