The Facing Life project investigates “life after life” in California’s prisons

Documenting eight people who were released from life sentences in California prisons due to policy change, the project shines a light on the pervasive and systemic issues caused by mass incarceration.

Date
29 April 2022

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“Mass incarceration is arguably one of the largest social issues plaguing the United States,” begins Brandon Tauszik, “and it intersects with many others, such as racism and inequality”. A photographer and filmmaker based between LA and Oakland, Brandon collaborated with Pendarvis Harshaw, a journalist based in Sacramento, to complete the Facing Life project. Funded by the Pulitzer Centre, the project uses Brandon’s images and Pendarvis’ words and interviews to create an indispensable resource that examines the wide-ranging impact incarceration has on people’s lives, and those closest to them. “When you realise the amount of people who’ve been directly or indirectly impacted by prisons in America, you’ll see this is a wide-reaching story”, explains Pendarvis. “Personally, I was inspired by looking at the institutions of prisons in America as a journalist. That, coupled with family and friends who’ve been involved in the prison system, I had to do something that spoke to their experiences.”

Visually, the project is composed of cinemagraphs – subtly moving images. A “unique medium that exists as a hybrid between photography and filmmaking”, Brandon tells us that his choice of visual was a very conscious decision. “It’s meditative like a photograph but time-based like a video, allowing for a heightened sense of connection with the subject.” Capturing the subjects in quiet moments – barbecuing with friends, at the pool with their kids or brushing their hair – the images may seem to capture the ‘everyday’ or the ‘mundane’. But, this is where the visual power lies; documenting the moments so subtle and yet so necessary. The simple pleasures, the contemplative moments, and the importance of a life shared, surrounded by family and loved ones.

“Condensing everyone’s story was an exercise,” Pendarvis tells us, “it took patience and focus.” Sharing that many “quality” quotes didn't make the cut, Pendarvis focused on using his words to create a sense of the subject’s experiences as a journey. “I had to take aspects that spoke to the goal of this project, which was to give a sincere look into the ups and downs of the lives of people who were formerly serving life sentences.” This is what Pendarvis’ words do so well: they show the sides to the stories that you so rarely see. The pre-prison lives, often featuring experiences of sexual assault, police brutality, homelessness and segregation and the post-prison lives, ones undeniably complex but much richer outside of the carceral system.

With the power of this project, simply its existence as a form of social-commentary is bound to have a strong impact. But Pendarvis and Brandon have high hopes for the influence it may withhold. On the legislative side, Brandon hopes that Facing Life will “contribute to a perspective shift toward ‘lifers’, from both legislators who craft bills and everyday people who vote on ballot measures”. On the more society focused side, Pendarvis says that “we also want everyday community members to think twice before judging someone who has spent time behind bars”. And “lastly, we want people who’ve been incarcerated to see themselves as active members of our community”, the journalist concludes.

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Brandon Tauszik & Pendarvis Harshaw: Facing Life (Copyright © Brandon Tauszik & Pendarvis Harshaw, 2022)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in illustration, photography, ceramic design and platforming creativity from the north of England.

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