Juvenile Trackers are individuals charged with monitoring and providing aid to youth convicted of a crime or placed on probation. A holistic alternative to incarceration in youth detention centers, tracking involves a slew of therapeutic services that focus on the development of a relationship with the juvenile, working to build them up emotionally and spiritually rather than locking them up until they’ve learned their lesson. Artist Zora J Murff’s Corrections is a photographic exploration into the tracker-youth relationship, currently on view at Filter Space, as part of their annual Filter Photo Festival.
Between 2012 and 2015, Murff worked as a Tracker for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Originally studying psychology before starting a degree in photography, working as a Tracker was meant as a stand-alone position to provide therapeutic services not as a means to create a photographic body of work.
“When I started as a Tracker, I always thought that it would be interesting to make photographs about the kids I was working with, but I didn’t think it would be possible,” Murff tells The Creators Project. “When I reached my advanced coursework in photography, I was required to work on one body of work over the semester. I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to face this challenge, and I began working on Corrections.”
The artist faced a fair amount of challenges and had certain regulations imposed on him due to the highly political and institutional nature of the project. He says, “Being that kids in the system have protected status and that I was an employee of the system, before I started the project I had to ask permission to begin. My supervisor gave me unfettered access, but told me that I couldn’t show any of the kids’ faces since their identities are not released to the public.”
Murff transformed this aesthetic limitation to a powerful tool to explore identity politics. “When photographing ‘Kevin’ (pseudonym), he reached up to scratch the back of his neck, and his arm obscured his face in the most beautiful way. This photograph became a golden standard of sorts; I wanted all of my portraits to accomplish what this one did,” says Murff. “Obscuring the face became yet another way for the system to erase identity, and I was interested in keeping a level of humanity intact in the portraits I made.”
Beyond the more candid portraiture, the artist also included a series of mugshot portraits in Corrections. Blurred to the point of near anonymity, these images are poetic representations of how institutionalization forcibly removes individual identity by amassing offenders into a singular and heavily disdained mass. Murff says, “For me, these images represent the lines that we draw in society between kid and adult, citizen and criminal. When we see a mugshot we know that we are no longer looking at a person, we are looking at someone we should consider ‘less than’.”