Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) is a program working with inmates at prisons in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to train service dogs. Puppies are given to inmates for 20 months, to care for and train, so that the dogs can later assist wounded war veterans and law enforcement. The mission of the program is to not only to enhance the lives of veterans and assist law enforcement, but for prisoners to “learn what it means to contribute to society rather than take from it. PBB programs bring the love and healing of dogs to hundreds of individuals every year. The dogs bring hope and pride to their raisers, and independence and security to those they serve.”
New York-based photojournalist Radhika Chalasani was given access to Fishkill Correctional Facility to document the Puppies Behind Bars program in action. Admittance to this medium security prison is limited, and with only one day to photograph 22 prisoners and their puppies, Radhika had to quickly immerse herself into the heart of the assignment.
Radhika had this this to say about her time at Fishkill,
Fishkill Prison wasn’t visually what we’ve come to expect prisons to look like; the prisoners weren’t required to wear uniforms (except for the olive green pants) and at least in the area the puppies resided, there were no iron bars on the prison cells. Many of the visual cues we look for as photographers to set the scene and give a story a sense of place were a little harder to come by. Interestingly enough, this did not prove true for Oprah, since when they filmed at the prison after my visit, Albany directed all the prisoners to be in uniform for television (gotta love the loosely defined concept of reality).
One of the things I love about self-assigned projects is that I can change my approach and my storyline on the ground to suit the actual situation I’m in. It isn’t a top down situation, where the story has been laid out by a publication or an editor. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I’ve researched a story thoroughly only to find that things aren’t quite what I expected.
After my one-day shoot, PBB asked me to do portraits of the prisoners and their puppies for their annual calendar, so I was lucky enough to get a second day in the prison. It was one of my most memorable shoots.
I’ve photographed animals a lot (puppies, giraffes, elephants). I think what works in photos is when you can see animals with human-like reactions and emotions. Even as well trained as these dogs were, cooperation was still a challenge. I ended up enlisting two prisoners as photo assistants—one with a chew toy and another with a reflector as well as using one of my own assistants. When I looked at the images after, I felt the portraits told a better story in many ways than my documentary images did. The problem was, I knew nothing about the prisoners personally.
My only choice was to send a questionnaire to the PBB instructor and hope the prisoners would fill them out. I was surprised when I received a very thick envelope in the mail. Every one of the prisoners took the time to write long, thoughtful answers to my questions. They weren’t obligated to tell me why they were in prison, but most did, and many were very open with their emotions and the impact the dogs made on their lives.
I’ve done many stories over my 20-year plus career. Often the “happy/feel good” stories aren’t quite as perfect as they sound. This was one of those rare situations where there seemed no downside, and the program accomplished what it was designed to do. It helped reform the prisoners, give them hope and self-esteem, and a way to redeem themselves. It helped society because these prisoners had more of a chance of getting out on the street to be productive citizens. It helped the people who received the dogs. Win-win. So nice when that happens.
Radhika’s Puppies Behind Bars series is currently being exhibited at The Fence at Photoville, which was unveiled today. The Fence will be up for viewing the entire summer. Cast your vote for Radhika to win the People’s Choice Award here. View more of her work at radhikachalasani.com.
(Via: Wonderful Machine)