Der Tag beginnt früh in Paisley, Oregon. Um 6:30 Uhr stehen die Männer auf, ziehen sich ihre gelben Hemden an, auf denen „INMATE“ steht – Häftling. Viel Zeit für Kaffee und einen Plausch bleibt nicht. Sie müssen noch ihre Werkzeuge prüfen und die Taschen packen, bevor es los geht in die verbrannten Waldgebiete von Paisley. Zehn Mann bilden im Wald immer eine Reihe. Gesucht wird nach schwelenden Gluten, die in den Wäldern wieder Feuer entfachen könnten. Den ganzen Tag ist man draußen, in verbrannten, heißen Gebieten, auf unwegsamem Gelände.
Seit nun sieben Jahren gibt es das Programm für inhaftierte Verbrecher. Ziel ist es, die Häftlinge zu resozialisieren, indem man ihnen eine Tätigkeit für das Allgemeinwohl gibt.
Viele von ihnen waren Gewaltverbrecher. Bewaffneter Raubüberfall und Körperverletzung waren die gängigen Delikte. Wenn man die Beteiligten fragt, sagen viele, sie hätten es wegen des Adrenalins gemacht. Dieser Drang hat sie ins Gefängnis gebracht. Heute sagen alle, sie sind froh, einen legalen Weg zu haben, diesen Rausch nach Adrenalin in den Wäldern zu finden. „Es gibt uns neue Möglichkeiten, anstatt zu dem zurückzukehren, was man eh schon kennt. Gangs, Waffen, Gewalt und Drogen“, sagt Eddie Correia, 36, Teilnehmer des Programms, der drei seiner sechs Jahre Strafe wegen Körperverletzung schon abgesessen hat. Er macht schon seit 2018 bei dem Programm mit und möchte sich auch nach seiner abgesessenen Haftstrafe für die Bekämpfung von Waldbränden einsetzen.
First of all, we’d be interested to know what you experienced during the photo shoot?
For me, the most memorable assignments are the ones where you meet really interesting people and take part in great conversation. I met a highly experienced wildland firefighter, the crew boss, who was guiding the inmates on how to ‘mop up’ or clear an area of smouldering fire. I got to meet and connect with three exceptional correctional officers assigned to the inmates. I spent time having intriguing conversation with 10 adults in custody who were learning how to be firefighters. I watched these men from different backgrounds come together and find a sense of accomplishment while working extremely hard for the betterment of community and nature. In the midst of all that was happening, the crew and I were surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Fremont National Forest. With every step you mourned a fallen pine tree while celebrating the ones which survived. It was like hiking through a war zone, but in this case it was a living forest struck by fire.
What made you pick that particular theme? How did you get involved in the program?
In Paisley, OR, at the base of the Fremont National Forest, there was a temporary camp full of professionals who were tasked with containing the Brattain fire. These professionals included firefighters, forestry management officials, and those operating machinery. I would visit the camp on a daily basis to get latest information on the fire. At one end of the camp, I saw a sign which stated, “Inmates. Do Not Enter.” As a journalist, that caught my attention. I entered their camp area and spoke to one of the correctional officers to understand exactly what the inmates were tasked to do. I learned 10 men in custody were helping run the camp; which involved cleaning the facilities, serving and distributing food. The other 10 were being trained on how to fight fires. They all were part of a joint program between the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon Department of Corrections. After multiple calls and clearances, I got the go ahead to photograph the men in custody fighting the Brattain fire.
How would you consider the correlation between forest fires and climate change?
Although this question should be pointed at scientists and researchers, it is a fact that our planet is getting warmer. The effects are not only seen with more record breaking forest fires this year, but also with the increasing number of hurricanes and cyclones. On a personal level, I feel climate change is the biggest issue facing mankind today and all of us have a moral obligation to make this planet sustainable for future generations.
And does it need to have more initiatives like this?
Do you mean the initiatives between the department of forestry and department of corrections in Oregon where inmates learn how to be firefighters? If so, my answer is Absolutely! While speaking to the men in custody, a number of them spoke about how fighting fires fulfilled their desire for adrenaline while instilling in them a sense of purpose. The inmates felt hope for employment possibilities in the future. These types of initiatives give inmates life skills that will help them find jobs when they exit prison and be a productive part of society. We need more initiatives like these that provide hope and a future for those incarcerated.
The inmates seem to be thankful to be part of the program. Have you ever felt uncomfortable being around violent criminals?
I walk into assignments, where I have gained permission from the subjects I plan to cover intimately, with respect, dignity and curiosity. As a visual journalist for Reuters, my job is to learn, absorb and share the stories of the subjects that have entrusted me to do so. In this case, I met the firefighting crew of inmates one morning as they were waking up and preparing for the day. I introduced myself, what my goals were and made it clear that no one who did not wish to be photographed or identified would have to be in this set of images. I further connected with each individual separately to make sure they did not feel pressured and made sure I had their consent to work on this story. This gave me a chance to observe if anyone had any doubts about what I was doing. I ate breakfast and dinner with the crew and felt like I built a bond while hiking and engaging with them. During this time, I had conversations anywhere from fishing for steelhead trout to the cause behind each inmates incarceration.
The inmates seem to have a lot of space being in the woods. How can the initiators provide trust and safety there?
These men were chosen to learn how to fight fires not only because of their physical ability, but also because of good behaviour. I personally did not feel threatened in any way.
When and where were you born, where have you been educated and what are stages of your professional career?
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1973. My parents were actually living in Saudi Arabia at the time where my dad worked. In 1980, at the age of seven, my family immigrated to the U.S. and moved to Houston, Texas. I fell in love with photography from looking at photo albums of our relatives, particularly my grandparents. That led me to admire the images on the front pages of the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post newspapers. At the age of 15, I took a photojournalism class in high school and from thereon could not put the camera down. Both my high school journalism teacher Margie Comstock and photography teacher Mike Nebel had a huge influence on my career path.
Only a year later, as a junior, I covered our first high school football game which featured a nationally ranked running back. I photographed him scoring a touchdown and drove the film back to my high school darkroom to develop it and make prints. The janitors let me into the school as they already knew me from working late into evenings. I took the print I made to the Houston Chronicle newspaper building and security let me up to the sports department. The next day, my image was published in the sports page. I went on to freelancing for the Houston Chronicle and the Suburbia Reporter for the next several years. Afterwards, I freelanced for UPI, AP, interned at the Miami Herald and finally landed my dream job at the Houston Post. The Houston Post closed in 1995 and soon after I started my career with Reuters. Since, I have been based in Houston, Los Angeles, Bangkok, Islamabad and New York. I am currently based in Houston. Although I have a degree in journalism from the University of Houston, I owe my professional education to a large number of photojournalists and editors who taught and mentored me.
Do you have photographic role models?
I have had a great number of mentors and role models throughout my career. Without them I would not be where I am. Margie Comstock, Mike Nebel, Joel Draut, Dwight Andrews, Richard Carson, Jim Preston and Thomas Szlukovenyi to name a few.
Is there a work or a portfolio that inspires you?
Here are some of the photojournalists and photographers who have had a lasting influence on my work and work ethic. Carol Guzy, John White, Yunghi Kim, Yousuf Karsh, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, James Nachtwey, Michel du Cille.
Where can one find more of your photographic work?