Released With Conviction // CEO

“This year alone, 700,000 people are returning home from incarceration and out of that number you have fathers, mothers, young people…” Cara Shih, the Marketing Director for the Center for Employment Opportunities explains. We are crammed into the back space of the Culturefix Gallery on the Lower East Side of NYC, along with the photographers who are featured in the gallery’s current show; Released With Conviction.  The three photographers followed 15 different CEO participants as they calibrated to their new life beyond bars. “There is this huge diversity between the people that are returning home every year,” explains Shih, “and CEO not only wants to get them back into the work force but we also want to make people aware of the fact that there are all of these people coming home… and they are just like everyone else.”

CEO is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to helping the previously incarcerated find and maintain employment. Cara Shih joined their team as Marketing Director about two years ago, and happens to be much of the muscle—and, without a doubt, heart—behind Released With Conviction. “The project started off when I was looking for an opportunity to work with our participants and staff. I wanted to create an outlet where they could tell and relate their stories to people outside of their own communities,” says Shih. That is of course where the photographers come in. Meet Jeyhoun Allebaugh, Bryan Tarnowski and Michael Scott Berman. The three photographers each have their own distinctive style, however, their intention appears to be the same; “This project is exactly the type of work that I am interested in doing, because it allows me to use my artistic eye while doing something so much more than just creating a photograph,” says Tarnowski. Each photographer had to become “all encompassing,” he explains, capturing “everything from doing their laundry, to going to the corner store, to going to work. Everything is important, especially in a project like this where even the little things are huge.”

Over the past few months, each photographer has shadowed the lives of various people in different stages of the CEO program. “For me,” Berman explains, “learning about what [the previously incarcerated] go through—they really have to have a lot of patience, because no matter how hard it is for someone who hasn’t been to prison to go find work or establish a career right now… imagine how hard it is to have this ‘bad thing’ so to speak, looming over your record.“ This is where the CEO program really takes a holistic approach to the job search, not just starting or ending with endless applications. Burman continues “CEO goes beyond the end of the story, many of the participants come back and stay in touch. Its really a relationship that means a lot to these guys.”

The CEO program begins with a referral from a probation or parole officer. From there, the participants enter the CEO “orientation and depending on their probation, a Life Skills Education class, that lasts for about a week.“ CEO’s work begins right away. “Many people don’t see the previously incarcerated as individuals.” defends Shih. “I think that too many times they are being told that they are part of this group that can’t get jobs or are going to go back to prison, and they are subsequently not treated the same.” The mission for CEO and this project in particular is to show that these people are not defined by any of these things or their time in prison. Shih continues to explain how the rest of the CEO program gets to work; “After they graduate from the Life Skills Education class, they receive work boots. The work boots take them onto our transitional work sites, which are all over the five boroughs. They attend the work sites usually three days a week, and on their days off they meet with their job coach or job developer. Once they find a job they enter our ‘Rapid Rewards Program’ where they are able to earn up to $1,000 a year just by handing in their pay stubs.” Shih points out, “A lot of times the jobs that they start with do not pay enough, so the Rapid Rewards are an incentive but also extra help to get back on their feet.”

Another photographer on the project, Jeyhoun Allebaugh, who is also a photo assistant for the NBA, explains that he “always comes back to documentary photography for sustenance. It fuels and enriches my life in a way that nothing else I’ve found can.” This sentiment, which runs through each and every person involved in the project, is indeed what makes it so successful. “The subjects set the tone with their voices and you can let the photographs melt into that. It is a very cool aspect to the audio/visual medium,” Mulling this idea over, Jeyhoun concludes, “There is just something amazing about a very powerful, yet subtle moment.”

This project would also not be complete without the help of Culturefix, the Lower East Side bar and gallery. “Culturefix is a really great venue for non-profits.” Says Shih proudly. “They have been really supportive of our mission and really helpful in letting us carry out our vision in their space.” On June 14th, two days before the official opening, CEO staff, the photographers, and many of the participants gathered in the gallery space to intimately celebrate the fruits of their incredible project. “The participants got up and spoke about their experience with the project. There were people who had been with CEO for 18 years and there where people who are still in the first stages of the program,” says Shih, “still trying to find a job.” It seems almost impossible for anyone to put into simple words just how moving each participant’s journey home really was. Stop by the Culturefix Gallery to experience Released With Conviction for yourself, because, as Allebaugh puts it, “There may be nothing more beautiful than the reclaiming of one’s humanity.”

Released With Conviction runs until June 25th at Culturefix Gallery, 9 Clinton Street, NYC.  The exhibit opens tonight, June 16th, 6-9.

—Annick Mayer