IOP Tehachapi: Inside Out’s First Photobooth in a Prison

April 2022 marked the Inside Out team’s first-ever Photobooth in a prison. Following the Activation, the participants shared how participating in a collaborative art project left a profound impact on their community.

The Inside Out Team

On a crisp Wednesday morning, the Inside Out Photobooth truck rolled through the gates of the California Correctional Institution of Tehachapi and parked in Facility C’s yard. Often referred to as “Tehachapi,” the Institution is a maximum-security prison located in the desert, two hours outside of Los Angeles. Many of the people incarcerated in Tehachapi face sentences ranging from decades to life with no chance of parole. Their contact with the outside world is extremely limited, and yet the faces of hundreds of the men imprisoned there have been seen across the globe after participating in JR’s collaborative art projects.

Tehachapi, The Yard, 2019

In 2019, JR and his team visited Tehachapi for the first time and created a monumental mural with the help of twenty-eight incarcerated men. The participants were housed in Facility B, which meant they were in super-maximum security – one of the most secure levels of custody – and had few opportunities for programming. Those invited to participate in the project were part of a select group who, for months prior to the project, had shown they were actively working to turn their lives around. 

JR photographed each participant individually and gave them a chance to share their story in front of a camera. He also took photos of prison staff and formerly incarcerated men, collecting a total of forty-eight portraits and recordings. Two weeks later, JR and his team returned with 338 strips of paper. The incarcerated men worked alongside prison guards as one team to paste the installation in the Facility B yard.

JR originally visited Tehachapi with the intention to create one mural. Moved by the connections he had made and the community fostered, he and his team decided to return for a second installation four months later.

In the years that followed these two installations, the powerful effect that participating in this collaborative art project had left on the men became even clearer. Due to the positive behavior, initiative, and leadership exhibited by many of the participants, a number of them moved down a level of security to Facility C, where they had access to more resources, education, and programming, overall improving their day-to-day life. A few were even released on parole. Recognizing the value of collaborative art within Tehachapi, both the prison staff and our team were eager to create another project that involved more of the incarcerated population.

First Tehachapi installation, The Yardfrom 2019. Photo: JR

The Photobooth

On April 6th, the men from Facility C exited their cells for breakfast and were greeted by Inside Out’s Photobooth truck in the yard. Though JR and his team knew a few of the men from the previous installation, they now had the challenge of convincing over 600 people to take their portrait. 

Initially, as they scoped out the truck on what would typically be their basketball court, the men were a little wary. One individual named Ortega said that participating in “the Photobooth was intimidating, knowing that it was going on the wall for everyone to see it.” However, once past participants like Kevin and Barrett lead by example, the men gradually began to enter the booth to strike their pose. Ortega ended up taking a portrait and shared that he made an expression “of surprise. Surprise to be participating in [the] project.”

As those on the sidelines saw the smiling and humorous faces of their peers print out as large posters, more and more men stepped into line. A participant, H. Uquiza, said that he found the Photobooth “scary,” but he was encouraged to take his portrait by his friend and the knowledge that “[his] face will help others to see that there [are] good people in prison.” He “wanted to make others have faith and hope.”

A guard and some men who participated in the original mural helped run the booth; they registered participants and explained the process. As the posters came out, they caught and rolled each portrait to prepare for the pasting. One participant named C.J. Woods described that “seeing the staff willingly participate with joy in their hearts'' was mind-blowing; “[he] couldn’t believe his eyes.” Over twenty-five years of being incarcerated, he had never seen such a sight. 

Another participant, Hector Diaz, shared that the highlight of his experience was “helping out with the ‘polaroid on wheels.’” He explained, “In doing so, I got the opportunity to interact with a [Correctional Officer] and came to the realization that in spite of all our differences, we have much more in common. We are all human regardless of whatever color our uniform may happen to be!”

In the end, with 425 portraits printed, the vast majority of Facility C and a number of guards participated in this historic Action. Numerous participants remarked on the many happy expressions they saw in their peers’ portraits. Albert Burkley said, “[I was] surprised …that every inmate had a smile on their faces and that they were enjoying each other. It reminded me of being with my family.”

Participants and guards operating the Photobooth. Photo: Lindsay Bribiescas

The Pasting

The pasting allowed for more men to get involved in the Action and take ownership of the installation. A participant from the first mural, named David Hampton, helped the Inside Out team prepare for the pasting by leveling the ground around the yard to ensure that the scaffolding would be secure. Once the posters were printed, David showed his pasting method to those who were new to the process; together, they mixed glue, aligned the posters, and brushed each portrait into place. The result was a transformed prison yard. What used to be gray concrete was now filled with hundreds of smiling faces.

In reflecting on his experience at the Photobooth, David shared, “It changed me by bringing out something I didn’t know I had inside. I am a leader.” David was not the only one who was profoundly impacted by the installation. After the Action, our team followed up with the participants to hear their reflections on participating in the Inside Out Project. Barrett Fadden said that the Action gave him “a sense of value and self-worth.” When asked about his highlight of the project, he said,  “[it was] pasting my picture on the housing unit wall. Every time I look at it, I smile, and I walk past it every day, so it keeps giving me joy every day.” 

Other participants also spoke of their portraits functioning as positive forces in their lives following the pasting. Beto Salgado said that every time he sees his poster, “[he] personally feels that [he] matters and that behind that face, there's a family, love, trauma, understanding, and a willingness to be better.” Gustavo Olmedo said, “every time I see [my portrait] to this day, it reminds me that when I change my thoughts and decisions towards positive actions there are rewards such as this yard.” Ricardo Gutierrez described how helping bring the Action to life “changed [his] way of thinking” and “helped [him] remember that [he] can still have a purpose. Daniel Valenzuela said, “[it] made me feel human again… [It showed me] that there is more than just the fences and concrete buildings that house us. [It] gave me a reason to fight for my freedom.”

For a participant named Ortega, he realized that he has agency in creating change within the prison; in reflecting, he said, “we don’t have to wait for something big or tragic to bring us together.”

Participants pasting portraits. Photo: Lindsay Bribiescas

Art as an Intervention & Agent of Change

In their reflections, many participants spoke on how the process of creating art together changed the dynamic between the incarcerated men housed in the Facility. The participants described prison as a “place full of negative energy” that was “very mechanical.” It is a place where groups are divided upon race and violent altercations are common. However, as participant Gustavo Olmedo described, during the Action, “all races were working side by side.” Marcus Brutus, another participant, echoed this sentiment, sharing, “never have I seen in the past 21 years of my stay such a willingness to help out one another, no matter what race you are.”

Multiple participants emphasized that in prison it is “safer” to keep to oneself and that “trust doesn't come easy.” However, by conversing and laughing with the people around him, Daniel Valenzuela, like many other participants, started to see his peers in a new light: “I learned that the crimes and all those tattoos that they have don’t define them, but they only show that they have a past and though not nice, they have changed.” The Action created such an open and communal environment that Marcus even felt comfortable enough to lie down outside for the first time in 21 years.

Not only did the participants become more open-minded about each other by participating in the Action, but they also created lasting friendships. Jon Weldon said, “I began to step out in faith, boldness, and courage and bridge[d] the gaps that typically separate us all here in person. I began to embrace and befriend others, looking towards building relationships.” Ruby Montoya remarked, “I [was] surprised to find the many hard-working and genuine guys in my environment… Thanks to this experience my social circle has grown and my daily experiences are enriched because of it.” While the Action only took place during the day, the process of creating art formed bridges between participants that outlive the paper portraits on the wall. 

An impromptu ballet class during a pasting break. Photo: Lindsay Bribiescas

Dignity through Visibility 

The majority of prisons in the United States are located in rural areas, far from the urban places where most of the incarcerated population used to live. Tehachapi itself is in the desert, an hour's driving distance from the closest city. As one participant named Amaya Tomas said, “life in prison has always been ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” By bringing the Photobooth inside the prison and publicizing the Action, the incarcerated men were able to be seen and connect with the outside world. 

Many participants shared that participating in the Inside Out Project made them feel less “forgotten.” One participant named Sauza observed, “[The Action] changed the way I think that people out there don’t care about us.” 

When introducing themselves, JR and the Inside Out team made sure to shake each person’s hand and look them in the eyes. Multiple participants noted this act in their reflections on the Action, describing that it “restored lost humanity.” As participant Omar Lopez-Palencia stated, “There is so much power in treating another human being with dignity and respect.” 

By taking portraits and pasting them on the walls of the prison, the people incarcerated in Tehachapi had the opportunity to tell their own stories. One participant explained, “I came out of my comfort zone to participate in this Photobooth Action so people everywhere can see that I look like any other human and I am alive, I also deserve to be seen as a person and not just an inmate.” Sauza explained how he thought the Action “changed the perspective” on the incarcerated individuals by showing that although “a lot of [them] made mistakes, [they] are still looking for a better version of [themselves.]” A participant, Mark, shared that he was happy that the Action gave his two children the chance to “see their dad doing something positive.”

JR greeting participants. Photo: Lindsay Bribiescas

From the streets around the globe to the walls of the Tehachapi prison, Inside Out is a platform for communities to share their stories and connect with each other and the outside world. Inside Out Tehachapi “created ripples in [the Facility C] yard,” a participant named Gustavo Olmedo said. In fact, it not only created ripples within Tehachapi, but also reached people outside of the prison. It allowed the incarcerated individuals who participated in the Action to share their own narrative.  

It is always the participants’ role to determine what they want their Action to express, and a participant named Ricardo Gutierrez summarized what he hoped to communicate with his portrait: “Through this project, we hope we gave back a positive message to all struggling communities. If we men who are frowned upon and looked at by a big part of society as unworthy can still be of service, unite in positivity, and work together to help out our little inner community, then communities out there have a lot of hope.” Collaborative art fosters community between seemingly disparate groups, such as the incarcerated population at Tehachapi, the prison staff, or an artist’s studio. It creates a space for connection and communication. Art can spark change and create ripples that expand far beyond the lives of those who directly participate. In the years to come, we will see how Inside Out Tehachapi continues to build beyond the walls of the Facility C yard.

Installation in the Facility C Yard. Photo: IOP Team.