This next month, the Arts + Literature Laboratory Gallery, 2021 Winnebago Street on Madison’s near east side, will be host to “Captured” a photography exhibition that puts a face to local racial disparities and exposes the general community to what life is like for incarcerated youth in Dane County, including LGBTQ+ youth of color. The opening night viewing party was last night for the display that will be featured for the coming month.
“Captured” is a series of images taken of youth inside the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Madison. The series hopes to expose the general community to what life is like for incarcerated youth while also creating a visual narrative that documents what racial disparity looks like in present day Dane County. It is the brainchild of Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE), which works to increase the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators, and families to create schools in Wisconsin where all youth can thrive.
“I hope the exhibit brings great awareness to GSAFE as people see the work and connect it to what we are doing,” says Amber Sowards, communications and development manager for GSAFE. “It’s a great opportunity to learn more about incarceration and racial disparities going on in Madison, too.”
GSAFE develops the leadership of LGBTQ+ students, supports gay-straight alliances, trains educational staff, advances educational justice and advocates for public policy. “Right now, we’re working on the transgender bathroom bill, so we’ve organized a bunch of people to testify [at the state Capitol building] against the bill,” Sowards says. “That has kept us busy for a while.”
GSAFE has roots going back to 1991 when they were two all-volunteer grassroots organizations functioning out of members’ homes — Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination in Education (GLADE) and Gay and Lesbian Educational Employees (GLEE). GSAFE has traditionally focused its programs in South Central Wisconsin but has offered limited support and leadership training to youth and educational staff across the state.
The “Captured” series is made possible by GSAFE and The New Narrative Project, which aims to be a bridge between incarcerated young people and self-determination. The idea for “Captured” started with Ali Muldrow, Racial Justice Youth Organizer for GSAFE, and her 90-minute visits to the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center where she taught a writing class and a media study class which talked about how people of color are portrayed in the media. “The reason why Ali wanted to go into the juvenile detention center is because the majority of incarcerated youth are queer in some way,” Sowards says. “She talks with all the youths and has really gotten to know some of them and that’s where this idea started. She asked me if I wanted to do some photography to document what she was doing. “
Sowards, who last year was one of 50 photographers selected to participate in the New York Times Portfolio Review, showed up about 8-10 times and she took shots of the youths in their cells. “Mostly all the people in the detention center are people of color and we wanted to show the greater white Madison community the racial disparities and the environment that they were living in,” Sowards says.
The "Captured" photos were so powerful that the idea of a gallery exhibit came out of it. Last night's opening night event was made possible by a partnership of GSAFE, Justified Art, and Arts + Literature Laboratory Gallery and it featured not only the beautiful photography but audio of the young people telling their stories about how they feel about being in the detention center.
“The young people talk about how it affects them emotionally on a daily basis living in a prison,” Sowards says. “Even though sometimes it can be as short as a couple days, the longest, I believe, is 90 days.”
The exhibit will be up for over a month from Dec. 10-Jan. 15. Sowards says there will be other events planned at the space including a poetry reading and a panel discussion organized by Young Gifted Black (YGB)’s T. Banks around incarceration.