New Photo Series Captures Human Toll of Visits to Rikers

In Salvador Espinoza's images, those affected speak for themselves

Images: Salvador Espinoza 

There is only one city bus to Rikers Island. Everyday, the Q100 ferries the loved ones of those being detained to New York City’s largest jail complex for visits. From Queens Plaza, it travels north, through the streets of Astoria, over the so-called “Bridge of Pain” and onto the island long synonymous with violence and corruption. The bus’ passengers, mostly women – girlfriends, mothers, wives, grandmas – and young children share a profound and unwanted commonality: they, too, are doing time. They, too, are part of the landscape of American incarceration. But, it’s their voices and the toll of their reality that remain largely absent from the national conversation regarding the impact of our justice system. Photographer Salvador Espinoza aims to change that.

In his new series, Q100: Photographing the City Bus to Rikers, the Queens-native lends his camera to amplify how incarceration doesn’t just affect those who are physically behind bars. He puts the family members long dismissed as mere collateral damage at the center of the debate. And in Espinoza’s images, those affected speak for themselves.

Mass Appeal: When did you actually start to “see” the stories onboard the Q100? What compelled you to capture these loved ones en route to Rikers?

Salvador Espinoza: I started walking around Queens Plaza in the early mornings while shooting another project and I would start to see would-be visitors boarding the Q100 to Rikers. It was compelling to me to know that these groups of people from all over the city were all essentially on the same mission to see their friends or relatives on this city bus that also happens to ride through Astoria. I wondered what each persons backstory was and how they were treated once they got to the island for their visit.

How do you hope these images can contribute to better understanding this aspect of the effects of the mass incarceration?

What is often overlooked is that a lot of these homes are being broken in the name of policies and businesses that have a vested interest in keeping the cycle of imprisonment prevalent. I hope that these images can help people begin to start thinking of mass incarceration’s effects not just on individuals but their families and our communities too.

Advocate Glen E. Martin says that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Would you agree? Had you thought previously about the question of who gets to tell the story of incarceration?

I wholeheartedly agree with Glen E. Martin, and especially the work he is doing with JustLeadershipUSA as he is bringing those voices to the forefront. That is why something like Bill Moyer’s recent documentary on Rikers is so important as well. To hear the impact of mass incarceration told firsthand is very powerful and can lead us into solving these problems.

Were you surprised at just how willing people were to open up and share their stories?

At first, I was pleasantly surprised at how willing people were to talk to a stranger. Being New Yorkers, we tend to get used to wanting to get to where we need to with little to no interaction. But, then I realized that almost everyone wanted to actually share because no one ever really asks them how they feel and what they have to go through just for a visit.

And the bus ride has fostered a community of sorts? With reluctant experts guiding first-time visitors? 

There are always instances of someone looking for the bus stop because if you’re not from Queens it’s easy to miss. From there, conversations start and they’ll help with making sure they aren’t wearing anything that will prevent them from visiting. They sometimes run into each other again and the talk about their last visits and how their loved ones cases are going.

Would you consider the series on-going? 

This is definitely an on-going series as it is still just beginning and evolving but I think a priority is to follow up with these families.

What have these trips, these loved ones taught you?

On a basic personal level, its taught me more about love, sacrifice and what it is to support someone no matter what. As a photographer, it has solidified my desire to continue this kind of work where I can help bring awareness to issues most people tend not to think about day to day.

Through the support of the Queens Council on the Arts, Q100: Photographing the City Bus to Rikers is on display at QNS Collective (36-27 36th Street, Long Island City, NY) through January 15, 2017.

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