Youth in prison camp: their time in photographer's lens

When freelance photojournalist Brian L. Frank decided to document the Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, he arrived with the only credential that would be accepted by the boys serving time.

He’d served time himself and knew the slang and the body language — as well as having a willingness to spend all day and night at the camp — that earned him an exceptionally honest series of images that made its debut last week at SF Camerawork.

“I had my own altercations with the criminal justice system when I was younger,” said Frank, now 38. “So I had a connection with these guys.”

The exhibition, titled “Focal Points,” is a group show featuring Tomas van Houtryve, Sarah Blesener and Frank, all of whom were funded by CatchLight, a Bay Area nonprofit promoting photography about social issues.

Frank got a $30,000 grant that defrayed the costs of driving from his home in Guerneville to the Amador County camp in the Sierra foothills, plus his hotel charges in Placerville. He would have preferred to stay overnight at the camp with the boys, but it’s against regulations.

“I wanted to show what happens when the camera isn’t there,” he says, “and the only way to get that is to just blend in. Eventually, they get bored with you being there for so long, and then you see the true moments.”

Frank learned the language from the inside of San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall, the lockup infamously known as juvie. He spent a lot of time there when he was younger, for fighting and a variety of other crimes he declines to list. The only thing good about his juvie experience was its location on the west side of Twin Peaks, convenient to the Sunset District where Frank grew up.

While in and out of trouble, Frank also managed to get himself into Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory school, where he graduated in 1997. But it took one more trip to a prison camp for adults, to serve a six-month sentence for felony assault, before Frank finally straightened himself out.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from San Francisco State University in 2007, and 10 years later had an assignment from a big national magazine to shoot inmate firefighters. One of the camps he visited turned out to be Pine Grove, the last remaining camp in California that trains juvenile felons to be firefighters. He finished the inmate firefighter story, then returned on his own to the juvenile camp.

“I was really interested in continuing there because I had a connection with the guys and wanted to continue working with them,” he says.

But it did not end there. When one of the boys was released, Frank followed him home to Salinas and photographed his re-entry into the chaotic street life there. This teen made it through the transition, but many relapse into gang life and end up back in custody. Frank has shot that side of post-juvie life, too, as a before-and-after study.

In all there are 15 of his images among 46 pictures in the group show.

“Through spending time with the boys, I was able to find the bonds of brotherhood, which is what I was looking for,” he says. “I didn’t want to just show scary-guys-in-jail pictures.”

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SamWhitingSF Instagram: @sfchronicle_art

Focal Points: CatchLight Fellows and Everyday Bay Area Collective: Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday. Through June 30. Free. SF Camerawork, 1011 Market St., S.F. (415) 487-1011.