Picture Time

by Davi Russo, Sept 2010

My earliest memory of comprehending the situation and visiting my Dad inside prison was with my younger sister Alexis, to be observed and recorded during a private video taped visit. It was an extended four-hour “special visit” where only my sister and I would have a contact visit with my Dad, along with two other strange men recording us with a video camera. I don’t think I had ever seen such a camera, and remember being so fascinated by it. The year was 1986. I was eight-years old.

My family’s lawyer vested a large amount of time and preparation regarding our conduct and behaviors; how we should and should not act in front of the camera during that particular visit. My sister and I couldn’t understand the complexity of it at the time. Later when we were old enough to understand, we learned that this recorded visit served as documented evidence by the prosecution team to determine his relationship with his children, and be one of the many factors weighing in on his initial death sentencing hearing.

Over the years during our contact visits inside N.J.S.P., I became aware of the security cameras recording us from the ceilings. I remember looking up many times to steal a glance at those security cameras. Positioned above us, they stared down watching the entire room during the two-hour visit with my Dad. Those cameras became a sort of uncomfortable enemy eye - always watching. I would ask my Dad, “Are they really recording everything?  Are they also recording sound?  Who is looking through them?  Can they zoom-in and see a close-up of my fingernails?  Where do all the tapes go?” My curiosity was endless. Growing up being recorded by those cameras, my sister and I had learned to contemplate our childhood actions during our visits, due to how they might be perceived or interpreted by the institution scrutinizing them on video.

During our contact visits, there was a time where being photographed would be a much different experience. We would walk over to a designated wall, which was either decorated by a tacky stick-on wallpaper background or colorful hand-painted murals done by the prisoners that changed about every half-year, and be photographed by an appointed inmate photographer. My father would give a payment voucher to purchase the polaroids. We would pose next to one another sometimes changing our order depending on the event. If it was a birthday or anniversary, we would take a family shot and then move away so that the special person would get a single shot with Dad.

We would take at least four exposures or more, enough for my Dad to always have one, and then choose our favorites from the remaining. Over time posing for these photographs became an enjoyable and opposite experience from the security cameras all judging eye. 

Over the years in the N.J.S.P. contact visit hall, there have been several different inmates to have the position of photographer. I could feel some were doing it only for a job, others were doing to have more time outside of their cell, and there were a special few who really had it in their heart to take photos. We befriended one whose nickname oddly enough was “New York,” and was responsible for photographing us and countless other families inside the contact visit room for over the past 20 years. From originally being intimidated, to then gradually getting into the routine, and eventually befriending him, “New York” was the man with the camera and heart, and even on some of the most difficult visits could always manage to bring out the best in us in those photos.

“Picture time” sometimes felt like the most normal routine of our very abnormal prison-visit experience. It served as a moment where it was okay to be just the same as the next family waiting in-line to get their photo taken with their loved ones. It was a chance to let our guard down for a moment, in a room full of people under strict procedure, rules, time limits and guarded emotions. It was only during picture time when visitors were officially approved to make physical contact with the inmate they were visiting.

Around this young age, I became obsessed with picture time inside and outside of the prison. My Mom got me my first camera and assigned me the role of family photographer. She stressed the importance of taking photos of our birthdays, holidays, and events. I also began shooting the daily mundane events and would send to my Dad along with our letters to keep him involved and updated in our lives. 

Looking back over the earliest polaroid of my Mom and Dad sitting during an outdoor contact visit. A viewer might never know this photograph was taken behind the walls of a maximum security prison. From a glance, looking at it suggests a very normal feeling.

Somehow these polaroids were to be the reflection of a normal family captured in the moment of unusual surroundings. In my opinion, many of the early family polaroids from visiting my Dad possess a feeling of false normalcy to them. In retrospect, I can remember my Mom saying something of the nature, “Okay, kids, it’s picture time. Davi, stand next to your Dad. Alexis, look up and smile. “Kids! Okay, now let’s look nice!” The clutching of my mother and grandmother’s hands on me seem so rigid and filled with insecure sternness of the way things should be, I remember feeling all their stress flowing into me. They just wanted something to hold onto that could be as perfect and as close to normal as their old lives used to be.

Regardless of class, race, income, inside or outside of prison most families take some sort of family photos. We were just a regular family until prison happened to us; having to go into the process of learning how to adjust to a new environment. Over the years during this radical change, we at least had these polaroids to serve as the mementos of the moments inside. 

In deciding to produce this work, edited from numerous years of our visits, I asked my family to contribute their polaroids and words reflective from their experience to create this book. To this day, I am still sending letters and photo diaries to my Dad, who is still incarcerated.