Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect age of Lewis’s daughter, Isabella. This version has been corrected.
In one photo, a 6-year-old boy stares hauntingly into the camera. Another shows his 14-year-old brother, also with no grin. They are the sons of a father spending decades in prison.
There’s a photo of a 16-year-old girl whose brother is imprisoned. There’s one of a 31-year-old man whose mother and father were both locked up. And there’s an image of an 87-year-old woman, the mother of two sons and a daughter who were behind bars.
These are faces of D.C. residents with loved ones who have been sent to prison, sometimes serving life sentences.
The exhibit, says its founder, Tony Lewis Jr., is not about the men and women who are incarcerated. Instead, it is about the children, parents and siblings who are cut off from their loved ones, often for the rest of their lives. It’s about the mothers who must raise children alone when fathers are sent away, and the children who grow up without one of their parents.
“They are the collateral damage,” Lewis said. “They are the innocents who are left behind, suffering because of the choices an adult in their family made.”
Lewis, 34, teamed with 21-year-old West Hyattsville photographer Mark Thomas and came up with a visual way to tell their stories. The 30 subjects were photographed at the nonprofit Blind Whino arts club, at 700 Delaware Ave. SW, and the owner of the club agreed to house the exhibit at no cost. The free, one-day exhibit runs Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m.
“These children are no different than a child whose parent died in the war or who has lost a parent to AIDS,” Lewis said. “But unlike other children, they often don’t have the same emotional support.”
Lewis understands what their lives are like. In 1990, when he was 9, his father, Tony Lewis Sr., was sentenced to life in prison. Federal prosecutors said the elder Lewis and Rayful Edmund III — one of Lewis’s best friends and one of D.C.’s most notorious drug dealers — were organizers of one of the District’s largest drug gangs. Prosecutors said they dealt crack in the city in the early to mid-1980s, during the height of the drug epidemic.
The fast-talking, stocky,
5-foot-7 Lewis Jr. — or “Little Tony,” as he was known in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Hanover Place where his father once ruled the streets — also watched three of his uncles go to prison. Lewis credits his mother, his grandmother and other family members with keeping him focused on his education. His father — during prison visits, via collect phone calls and in letters — also encouraged him not to follow in his path, the younger Lewis says.
Today, as a Gonzaga College High School alumnus and a University of the District of Columbia graduate with a degree in urban studies, Lewis works as a D.C. community activist focusing on people with incarcerated family members, as well as people who have been released from prison and are trying to find jobs, housing and other services.
Lewis said he got the idea for the exhibit because many people feel isolated or confused about how to interact with a loved one who is imprisoned.
“Young children especially go through abandonment issues. They miss their parents. They can’t hug their parent when they need to, and that plays out in the homes and in the schools with emotional and physical problems,” Lewis said. “This is about addressing their issues now so they don’t follow in the same footsteps as their parent.”
Lewis and Thomas, a Catholic University student, met through mutual friends. Thomas said he’s never had a family member incarcerated, though a friend was recently sent to prison.
In each black-and-white, 20-by-30-inch photo, the subject stares straight into the camera. No posing.
“I didn’t want to manipulate the image,” Thomas said. “I just wanted to document what was true.”
Many of the subjects are from Lewis’s family. The 87-year-old woman is his grandmother. One of the first photos in the exhibit shows Lewis’s 6-month-old daughter, Isabella, who is growing up without her grandfather.
What visitors of the exhibit will not learn is the story of the person who is behind bars. That, Lewis and Thomas said, is irrelevant in this context.
“These children, these teenagers and mothers, had nothing to do with that. But they’re the ones left behind in pain,” Lewis said. “No one ever seems to understand that.”