Story by Chandler Shrode/ Contributing Writer
Photos by Ambre Stewart
The imposing, cuboid structure of the Rutherford County Detention Center loomed over Ambre Stewart as she crossed the parking lot. Without committing any crime, this Middle Tennessee State University student was going to jail. And she brought her camera.
Most importantly, she did this for several months.
Finding a way in
Ambre Stewart is a senior photography major at MTSU. Most days she works in the photo lab, renting film reels and darkroom easels to her fellow students. When she’s not at school, she waits tables at Marina’s on the Square, listens to music or walks her pug-beagle mix, Bazan. And, for a few days earlier this fall semester, she shadowed cops, firefighters and wardens for her student gallery show, “Grey and Blue.”
The idea for the series, shown Monday, August 29th, was inspired by American photographer Gregory Crewdson. Famous for creating surreal tableaux of American life, the photos Stewart saw in class inspired the idea of series based on an officer in uniform going about his/her daily life.
“They’re a police officer on the job but also 24/7,” Ambre explained. “They’re a police officer when they go grocery shopping, when they check the oil on the car, when they check the mail. So that’s what I wanted, but I needed an ‘in’ to an officer. Cause I didn’t want to just give someone a uniform, I wanted it to be an officer.”
Hoping to find a willing participant, Ambre sat down at a table of cops when they came in to eat at the restaurant where she waits tables and pitched her idea. That started a long chain of inquiries that finally landed her with the Rutherford County Sheriff’s office, who agreed to let her take part in a ride along. This would be the first of many tours, training exercises and inside looks that would come to make up “Grey and Blue.”
“I expected to call these places and for them to tell me ‘No,’” Stewart explained. “And every single one of them was very inviting.”
An uncut look at public service
Her documentary series developed from this surprising level of access she received.
“I went in, I took photos, this is what happened,” she said. “It wasn’t like planning it or trying to capture a certain style.”
The series focuses on public servants, specifically law enforcement, but also firefighters and detention officers.
Over 900,000 law enforcement officers currently serve on the government payroll, the highest figure in history. According to statistics provided by the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, an on-duty officer dies every 61 hours, making for extremely dangerous working conditions.
“It was very raw photography,” said Stewart.
What came out of this long journey was an uncut look at the way public servants go about their daily lives, dealing with stress and socializing with co-workers with a surprising amount of access. She says that the only thing she wasn’t allowed to photograph were the inmates in the jail.
Their humanity is “worth a second look”
It was the day of her show, “Grey and Blue,” all her hard work culminating in this one moment.
As she walked through the gallery, looking at her photos, she paused in front of a pair of photos from an emergency training exercise. “I’ve talked to my professors a lot about this one,” she said, indicating a photo of three fireman standing shoulder to shoulder in full gear, her favorite from the series. “It has both races and they’re in a line working together.”
Without missing a beat, she moved to the next one. A fireman, covered in debris and sweat with his back to another man. “He’s checking his oxygen tank. That’s his superior but he’s here checking that he’s OK and that’s asbestos, literally.” Ambre thinks that this one best captures what they actually do. “He just ran in there, saved a fake baby and now he’s covered in asbestos,” she said, referring to the common insulation material from the early 20th century, which can cause cancer after prolonged exposure and is a serious health issue among firefighters.
One shot in particular stands out, a familiar scene to anyone who has driven down the street and seen two patrol cars parked next to each other. This frame takes on an almost uncanny quality due to its perspective from inside the car. The officers, usually brusque and testy when seen in the wild, are jovial and friendly.
Ambre pointed to the men in the photograph, saying “this guy’s about to go on vacation, and he’s going somewhere that this [other] guy has already been, so they’re just chatting it up.” When I brought up their facial expressions she nodded her head. “Yeah, they’re a lot happier when they’re together. But they’re usually driving around alone for 10 hours so … ”
“They’ve got really great home lives,” she explained, bringing up the officers she rode around with, one with a wife and child and the other with a chihuahua that he loves. “They’re not trying to pull you over. They’re just trying to make it home tonight. That’s the goal. Obviously there are bad cops out there, but the ones I encountered weren’t. People just don’t really give them a chance, and I can see why. But it’s also worth a second look.”