Interviewed by Rachel Kennedy
Sonja Och is a Fulbright recipient who recently shot for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate before returning to her native Germany. In this exclusive interview Ms. Och details the story of Nisha, a female inmate who served time at a Missouri state prison. Though Nisha was sentenced for a violent act, she worked hard to move beyond her traumatic past leading up that event. Nisha was working for the freedom to care for her young daughter.
RK: Sonja, why did you choose documentary photography as your vocation?
SO: Why are so many people treated unfairly? Why are so many people poor? Why can’t the world be better? What can I do to make it better? Since I was eight years old I have had all these and many more questions in my mind. Nobody could ever give me satisfying answers.
I know how naive these questions sound for many people. But I can’t help myself but to ask them. There may even be rational answers for all of them. Unfortunately, being rational was not a solution for me.
There was a time I wished that I could just accept the answers I got. Life would be so much easier if I didn’t feel forced to get behind everything – you come to a point in life when you realize that you are the only one who can answer the questions which are important to you. It was a long search for me to find the instrument for it. Something that makes sense to me. Being a Photojournalist is my instrument.
RK: What brought you to the US? To San Francisco?
SO: Originally I am from Germany, Bavaria. The wish to travel, to see the world, was always in me. But I never could travel like my schoolmates and friends did because I had to support my family. It was when I was in my third semester at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hannover, Germany, studying Photojournalism, I began to feel stuck. I decided I had to leave if I want to get better.
So I applied to the Danish School of Media and Journalism for one semester, and I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship. I never thought it would work out, that I would have any chance in this game. But I got both. The timing was perfect. The semester in Denmark started at January 2011 and ended in June 2011. The scholarship started in August 2011.
I studied two semesters of Photojournalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. During this time my Professor David Rees invited me to take part at the Missouri Photo Workshop, which was a great experience. I recommend this workshop to everybody who wants to get better in telling compelling stories through photography. I also took part in the Eddie Adams Workshop, which helped me a lot in understanding myself as a Photojournalist.
In May 2012 my studies were over and I applied for an internship in the USA. I got the call from the SF Chronicle when I was in the middle of Texas, during my road trip through the west.
This is a different culture and some things in the USA I will never be able to understand completely.
RK: Through the development of your practice, have you defined a particular technical method?
SO: My favorite lenses are the 35mm and the 50mm. I avoid Zoom lenses. Using zoom makes me lazy. Also, with zoom lenses I have the feeling I miss moments. In certain situations, when it is important to act quick, I don’t want to think about what kind of lens I am using. I want to be able to jump in and to jump out and the only thing I want to care about is how fast my feet are able to zoom. Using prime lenses throws me out of my comfort zone.
I am very drawn to b/w photography. I only use color when I have the feeling that people wouldn’t understand my subject without it. Like in the case of Nisha: Orange. White. Grey. Just imagine how deprived you would feel if you were forced into a world without its richness of colors. For me, using color is a process which evolves during a project. For instance, when I began to wear the same cloth the inmates wore, I started to dislike this orange shirt. To me, it symbolized every single negative aspect of being in jail. After that point I knew that if I want you to understand and to feel how it is to be locked up, seeing nothing else, E V E R Y D A Y, then I have to show you how monotone three colors can be.
RK: For your Oh how I miss you so photostory, you traveled to Clinton, Missouri and documented women incarcerated in the county jail there, focusing on a 25-year old woman named Nisha. Why was this subject, women in prison, of interest to you at the time?
SO: The photostory, Oh how I miss you so was photographed in Clinton, Missouri during the Missouri Photo Workshop and after. Generally, I am interested in every person from all walks of life. I have to admit that I am drawn to women issues. But mostly I am interested in people or circumstances I don’t understand. At this particular time I wanted to be somewhere I have never been before.
RK: Was there a special reason for choosing a Southern state?
SO: The workshop is in a different small town of Missouri every year
RK: How were you introduced to Nisha? How long were you in correspondence before you started to document her?
SO: I went directly up to the jail and asked if I could speak to the Sheriff, because my first idea was to document him. I was wondering what the work of a Sheriff looks like. I asked him to explain me what his life as a Sheriff is about. He showed me his desk and his telephone. And that was the life of a Sheriff.
I was disappointed, but he was very friendly and offered me a tour through his jail. We came to the inmates area. They all were behind a special glass so you can watch them but they can’t see you. I was feeling like I was in a zoo.
We were stopping at the booth for males but there was nothing there that would have caught my interest. Than we stopped at the female’s booth. Nisha was sitting alone in one corner, apart of the other inmates, sad and lonely. The officers told me her story. I did not even have to ask.
I talked to Nisha right away. Of course she was totally overwhelmed. Sitting every day in a room and suddenly all attention is on you… She, or better we, were disturbed by all the officers around us. She looked at me very suspiciously, and of course she didn’t trust me. I asked for a private room. Nisha and I talked a while and I gave her time to think about it.The next morning Nisha said yes to me.
RK: Were there bureaucratic challenges to developing this series?
SO: Of course, isn’t it always like that in America? (laughs)
At the beginning I was only allowed to stay with Nisha for three hours a day. After a while I talked to the Sheriff, explained that this is not working in respect of Nisha and the story I am already started on – her life. I would have to be allowed to stay longer. Otherwise these photos will only be of a jail and I better stop it now.
I was lucky. He understood the side I was coming from very well. So I stayed from the morning till the night. The only thing I wasn’t allowed by the end was to sleep in her cell.
RK: Did you develop relationships with the guards?
SO: Absolutely. I was dependent on them. These were the people who opened all the doors for me every day. They led me through the many wings and at every door another officer waited for me. Some didn’t like me because they were against someone coming to tell Nisha’s story. The story of a criminal, in their eyes, is not important to tell. But most of the officers really liked Nisha and were feeling for her.
“When I began to wear the same cloth the inmates wore, I started to dislike this orange shirt. To me, it symbolized every single negative aspect of being in jail.After that point I knew that if I want you to understand and to feel how it is to be locked up, seeing nothing else, E V E R Y D A Y, then I have to show you how monotone three colors can be.”
RK: Is there anything about the judicial system that you want this work to contest or expose?
SO: What I saw in this particular jail was that all of the inmates were treated very fairly under these circumstances. I don’t have the right to judge the American judicial system. I grew up in Europe. This is a different culture and some things in the USA I will never be able to understand completely.
As a Photojournalist I observe, I show the facts, and I try very hard not to judge. I want to give people the chance to make up their own opinion while looking at the photos of Nisha. Also, this story was not about the judicial system. It was about a young woman who made a mistake and lost her child because of this mistake, and tries to do better.
RK: Nisha committed to reforming, and recovering, from a painful personal history…in order to be a good mother. What actions did you observe Nisha taking in preparation for her future?
SO: Nisha did her High School degree in jail to get a better job outside, so she could take care of Lyla (her daughter). She started to read the Bible, which helped her to understand her life better – her actions and the reactions she got.
Nisha grew up in a very abusive environment. The only bond she had to her mother was through drugs. She rejected me at first because she was sure that I couldn’t just be interested in her life. She was convinced that in the end I will demand something from her. Nisha never experienced real love. Finding God helped her through the time in jail, calmed her down but also opened up her mind.
“As a Photojournalist I observe, I show the facts, and I try very hard not to judge.”
RK: What was Nisha’s crime, the length of her sentence, and how far along was she in completing her sentence when you met her?
SO: She bit off the nose of another girl during a fight that was fueled by drugs. Nisha had to stay nine months in the Henry County Jail.
RK: The first image in the series is of a girl peeking through the window of a jail cell, cell 4. Is this girl Nisha?
RK:The framing of her face conjures a sort of sovereign figure. What were your intentions with this shot?
SO: She could stay there for hours and stare into nowhere. She shared the cell with three other inmates. One room, four beds, a toilet and a sink. No privacy.
Staying there with the back to the other inmates, staring outside to one point she laid her focus on, gave her extra room in her mind. A little bit more privacy. This way she separated herself from the small cell she had to share.
“This story was not about the judicial system. It was about a young woman who made a mistake and lost her child because of this mistake, and tries to do better.”
RK: In the next photo, we see four beds and four women in conversation. All of these women have been judged guilty of some crime or other. Yet, if it weren’t for the stark environment and orange prison garb, this would read as a adolescent slumber party?
This photo offers a counter-theme to what we imagine when we picture criminals. What were these young women talking about?
SO: Good question. I have to start a little bit earlier. Remember when I told you that I saw at first the men in jail through the glass and nothing was pulling on me? It was because I saw the stereotype of people in a jail. They were screaming, jumping around aggressively, trying to hit stuff. The typical things you see in movies.
When I saw the women – criminals! – they were calm, watching TV, playing cards, chatting. When Nisha gave me the permission to stay with her, she was telling me that she is doing the photostory because she wants the world to see that she is not special. That every day many young girls go to jail because of the same shit they all experience in life.
When I talked with Nisha’s cellmates they all had almost the same story. They came out of very abusive homes, were raped several times, mostly by family members, started with drugs because they couldn’t cope with it anymore. The same story over and over again. So what you see is exactly what you describe. They ARE girls. They talk about make-up, about cooking, about clothes, about men. They are giggling and they draw little hearts on their letters to home.
RK: Tell me about this shot’s composition.
SO: Everything you see in jail is the way it is for a reason. Most things are straight, parallel, and built at a certain degree. There is no individuality at all. It’s all the same. Which brings me to the thought that this maybe is a metaphor for the equality before the law. But perhaps this is too much interpretation.
RK: Another photo is void of human subjects, yet rich in human subjectivity. A letter from Nisha to an undisclosed recipient. The lucid words express a plea for an opportunity to be an active mother to her young daughter. Please discuss who this letter is addressed to, and why Nisha shared it with you?
SO: This letter was for the judge. She wanted me to see that she is doing everything she can to prove that she changed.
RK: One image shows a woman braiding another woman’s hair. Would you say expressing personal style was important to the young women you met at Henry County Jail?
SO: Not as much as I thought it would be. They all wore the same clothes, they didn’t make a big thing about individualism. Braiding hair was only one of the activities they used to elapse time faster.
RK: There is a photo of Nisha visiting, albeit through a window, with her child. A woman is holding the baby – who is she? Everyone is smiling here.
SO: The woman is Nisha’s cousin, Julie. Julie is a mother of eight beautiful children and lives with her husband not far away from Clinton. Nisha granted custody of her daughter to Julie. This moment was the closest moment for Nisha with Lyla in eight months. She saw her once a week for 30 minutes on a monitor in the cell. Nisha not only fought for coming out earlier. She also worked with her attorney to see her daughter more closely while in jail.
“Everything you see in jail is the way it is for a reason. Most things are straight, parallel, and built at a certain degree. There is no individuality at all. It’s all the same. Which brings me to the thought that this maybe is a metaphor for the equality before the law.”
RK: The last shot I want to discuss shows Nisha haloed in dramatic light and shadow descending from a window. Though the orange shirt reminds us of who she is and where she is, this image has a ecclesiastical feel. This is the most dramatic shot in the series. Did you stage the image?
SO: The Henry County Jail has no outdoor area where the inmates could walk around. Nisha had no fresh air; she saw neither the sky nor grass since being incarcerated eight months earlier. Most important questions from the inmates were: what color the sky has today, if there are clouds, or if it rains. What colors the leaves are. When they were allowed to go in the gym, which is just a bigger room than their cells, they lie or stay in the sunbeams and soak them up. This is the only contact they have to the world outside the jail.