Good and bad victims?

Is a victim of crime who values restorative justice welcome in the restorative justice community only if s/he “works for” forgiveness?

How is a victim of crime who believes in healing for both victim and offender, but continues to struggle with her/his understanding of justice, supported by restorative justice groups and associations? 

Are victims invited to the restorative justice dialogue even when they are far from knowing what healing means – but yearn to enter this place?

If a victim does not understand or believe in restorative justice, is s/he excluded from the dialogue?

Does rj have room for victims who are in the throes of deep and savage grief, feeling that they are somehow “bad” because they are not “chosen” or “holy” or “healed” enough to belong to what can often seem an elite group who “know” about living life after crime?

Margot Van Sluytman, whose father was murdered, has dedicated her life to the healing of both victims and offenders.  Recently she emailed me these questions after attending a restorative justice conference. They are important questions.

It is tempting for restorative justice advocates, consciously or not, to differentiate between “good” and “bad victims.” Good victims are those who are ready to forgive and reconcile; bad victims are those who are angry, punitive and unforgiving.

“How do we react to such victims?” asks Heather Strang in her essay, “Is Restorative Justice Imposing Its Agenda on Victims?” (Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, Zehr & Toews, eds.).  “Probably most often by dreading and discouraging the one and encouraging and welcoming the other,” she observes.  Strange goes on to suggest that “bad” is often a function of the emotional harm they have suffered and that they may have the most to gain from an encounter.

An attitude of forgiveness is a lovely thing, and a restorative encounter that results in some measure of forgiveness or reconciliation is wonderful. However, I would suggest that this is not a goal of restorative justice and is not a measure of whether an approach qualifies as restorative justice.  For me, restorative justice is about addressing harms and needs, and helping those who have offended to understand and accept the resulting obligations.  To the extent possible, it implies a collaborative and dialogical process.  As long as an encounter can be engaged in respectfully and safely for all participants, whether a victim is angry or forgiving is not the decisive factor.  And in an encounter, the choice to forgive and reconcile is totally up to the participants; forgiveness is not a measure of whether a restorative justice approach has occurred or is worthwhile.

It is important that we as practitioners welcome those who have been harmed into our midst, regardless of their orientation.  Restorative justice calls us to listen to their harms and to the extent we can, help them identify and address their needs, regardless of whether they are forgiving.  That, to my mind, is essential to being a restorative justice community.


November 29th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

A needle for the restorative justice compass

In my last blog post I summarized Dorothy Vaandering’s concern that without an understanding of the term “justice,” restorative justice may be a compass without a needle.  It is important not to lose the justice dimension in restorative approaches, she suggests, but we must not allow our understandings to be unduly limited by concepts such as fairness and a narrow adversarial focus that are associated with criminal justice.

Drawing upon Freire and Buber, she bases her understanding of justice on what it means to be human:  “one in which justice is identified as honoring the inherent worth of all and enacted through relationships.”  These two terms together – honor and relationships – provide a needle to guide restorative justice proponents and practitioners.

Analyzing the characterization of criminal justice included in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, she observes that what is at stake are these two concepts.  The justice system tends to turn those who have caused harm into objects to be acted upon.  By omission, those who have been harmed are assumed to have no significant needs.  Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognizes that harm is done by and to human beings.

Injustice occurs when people are turned into objects through relationships.  Justice occurs when people are honored through relationships.

So for Vaandering, what is needed in restorative justice is a concerned effort to remind us all of the following:

  • Justice is a call to recognize that all humans are worthy and to be honored.
  • Injustice occurs when people are objectified.
  • The term restorative justice becomes meaningful when it refers to restoring people to being honored as human.
So it is crucial that the terms “restorative” and “justice” be kept and paired together, but with a broader understanding of justice. Without this pairing, the field is functioning as a compass without a needle.
In practice, she argues that continually asking oneself these three questions can keep us on track:
  1. Am I measuring (i.e. judging, objectifying)?
  2. Am I honoring?
  3. What message am I sending?
She suggests a definition of restorative justice:
“RJ acknowledges justice as honoring the inherent worth of all and is enacted through relationship.  As such it affects all social structures.  When something occurs that undermines the well-being of some, RJ provides a space for dialogue so that the humanity of all involved and affected can be restored and each person can once again become a fully contributing member of the community of which they are a part.” (p. 324)

With this “lens,” restorative justice is not something from the outside, as a solution for others.  It is a way of being for all of us.



September 28th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Is restorative justice a compass without a needle?

The field of restorative justice has been characterized by on-going discussions about how to define the term.  Some have argued that we should avoid definitions because of the rigidity they bring.  Others have claimed that ambiguity and uncertainty have led to confusion and bad practice.

Many have advised that we drop the term “justice” entirely. In a school context, for example, the “justice” word is often replaced by terms such as “practices” or “disciplines.”   Catherine Bargen, in her earlier guest blog, questions the wisdom of that, and her concerns are affirmed and expanded upon in an important new contribution by Dorothy Vaandering. (“A faithful compass:  rethinking the term restorative justice to find clarity.” Contemporary Justice Review, Vol 14, No. 3, Sept 2011, 307-328).

Vaandering’s research and experiences are in the realm of education, but she speaks to the field as a whole, warning that although it has offered a compass, the compass has been lacking a needle.

Overall, she worries that ambiguity about the meaning of the term has led to the field being discredited and also encouraged bad practice.  The fact that practice has moved ahead of theory from the beginning has been another source of confusion.  In addition, when the term “justice” is used, an over-emphasis on criminal justice models and applications has led to an undue focus on rights and fairness that has pulled the field off-course.

This is especially true in the educational context, where the word “justice” is often foreign and strengthens the tendency to see restorative approaches as add-ons to disciplinary processes that are basically judicial.  Also, a restorative “discipline” focus limits application to behavioral management, yet educators’ overall mandate is educational, not behavioral.

Vaandering helpfully revisits Gavrielides’ 5 fault lines, arguing that the lack of a clear understanding of both “justice” and “restorative” contributes to these misunderstandings and divisions.

1.  RJ as new paradigm or RJ as pragmatic, parallel approach

2. RJ as process vs RJ as outcome

3. RJ as mediation (only immediate stakeholders) or RJ as conferencing (involving a larger definition of stateholders)

4. RJ as coercive vs RJ as voluntary

5. RJ principles as flexible or RJ principles as inflexible.

The core of her exploration, Vaandering notes, are these questions:  What is justice?  What is being restored?  How can the term justice be used within various fields without eliciting connotations of crime (including its objectifying tendencies)?

The justice component of restorative justice must not be lost, Vaandering argues, and a clear understanding of the meaning of “justice” will not only clarify the “restorative” part but will  help address these fault lines.

What is really at stake, she concludes, is what it means to be human.  The compass is missing a needle.  That can be provided by a broader understanding of justice, one that explicitly acknowledges our humanity and what that implies.

In the next I entry I will summarize her proposal.

(Theo Gavrielides’ helpful study is available as a free pdf from this site.)



September 14th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Summer reading

As is obvious from the gap in my posts, I’ve been taking a break from my blog this sumer.  However, I will come out of hiding long enough to post a few recent resources. They aren’t the usual summer beach reading but maybe they will be of interest anyway.

Our friends at Community Justice Initiatives British Columbia have just posted a free on-line publication, Walking the Talk:  Developing Ethics Frameworks for the Practice of Restorative Justice, by Susan Sharpe. This resource is intended to help organizations sort out the values that they wish to live by. Given the difficulties of living by the principles we espouse in our organizations, this will be an important publication for those of involved in restorative justice programs.

Susan L. Miller’s After the Crime: The power of restorative justice – dialogues between victims and offenders (New York University Press, 2011) is a careful and readable examination of severe violence dialogue approaches.

In the forward to The Jesus Factor in Justice & Peacemaking by C. Norman Kraus (Cascadia, 2011), I said this:  “If you are a Christian interested in peace, if you are a Christian justice or peace practitioner, if you are Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish and interested in understanding connections between your own faith and Christian approaches to peace – then this book is for you.”

I am currently reading The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2010). This is an absolute must for anyone involved with justice issues in the United States. Those of us involved in restorative justice especially need to think through its implications for our work and thought.

For those who would rather listen than read at the beach, two great interviews about restorative justice involving my friend Sujatha Baliga. One is from NPR’s Talk of the Nation, “Victims Confront Offenders.”  The other, perhaps more interesting, interview is in a podcast from “Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast with David Onek.”

Finally, you may want to consider two upcoming international restorative justice conferences.  One is coming up quickly, in November, in New Zealand.  The other will be held by the European Forum for Restorative Justice in Finland in June, 2012.


August 3rd, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Forget restorative justice

Guest Blog by Aaron Lyons

“True justice emerges through conversation” – Howard Zehr

“So, what are your thoughts on the killing of Osama Bin Laden?,” a woman inquires almost casually at a spring dinner party. Admittedly, the US military operation in Pakistan occupies the minds of many at this time – but surely this is not the usual pre-dinner small-talk. Realizing I’ve probably invited the challenge by my mention of my work in restorative justice, I engage with her in the hopes that we might unearth some of the topic’s complexity.

Quickly the more fundamental questions rise to the surface: How do we make sense of injustice? What is the true meaning of accountability? How do we attempt to restore order in the face of irreparable harm? Can people change? What does healing require? What are our own needs within all of this? Caught in this rich quagmire, and with no easy answers, we are the last to sit down to dinner.

Our work in restorative justice demands a skill that both transcends and includes direct engagement with participants. Beyond facilitating dialogue in the aftermath of harm, restorative justice practitioners have the implicit role of facilitating a gradual, collective re-visioning of justice in society. As we look up from our immediate work to the larger conversations that form our social and political environment, we observe that to practice restorative justice is to engage with the retributive and adversarial frames of justice that constitute the status quo.

Whether we wish it or not, our work brings us into dialogue with the people who by their views uphold an apparently different conception of justice. The stance we take in engaging with the deep-seated impulse towards punishment is of vital importance. It will be paramount to the success of our attempts at re-visioning justice in accordance with restorative values.

We as restorative justice advocates are often lured by our own passion into a kind of philosophical zealousness. It goes something like this: we know a way that is more holistic, effective and morally satisfying to deal with crime and its impacts; thus in order to achieve a more truly just world, we must educate and convert the public and decision-makers on the merit of this approach. Sound vaguely familiar?

There is a dissonance in the notion of restorative justice approaching its aims through adversarial means.  Restorative justice is not about denying or silencing the voices of anyone, including its opposition. Its spirit is just the opposite. When we’re most clear-headed, we understand that our prerogative is to listen to dissent as though our survival depends on it – which indeed, as a movement, it might. We cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the sentiments underlying the impulse to punish. There is too much richness there, too much of importance.

This very conversation is the realm in which we humans negotiate our feelings of hurt and fear and grief, our rage, our needs for safety and dignity and felt accountability. We will never succeed as a partner in that negotiation if we cling to our positions and blindly impose our preferred outcomes.

The search for justice should be an act of deepening, not hardening. Let’s be clear – engaging openly with the punitive impulse does not mean accepting the thirst for vengeance at face value, or standing by mutely while destructive emotions chart the course of action. A restorative mindset suggests a spirit of both curiosity and companionship – of working together to excavate ever deeper through the layers of constructed meaning about justice. It is about inquiring deeply into an individual’s perceptions of justice, and then when their apparent conclusion has been presented, asking “what for” once more.

Our work invites us to seek the bedrock of a person’s sense of justice, trusting that beneath the strata of fear, pain and reaction there are some clear gems of truth. We cannot predict what we will find there. It may appear messy, falling nowhere within our own neat conceptions of “restorative.” But maybe this unknown and even feral quality is part of the inherent richness of our work.

Being a catalyst for exploratory justice conversations does not require that we adopt a facade of neutrality with regard to our own sense of justice. Such conversations rightly hold all of us in dialogue with our own most deeply held values. But if our concern is with meaningful justice, then our primary task is that of holding space for others as they navigate their way through emotional, substantive and spiritual questions.

Our commitment to justice is expressed as an invitation to dialogue. More than advocating for a certain type of justice, we are invited to stand for a certain type of conversation about justice.

[Aaron Lyons (MA ’08) is a restorative justice practitioner and trainer with the British Columbia based Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association. His journey with restorative justice began 10 years ago and has brought him into dialogue about justice issues with people throughout many parts of the world. Aaron blogs at Restoring Justice.]

June 16th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Relationships matter

A recent conference on our campus entitled Conversations on Attachment included two prominent scholars working in neuroscience:  Dr. James Coan, a psychologist, and Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist.  A few points from their presentations help explain why relationships are so important:


  • “Our brains are designed to be with other people.”  The “baseline brain” is not alone; it is in relationship.  The brain expects social relationships; the “weird situation” is when we are alone.
  • We aren’t designed to solve problems by ourselves; we are designed to be interdependent.  When we are isolated from others, we perceive that we have more problems and it takes more energy to solve them.  “Relationships matter.”
  • When we are familiar with someone, they become parts  of us; we extend ourselves to them.  “I am you and you are we.”  If you are under threat, then part of me is under threat.  Human altruism is partially explained by this.
  • Read more from Coan’s presentation


  • It is an optical illusion that the self is confined by the skin, separate from others. Happiness, wisdom and health all come from a sense of self that is connected to a much larger entity than the individual body.
  • Both genes and experience shape our brains.  Since the brain is designed to connect with others, and because much of its development occurs after birth, attachment experiences and cultural messages affect how the brain is wired.
  • 1500 years of cultural messages that our self is limited to our skin, separate from others, has impacted our brains in a way that is unreal, unhealthy and destructive to ourselves and the planet.
  • Scaring people about the future of the planet hasn’t worked.  Informing hasn’t worked.  We have to expand the self from “me” to “we” or we are dead. The health of the planet is a moral issue.
  • A key to health and recovery is in relationship.  That is why it is so important to feel heard.  As one counseling client said to him, the breakthrough was “when I felt felt.”
  • Trauma and neglect destroy integrated brain functioning. Both chaos and rigidity result from impaired regulation and integration.
  • When threatened, people amplify who they think is the “in-group” and who is the “out-group.”  They treat the in-group with more tenderness and affection and the out-group with more hostility and disrespect.  If you identify someone as different from you, the circuitry of compassion and empathy shuts down.
  • Read more from Siegel’s presentation

This basic relational orientation of the brain, I would suggest, explains why restorative justice is so important and why restorative processes are often successful.  This also helps explain the often-negative consequences of a criminal justice approach that encourages us to divide the world into “us” and “them.”  And it goes far to explain our nation’s responses to the tragedy of 9/11.

Relationships matter. Restorative justice reminds us of this web of relationships and suggests principles and practices to create and restore healthy relationships.

As Christian Early, a Bible and Religion professor at EMU, noted in his response to Coan, “it is good for us to live in community.”  Yet human connection can also be a source of great stress.  That is why it is so important that we develop practices of restoration and reconciliation.

Ultimately restorative justice is not about crime or about specific programs or practice models.  It is a reminder that we are fundamentally interconnected; it is a call to practice the arts of relationship. As Siegel said, we have to expand the self from “me” to “we” or we are dead.



In a 2009 blog entry I discussed the contribution of restorative justice to the overall effort of building a peaceful world.  Since that entry is buried in the blog archives, perhaps it is worth repeating some of it here.

Peacebuilding is about relationships; it is about building, mending and maintaining healthy relationships.  To this effort restorative justice makes these specific contributions:

  1. A recognition that questions of justice and injustice are central to conflict and must be addressed if we are to manage conflict and build peaceful communities.
  2. A relational understanding of wrongdoing that focuses on the impact on people and relationships rather than rules.
  3. A set of principles to guide us when a harm or wrong has occurred. Put simply, these might be called reparation, accountability and engagement.
  4. A group of specific practices that, although they use some skill sets similar to those for conflict resolution, allow us to name and address the harms involved and the resulting obligations. These include victim offender conferencing, family or restorative group conferencing and – perhaps most powerful and widely applicable – circle processes.
  5. An explicit grounding in core values that not only guide the processes but are fundamental for healthy relationships. While a number of values are often named, I often identify these core values as three “R’s” – respect, responsibility and relationships.


April 12th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Restorative or transformative justice?

Is restorative justice sufficiently transformative?  Should the term be “transformative” rather than “restorative” justice?  Are they different phenomena or are they one and the same?

This debate has been ongoing since the origin of the field.  When trying to decide on a term in the 1980s, I considered the word transformative but rejected it as too ephemeral to communicate with real-world practitioners. But the term restorative, with its backward-looking connotations, has certainly had its limits.

Ruth Morris raised this issue frequently.  She argued that both in concept and practice, restorative justice has been too limited.  Bonnie Price Lofton, in her contribution to Critical  Issues in Restorative Justice, made this argument as well.  Restorative justice may be too backward-looking, seeking to restore something that is unattainable, undesirable or never existed. Like the criminal justice system itself, it may focus too narrowly on putting a band-aid on interpersonal relationships while neglecting underlying causes such as structural injustices.

Others have argued that restorative justice does indeed seek to transform unhealthy relationships and does pave the way for a larger social transformation.

The best piece I’ve seen that explores the relationship between these two terms is by M. Kay Harris in her chapter entitled “Transformative Justice:  the transformation of restorative justice” in The Handbook of Restorative Justice edited by Dennis Sullivan and Larry Tift.  Harris outlines four different perspectives that have been advocated in this debate:

  1. Restorative justice and transformative are two quite different perspectives.
  2. Restorative  process aims at personal and and interpersonal transformation and can open spaces for social transformation.
  3. Restorative justice falls on a continuum between retributive and transformative justice.
  4. RJ and TJ are really the same things, properly understood.  Restorative and transformative justice both aim at interpersonal as well as larger social transformation.

Personally, I would hope that #4 is true – that they really are the same thing – but I also know that in practice, this often is not the case.  Thus positions 2-3 have validity. My own interest is not in staking out a position but rather in urging the field to be as transformative as possible.  I am encouraged by the numerous examples people have shared with me of personal and interpersonal transformation through restorative justice.  And, while restorative justice often seems to create awareness of larger social issues, unfortunately I hear fewer stories of true social transformation.

While I am least comfortable with position No. 1 – that they are quite different – I do find it useful to use this perspective for pedagogical purposes.  As a class or training exercise, it is often enlightening to provide a case study, then divide participants into three groups.  Each group is assigned to approach the case using one of the following three perspectives:

I. Retributive Approach

The incident is a violation of the policies, defined by rule breaking.  Resolution involves looking at the incident, determining blame, and administering the consequences.

  • What rule has been broken?
  • Who is to blame?
  • What punishment do they deserve?

II. Restorative Approach

The incident is a violation of people and relationships.  It creates obligations to make things right.  Resolution involves looking at the harm caused by the incident:  harm to the person(s) who were victimized, harm to the instigator/aggressor(s), and harm to the larger community and asks “How can this harm be repaired?”

  • Who has been hurt & what are their needs?
  • Who is obligated to address these needs?
  • Who has a “stake” in this situation & what is the process to involve them in making things right and preventing future occurrences?

III. Transformative Approach

The incident may have occurred as a result, in part, of unhealthy relationships and social systems.  It creates obligations to build new or better relationships. This must happen not only at an individual level but at the level of social structures and institutional policies.  Resolution involves changing wider social systems in ways that help to prevent the occurrence and re-occurrence of harmful incidents.

  • What social circumstances promoted the harmful behavior?
  • What structural similarities exist between this incident and others like it?
  • What measures could prevent future occurrences?

Usually the first group, “retributive justice,” gets done first.  The transformative group is often last.  This in itself leads to interesting discussions.

This exercise, which is adapted from a series of exercises designed by CJP graduate Dave Dyck, somewhat arbitrarily differentiates between the three perspectives but it can lead to interesting conversations about the relationships between them.

March 10th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Justice as restoration of trust

“Restorative justice is a bold and thought-provoking innovation that has engaged the energies and excited the hopes of criminal justice reformers throughout the world over the last several decades.  And yet, while it has achieved outstanding results in thousands of programs, it has remained a marginal development because it has failed to articulate a theory and set of practice applicable to serious crimes and adult offenders.  Unless it can do so, it may very well remain on the sidelines, ‘doomed to irrelevance and marginality.’”

In this paragraph, which opens the last chapter of his new book, Crime, Punishment and Restorative Justice:  From the Margins to the Mainstream, Ross London – a former judge, prosecutor and public defender turned professor – accurately summarizes the state of the field.  Fortunately, he argues, it need not and should not remain in this state.

What restorative justice offers, he says, is not so much new justice practices but a different view of crime and a new goal for justice: crime is seen as a source of harm that must be repaired.  Moreover, the essential harm of crime is the loss of trust, on both interpersonal and social levels.  What victims and communities need is to have their trust restored.  The essential obligation of offenders is to show that they are trustworthy.  The purpose of justice should be to encourage this process.

The overriding goal of justice, then, ought to be the restoration of trust.  The attempt to achieve this on both personal and social levels, he argues, can provide a unifying umbrella for our response to crime. Rather than replacing other, more traditional goals, it would become the overriding consideration in sentencing, providing rationales for and limits to the application of goals such as incapacitation and punishment.

London provides a comprehensive analysis and application of his argument, exploring its socio-biological basis and how it addresses the needs of victims, offenders and society as a whole.   He discusses the role of apology, forgiveness, restitution, rehabilitation, victim-offender dialogues and punishment within this framework.

Punishment alone, he argues, “is an extraordinarily poor way of restoring trust, either in an offender or in society.”  However, it has an important restorative role for individuals and society if it is limited, accepted as deserved, and part of a larger strategy aimed at the restoration of trust and relationships.

Having himself played key roles in criminal justice, he recognizes justice’s ritual elements.  Criminal justice is, by and large, a ritual of exclusion, “a form of symbolic degradation that strips the offender of his membership in the moral community….”  But justice also has the potential to become a ritual of inclusion and restoration.

London’s argument is much too complex to summarize here.   Instead, let me emphasize two major points.  First, loss of trust is the fundamental harm of crime, and restoration of trust is a basic need.  In my experience, this rings true in the lives of victims, offenders and communities.

Second, by identifying restoration of trust as the overarching goal of justice, we might be able to provide a realistic and comprehensive theory of sentencing, for all levels of crime.    With restoration of trust as the primary goal, we might be able to refocus and incorporate the other widely-embraced and more usual goals of justice.

“The restoration of trust approach integrates conventional sentencing theories under the new goal of repairing the harm of crime that applies to all cases,” not just so-called “minor” crimes and cooperative offenders.  In this way, restorative justice might move from the margins to the mainstream and realize the potential that it offers.

This is a book worth reading. My primary disappointment is the price; at a list price of $75, it will not get the audience it deserves.   Now that the book is out, I restate a suggestion that I made to Ross when I read an earlier draft:  that he make his essential argument available in shorter, more accessible form so that it can stimulate the kind of dialogue that it needs.

Crime, Punishment, and Restorative Justice is published by FirstForum Press, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers (2011).

February 8th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Death of a mentor

Milton Rogovin died this month at the age of 101.  Although I only met him once, through his photographs and writing he has been one of my mentors.

1998 photo by Howard Zehr

As NPR noted in his obituary, Rogovin’s life was about seeing, though the methods changed.  He began his professional life helping others to see, as an optometrist in Buffalo, New York.  Because of his activist involvements for the poor, he was more or less forced out of his occupation by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.  As his patient base shrank, he began making photographs in the hopes of helping us to see the injustices around us and the people impacted by them.

Rogovin’s photographs were always about people, always about the rural and urban underclass.  One of his most important projects was close to home, in the economically depressed areas of Buffalo, though he also photographed in Chile, Yemeni and other countries.   “All my life, I’ve focused on the poor,” he said in a Washington Post quote.  “The rich ones have their own photographers.” He allowed people to pose themselves, always portraying them with dignity and individuality, not as victims.  His subjects were photographed straightforwardly, in their own environments.

Two of his books have had an especially significant influence on me.  The Forgotten Ones contains a variety of series of working people from around the world. My favorite, though, is “Working People, 1977-80.”  This photo essay is made of a series of diptychs.  On one page is a portrait of  individual workers in heavy industry, often mining, posed in their work environments.  On the facing page is a portrait of the same person at home.  The contrast is often dramatic; sometimes it takes a second look to realize they are the same people.  The pairing of these photos creates a much richer portrait than a single image.

Rogovin took the concept of paired images further in his book Triptychs:  Buffalo’s Lower West Side Revisited, expanding each grouping to three images made over several decades plus years.  After initially doing portraits in the 1970s, he returned to the community in the 1980s and again in the 1990’s, locating the same people and re-photographing them.  It is fascinating to see how people change, and don’t change, over the years.  This inspired my own small series of portraits over time, some of which can be seen on my photo website

In my interview with him, Rogovin said something that I identified with:  “Going from one series to another is a very difficult thing for me, and especially my wife.  I get kind of grumpy and worried that I’ll find another series that’s important.”  I too feel at lose ends when I don’t have a focus for my photography.

After finding that fancy equipment generated too much attention in his working environments, Rogovin adopted a simple, non-intrusive approach:  a Rolliflex medium format camera, often on a tripod, and a bare-bulb flash.

Do photographs change the world?  In The Forgotten Ones Rogovin says, “…I used to think that photography would do everything, but now I don’t think so.  It takes photography, it takes sociology, it takes working people, it takes teachers – and a lot of different people to help make the change. See, it isn’t just the photographs.”

He cites the early documentary photographer Jacob Riis: “Jacob Riis, when he was very despondent at the results he was getting, said he would go to a friend of his who was a stonecutter and he would watch him work.  The stonecutter would hammer that stone once, twice, ten times and nothing happened.  Fifty, a hundred times and nothing happened.  Then, after the hundred and first blow, the stone would split, and Riis said it was obvious that it wasn’t’ the last blow that did it.  It was all the blows together.  That’s my feeling.  It wasn’t the photographer – his or her photographs – that’s going to do it, but all the hundred and one different blows added together to make a change.”

This image has inspired my work in justice as well as photography.

January 25th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Photography)

The story is true

“Stories are the way we domesticate the world’s disorder.”

(Bruce Jackson, The Story is True)

My last entry emphasized the importance of story.  Since stories are essential to the experience of victims and offenders – and to all of us – I want to explore this topic a bit further here.

Our histories, our identities, our meanings for our lives are understood in and conveyed through our stories.  We often experience trauma when those stories are disrupted.  The process of transcending trauma requires us to “re-story” our lives.  This is true for those who are victimized but it is often true for those who offend as well.  As Shadd Maruna and Hans Toch’s suggest in Making Good, those who “desist” from offending behavior do so by re-storying their own lives in ways that preserve their self-respect and provide meaning for their new lives.

Judicial trials are also about story.  Jackson notes in The Story is True that trials are a competition between different ways to frame ambiguous material.  They are often more about winning more than about truth; the instrument is the development of a plausible story (p. 123).

Journalism – and especially television – presents events as stories; it utilizes stereotypical templates to impose a sense of order and completeness on information and the result is often incomplete and even misleading.

Jackson is an ethnographer who has done extensive work in prison and on death row.  He has used both still photography and film in this context.  Because of these interests, I have followed his work for years. (For researchers, and especially those working in prison, I also recommend his 1987 book, Fieldwork.)

Our lives, and most events, do not unfold in an orderly sequence. To make sense of them, to manage the disorder of the world, we create stories.   To quote one of Jackson’s students, “Our stories are the dots we use to connect the parts of our lives.”

Stories have to make sense, even when life often doesn’t. Like a photograph, stories are a way of framing things.  As with photographs, if we change the frame, a different story may emerge.

Our stories may or may not be true in a factual sense.  But unless we are involved in a forensic inquiry, what matters more in most cases are the meanings and perceptions they portray.

Jackson reminds us that our stories are created, then revised and fine-tuned over time, to serve various purposes:

  • Stories make sense and order of the world and of our identities. After significant events, including traumatic experiences, these stories may need to be revised.
  • Stories are told to fit the needs of the storyteller at a given time, needs that vary with the context: for example, we may want to court favor, present ourselves in a favorable light, bond with others, or help define who is “inside” and who is “outside.”
  • Stories are told to meet the needs of the listener or audience, so the listener is often part of the creative act.

Another factor shaping our stories is the nature of memory.  As I pointed out in an earlier entry (see Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), by Tavris & Aronson), our minds don’t like dissonance, so they tend to fill the gaps and create an order to things.  Some quotes from Jackson:  “Memory doesn’t like clutter.  It economizes….”  Memory is a process rather than a condition – “an artist, not a computer.”

Stories are important.  Are they “true?”  Jackson concludes that what is true is the fact that they are told, and that  they carry meaning for the teller.  I will end with a longer quotation:

“In time, how we tell our story depends not so much on what happened then, but on what we know of the world now.  And that is why the story of that time told in this moment means at least as much, and perhaps more, about this world now than that time then.  And that is why these stories we tell again and again remain forever new.” (p. 43)

January 6th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Photography, Restorative Justice)