Gabriela Bulisova is an artist on a mission. She wants you to think. She wants you to be willing to step outside your comfort zone and into someone else’s shoes for a moment. Bulisova, a documentary photographer and multimedia artist, has traveled around the world cataloging the stories of marginalized populations and shedding light on the lives of human beings you and I will never meet. And she does so in images both frank and poignant. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her this week as she prepared for her upcoming solo show, Inside Outside, at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions to talk about both her art and the larger story she wishes to tell.
Ms. Bulisova hails from what we now call Slovakia, but as a child and adolescent it was a much different place. Living through both Communism and the subsequent Czechoslovakian revolution solidified her desire to engage in social activism. She moved to the U.S. in 1996 and arrived in Washington (via Kalamazoo, MI of all places) to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where she earned her MFA in Photography and Digital Imagery in 2005. MICA is known for its emphasis on the “fine arts”, and she admits she was the only student in her cohort focusing on photography as a tool to documentation. For her, photography is not just about “embracing beauty. [Beauty] needs to have a message”.
This exhibition truly embraces both beauty and a social message. Encompassing both photography and multimedia work, “Inside Outside” documents the trials and triumphs of ex-offenders working to integrate themselves back into wider society. Bulisova became interested in this topic rather obliquely. After several years of covering communities struggling in far-off war zones, a chance colloquium at St. Mary’s College encouraged her to expand her definition of conflict and she began working with Our Place DC which works specifically with incarcerated women. She soon realized that the issue of male ex-offenders and their battle to reintegrate is just as important (and just as ignored). With the assistance of the Alliance of Concerned Men, she began to document the experiences of men who have served their time and are now trying to make their way in a society that often puts obstacles in their way.
Bulisova knows her statistics and they slip easily off her tongue. Nationally over 7 1/2 million people (1 in 33 adults) are under some form of correctional supervision. Approximately 60,000 DC residents – 10% of the population – are touched by the criminal justice system — a system that disproportionately impacts low income residents and communities of color. But statistics are impersonal; her images are anything but. The show’s title takes its name from an off-hand comment from one of her subjects, but through her lens it becomes a metaphor for the continuing struggles these individuals face. The returning residents, “can’t erase their past. The past is [now] their present and they can’t escape it.” Her work is portraiture, but not in the traditional sense. The images, mounted without embellishment, often highlight only a part of the face, or place the subject in shadow, often at odd angles, underscoring the fleeting nature of the scene. Many images are captured through plate glass or fences, highlighting the notion that even though these men now walk free their immediate futures are still heavily influenced by their past actions. There is an unstaged poignancy to the images that occurs only as a result of the subject’s trust of the photographer, and this perhaps most of all is what sets these images apart from “fine art” photography.
Included in the exhibition is a multimedia piece (available online here) featuring interviews interlaced with video and still imagery. As her artistic career has deepened, Bulisova has turned to documentary-style pieces as an aid to tell her shape the content of her message. In this case, part of that message is that the criminal justice system not only impacts those incarcerated, but also family, friends and the social fabric of neighborhoods and larger communities. Indeed, one of the most powerful moments comes not from an ex-offender but from the mother of two boys – one who died tragically young and one incarcerated. “I never knew what pain was… Those feelings as a mother of anguish and despair… I wasn’t physically locked up, but… for 16 ½ years, emotionally and spiritually I was locked up with him.” And slowly but surely we begin to see the human side to a story often overlooked when we talk about civic life in the Capital. It’s uncomfortable to watch, but necessary to hear.
And that’s when I realized that all during the time I spent with Bulisova, we didn’t talk about contemporary art movements or lighting techniques or artistic inspirations — we talked about people. We talked about fellow human beings with similar aspirations to better their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Bulisova speaks of being moved by their “determination to succeed despite their past”, and this comes through loud and clear in her tender yet unflinchingly candid portraits. Her goal for this show is to “begin a conversation – a dialogue. We can start erasing the stigma of incarceration.” This exhibition represents one step towards building a dialogue that, while sometimes uncomfortable, is necessary if we are to strengthen our communities on both sides of the river.
“Inside Outside” runs July 13th through September 28th, with a reception on the opening night from 6-8pm. For more information, please visit the gallery’s website here.