Ara Oshagan: A Poor Imitation of Death

Published on 05/28/ 2024

Foreword by Father Gregory Boyle

“Throw away the key.” Human beings have always liked that expression. We feel good about ourselves afterwards. We think it clear-eyed, tough, and believe it sends the right message: we mean business.

Countless are the number of kids I know who sit in cells where the key has been thrown away. The United States remains the only country on earth that sentences children to die in prison. It is hard, sometimes, to get out from under that shame.

Nancy in her cell, Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles, 2001

There is an idea that’s taken root in the world and it is at the root of all that’s wrong with it. And that idea would be this: that there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives. A Poor Imitation of Death stands against that idea. With powerful photographs and poignant texts from kids themselves, this book stands with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. It stands with the “disposable” so that the day will come when we stop throwing kids away.

Handwritten poem by Efrain, 2001

Efrain, Avenal State Prison, Avenal, 2001

The late, great child psychologist Alice Miller calls on us all to be “enlightened witnesses”: people who through our kindness and tenderness and focused, attentive love “return kids to themselves.” With children, you don’t hold the bar up and ask them to measure up, you just show up and hold the mirror up. Then you tell them the truth: that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them. Then you watch them become that truth; inhabit that truth. And no bullet can pierce it, no four prison walls can keep it out, and death can’t touch it, because it is that huge.

Liz, 20 years old, Chowchilla State Prison, Chowchilla, 2001

Duc in his cell, 19 years old, Tehachapi State Prison, Tehachapi, 2002

The book you hold in your hands is an enlightened witness. It points us to the culturally disparaged and asks us to stand in awe at what these kids have to carry, rather than in judgment at how they carry it. Each photograph invites us into a mutuality with the subjects here presented and proposes kinship with them. For, in the end, the measure of our compassion lies not in our service to these kids but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.

Yard, Tehachapi state prison, Tehachapi Supermax State Prison, 2002

Morning prayer circle, Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles, 2001

We are invited, through this fine book, to stand with the easily despised and the readily left out. And you can almost hear those who would have us throw away the key accuse our solidarity with such kids as a waste of our time. But the prophet Jere- miah writes, “In this place of which you say, it is a waste ... there will be heard again, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness ... the voices of those who sing.”

A Poor Imitation of Death makes those voices heard.

Ara Oshagan

Ara Oshagan is a diasporic transdisciplinary artist, curator and cultural worker whose practice explores collective and personal histories of marginalization, displacement, identity, legacies of violence and (un)imagined futures. A descendant of communities uprooted from their indigenous land by the Armenian Genocide, he was born in Lebanon and displaced by war as a youth to the US. Oshagan has published three books of photography and has exhibited his artwork and public art internationally.

Father Gregory Boyle

World renowned for “radical kinship” and “boundless compassion,” Father Gregory Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang re-entry program in the US and a national model. He is the author of three books, including the 2010 New York Times bestseller Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.