Interview with Women Photojournalists of Washington / WPOW

      Tell me about your personal background. Where are you from and how did you get involved in photojournalism?

I was born in the former Czechoslovakia, under Communism, and during my teenage years, the Velvet Revolution occurred, dramatically changing the world around me. I think this was very formative for me, but at the time, I never really thought about expressing it through photojournalism. I was in art school from the time I was three years old, I studied the history of art in college, and I wanted a career in art. It was not until much later, when I moved to the US, that a friend gave me an old 35mm film camera. That was really an epic moment for me. I immediately felt very natural with a camera, and I knew right away that photography was the way I wanted to express myself and tell stories about the world around me.

The other important thing to know is that I never really studied photojournalism. I spent four years at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore as an undergrad and a grad student. My academic background is a hybrid of fine art and documentary photography. My entire career after that has been an attempt to bridge these different practices. I want to bring compelling storytelling into fine art practice, and I want to bring a personal aesthetic vision to documentary practice.

      Give us the backstory on this project. What's the premise?

My commitment to the issues surrounding mass incarceration is long-term and is fed by a passion to significantly expand awareness and engender meaningful changes in policy. Many people are still surprised to learn that the U.S. imprisons more of its population than any nation on earth. In many cases, we are jailing people long-term for non-violent drug offenses. These people’s lives are being devastated, and when they get out of prison, they find it is extraordinarily difficult to rebuild their lives.

I created three previous projects on incarceration and reentry. “Convictions” documented the plight of women reentering society after spending time in prison. “Inside Outside” focused on the struggle and successes of men coming back from prison and finding their voices within their families and communities. After that, my project called“Time Zone,” about a mother of two who spent half of her life in prison, won the prestigious Sondheim Prize and was exhibited at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, among other venues.

      Why did you want to photograph a project on the impact of incarceration on people's families?

While working on my previous projects on mass incarceration, I spent time with the families of those affected, and I started to pay more attention to the effect of lengthy imprisonment on children and other family members. In many cases, families suffer devastating financial setbacks because of the loss of a breadwinner. Prisons are often far away from the family home, and it becomes incredibly hard to visit and stay together. But most important of all, mass incarceration is really harming children. Separation due to a parent’s incarceration is extremely painful and carries a stigma.

Children of incarcerated parents drop out of school more frequently and are more likely to be incarcerated than their peers. More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent right now, and 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. So this is a huge and often overlooked problem. We need to be careful that all the voices of those affected by crime are heard, including the voices of crime victims and the voices of family members.

      How long have you been photographing this story?

Locked Apart: The Impact of Incarceration on Families is a collaborative project with two other photographers: Mark Isaac (my husband) and Michelle Repiso, and it’s a series consisting of multimedia shorts and photographs. For more than 18 months, we’ve been working closely with seven families in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, going back time and again to make sure that we really know them and we’re telling their whole story. We will continue to work on this project as long as it takes to get it right.

      What was the most challenging part about photographing this story?

Gaining full access and sustaining trust are always essential for in-depth projects. But the closer you get, the more wrapped up you become in each family’s specific story, many of which are really tragic. We are working with children and husbands and wives whose loved ones are incarcerated for a very long time, sometimes for life, so it can be heartbreaking.

Also, it’s a pleasure to work with children, but it can be extremely difficult. You have to find exactly the right balance in asking them the right questions to get the full story without putting them through too much additional pain.

      Throughout your time spent on this story, what is one of the big takeaways for you? What have you learned?

As part of the project, I went on a bus with families going to visit their loved ones at a federal prison camp located four hours from DC. (Sadly, that’s the nearest federal facility for DC residents.) The experience offered an unmediated example of what it means to be separated. It was heartbreaking to watch children saying goodbye to their mothers, not knowing when they will see each other again. I also learned that in many cases the caretakers don’t tell the children where their parent really is. In one story that I shared on WPOW Instagram, the children didn’t know their mother is in prison, and they actually learned where she is on the bus as they were going to visit her. I started to understand that the family members of incarcerated people are victims too. They have not done anything wrong or illegal, yet they are being punished, stigmatized, deprived of love and affection, and denied financial support.

      What's next for this story? Are you going to continue to work on this project?

Our intention is for this piece to live on multiple platforms, including multimedia shorts on a web site, potentially as a feature length documentary, and as a gallery exhibition. The different stories are in varied stages of development, with some nearly finished, and others yet to be edited. The next steps are to gather some missing visuals (there’s always a need for more b-roll!), conduct several more interviews, and then there will be an extensive editing process.

      What's on the horizon for you?

I have a project that I work on whenever I go back home to Slovakia. It started with a focus on my immediate family and now is growing wider, to represent village life in rural Slovakia, and I’d like to start shaping it into a finished project. That means endless hours of editing and sequencing and then trying to get it out there. I am also a founding member of a new artist group called Atlantika Collective that will debut very soon, and we are starting to collaborate on a local project on the Chesapeake watershed.


(c) Mark Isaac