Artist defends jail photos, Beltline officials apologize

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A small crowd gathered at a local high school Thursday night to express their thoughts on a series of photos that have caused a public outcry.

Officials with Atlanta Beltline, Inc. apologized publicly for what they deemed a "racially insensitive" display of artwork on the Westside Trail. The photos feature four African-American men and the dogs they trained through the Canine CellMates program in the Fulton County Jail.

"The reason why the imagery is so important is because it tells a true story of what is happening here in Atlanta," explained photographer Kelly Kline, who originally took the photos for Atlanta Magazine. "These are men from Atlanta that are going through the incarceration process here in Atlanta. It's their story and I believe their story deserves to be told."

One member of the community considered the display so offensive, that he took it upon himself to remove it shortly after it was installed. Many have complained that the photos portray a negative stereotype of African-American men.

Canine CellMates, however, said the anger about the photos is misplaced.

"The images of the Canine CellMates program recently removed from the Atlanta Beltline were intended to highlight a positive rehabilitation program within the Fulton County Jail. The anger over these images is misdirected and those seeking to ban the images are misinformed," the organization said in a statement. "The demographic disparity of that wider population need not – we feel – ever be whispered about or concealed in any way by anyone. We only see incarcerated men who need a second chance at life."

Some members of the West End community complained that the placement of the photos in a predominantly African-American area was insensitive.

"It was a trigger, you know, immediately," said Dionne Turner, who has owned a home in West End for five years. "What? In an area that's being gentrified, you're showing images of black men imprisoned with canines. Regardless of the context, I think it still would have been offensive even if you had an explanation."

The four jail photographs were part of a larger display of dozens of images curated by Atlanta Celebrates Photography. The organization displayed the outdoor exhibit on fences across the state before it was installed along the Beltline in late August. Kline said this was the first time anyone expressed a negative reaction to her photos.

"Here's the interesting thing about photography and imagery and artwork, you can create it and you have a point of view, but you cannot anticipate or manufacture someone's response to your artwork," said Kline. "I actually think every person is entitled to their own response and reaction to artwork, whether it's good or bad or happy or sad, we're all entitled to our own impression to a piece of work. I will say I was not prepared personally for the reaction to this artwork."

Kline said she hopes her photographs might be reinstalled along the Beltline with an artist statement to give them proper context. Canine CellMates hopes to plan a larger event to display more of Kline's work in an effort to educate the community about their mission and the issue of mass incarceration in the United States.

"The response was uncomfortable for us. We did feel like we were under fire with absolutely no understanding of what the pictures represented or what the work is that we do inside Fulton County Jail," said Founder and Executive Director Susan Jacobs-Meadows. "But the only time you can grow as an organization or as a person is when you're uncomfortable."

Officials with the Beltline said they are committed to being more sensitive about the appropriateness of the artwork they choose to install in certain neighborhoods.