Stacy Kranitz intimately photographs the victims of the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County

Accompanying a powerful story written by Meribah Knight with ProPublica, the photographic project reveals the honest truth behind those affected by the justice system.

19 November 2021

Two years ago, Stacy Kranitz asked us all to question the role of documentary photography through her eye-opening series, As it was Give(n) to Me, which shone a light on the mountainous landscape of Appalachia. With an aim of thrashing the stereotypes often associated with the region and its inhabitants, Stacy proved the power and subjectivity of her medium – not to mention her own personal quest to tell the real-life stories of real-life people around her. Since then, and with the pandemic evoking a sense of disconnection, Stacy developed two projects she hoped would “stave off depression” over lockdown. The first is a three-part series on rural hospital closures. “It seemed like an important time to make work exploring the dysfunctional American healthcare system,” she tells It’s Nice That. “These projects really carried me through the darkest days of the pandemic.”

Queue the second project with ProPublica, which is an empathetic and powerful series that accompanies Meribah Knight’s written story exploring a Juvenile Detention centre in Rutherford County, Tennessee. “This was no ordinary magazine article,” she adds. “The draft I received was 29 pages. Meribah spent a year reporting before I became involved.” ProPublica is known for funding in-depth investigative journalism, meaning that Meribah was given the freedom to explore the justice system to great lengths through her reporting. Meribah, alongside their editor Andrea Wise, spent weeks coordinating the subjects who were keen to be photographed, before onboarding Stacy with the mission of capturing their narratives and, more importantly, their subjects’ lives. “We were very limited to just a handful of people willing to participate because the story is so sensitive,” she says. “In one instance, I had less than an hour’s notice before a shoot, another was cancelled at the last minute because the subject was arrested and could not afford to post bond.”


Stacy Kranitz: Rutherford County. Accompanying a story by Meribah Knight with ProPublica (Copyright © Stacy Kranitz, 2021)

Stacy shot between two locations: Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center and Hobgood Elementary School. She spent around two hours with each subject, and for this story, decided to focus solely on portraits. In the pictures, she’s captured a moment between herself and the subject – they who have been a victim of the juvenile justice system in the area, “where for many years they were locking up any kid deemed a ‘true threat’ – a vague term that has never been clearly defined.” Because of this, children as young as eight years old have been locked up for ‘crimes’ such as truancy. And for this particular story, Meribah has researched into a specific incident in 2016 where three police officers arrested four Black girls at a school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “They were charged with watching several boys at school fight and not intervening to stop it,” says Stacy. “That day, 11 kids were arrested including several that were not even there to witness the fight. I was very aware that the photographs could re-traumatise the subjects because it forced them to revisit a very upsetting experience in their lives.”

Just like we’ve seen before in As it was Give(n) to Me, this series serves as a catalyst for revealing the truth. Her role while on assignment, she explains, is to “pull” the audience into a story. This is achieved by building intimacy with her subjects – a skill she’s refined over time. “Lighting and other stylistic concerns tend to be secondary. Every assignment is different.” For this case, she had to walk into the homes of her subjects and quickly find the locations in which to photograph them that would “reveal something about their personality.” Working fast-paced, Stacy achieved an engaging and exceptionally versed documentation of her subjects, either sitting on their stairs, leaning against a fence or cradling their child in the garden.

“Assignment photography works best when I am able to allow the subject to guide me during our time together on how best to portray who they are,” she says. “This part of the process is perhaps the thing I love the most about this job. I love letting a subject guide me to who they are and then puzzling out how to translate that into an image.” Whatever the scenario, though, every picture has been taken with care as she succeeds in visualising the harsh truths about the juvenile justice system in the area. Not only does the work open a portal into a corrupt system, but it also shows the intimacy between subject and photographer – and how, with the right tools and vision, photography has the power to evoke real change.

GalleryStacy Kranitz: Rutherford County. Accompanying a story by Meribah Knight with ProPublica (Copyright © Stacy Kranitz, 2021)

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Stacy Kranitz: Rutherford County. Accompanying a story by Meribah Knight with ProPublica (Copyright © Stacy Kranitz, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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