Taro Yamasaki quit journalism school in 1968 to go to New York and become a photojournalist; he thought he’d become successful very quickly. Although he did do some documentary photography, for the next nine years his resume also included working in a childcare center, assisting a fashion photographer, sorting snapshots at a retail store, driving a taxi, working in construction and doing carpentry.
Finally, in 1977, he landed a job at the Detroit Free Press as a photographer.
As low man on the totem pole, he found himself shooting home interiors and food. Then the Free Press changed executive editors, and Yamasaki got the chance to do something new. He said he wanted to go inside Jackson State Prison, which, with 5,700 inmates, had for decades been the world’s largest walled prison.
Over seven days in November 1980, the Free Press ran 52 of Yamasaki’s remarkable photographs, which would later win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. They managed to reveal not just the power (and weakness) of the state, but “the power of the inmates in the prison over the other prisoners,” Yamasaki says. “That’s an extremely important part of it.”
Yamasaki went on to chronicle a number of other prisons — and famous prisoners like Leonard Peltier. Now 70, he recently has been involved in a project to photograph surviving family members of undocumented workers who died in the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center (a building his father designed), in an effort to help them gain legal residence in the U.S.
He spoke with me about his Pulitzer Prize-winning project, and we did an unusual annotation: of images, not words. The answers have been edited for length and flow.
How did you decide you wanted to do this story?
I wanted to be a real photojournalist. I was working at the Free Press pretty much illustrating writers’ stories. A new executive editor came in, David Lawrence. David really cared that people were doing the job they wanted to be doing. He actually went to every department and spoke to all of us and asked, “Are you feeling fulfilled by your job?”
What I said to him was I really wasn’t. What he said was, “Well, pick a story and tell me about it, and I’ll tell you if I want you to do it.” The first story I picked was going inside Jackson prison and showing what life inside there was like.
This was getting towards the fall of 1980, and that summer there was a lot of violence in Jackson and guys were stabbed. The prison writer wrote a story saying that the police were rounding up gangs in Pontiac and Detroit and the young gang guys were going into prison and terrorizing all the old guys. That’s pretty much the story the warden and the assistant warden gave this reporter.
This was not what I had heard about prison, that the young guys were terrorizing the old guys, because it’s always the other way around. You go into a prison and you’re called a fish, because of the way you wiggle around and look nervous. Guys will start challenging you immediately. They’re usually the guys who’ve been there awhile and gotten power by intimidation, really.
How interested were you in the power structures there?
It’s all about power in a prison. Especially when the funds are low, and the funds were low in Michigan prisons, there’s not a lot of rule of law. The guards, I hate saying this, but the guards are trying to keep an outward level of calm, but basically they don’t want anybody to escape. And it seemed to me at least that there was very little being done to protect the inmates and not a whole lot to protect the guards. There are very few guards that were enforcing the rules that I saw, because of the consequences when they tried to enforce the rules. And the consequences are, there would be active attempts to eliminate the guards who tried to enforce the rules.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue.
By Taro Yamasaki
Published in November 1980 in the Detroit Free Press (plus an unpublished one)Do you remember how you felt about actually going inside? I remember seeing a Robert Redford film about prison [“Brubaker”] a couple of days before I was actually going to go inside. I watched that thing and I thought, “I must be insane. I can’t believe I said I was going to do this.” Then I started getting really nervous. Jackson, of all the prisons I’ve been in, and I’ve been in a whole bunch of them since then, because after I did the Jackson story, people gave me prison stories to do. There was nothing like Jackson, ever. What was your motivation as a storyteller? I wanted to tell the story of what it’s like to live in Jackson prison. I was looking for extreme prison overcrowding, the issue that got me into the prison in the first place. But I was more interested in the danger of the place, and of course the overcrowding enhanced the danger greatly. The prison was supposedly very crowded, and there was a proposal on the November ballot for more funding because of overcrowding. Where I was, I saw one guy in a cell and I saw empty cells. So I can’t say that this prison is dangerous because it’s overcrowded. The prison is dangerous because it’s a prison. What I saw, guys are getting ready for combat every single morning when they walk out of their cell. They have to get themselves in a mindset of “I’m not going to let anybody push me; I’m going to be either the aggressor or somebody that everybody knows if you try to push me, you’ll pay the consequences.” That’s a pretty tough mindset to start every day with. On that first day, did you bring with you your camera and notepads, or just say, I want to get the feel of the yard? I had my camera and I had my pad and I was talking to people, I was taking notes, I was writing their names and their numbers down. I wasn’t taking a whole lot of photographs. Very often you don’t have the time to get the feel of the place — you just have to start photographing. But I felt like I had the time. They said, “You can be in here as long as you want to be in here.” I wasn’t madly photographing, no. I was trying to talk to people and trying to let people know what I was doing in there. The prisoners were pretty surprised. They were not used to seeing a journalist walking around inside the walls. If you were going to talk to a journalist, you’d get taken to a holding cell somewhere inside the administration building. You’re not walking around inside the yard. People were very interested in what I was doing. Especially since I had a camera they could take. It turned out the guards really wanted me to show how dangerous it was in there, as did the inmates. Very soon, guys started pulling up their shirts when they saw me and they would say, “Got my armor on.” They had a book or a thick magazine tucked in the front of their pants, and a book or magazine tucked in the back of their pants. That would stop a lot of the weapons that were in there. It’s pretty interesting when everybody is walking around with “armor” on. On that first day of the series in the Free Press, they showed that dramatic photo of the guys holding weapons. Your lede in the text is a prisoner worried that he was going to get frisked and they would find his knife. What happened was I was in there for a couple days walking around, and guys were talking to me. I was hearing some interesting stories. Inside the prison there were all these different groups stuffed together for protection, the white bikers would hang out together, the Black Muslims would hang out together, the Native Americans would hang out together, and you mess with one, you mess with all of them. The white bikers were at the very bottom of the pecking order, the Native Americans were at the very top. And then the Black Muslims. There were guys who were very well-dressed, very dignified-looking black guys, who would be standing outside a door, two of ’em, and each of them had a folded newspaper under their arm, and they were just standing there, and nobody was going into the door. A guard told me, ‘There’s a knife in both those newspapers.” The guards knew it, everybody knew it. Everyone wants me to show it’s dangerous, but nobody is showing me anything. There is an ominous feeling in that place everywhere you go, but nobody is showing me a weapon because there’s a guard right there. So I’m in the prison for a couple days and nobody’s showing things, and I know it’s all there. So I told the guard I was with: “If you want me to show how dangerous it is in here, you have to let me walk around by myself. The only way I’m going to be able to photograph anything dangerous is if there’s not a guard with me.” This guard, I can’t remember which one it was, said: “We can’t do that. If anything happens to you, and it will, we’ll all get fired.” And I said, “Well, you gotta make up your mind and talk to the other guys that are escorting me. If you want me to show your job, $9 an hour, $10 an hour, the most dangerous job I’ve ever even thought about, you gotta let me be in here by myself.” The next day the guard that met me at the front gate and escorted me in said: “We’ve decided you can be in here by yourself, and we hope that nothing happens. We will escort you inside the walls and you’re on your own until final lockup.” I said, “Great.” They let me in, I walked out in the yard; there’s an area called Hollywood where guys are playing cards, most of it’s illegal because you’re not supposed to gamble, and on this particular table there is prison scrip. But there’s also money around on different tables. So I’m talking to these guys playing poker, and they say, “The other day, this group tried to rob our table.” And I said, “What’d you do?” And they pulled out these rasps and put ’em on the table. That was the first encounter I had without a guard, and that was like at the very beginning of the day, and of course I would photograph that and also of course I didn’t photograph their faces. I was real careful if somebody was going to show me a knife I was not in any way have it so that guy was identifiable with a tattoo or whatever. [I took a photo of] a guy with a knife on his bunk inside his cell. He was willing to show me his knife, and that happened real fast. Later, when I looked at [the photo], I said, “Oh my God, he has his ring on, he has his bracelet on.” After that I started asking people who were holding things to take off rings or bracelets. At that point, the Free Press was just going to color. It was decided this was a black-and-white story. That’s what I thought it was, a black-and-white story, and the editors agreed with me. But they said, “Just take some color; we want to see what color looks like.” So I took three or four rolls of color. All the knife pictures were in black and white. The colors make for interesting photographs. They see all these weapon pictures in black and white, and they say, “Can you go back in there and get the knife pictures in color?” And I say, ‘I gotta think about that for a while.’ When I left [the prison the first time], I said, “I’m never going to break the law, I am never going to do anything that could get me into a place like this. I never want to go back again.” I mean, those five or six days, I can’t remember how many days I was in there that first time, there was, like, incredible stress that I felt while I was trying to look incredibly relaxed and cool. Every night, I would leave, the final lockdown I think was at 8 or 9, and then I would go right next door to the Viking motel, this rat hole of a motel a lot of inmates’ families would stay in when they came to visit. I don’t know what was more depressing, the motel or the prison. When I left, I said, “Phew, never again.” When the editors said, “Can you go back and get the pictures in color?” I didn’t want to do it. But I wanted the story to get out and I wanted the editors to give it the play it deserved. And I thought, “It’s only going to get that if I do it in color. They’re going to say, ‘OK, this is the first major series in color for the Free Press.’” So I said, “OK, I’ll go back,” and I called up the warden and said I would really like to come back for another week. He said “OK, same deal,” and the same guards were supposed to be escorting me. And they escorted me in and then they left me alone. It was pretty amazing. That place is amazing. The first day I was in there I was in a cell block, the top tier, as far away from the officers as possible. The warden said I could go into any cell, talk to anybody, there are no restrictions. I wanted to go into this guy’s cell, and the guard said, “Oh crap, I don’t have my keys with me.” And then he looked in the cell and he said to the guy in there, “You got your key on you?” I’m thinking, “What?” And the guy says, “You going to write a ticket on me?” and the guard said, “Nah.” So he said, “Yeah, I got my key.” So he takes out like a pop-can top. It was like slipping a credit card in a cheap lock and you open up the door. That’s what he did with this cell. In this cell block, over half the locks were broken. When the final lockdown comes, there’s a master lock and you can’t get out of the cells by slipping in something flat. But all day long they could. All day long somebody could get in their cell, too. If they were in there and somebody wanted to get in at ’em, they could get in at ’em. You have several photos of people in their cells. Was it difficult to get inmates to let you photograph their cells? I was the most popular guy at that prison for the 10 or so days I was in there. A lot of guys wanted to talk to me, wanted me to photograph them. A lot of guys wanted me to come into their cells. I didn’t have time to go into everybody’s cell or talk to everybody. I don’t remember anybody turning me down. There were guys that I didn’t approach. Because you were concerned about them? There’s 5,700 guys in that prison. Just the logistics, I’m not going to reach most of the guys. In hindsight, I really should have tried to get the guys who were neatly dressed with a folded newspaper under their arms. But I just didn’t get around to it. I don’t remember anybody turning me down. Even this guy Joseph Hawley, who pulled up his shirt to show you the scars from his attack? Joseph Hawley, he was in one of the most notorious Detroit motorcycle gangs. He and a couple of his brothers raped a woman and threw her down onto the John Lodge Expressway, killing her. That’s why he’s in there. He totally openly talked to me, he showed me his scars, he told me his story. Did he just pull up his shirt or did you talk for a while? We talked for a while and we were talking about how dangerous it was in there, and then he showed me. He explained the circumstances; he told me he wasn’t expecting trouble and his knife was in his grocery bag instead of on him. That was his idea to show me that. I didn’t ask him to pull up his shirt. You were working in analog. Did you know what you had at the end of the day or week, or did you have to wait to get it developed? I was shooting negative, and negative is much more forgiving than chrome transparencies, slides. Shooting black-and-white negative or shooting color negative, I pretty much knew what I had. I could’ve really screwed up the exposure and still got a usable image. There were times, though, where it was pretty dark and back then I was not pushing the film very far. Like 400 ISO negative film I was pushing it maybe to 800, one stop, same thing with the triads, one stop. In digital I routinely go way higher. I don’t want to add much. I wanted to photograph a place the way you see it, and when you add light you’re just changing everything. Taro, on your site you have 24 photos. Are these all the photos that ran? Not all these pictures ran. They’re the ones I wanted to run. For instance, on page one [of Taro’s website], the first picture is a guard looking out of a slot in a steel wall in a gun turret above five block. It was like a nest up in the corner of the cell block looking down the cell. I was up there talking to this guard, and there was a very scratched-up piece of Plexiglas in that slot–I think there were two slots. I wanted to take them off and photograph. I said, “I don’t know how you watch what’s going on in the cell block with this Plexiglas in front of the hole.” And this guard said, “If we don’t have that there, they’ll shoot us with a sling shot. There’s another guard that was almost killed getting hit in the head with a half-inch ball from a slingshot.” So I’m thinking, “Great — if I take pictures, am I going to get hit in the head with a stainless steel ball?” I’m looking out that slot and the next three pictures, I’m watching two things. I’m watching this obviously huge, strong guy with tattooed arms just hanging out of the cell, his arms just resting on the bars. I’m also watching the guy serving meals to the guys inside the punishment block cells. They’re in there 23 hours a day as punishment, for at least three months, maybe six months. I’m watching this guy in there delivering meals, and when he gets to the cell with the big arms, tattooed arms, the guy inside the cell stops him. And he motions for the guy to come over to the cell. The guy serving the meals, or maybe in this instance he’s serving coffee, walks over to the cell and the guy inside the cell grabs him by the mustache. And he’s just standing there, talking to him, pulling on his mustache. And that’s exactly the kind of intimidation a number of guys described to me, if I let this guy even touch my arm I’m going to be his slave. That inmate, if he took [the tattooed guy’s] arm and just rammed it back across the bars he could’ve broken his arm. But he didn’t do anything, even though he knew the guy was in the hole and not able to get at him for at least some period of time. He just knew he better not do anything because he didn’t have the power. Even though the guy could not get out at that time to get him. Don’t let me forget to tell you how I realized why I didn’t get killed in there. At the very end of my stay, I was in a guy’s cell talking to him; I talked to him a lot. I was admiring the pictures on his wall, because he drew very well. He did these real powerful prison pictures in charcoal. I wrote about that part. I was praising his artwork, and he said, “You think just because I’m in here I have no talent?” That was part of the conversation. “Besides that, we all know you’re into the arts.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “We all know you’re a master martial artist.” And I said, “Nah, I’m not.” And all he said was, “Sure.” I realized they thought I was a martial artist and they weren’t going to mess with me. I thought, “I guess I don’t want to get rid of all stereotyping in my life. Some stereotyping is OK.”