I left a photograph, titled Girl with Doll bookmarked on my browser, and I looked at it with new eyes. (Found in Lens: The New York Time Focusing on Prison Photography.)
The photo, taken by Steve Davis, shows an inmate in an orange jumpsuit holding a doll with missing arms and legs. The doll, which looks more like a statue, is being held by a black girl. And it’s odd writing inmate if she is indeed a young person. Her nails are painted a bright sea-blue, and she has side braids falling over her shoulders.
We cannot see her eyes, just the lower part of her face. She’s pressing her lips together as if holding her words, perhaps a smile. At first I thought the expression conveyed a lack of freedom to speak due to fear or shame. What drew me to this photo, when I looked at it then, was the statue in the hands of a young girl. The statue is a work of art, and the master is the young girl.
A second look makes me think this doll or statue is something she carries, as a reminder of her youth. The braids, the sea-blue nail polish and the doll are clues to who she is, who she might be if she wasn’t in jail. She’s more than a girl or woman in an orange jump suit, surrounded by the monotone colors of a jail-cell. It becomes evident the absence of her descriptive eyes and a doll without arms or legs. We only receive a forced smile, closed and signaling at a situation that is without remedy for now.
This could be an accident that the photographer fell upon. He may have asked her to hold the item, or at a moments notice the subject didn’t know what do and picked up the doll. Still this is a story the photographer is telling. It allows us to see past the preconceived notion of what we might expect.
By cutting out the eyes of the subject, we are left without the complete picture, and that is exactly what happens when someone enters the criminal system. The photographer is trying to convey the idea of something unfinished or cut out. Something has been stripped away, and what’s left is an incomplete understanding of a human being.