Isadora Kosofsky was photographing a woman in a motel parking lot in New Mexico when she heard a gunshot.
Kosofsky was afraid, but the woman she was documenting was used to witnessing displays of violence.
“It’s completely changed my life to witness her resilience and her strength,” she said. “She turned to me about three months into working with me … and she said ‘I’ve been silent for too long.’ She’s aware of her voice.”
Kosofsky, who graduated from UCLA in 2017, is a photojournalist who covers individuals in prison, senior citizens and developmentally disabled individuals. In 2018, she was named a TED Fellow, and will speak about the relationship between photography and social justice at the 2018 TED Fellows talks in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday.
Kosofsky first photographed the woman she met in the parking lot in a series about juvenile detention centers in 2012. Six years later, Kosofsky sought her out again to be the subject of a new series on the effect of trauma on young girls, spending about three months searching for her at various addresses in New Mexico.
“I’m so inspired by her courage. What always moves me is seeing the impact of working on a story on the person that the story is about,” she said. “Working with this girl has completely changed my life in the last nine months.”
One of Kosofsky’s first interests was photographing incarcerated juveniles, and she went to Romania to document a youth prison when she was 16.
Kosofsky said difficult experiences growing up, including never seeing her boyfriend in high school again after he got arrested, made her more empathetic for juveniles in detention.
“That loss was profound for me, more than losing somebody that was a love, he was a friend and somebody that listened to me and that very much lacked in my life,” she said.
After her boyfriend’s incarceration, Kosofsky began researching prison photography. She said she felt the existing work presented incarcerated youth solely as detainees or inmates, instead of individuals.
“I wanted to do something that was more humanistic or more empathetic than what I was seeing,” she said.
Kosofsky said she usually spends time with subjects for years and works to develop a good relationship with them before beginning to photograph. She said it is often difficult to find a balance between caring about her subjects and not letting their situations interrupt her focus.
“I think we live in a society that wants to see documentarians and people going into situations like me as martyrs, but the reality is that the subject is always taking the biggest risk,” she said. “You are entering a sacred space when you walk through the doors of their life and walk into their hearts.”
After spending two years photographing, Kosofsky said she decided to enroll at UCLA in 2013. She said her degree in gender studies helped her understand the psychological effects of prison on people she documented.
“(The department) really taught me that documentary is a feminist practice,” she said. “It’s about the exposure of injustice and humans rights issues that push back against the white heteronormative patriarchy of today.”
Kosofsky said one of the professors who impacted her the most during her time at UCLA was Michelle Erai, an assistant professor of gender studies. Kosofsky said Erai gave her an understanding of the prison system that she embedded in her work.
Erai said Kosofsky’s work stood out to her even in her larger lectures, with her papers having a strong depth of analysis.
“She was quiet in the larger classes, but you can’t not notice her,” she said. “I was struck by her willingness to put photography into a larger political framework.”
Erai added Kosofsky has a close relationship with her subjects that most researchers do not have.
“She was unusual in that many researchers that I work with don’t necessarily continue relationships with the ‘subjects,’” Erai said. “But I know that she has taken those relationships very seriously, and that that has been an ethical decision she has stuck by.”
Kosofsky said she thinks her relationships with the communities she documents does not affect the objectivity of her work.
“You can be objective while also being compassionate. It’s possible, because the reality is, when you enter somebody’s private space, when you work with them in vulnerable situations, in crises, they know if you care or not,” she said. “And when you’re completely detached, and coming in as somebody who is going to take their story, they can sense that and it actually harms the project.”
Kosofsky said she thinks her selection as a 2018 TED Fellow is a testament to the individuals she features in her work.
“It’s never been about me – it’s about the people that I represent and the work that I do,” she said. “I’m going into this for them, and I’m also going into this with all the girls … who have just wanted to be seen and heard for who they really are.”