Full gamut of emotions

June 27, 2012

By Mike Segar

One of the many great things about being a Reuters wire service photographer is the wide spectrum of things that you get to witness and photograph from assignment to assignment. Of course, not every assignment brings you to a place or a situation that excites or moves you emotionally or visually, but over the past week I have had the fortunate experience of shooting two completely different types of assignments that brought me to two completely different experiences.

From the final game of the 2012 NBA finals in Miami last Thursday night where I was front and center to photograph LeBron James and the Miami Heat as they celebrated clinching the title victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder where the pure joy and excitement of sport was on full display, to a far different type of emotion at a New York City prison where inmates earned their high school diplomas.


At the NBA finals, hours of preparation, the setting and testing of remote cameras, days of shooting the action of each game in the series and trying to capture the peak of action culminated in the release of emotion the players displayed after reaching their ultimate goal. As a photographer, the nerves and the anticipation of trying to make the best possible pictures of that emotion for our clients around the world dominate your focus and attention. When it is all over and the pictures have been sent a real sense of relief of knowing you captured the best of what happened on the court in front of you comes.

From that to this….

When New York staff photographer and assignments editor Brendan McDermid and Editor in Charge Adrees Latif asked me on Monday after I returned from the NBA finals if I would be interested in going to Rikers Island Prison, New York’s notorious massive correction facility to photograph inmates as they earned their high school diplomas, I immediately knew I was interested in this assignment. After seeing the great work done by my Los Angeles based colleague Lucy Nicholson on two recent stories in jails there, I was eager to see if this assignment might produce a rarely seen look at life inside a jail facility here.

Two massive agencies, the New York City Corrections Department and the New York City Department of Education are responsible for providing high school education to the thousands of young men and women incarcerated in New York’s jails while they await either trial or sentencing through the “East River Academy” on Rikers; a school for inmates.

Reuters reporter Jonathan Allen and I arrived early at Rikers Island’s main entrance near LaGuardia Airport to meet our Corrections Department escorts and to clear the layers of security into the jail complex to access the graduation ceremony inside. At this point I had no idea what I would be allowed to photograph or what type of scene there would be. What I found out was that 4 of the 26 graduating inmates had agreed to be photographed and I was told that any other inmates I photographed would have to remain mostly unidentified or shot from behind.

A surprisingly joyous ceremony took place in an auditorium where inmates under heavy guard were marched in to receive diplomas and awards, with caps and gowns covering their green and white prison jump suits. The ceremony was attended by many department officials, the Department of Education Chancellor, faculty from the academy and a smattering of parents, friends and relatives of the inmates. In an environment like Rikers, well known for its crowded, and often violent conditions, to witness the real joy and pride of these young inmate/students, most of who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, as they experienced a rare moment of achievement and accolade was surprisingly moving.

One inmate in particular, Arisleida Duarte, speaking for her classmates at the ceremony emotionally told the assembly of how the education she received in jail had changed her life. A young mother of two children under the age of 3, both of whom were born within the confines of jail, she particularly moved me. She was clearly proud of her accomplishment under such trying circumstances. She enthusiastically applauded her fellow graduates as they received their diplomas. Yet, when the assembly moved, under the watchful eyes of prison guards, into an adjoining gymnasium for a structured reception and celebration with family and faculty, she discovered that neither the father of her children, her two young sons, nor anyone from her family or friends had come to see her graduate or visit her. Only a lawyer was present. She was visibly so sad and disappointed as she sat with a plate of food talking quietly with her lawyer that I felt so sorry for her. As a father of two children under 10 I could only imagine the heartbreak of not seeing my kids and could not even fathom the disappointment she must have been feeling to learn none of her family was there for her.

From that deep sadness I then saw the pure joy of inmate Abdul Cornelius celebrating his diploma with his mother and sisters. Inmate Jasmine Castrillo who visited with her mother and stepfather was a hard contrast to witness.

While I was there for less than two hours with restrictions on what I was allowed to photograph, I felt truly fortunate to have witnessed an emotional and rare look inside the lives of these inmates. As I left the complex knowing they faced such amazing obstacles in their lives, I felt an even deeper appreciation for their accomplishment of earning a diploma. I also have a much larger appreciation for my own loving and supportive family and friends and the great opportunity I have as a Reuters photojournalist to see so much emotion in life around us.

One comment

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Hello Mike,

What a great story. As a photographer (memoriesofmephotography.com) I had only one similar experience back in September 2011 when my organization PPSNYS wanted a group of members to capture events throughout the city commemorating the tenth year anniversary of 9/11. Being fortunate not to lose anyone dear to me in 9/11, the feeling of loss I felt while covering events from people that did was overwhelming.
Again great story.

Peter Joseph

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