Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren are behind the Richmond Justice project. (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
On Friday mornings, before you tackle work in earnest, Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren are hoping you’ll spend a little time engaging with the Richmond justice system.
“There's something deceptively simple, but valuable, about seeing a photo of someone confronting the camera and reading her or his words,” Ayers says. “The format empowers those interviewed to speak for themselves, without us being overly involved as editors.”
The yearlong project, “Richmond Justice,” comes in a weekly email, each profiling someone in the region whose life or work is affected by the criminal justice system.
The first edition went out on Jan. 1 and profiled Jeree Thomas, a Legal Aid Justice Center attorney. “We launched to 129 friends and family,” Warren says. “We’re on track to have 10,000 subscribers by the end of summer.”
Since the beginning of the year, the duo has amassed a diverse collection of perspectives. “We found it worthwhile to have really candid conversations with people in positions in authority, and also give a voice to people who’ve experienced a lot of discrimination and injustice along the way,” Ayers says.
Profiles include Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, and Marcus Ganzie, incarcerated at Nottoway Correctional Center since 1994. There are former inmates, nonprofit leaders, activists and relatives of inmates. Levar Stoney, former secretary of the commonwealth, sat down with Ayers and Warren shortly before declaring his candidacy for mayor.
“It's easy to silo ourselves, to stick within networks that look and sound like we do, and rarely find the opportunity to imagine life beyond the boundaries that divide us,” Warren says.
Both Virginia natives, Ayers and Warren returned from New York City in 2014, bringing their video production company, Field Studio, with them. They’re currently in postproduction on a documentary about lynching, titled “An Outrage.” It’s taken them on two road trips across the South to film interviews and visit lynching sites with descendants of victims and activists working to memorialize the practice. They hope to premiere the film at a festival in early 2017.
That work and other projects with Field Studio have put the pair in contact with many of the Richmond Justice interviewees.
“One thing we’d see, whether talking to someone currently incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, someone working in the criminal justice system, etc., is that there may be gulfs of understanding between the people, but they were all trying to do the right thing,” Ayers says.
Warren cites a recent interview with Iman Shabazz of New Virginia Majority as a memorable one. “We live in a storytelling age, but it can get a little too precious and celebrated for its own sake,” he says. “[Shabazz] offered a really good reminder that these weren’t just stories, these are people’s lives.”
Warren and Ayers hope to continue Richmond Justice beyond the 52 interviews they’ll have collected at the end of this year. “We’d love to see the project live on through an exhibition or book, or get the folks profiled together in a room,” Warren says. “[The start of] 2017 is not the end, but the beginning of new phase.”
To sign up for Richmond Justice emails, visit: richmondjustice.org.