In their eyes: ‘Invisible Eve’ has, in black and white, stories beyond the power of words

OKLAHOMA CITY – While the Sooner State rests consistently in the top five for overall imprisonment rates among the 50 states, including of course men, most years the data reveals it is (including right now) ranked first in the nation for female incarceration.  

At the time of his visit to Oklahoma City this summer, a half hour with Yousef Khanfar, photographer and author of ‘Invisible Eve’ (Rizzoli Press, New York: 224 pages, 2013) was instructive. Khanfar says his artistic vision is “attracted to the low-frequency cries, castaway souls, and unfortunate voices of humanity” who need, but usually don’t get, attention from even the most “bleeding-heart” among us. 

His book is a museum-quality compilation of photographs focused on a desperately relevant topic – the incarceration of women for nonviolent offenses in the state of Oklahoma. An exhibit featuring the book’s photos is at Tulsa’s “108|Contemporary” gallery, through December 22.

Khanfar is a reflective man, intense yet easy to like. Even a particularly discerning artist like him can only see fellow human beings imperfectly, as he has written, “like an iceberg … the top one-third.” What lies beneath are childhood experiences, “challenges throughout their lives,” victories and defeats. Each of us is “hard-wired” to some extent. 

But what lies within, invisible, are thousands of moments that shape us from the internal into what others see in us: capable, creative and committed souls – or not. And then, even the best among us can have experiences that take away potential and leave behind … deprivation and despair. 

“For now, we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Version). Here we see, seemingly face to face, the black-and-white photographs of “Invisible Eve.’ 

Every visage at the central focus is a woman imprisoned

They are sharp, memorable and disturbing.

The faces are black, white, olive, brown and other.

They are young and old.

Their crimes are generally but not always drug-related.

Some have smooth skin, some have oceans of visible tatoos. 

Some appear with the children left beyond the bars, many are alone.

One photo shows a mother and daughter, both imprisoned, serving time at the same facility – another is  an aunt and her niece.

Some admit guilt, some profess innocence.

Some look hard and tired, some pretty and inviting. 

When not manipulated, the photos reveal lines, grays, fatigue, scars of living.

Yet in the eyes and visages of others are discernment, understanding, experience and wisdom, grasped too late.  

The text accompanying photographs includes child-like poetry:  “When you are doing a crime or snorting a line, you don’t think about serving time” – and succinct profundity: “Memories are the diary we all carry within us.”

And, here are the words of Sherrice Atkins, whose photograph adorns the book’s cover:

“Look into my eyes … My eyes have been awakened. I’ve decided to let my spirit fly free. I am ready to become the woman I’m meant to be. Stand back and watch me. I am getting ready to unfold.”

Sherrice is serving five years for possession of a controlled dangerous substance.

Khanfar is the author of two previous photographic compilations, “Voices of Light” (fine art landscape pictures) and “In Search of Peace” (a visual symphony in three movements: Sublime, Freedom and Divine).

“While creating ‘Invisible Eve,’ I came to the understanding that I might not be able to help the women inside prison, but their images and messages might help the women outside prison. All the ladies I photographed were united by misfortune of circumstances and nonviolent crimes, and by giving them a voice, they felt good about themselves. They transcended their own tragedy. By giving them a voice, they felt a part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” Khanfar said. 

He is a visual journalist, a kindred spirit, encountered in a fleeting snapshot of time.

A good reporter lays out truth unadorned. She or he also seeks, over time, to find layer after layer of truth, even when it is uncomfortable. 

The perhaps inconvenient truth is that Oklahoma puts too many wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends behind bars, when (especially for first- and second-time offenders) sufficient mercy and grace could restore them to productivity and hope.

We can argue about how much legal mercy is sufficient, but surely the argument about the cost and the effectiveness of incarceration as a response to nonviolent crime is over.

A popular expression some years ago, still heard occasionally, is this: “It is what it is.” 

That frame of mind can either be a prelude to surrender, or to reformation. May God grant our culture, our state, the wisdom to choose the latter. 

The George Kaiser Family Foundation ofTulsa has helped promote the book. The foundation’s program, Women in Recovery, is a private-sector program working closely with local governments. It has carved out a stellar reputation for offering women an alternative to prison and helping them lead productive lives as citizens, taxpayers and, quite often, better mothers. Khanfar has designated some net royalties of his book’s sales to WIR

The “108|Contemporary” gallery is at 108 E. Brady in Tulsa, Oklahoma, through Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, 108|Contemporary is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Sunday, and Noon to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Admission to the Tulsa showing is free, and certainly within driving distance for neighbors in Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas – where many of the same problems with incarceration of nonviolent criminals are driving state government budget planners to distraction.

There have been a couple of classic modern artistic works with Oklahoma ties that put into human terms, with restrained pathos, the plight of women caught up in the world of drugs, abusive sexual and emotional relationships and poverty, as prelude to long prison terms.

The first was “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” a 2009 documentary that gained wide viewership on cable television. 

“Invisible Eve” is the second. 

 You may contact Pat McGuigan at . He is the author or editor of ten books, including Crime and Punishment in Modern America (1986).