The following was written by PEP’s photographer: Israel Thompson (a.k.a. “Shutterbug”). You can see his work here.
While shooting at the Estes Unit event at PEP the other day I got ambushed with a microphone that was thrown into my hand. Jeremy, thank you for the heartwarming words about not being a staff member, but saying that I “should be”. I’ve never pre-rehearsed or planned a speech for the occasion, perhaps I should have, but the words I envisioned coming out if the opportunity ever presented itself didn’t quite bubble to the top. Instead, my response to the question “Why do you keep coming back to PEP?” came out rather short and lame. Obviously not a public speaker, I muttered something about being inspired and quickly handed the microphone back.
That being said, albeit a bit late and without an audience of peers and microphone, I’d like to somewhat retroactively rectify the situation.
For me, my experience with Prison Entrepreneurship Program started in May of 2012 through a friend and fellow co-worker when I received word they were in need of an event photographer. After a meeting with the COO of the organization, Phi Tran, and a bit of back and forth finalizing details, the relationship took root and I commenced with Class 17.
My initial impression upon entering the prison was nothing at all as anticipated. Where I expected to be face-to-face with disgruntled prisoners playing the stereotypical Hollywood portrayed “acting hard” role, mad dogging me and giving me the ole intimidating stink eye, I was surprised to be met with quite the opposite. I was rushed into a room they call the “PEP Room” and went straight to work with my camera. The room was bubbling with festivity! The atmosphere in this place was overwhelmingly excited! Everyone had smiles! Everyone greeted you and wanted to shake your hand! Everyone offered to help, if needed. The vibes being received all seemed to convey a resounding message, “YESS!!”. Music pumped loudly and the guys were all crowded around in a circle, apparently having an improvised dance party while waiting for what they call “Executives” to arrive. As I briefly surveyed the scenery from outside the circle, I noticed they all had decorative stuffed animal-oriented hats on. I guessed perhaps to lighten the mood and draw smiles. Which worked! Hurriedly though, I surveyed no longer and made my way to the middle of the circle to catch the action. These guys were having an excellent time! Some, with extraordinary dance skills whisked around on the carpet pulling off break dance moves I wouldn’t have thought possible, while others with lesser skill got out and a danced too without a care in the world. I was dumfounded. And I grinned from ear-to-ear while being privileged to be a part of it.
Don’t get me wrong — this was indeed a prison, and for all I knew I was rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder and bumping elbows with murderers, hardened criminals, people that society had given up on, and most probably at one time or another (or even now??), even had nothing to lose between the walls they found themselves trapped within. But… The comfortable feeling that came over me… It was instantaneous. It was as if a spirit of joy flowed all about. And I know I’m a guy. And it’s different for a guy as opposed to a lady, but I never once felt strange, awkward, or threatened. To me, just that alone was amazing! Profound! And to me it showed right there, in sneak peek fashion, just what this program is able to do.
Fast forward to today.
I’ve been with PEP for over 2 years. I’ve photographed numerous events, both in and out of prison. From Class Kickoffs to Graduations and a few events in-between here and there, I’ve had had my fair share of variation. And I’d like to share with you what I see from a photographer’s perspective. NOTE: much of this is directed towards the participants when addressing “you” in the words following.
First, I wasn’t lying at all when I muttered I was inspired. I truly am. When I leave each event, I’m filled with inspiration as I drive home. It’s as if I have a rejuvenated renewed vigor and you guys — and all the people participating — have inspired me to do better for myself. Likened to an electric charge, my batteries have been filled!
When I’m photographing, I am there to work, so I cannot participate in the festivities like everyone else. I cannot sit and listen to each participant pitching their business plan. I cannot listen to each and every speaker with undivided attention. And for that matter, I barely even have time to clap. Because alas, clapping and happy candid faces are something that need photographed! So… What I take in — not by choice, but by trade — I take in sparingly, almost from an outsider’s point of view. Trust me when I say, however, what I’m able to retain or soak up, is not at all diluted.
When I see each and every one of you guys get up in front of a packed crowd in the lunch room (or PEP room) and tell your story bearing your soul, I have the greatest respect for what it is you are doing right there in that moment. And that respect carries over permanently because you have given me a window into your soul. When you’ve taken the time, with a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes, to share with everyone where you’ve come from and what matters to you, you’ve shown me your true character, the real you that’s deep down inside without worry of what others may think, I admire that thoroughly. It makes me examine myself, remember some of the things I’ve been through, the hardships, the ups, the downs, and that it’s not only that it’s not where I’ve been but where I’m headed that matters, but some of those past experiences have given me immeasurable understanding and wisdom — things I need not forget. Needless to say, you trigger deep thoughts within.
With many of these business plan pitches I hear I may look like I’m in the zone with a face of concentration as I’m moving about, squatting, photographing, crouching and moving from side to side, but my interest is incredibly peaked. I want to listen to every detail, from beginning to end. I sometimes pause what I’m doing just to hear a little bit more before moving onto my next task. I’m amazed at how you all memorize 10-15 minutes worth of words and recite it without pause. When a business plan ends. I want to clap like everyone else. And sometimes, I’m even thinking to myself “Ohh ohh! I have a great idea that would probably help him with his presentation!” And some of those times when the possibility arises, with an enthralled demeanor, I gladly share those thoughts.The stark reality of these plans for me is, though, I am not a public speaker. So, it’s hard for me to fathom the hundreds upon hundreds of times you guys have to get up in front of everyone and recite. Major kudos to you there. What’s nearly equally remarkable is how all of your class brethren sit watching your pitch attentively, with a face of utmost interest. The support that is shown is intriguing. And again, I am inspired.
What I observe with each class from beginning to end is miraculous. I see a fresh new group of people uncertain of what’s to come. “Investigators”, as you were referred to recently. Many of which haven’t quite given yourselves to the program. Testing the waters, if you will. Some of you won’t make it to graduation, but most of you will. The spirit of remaining steadfast, diligent, without giving up is instilled over and over and made a topic of utmost importance. With all the encouraging words floating around, I find myself speaking words of encouragement in passing and truly hoping each and everyone one you make it, as well. It’s as if something in the air is rubbing off on me and I’m part of your family sitting in the stands at your high school football game. I’m jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs, cheering you on. Rain or shine, sleet or hail, doesn’t matter whether you you’re the star of the game, make a big play or just get out onto the field and play, I’m there… cheering.
Coming back to photograph you guys at graduation is like night and day. This is when the faces are no longer new, but all are familiar. Those lone stragglers from Kickoff that wouldn’t smile for headshots, the ones that acted like they couldn’t let their guard down, that still had something to prove… that’s almost all gone now. Everyone is smiling uncontrollably. Your hard work has paid off. It’s great to see each and every one of you again. It truly is. And I am astounded at how you’ve grown in leaps and bounds in the process. It’s not everyday you see someone completely change their lives around for the better. It’s mind-blowing to be a part of — and moving in so many ways. I mean, because, if “this guy” can do all of this, then I can too! These things I’ve been putting off. Things I’ve been pro-crastinating getting done? Why should I sit by idle and slacking in these areas of my life, giving myself all these excuses when guys like this aren’t? They are giving it their all, why shouldn’t I?
In regards to graduation day, a quick fact: something I’ve witnessed that rings true every time, the ones that look like they are trying hardest not to smile, like they have something to prove or cannot let their guard down, those are the ones that cry the hardest when it comes time to walk down the isle. Why is this, I ask? Something to ponder.
Graduation isn’t the end. For many of you, the true test is being servant leaders. Others, it’s actually getting out and being exposed to the outside world. This is when familiar faces become a great sight to see. On the inside, Servant Leaders, I shake your hands the longest and converse with you the most. It seems as if we’ve seen each other enough times there’s somewhat of a bond between us. I’m enamored by what you do for each upcoming Class. It’s a true display of stewardship. For those inside and those that have made it out, seeing your act of sacrifice and continuation in the program motivates me more than you know. How your lives have been changed and continue to grow… it increases the yearning in me to give something back in life… exponentially.
Thank you for that. And, if that wasn’t enough of an answer to “Why I keep coming back to PEP?”
Well, besides being paid. And besides being inspired exponentially. Hearing people like Al Massey, Bert Smith, Jeremy Gregg and all the other PEP staff get up and speak definitely adds icing to the cake. When I hear Al Massey speak, I think to myself, “This guy knows all the right words to say for every given situation!” I mean, sometimes I wonder where he comes up with the stuff he says?! Seriously! Is it that he’s lead by The Spirit and speaks fully improvised? Or are all his words carefully calculated, thought out and rehearsed in advance? It’s one of those mystical questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “Do unicorns really exist?” Al Massey, your speeches alone would make one want to come back. No lies.
As for Bert, every time I see or hear Bert speak, an endearing spirit of love radiates from him. It’s captivating. I get a genuine sense he sincerely and unabashedly cares for each and every one of those in the program, let alone the staff and executives. This is the type of quality that’s remarkable to see in the CEO of the company. And it’s the type of trait that draws you in, makes you want to come back and see more. It’s an attraction.
All that being said, being the photographer for PEP has become quite a bit of an honor. I enjoy capturing your smiles, your laughs, your tears, hugs, handshakes, memorable moments, family portraits and everything else I can aim my lens at while there. When I sit for hours upon hours wading through thousands of photos from your events, I sit with a smile on my face. And I take pleasure in every minute of it.
But… the real reason I keep coming back to PEP is… THE COOKIES! Keep giving me cookies and I am yours forever.