Q&A: Zora J Murff

By Hamidah Glasgow   |   June 23, 2016

 Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. Combining his education in human services and art, Zora's photography focuses on the experiences of youth in the juvenile justice system and the role of images in the correctional system; specifically how images are used to define individuals who are deemed criminals, and what happens when these definitions are abandoned or skewed. His work has been exhibited nationally, internationally, and featured online including The British Journal of Photography and Wired Magazine's Raw File. His work has also been published in VICE Magazine, GOOD Magazine, and PDN's Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was shortlisted for the 2015 GOMMA Photography Grant, named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, was a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora published his first monograph, Corrections, through Aint-Bad Editions in the Winter of 2015. Zora is a co-curator of Strange Fire Collective with Jess T. Dugan, Hamidah Glasgow, and Rafael Soldi, and currently serves as the Secretary for the SPE Multicultural Caucus.

Hamidah Glasgow:  Tell me about your series Corrections ?

Zora J Murff: Looking back, Corrections started with me deciding to study psychology. Getting that degree led me on a career track where I was able to work for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services as a Tracker from 2012-2015. I began studying art and photography while I was employed there, and I started photographing the kids in my charge as a project for a course in advanced photography. My job as a Tracker was to monitor kids on placed on probation and released to their homes. I would do things like put on and take off electronic monitors, complete urinalyses (drug-tests), take them to complete community service, do curfew checks, and check on their progress in school. I would regularly report my contacts with kids and their families to their assigned probation officer, and that is how the court would track their progress on probation. Diversion programs, like Tracking, are being used as an alternative in concert with incarceration as research has shown that such programs show better outcomes if kids are allowed to stay in their communities rather than face time removed from their homes. The series is a mixture of anonymized portraiture, landscapes, blurred mugshots, scanned documents and studio images that look at their experience of being in the system as well as challenging the notion of how photography is used to help define how we perceive individuals tagged as criminals.

HG:  How did the project evolve over time?

ZJM: Initially, my main focus was portraiture, but after making a quite a few I knew that to move forward conceptually I would have to branch out. The juvenile justice system is a seemingly linear process: a young man or woman commits a crime, they are put into the system, sometimes they come into contact with a professional like me, and once they fulfill their requirements they leave the system. The criminal justice system is of course more convoluted, but that’s the general idea or understanding. The portraits not only signified the individual, but their contact with me as a consequence – a balance between being placed under community supervision incarceration. I turned my focus to making landscapes of the places where they committed crimes, and then to the images of the items they come into contact with on studio white. Accessing the detention facility archive to scan documents and creating the blurred mugshots were the final pieces I added to the project. All of these aspects hint at choice, identification, privacy, rehabilitation, erasure, and the ultimate line of being declared a juvenile and an adult. While I was making photographs, the concepts that define the series were always in the back of my mind, but I was more so reacting to the things I was seeing by making photographs rather than trying to find definitions for what I was doing up front. I was always doing some sort of research and reading while I was making the project, but all of that seemed to come out in the last year of making the series when it was coming to a close.

HG: We talked about disproportionate minority contact, and the so-called school to prison pipeline. I consider this one of the major issues in the USA, that an entire population is targeted and incarcerated at alarming rates. That so many people don’t have chance at a normal life. We have institutionalized racism, I recently read a theory that slavery never ended, but only evolved.

ZJM: Disproportionate Minority Contact was a problem in the juvenile court system in Linn and Johnson Counties, Iowa while I worked there, but it of course isn’t a problem specific to Linn and Johnson counties; it is a problem that plagues court systems nationwide. This data is typically searchable for every state, but since my work was made in Linn County, Iowa, I have some statistics about DMC in that location. The reports are generated by the Iowa Department of Human Rights and the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. They generated a strategic report that documents population, school enrollment and discipline, law enforcement data, juvenile court services complaints and allegations, and juvenile detention data.

The report is used to assist state and local officials with decisions on policy and practices. The report I’m referring to, which was published this month, gathered system statistics between the years 2011 and 2015. The report found that while juvenile arrest across all races declined, the arrests of African-American youth increased and arrests of White youth decreased. When it comes to incarcerating youth, detention holds have decreased as well; again there was a rise in African-American and Multi-Racial juvenile incarceration while White youth arrests declined. The statistics are pretty much the same as far as increases in punitive measures for youth of color and decreases for their White counterparts. During the reporting period, In and out-of-school suspensions for Other Youth of Color (Hispanic, Native-American, and Asian-American) increased nearly 874%, suspensions for African-American youth increased 7%, while suspensions of White youth decreased 28.1%. African-American youth comprised on average 40% of the suspensions.

The theory I believe you’re referring to comes from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, which is an interesting theory that slavery was never abolished but was shaped into American mass incarceration. I’m completely enthralled by Alexander’s writings and the connections she makes between slavery and incarceration. Time and time again in American history, we see polarization between black and white, and much of the time, it stems from economics. The above statistics definitely demarcate institutional racism that exists, and although these organizations come together for strategic planning, the statistics continue to polarize between racial lines. In my own experience, the most affected population of children – across race – were those living in conditions of poverty. I’m in no way saying that poverty is the root cause of these issues, but these seem to be the individuals who are struggling the most. Growing up impoverished and being “of color” today, like in the past, become shackles in their own right, and tagging kids as criminals definitely puts them at a further disadvantage to leading a “normal” life.

HG: Your early photographic influences were portrait photographers like Sally Mann. Can you talk about how these influences shaped your current work?

ZJM: Yes, the first “fine-art” photograph that I saw and had an experience of transcendence, I suppose, was the Sally Mann portrait Emmet, Jesse, and Virginia (1989). When I started making my own portraiture, I would always attempt to make something that could move me on that level. As I continued studying, I became hungry, almost addicted, to looking at the portraits by other artists. I looked at the works of Gordon Parks, Lorna Simpson, Dawoud Bey, Jess, and many others, people who make portraits that become an experience of confrontation – rather than voyuerism – with the individual depicted. You look the the portrait, and you keep looking. You want to know more, need to know more about the person starting back at you. Due to anonymity restrictions, I couldn’t show the face, so I had to try to do this without the convenience of eye contact. Spending so much time with most of the kids I photographed allowed me to get to know them on a pretty deep level, so I attempted to capture their essence in the photograph. There are so many stories about these individuals that I wasn’t allowed to tell, and so I had to try to inject all of these things into the portraits I was making of them.

HG:  Why choose this type of work, why not landscape or anything else?

ZJM: To be honest, the project began out of a need for time management. I was working full-time and going to school part-time, and decided to photograph the kids because I was already spending a majority of my time with them. Over time, I have come to the realization that working in the field appealed to me because it was a way for me to connect with people, and I could use photography as a way to do this as well. I of course had the opportunity to make whatever type of work I wanted to, but when I attempted to do so, I always seemed to fall short in creating something interesting and engaging. So while the project was borne out of a sort of convenience, photographing what I was involved in, what I knew, and what I was passionate about, made the most sense because my level of access and knowledge would have a higher potential of manifesting.

HG:  One of the historical problems in photography is the power dynamics inherent in the act of photographing another person or another community. You clearly have this in your mind as you photograph your subjects. I talk to many photographers that don’t have an understanding of this deep historical problem. Can you speak to this problem and what you tell your students about the power dynamics in photography?

ZJM: It’s funny that you ask this, because in my upcoming interview with Juan Madrid about his series Waiting On The Dream, we touch on this idea of the guilt that can come from (as a photographer) essentially asking people at a disadvantage to you to perform for you. This is guilt that I still struggle with to this day, and I think it will be something that I may never be able to shake. Our privilege can come from race, education, economics, gender identity, our cameras. When you are photographing communities that you are not a part of, there is an inherent power dynamic present. It know this sounds quite cheesy, but the quote from the Spiderman comics applies to what we do: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We as artists need to understand the additive value that can come from taking measures to connect with those we depict, or at the very least, acknowledge the precarious ground we stand on when making pictures of others because we could essentially be robbing them of the chance to voice their concerns themselves. In my own work, I have tried not to be a “tourist," to simply document, not connect, and leave, but I’m not sure if this was something that I have attained. This is similar to my professional experience as a human-services worker, it is tough to move on from a job, to feel like you’re abandoning those you serve. But maybe if I continue to align myself with a cause, I’m doing the right thing. I suppose it’s tough to truly know or answer. There is also the question of intent when it comes to the work you make, which is yet another issue to unpack, but maybe we should do that at another time.

In my lectures to my students, I like to use Devin Allen as an example when I cover documentary photography. I feel what makes his images so great, was that he was a part of the community that the murder of Freddie Gray affected; he thoroughly understood that community’s sorrow, that community’s anger. He understood it in a way that no reputable photojournalist could understand, and made the images to back that fact up. The subversive nature – an “amateur” documenting his community’s reaction in real time through social media – of his work reminds me of Peter Magubane and his work with Drum Magazine during Apartheid in South Africa, a time when black photographers were not allowed to publish photojournalism (I make sure to put his work in my lectures as well).

HG:  This leads me to ask about your commitment to social justice, your commitments as an artist, co-founder of Strange Fire Collective, and serving as secretary of SPE multicultural caucus?

ZJM: I once had a mentor tell me that you should pick a cause and devote yourself to it, and those words have always stuck with me. As Corrections gained notoriety, I realized how photography provided me with a unique voice, a way to be heard. So I was left with the question, “how can I use my voice to continue to try and be an additive force in the world?” I feel that I can do this by making art that questions how we perceive stigma while also aligning myself with individuals and organizations that intend to do the same. When Jess asked me to join the collective, I was pretty nervous about it, because I felt that working with you all was outside of my league – that I wasn’t going to be able to bring much to the table. But I reminded myself that rising to challenges would only allow me to grow. Connecting with other artists, with their work, and providing them a platform on which they can reach a broader audience is much like my own experience of trying to promote my own work. The people who devoted time to look at what I was doing, took a chance on me, and helped me get myself out there. I felt it was important for me to share my success and give back in some way. Much of this can also be said about accepting the post of secretary for the SPE Multicultural Caucus. Attending SPE conferences was very influential in my work, and I’ve always wanted to find ways to give back, to contribute. Joining any of the SPE caucuses, be it the Multicultural Caucus, LGBTQ Caucus, or Women’s Caucus, builds a deeper sense of community, and gives these communities a strong collective voice and presence within the organization.

HG:  Service and being additive is incredibly important to me too. Being proactive and taking a stand about societal issues is the only way to make any difference. There are so many sticky spots with this type of work. I am constantly questioning the thin line of my responsibility to speak out against social injustice and my place as an ally. What are your struggles around these issues?

ZJM: This is always a tough question, and I’m not sure what the answer may be. I do know that we need as many allies as possible, regardless of who they are. I’ve had plenty of people voice this same concern to me, because again, they may stand in a place of privilege over those they wish to align themselves with. My first semester at UNL, a White student wanted to hold a Black Lives Matter rally on campus as a part of an assignment for a Psychology of Racism course. I applaud this individual for wanting to stand in solidarity with African-American students, but what becomes problematic is that in organizing the event, African-American students were not given a seat at the table until about a week before the event took place (if memory serves me correctly). He stated that he felt the problem needed to be addressed, but I feel that his privilege had in a way blinded him. While he can learn about the struggles that many African-American students face in a predominantly White institution, he can never understand the depth of those experiences because he will never himself have to. I suppose in a roundabout way, I’m saying don’t be afraid to be an ally, but remember where you come from, remember where those you want to stand with in solidarity come from, and remember that they probably haven’t had the chance to lead the way that you have. Help them build the platform, and then step aside so they may stand on it.

HG:  Great advice, thank you. What’s next for you?

ZJM: I just finished my first year as an MFA candidate at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and I’m still exploring the idea of how the image shapes our perceptions of identities. I am currently trying to find ways to connect with my community to make the work I want to make, and recently started attending a re-entry program for incarcerated individuals. Getting to know these men and women will not only provide me the opportunity to tell their stories, but to gain an deeper understanding of the role rehabilitation plays in American incarceration.

HG: Is the incarceration system really based on rehabilitation?

ZJM: This is something I struggle with as well. I think the system claims to be based on rehabilitation, but it has shown us otherwise. In February, I held an exhibition in Iowa City, and I was able to reconnect with a family I had worked with during my time as a Tracker. They welcomed me back as if I had never left, and thanked me for the positive influence I provided to them. I don’t want to assume how I would be received by most of the other families I worked with, but I hope the experience would be the same. My time working in the system provided me with the view that those who work within it, or at least most of the individuals I had contact with, weren’t out to lock kids up. They wanted to see them succeed, but were only able to do their best in the system society has constructed. Tracking and other diversion programs are rehabilitation-minded: they show a step in the right direction, but of course have may pitfalls and failures built into them. My hope is that we continue to push further, keep pushing the envelope and developing our practices to get to a better place. 

HG: It's an honor to work with you and the others in Strange Fire Collective, I am challenged by all of you and your collective brilliance. You have a bright future and I am sure that I speak for many people when I say that I look forward to your future projects. Thank you for being the person that you are and making the work that you make.

ZJM: Thank you for this opportunity, Hamidah. I always enjoy speaking with you and am glad to have the opportunity to work with you.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Master of Fine Arts Photography Candidate, Zora J Murff, discusses his body of work and monograph, Corrections, at the Hixson-Lied College of Fine & Performing Arts, Lincoln, Nebraska. Video courtesy of Walker Pickering.



All images © Zora J Murff