Social Responsibility in Visual Storytelling: Photojournalist Kriston Jae Bethel Weighs In

Philadelphia based photographer Kriston Jae Bethel has been featured in some impressive print and digital publications: American Libraries, Grid Magazine, Mashable, Minneapolis Star Tribune, New Jersey Magazine, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine, to name a few. As a member of the National Press Photographers Association, he enthusiastically adheres to the NPPA Code of Ethics when making photojournalism and documentary work. “This is part of a core belief that people should always be considered first, instead of a good photograph,” he says.

That ethos permeates into everything Kriston does in the field. His images are characterized by a particular visceral feeling or mission instead of the typical focus on a specific subject. In addition to his freelance career and time spent at Temple University and Jefferson University as an adjunct professor, he also works with Resolve Philly, a reporting collaboration between newsrooms across Philadelphia that aims to lift up community voices in the region. We caught up with Kriston a few weeks ago when preparing to collaborate on an Instagram takeover to talk about the Philly photographer community, his personal projects and more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. All photos by Kriston Jae Bethel.

Tell us about Portrait of a Prison. How did the project come to life? What does this project mean to you and those involved? 

Portrait of a Prison came out of what would otherwise be a pretty standard media tour. At the time, I was mentoring a younger journalist who was interested in attending this event, so I offered to join him. SCI Phoenix was built to replace an aging Graterford Prison about a quarter mile down the road, as it had become consistently overpopulated for years. The tour was organized by the Department of Corrections for journalists to visit the new facility, which was designed to hold a larger population, with improved resources and a better living situation for the inmates.

This kind of event usually has several media outlets all looking at the same things, while being given the same information, all at the same time. I wanted to create something that didn’t just show what was inside, but what it felt to be inside. Hard lines, straight-on views and repetition all emphasize a rigid system of justice. Quick glances of light, sky and grass break through that view.

We also love Mom’s Who Pump. Can you share more about your involvement there?

Mom’s Who Pump was a solutions story for Next City. We looked at a new program at Riverside Correctional Facility that allowed mothers to pump their breast milk and have it delivered to their babies who are staying with a family member or other caretaker,

Under normal circumstances, once these women go in, they have almost no contact with their child. One woman I met had been taken into custody straight from the hospital, two days after giving birth. The MOMobile program works to build the relationship between mother and child as much as possible, helping them prepare for when they’re released.

Because this was a solutions story, it was important to focus on what was going right for these women. They obviously didn’t want to be in jail, but were grateful for the opportunity to feel connected to their children. Many of them had never heard there were any benefits of breast milk over formula, and were provided other parental resources, education and even photos of the babies during their time.

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