Jose Espinoza. Years incarcerated: 26. Year released: 2018. Location: Stockton, CA. From the series “Facing Life,” 2022, by Pendarvis Harshaw & Brandon Tauszik
Five years ago, journalist and author Pendarvis Harshaw and photographer and filmmaker Brandon Tauszik began a project focused on formerly incarcerated people who had been serving life sentences in California prisons before being released. Titled “Facing Life,” the web-based project tells the stories of eight individuals through a multimedia combination of text, photography, video, and cinemagraphs, offering intimate depictions of their struggles, setbacks, and victories as they navigate life after prison. These eight portraits also offer insights into larger issues surrounding prison reform and how we collectively choose to support or shun those who have officially paid their debt to society upon their release.
I spoke with Harshaw and Tauszik over Zoom on two occasions: shortly before the project’s release in April 2022 and over a year later. The gap allowed us to talk not only about “Facing Life” itself, which they worked on for three years, but its reception and impact since its launch. We also discussed the ways that audiences engage with multi-faceted online projects, now and in the future — a crucial question given the instability of the web. Tauszik is currently exploring solutions to this problem through storage and publication on distributed, peer-to-peer systems. —Matt Stromberg
Matt Stromberg: You started this project in 2018. How did it come together?
Brandon Tauszik: I’d been wanting to make work around this issue for a long time, but felt that I didn’t necessarily have the knowledge base to do it justice. Pen wanted to do the same thing, but was in his own silo, so we came together and applied for a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
Pendarvis Harshaw: I’d been reporting on arts for a while and doing work in prisons through San Quentin News and the California Medical Facility where I was teaching a writing course. I’ve had first-hand experience working with people returning to the larger society and formerly incarcerated individuals. Having that knowledge, knowing what the state was facing, we thought there was a story to be told, so we put our forces together.
MS: Can you talk about the process? How did you find the subjects? How did you envision it at first?
BT: We wanted a geographical spread throughout the state, a racial spread that represented the state, and a gender spread. A lot of incarceration-related stories are about men. Women have that experience too, but are under-represented in the media.
We started meeting with advocacy organizations and former lifers that had already been out for a long time. We were looking to represent your average lifer re-entering society, which was very difficult to find because they’re not necessarily connected with social justice organizations. They’re just head down, working, living their life trying to move beyond all of this, instead of going back to it. So it took a lot of unturning stones, coffee with former lifers, meetings with organizations, going to parole meetings…
PH: Probably a third of our time was spent finding the people. Getting people to share their stories and let their guard down. That was a whole other barrier.
Myra Burns. Years incarcerated: 37. Year released: 2018. Location: Oakland, CA. From the series “Facing Life,” 2022, by Pendarvis Harshaw & Brandon Tauszik
MS: I’m curious how much resistance or skepticism you had to overcome.
PH: I was thinking about Myra this morning, who is one of three women we highlighted. I first met her for tacos in East Oakland and she was like, “I normally don’t sit down at tables with guys, I just don’t do that. But you seem trustworthy.” Her personality is so warm, like punchy-warm. She’ll get to know you and still continuously throw jabs. She would throw jabs at Brandon all the time.
BT: Especially when we first met her, she was not down with me. Then I went to Hong Kong, brought her back a souvenir, and she cried.
PH: There’s a process of getting to know a person; it starts off with a cold call and the interaction warms up from there. Staying in contact with them over the course of three years, it’s hard. Thank goodness for social media.
MS: Did you know that three years would be the time frame of the project when you started?
BT: There was a Covid delay in the project’s release, which was a blessing in disguise. The original goal was to be done in 2020. We took that opportunity to stay with it, keep following them, check in every month or two with everybody, make another image or video. A lot changed for folks for different reasons during the pandemic, so I’m glad that we took the extra time.
PH: If we had put it out before Covid, it would have missed a huge chunk of the story of formerly incarcerated people reentering society in California. Since the start of the pandemic, record numbers of people have been released, so the eight individuals that we’re highlighting are representative of so many more.
MS: That framework of the prisons opening up due to Covid wasn’t part of the initial project?
PH: The reason that California was in a predicament was because of a violation of people’s health because of overcrowding, but Covid adds an extra layer.
BT: When California was first federally mandated to depopulate prisons in 2006, the prison population was at around 200 percent capacity. They didn’t say, “you have to let people out.” They basically said, “The prisons you have are too crowded. You could build more prisons. ” So they built more prisons, but over the course of the past decade plus, different ballot measures and Senate Bills have been pushed through to release lifers. That’s controversial from a legislative standpoint because lifers are often the ones who did serious crimes, manslaughter, murder, or otherwise, usually at a young age, but their recidivism rate is extremely low, like around one percent. This population rarely reoffends. But as California is pushing all these lifers out, there’s a technological lapse that they’re dealing with, a workplace lapse, a cultural lapse. That’s the population that we wanted to report on.
MS: If you are expecting to spend the rest of your life in prison, and you’re released, that’s like being born again, right? Psychologically, it’s a huge gift, but also a burden, I would imagine.
PH: Everyone we talked to, talked about hitting that pivot. You have to hit that pivot before you approach the parole board. You have to show the board that you have changed, that you’ve been rehabilitated. Some people found God, they found help, they found family, you name it. And then once the rubber meets the road, they get back out into the world and people have different responses.
Almost everyone had health issues. I think about Jose’s story where his widow said that while he was incarcerated, he was doing everything harmful behind bars because he’s like, “I’m not getting out, so I’m not tripping about my health.” And then, once released, he was dealing with all these ailments and trying to bounce back from it, on top of catching Covid. Unfortunately he passed away in 2021 at age 53.
MS: It is a really ambitious project in terms of being multimedia, you’re writing, you’re doing photography, you’re doing video, 360VR. Was that part of the project from the beginning or did it develop into that?
BT: It’s something that I’ve done with previous projects, working with GIFs or cinemagraphs and then building a kind of digital home at a URL for it. It’s something that we wanted to do in combination with the reporting for this project.
Films are great, but they take a long time to watch, and sometimes they get stuck in festivals or obscure streaming platforms. Photography books are cool, but that’s niche, and for a certain demographic. Creating digital native projects like “Facing Life” are a way to get the most eyes possible on one’s work. I enjoy creating work with an output that’s democratic, that’s free, that’s on a domain that we own, that will be there for a long time.
MS: Is it journalism, is it art, is it activism? Obviously the lines are blurred here, but what do you consider what you’re doing?
PH: Yes, it is (laughs). I come from journalism school and I write as a columnist. What Brandon has done with the cinemagraphs, that’s art, and I think it’s just a story about people at the end of the day.
Our goal is to put it in the hands of stakeholders, elected officials and say, “next time you make a decision, think about these people.” At the same time you want to put it in the hands of the people, employers, educators and say, “next time you have somebody with a background such as this, think about these individuals.” And lastly, putting it in the hands of people who are incarcerated, to say, “this is what is hopefully coming down the line for you if things work out.” But at its heart, this is a people story and it can be shown in a number of ways.
Traveille Pope. Years incarcerated: 26. Year released: 2018. Location: Los Angeles, CA. From the series “Facing Life,” 2022, by Pendarvis Harshaw & Brandon Tauszik
MS: How was working collaboratively? To do this on your own is a lot, but to coordinate is almost more challenging.
PH: Brandon has a crazy work ethic. It was very helpful to have somebody who just has such a drive like he does to keep this project on track.
BT: And I was grateful just to be able to just focus on the visuals and not have to worry about the politics or representing these people’s stories directly.
MS: You use the term Mass Integration which I think is a great way of thinking about the phenomenon that you’re describing. Did you come up with that?
PH: I wouldn’t say I coined it. It just is. We’ve seen 20,000 people coming out of prison in the past couple years in California, and that is the opposite of mass incarceration: mass integration.
MS: What do you want people to take away from this? There’s a lot of emphasis now on abolition and prison reform, but you’re looking at even a bigger picture of what happens after prison.
PH: The project serves its purpose when you have to sit and acknowledge that person for some time, to see somebody fully for who they are, and don’t just look at them as a number or pass them by as you walk down the street. So if you do nothing else just sit with it, the gifs, the cinemagraphs, to understand who this individual is.
BT: I suppose the goal is just an overall kind of perspective shift. Recognizing that people aren’t the worst decision that they’ve made, particularly if that decision was when they were seventeen. They’re just an aging person trying to get by in a very fast moving world.
Lynn Acosta. Years incarcerated: 20. Year released: 2018. Location: Monterey, CA. From the series “Facing Life,” 2022, by Pendarvis Harshaw & Brandon Tauszik
BT: So Matt, you were the first person to interview us about the project, before it was even out. And we were still kind of figuring out how to talk about it at that point. It is an interesting contrast, you catching us at that side, and now on this side, way past the finish line.
We also presented it at over fourteen universities all over the country, through the Pulitzer Center’s Campus Consortium. Everywhere from Yale School of Art to a community college in North Carolina. The people we presented it to ran the gamut; some had personal experience with family members being incarcerated, some were current or future journalists, future storytellers and future filmmakers that are going to come after us.
PH: It was definitely great getting that interaction with people. You can imagine working on a project for three-plus years, and finally putting it out in the world. It’s good to have online traction and everything, but then there’s real, engaged conversations with the next generation of leaders.
One of the more impactful ones for me was the trip to University of Southern California, where one of the people featured in the piece, Travielle, came along with us, and shared his story. He grew up near USC in South Central and yet he had never been on the campus. It was a full circle moment, for sure, and the conversation that came from it was really grounded.
BT: We also did an event at the San Francisco Public Library with Ear Hustle from San Quentin. That was our physical installation spot as well, inside the library’s Resource Center where they fill in a lot of unmet needs that the city can’t deal with. The Resource Center serves a lot of formerly incarcerated people. They were really excited to have it on the walls and allow people to interact with it.
PH: The conversations varied. As we talked about this project to people, I came to realize that there’s so many layers to this. You can look at it through the lens of early childhood psychology or the future of employment. Those opportunities to really look at it from different lenses came about through those in real life conversations.
BT: We also got direct messages from people currently incarcerated who were passing the project around. That’s why we’re excited it wasn’t like a book or something paywalled. We own the domain and it’s free for anyone, so people were definitely passing it around on (contraband) phones behind bars. A couple of them messaged us on Instagram.
A lot of people are coming out of prisons in California all the time, just like our eight participants, to not much preparedness on behalf of the state. That’s one thing the project was aiming to show. It also shows you what that population is dealing with.
Travielle is still in the LA area. He works at a non-profit law firm, working with people who have incarcerated family members.
Gary is still in the Bay Area, hoping to get his case reduced to get his green card back in two years, and currently working at a shelter in San Francisco in the Tenderloin.
Jose passed away due to complications related to Covid.
Robin, we’ve lost communication with. But as far as I know, she has not gone back to prison.
And then Melvin is still in the Watts area cleaning apartments. I believe everyone is now fully off parole, even Melvin who was supposed to have parole for life. People call parole “prison on paper.” Now they’re fully just normal residents again.
MS: As far as policy changes or more support systems for people who’ve been released, have you seen any of that? Has there been a movement to make it easier to integrate back into society?
PH: I was talking to a friend who owns a restaurant and she specifically wants to hire people who were formerly incarcerated. Especially in the restaurant world, there’s programs for that. People have reached out to us for resources because we did the research. But I don’t think there’s been any direct correlation between our work and policy change or anything of that nature. I just think overall people are moving in that direction.
BT: With the project, we just wanted to get it in front of everyday people. These folks are all around you and they’re dealing with issues that hopefully now you can understand a little bit more, and understand a little bit of background about their life, as kind of a microcosm for a larger population.
MS: You said the project will be online forever. Is it on the blockchain?
BT: It will be. I’m currently doing a fellowship with the Starling Lab at Stanford University. It’s a partnership between Stanford’s School of Engineering and USC’s Shoah Foundation. Web2 storage is not very secure, not very archivable, and linkrot is a huge problem. As a group of content makers, what we’re trying to deal with is, if my work lives online, how do I create a lasting archive that lives beyond me? If I were to pass away tomorrow and my credit card stopped, “Facing Life” would go down. We’re trying to create a long-term distributed hosting program, so if WordPress stops existing in ten years, for example, that won’t have any impact. It will be hosted safely on IPFS regardless of technological changes. Ideally it can have a long, semi-permanent lifespan, as permanent as we can within our ever changing internet landscape.
MS: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the project?
PH: I did a recent project with the ACLU of Northern California around reparations, and one of the things presented by the Advisory Board to the State was around the closure of prisons in the state and reallocating those funds towards reparations.
BT: California is officially not building any more prisons. They went through a major building spree in the late 90s into the mid-2000s until we got to where we are, which is 34 prisons around the state. Now they’re only going to be closing prisons, but there’s a lot of pushback because if you remove the prison, you remove the largely rural source of employment. The town pushes back because it’s become the only livelihood. That’s going to be a big story in the coming ten to twenty years in California as they release more lifers and they don’t recidivate, and the prison population shrinks as it should. What do we do with these prisons?
PH: Look at San Quentin and how that’s turning into a rehab center. What does that look like in the future?