Every neighborhood, every human life

Done Doing Time: A Portrait of Life After Prison, by Hinda Schuman

5 minute read
Book cover: pink border around photo looking through a broken window at someone sitting at a green table on the sidewalk
(Image courtesy of Daylight Books.)

In her first book of photographs, Dear Shirley: A True Story, Germantown photographer Hinda Schuman turned the camera on herself, her ex-husband, and her female partner, documenting the private pain of two relationships gone sour. In Done Doing Time: A Portrait of Life After Prison, she points the lens outward.

Concetta Harris and Linda Todd, whom Schuman met when she volunteered at New Directions for Women, an alternative-to-incarceration program, are struggling to build lives post-prison in the midst of this city’s most desperate environs.

Schuman, a former Philadelphia Inquirer photographer, earned the women’s trust enough to spend years accompanying, and photographing, them at supermarkets and laundromats, workplaces and barbecues, birthday parties and family funerals. The result is an intimate portrait of grit, joy, responsibility, love, and grief.

It’s also a potent glimpse of the barriers facing women—and there are 200,000 incarcerated in the US on any given day—once they are released from prison: poverty, racism, and the ever-present lure of drugs to numb their pain.

A story in images

Schuman’s photographs never flinch away or gloss the truth—their goal is not to make their subjects handsome or heroic: we see Harris goofing with her boyfriend while wearing a bouffant shower cap and a sleeveless undershirt; we view Todd jabbing an accusatory finger toward her mother and stepmother.

But the pictures also capture moments of mischief and delight, the ordinariness of snapshots pinned to a refrigerator door or a Thanksgiving turkey conjured from a too-small oven.

Only a handful of the photographs in Done Doing Time are captioned in the book’s appendix. I found myself hungry, at times, for more context: besides Harris and Todd, who are the other people in this picture? What was the occasion? When was it shot?

But the lack of written narrative—there are a few direct quotes scattered throughout the book and a brief essay by Schuman, “Finding Linda and Concetta,” as a preface—means the images must carry the story.

The tale they tell includes the burden of caring for others even as the women try to find their own stable ground: Harris made room in her small, crowded apartment for two daughters and a granddaughter; Todd worked as an aide for a woman with dementia and, in 2022, we see her kneel at a family gravestone after the sudden death of her mother.

There is closeness—intimacy, yes, but also wariness, sorrow, and ferocity—in these pictures. Adults cradle children and braid their hair; partners spar or kiss; two women, backs to the camera, wrap their arms around each other at a baby’s funeral.

Interior and exterior, but never “other”

Many of the interior shots—in bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens—have a claustrophobic or desolate feel with odd angles and shadows, crowded furniture, surfaces heaped with food, medicine, and disheveled bedding.

In that disarray, Schuman’s camera also takes in universal, recognizable details: a calendar with days crossed off in anticipation of some upcoming event, a cat regally poised in a half-open window. Those elements refuse to let the viewer distance themselves or regard Harris and Todd as “other.” There is simply too much that rings familiar.

The exterior scenes—street corners, front stoops, sidewalks—include the panorama of Philadelphia’s crises of poverty, violence, addiction, and lack of affordable housing.

One photograph, of two uniformed police officers and an EMT bent over a supine man whose eyes look wild with addiction or fear, has a caption noting that it was shot at the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis. Other shots show graffiti-scrawled buildings, steel-barred windows, deteriorating houses, trash-strewn streets.

The grief and glee in every life

Yet, against those grim backdrops, joy and tenderness erupt. Harris smooches a grandbaby dressed in dinosaur pajamas while her granddaughter swings on the rusty stoop railing. Todd steals a quiet front-porch moment while a child on a pink scooter pauses, mid-ride.

These photographs remind us that every neighborhood, every human life, holds both grief and glee.

From Schuman’s preface, we know that Harris and Todd did not follow straightforward trajectories. At one point, Todd disappeared, then resurfaced; more recently, she relapsed with crack cocaine. (“Put this in the book,” she told Schuman, wanting readers to understand that recovery from addiction is a lifelong struggle.) Harris also vanished at one point; Schuman visited her at Riverside Correctional Facility. Over the years, the women landed jobs and lost them. They fought evictions. They feared Covid-19. They mourned family members, including Todd’s mother, and tried to keep other relatives off heroin. They celebrated Harris’s 51st birthday and Todd’s first year of sobriety.

What photography becomes

When Dear Shirley was published, Schuman said, “I'm an absolute believer that all photography is the photographer trying to make sense of themselves. Pretty much every photograph is in some little way a self-portrait.”

I kept those words—and Schuman’s own stories of hope and dissolution—in mind when looking at the book’s final two photographs. In the penultimate shot, Todd sits outside, her hair dyed maraschino red, a gold hoop earring catching the light, her left shoulder inked with what looks like a new tattoo. A bandage partially obscures the words, but they are still legible: “Sometimes you’ve gotta fall before you fly.”

The last image captures a block of brick-faced row homes from the back: AC units, a satellite dish, hurricane fencing around a minuscule patch of cement. Overhead, the sky clots with blue-gray clouds. It’s impossible to tell whether the storm is leaving or just moving in.

What, When, Where

Done Doing Time. By Hinda Schuman. Durham, North Carolina: Daylight Books, May 30, 2023. 128 pages, hardcover; $50. Get it here.

There will be a book-signing, reception, and slide presentation for Done Doing Time on September 17, 2023, 3-6pm at Bachelors Barge Club, #6 Boathouse Row, Philadelphia.

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