Isadora Kosofsky has been photographing since she was 14 years old. After she turned 18, she started to focus her work on the U.S. criminal justice system – looking, for example, at the impact the vast and complicated juvenile justice system has on young prisoners and their families. Now, in her most recent project, published here for the first time, Kosofsky follows incarcerated parents as they struggle to maintain fragmented, yet essential, relationships with their daughters and sons.
On a four-hour bus ride, I sit behind Thomas, 13, who has not seen his mother in five years. Thomas’ cousin adopted him two years ago. He’s nervous and expressionless, yet cracks a smile as he arm-wrestles with his brother and sister across the aisle, both of whom live with other families.
Angel, whose mother is serving a seven-year sentence for drug trafficking, watches Jurassic Park on the bus’ television. “I have many mommies,” he says. His older brother, Caleb, retorts, “We have one mom.”
Over the past few months, I’ve documented bonding meetings between children and their mothers and fathers at five prisons in the state of Florida. In 2010, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. had an incarcerated parent, and approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Nationally, there are more than 120,000 incarcerated mothers and 1.1 million incarcerated fathers who are parents of minor children.
Children of Inmates, an organization dedicated to bringing incarcerated families together, facilitates these unusual visits on a quarterly basis, where parents can directly interact with their children, with volunteers instructing them to get into full “mommy” or “daddy” mode.
These photos form the latest chapter in a five-year project documenting the relationship between youth, families and confinement in the criminal justice system. I consider this new series as another visual articulation of love-loss intersections. While Chandler knows that his father will be released next month after a five-year sentence, Vivian visits her father knowing that he will never get out.
Every time I say that I won’t go back to photograph the lives of those in the criminal justice system because I find it too painful, I always end up initiating another project. Prison has become a locus for me to probe relatable themes of confinement and loss beyond a social query, which is always one goal of documentary making.
My process for both this series and others has been to see those I document as people first and incarcerated second. Even before photographing one of these visits, I identify with the paradoxical joy and grief that one can feel about their own parents or family. I am drawn to photograph intimacy in institutional contexts, questioning the nature of family relationship in adverse situations. Shelly-Ann, for example, tells me about the importance of maintaining connection to her husband while he is incarcerated, citing how her daughter, Ayana, saves her dad’s letters and reads them multiple times per day. Ayana’s Christmas wish was to see her dad, who will be confined for three years. Documenting family bonding visits affords me the opportunity not only to tackle mass incarceration from a humanistic standpoint, but also to explore these experiences as escapes and temporarily fulfilled fantasies for both child and parent.
In the midst of understanding shattered and mended familial bonds in my present life, this photo documentary comments on my personal questions about the nature of parent-child love and alienation. As a documentarian, I hide behind those I photograph so I can make others my focus and forget what actually draws me to document long-term stories. However, at the end of each day, I am confronted by the same emotions I attempt to avoid; documentation provides a temporary refuge, but in the essence of the bonding visits, everyone goes home at the end of the day, waiting for the next opportunity for connection.
Documenting lives affected by incarceration causes me to confront my fear of loneliness by witnessing remoteness in its most obvious forms. The inner conflicts and a desire for responses to unanswerable questions are what lead me to photograph what I feel I both know and can never know. As Michele, a Children of Inmates volunteer, says “one thing that sticks with me is the unconditional love between child and parent. No matter what the parent did. To the child, that’s still mom and dad.”
Kaiser reflects on the experience of having an intimate visit with his son, saying, “In a regular visit, you can’t interact like this.” Kaiser’s wife chimes in, “They are able to hold Dad’s hand. Kids need that. They need to know that Daddy still exists.” Jalen, 14, adds: “You almost forget you are in a prison. I get to spend time with Dad like being at home.”
Isadora Kosofsky is a documentary photographer based in Los Angeles.