Gabriela Bulisova, Time Zone

What if prisons were for more than revenge? Through Lashawna’s powerful story of re-integration after two decades behind bars, Bulisova's "Time Zone" reveals our collective responsibility on recidivism

When Lashawna Etheridge-Bey was 18, she shot two teenage girls dead. She used violence as a way to cope amidst a destructive spiral of poverty, drugs, and promiscuity, paying the price with a life-long prison sentence. Twenty years later, she was released at her first parole hearing - a reward for spending half of her life on a journey of personal transformation to untether herself from the past.

At roughly the same age, photographer Gabriela Bulisova was adjusting to new circumstances of her own. Raised in Slovakia, she spent her formative years under Communist rule. Her family encouraged a culture of liberal thought at home despite the risks in an authoritarian regime. When the Iron Curtain fell, Gabriela began a journey of discovery around new modes of expression, steeped in a desire to expose repression and injustice.

Lashawna and Gabriela’s stories are worlds apart, but they are united in a common bond exploring the meaning of freedom. Gabriela eventually settled in the U.S. and focused her photographic career on war refugees. By coincidence, she was introduced to Lashawna through Our Place DC, a non-profit working with formerly incarcerated women. They met just days after Lashawna was released from twenty years in prison, and Gabriela quickly noted the parallels to her earlier work. She states, “Much like refugees, incarcerated individuals are victims of a cycle of violence in their own communities.”

Over the next year and a half, Gabriela and Lashawna embarked on a collaborative journey through a multimedia project called “Time Zone.” Lashawna resisted media attention at first, scarred by what she described as unfair local news coverage of the fateful incident twenty years earlier. But eventually she unraveled her story, sharing her innermost conflicts with guilt and copings with shattered relationships, particularly with her two children who are now ages 20 and 22.

According to Lashawna, Gabriela’s lens has helped her process through her experiences and emotions during reentry. The unlikely collision of two disparate but parallel life experiences has produced a powerful body of work, with a palpable sense of trust and honesty in every frame. Gabriela draws influences from photographers such as Abellardo Morell and Richard Misrach, adding layers of meaning into each photograph that weave a graceful tale full of complex issues and challenging questions.

Over one million women are on probation or parole in the United States, and 200,000 behind bars. Since 1980, the female prison population has ballooned over 830%, helping the United States attain the world’s highest incarceration rate, even above China. Currently, 7.1 million people, or 1 in 33 adults, are under the supervision of correctional authorities. But as our nation begins to tackle the structural foundations of our prison system, such as rising inmate populations, racial imbalance in sentencing, and rising costs thru privatization, we completely overlook the human toll. Gabriela’s “Time Zone” and “Convictions” expose the inhumanity of a culture that prefers to isolate, stigmatize, ostracize, and forget.

Prison may have extracted her from society and forced her for the first time to examine her life, Lashawna’s success story is a result of an inner strength in spite of a broken system. Gabriela helps her tell a powerful narrative about personal courage, rising above the status quo to stop the revolving door of recidivism. And at the core of every inmate’s struggle, as the Director of Our Place DC states in “Convictions”, is to feel human again. “Every woman needs someone who believes in their potential and cares about their success. The notion that these women are lazy or not remorseful is so untrue. They just want an opportunity to be different, to have space where they can begin to make changes. It is so much work to try to convince people that they are worthy and deserve the opportunity to make change.”

In a symbiotic relationship between artist and subject, “Time Zone” invites us all in a common goal to humanize and transform a public system - one that can inspire and celebrate inmates who turn their lives around, so they re-enter as engaged and respected citizens.

Lashawna and Gabriela travel to universities, art galleries, and city agencies regularly to share their work on issues of incarceration and reintegration. Gabriela is now photographing Lashawna’s daughter to explore the effects of parenting and re-entry on families.

To view Gabriela’s complete body of photographic work, click here. To watch "Convictions," click here. She is the recipient of the Sonheim Artscape Prize for her multimedia work on “Time Zone.”