Documenting a Love Story after Decades in Prison

June 15, 2021

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Lashonia and Sean Thompson-El enjoy morning sunlight in their bedroom one Sunday.

Originally published on May 10, 2021 on GWToday by Ruth Steinhardt.


Hadley Chittum doesn’t consider herself a traditional photojournalist. When it comes to the stories she’s chronicled as a student at the George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, objectivity and distance aren’t always her goals.


“Don’t get me wrong, I think that is so important,” said Ms. Chittum, who will graduate with her BFA in photojournalism May 16. “But I could never really get into that mindset. I have too many strong opinions, and I can get too close. I’m majoring in photojournalism, but I think of myself more as a documentary photographer."


That powerful emotional lens is recognizable in “Team El,” Ms. Chittum’s thesis project, now on display at the Corcoran’s annual end-of-year thesis and capstone show, NEXT. This year, in addition to an on-campus series of installations that can be safely visited through May 31, NEXT will also include a virtual exhibition of graduate and undergraduate theses and capstone projects in fine art, graphic design, theater, dance, music, photojournalism, interaction design, museum studies, interior architecture, and other disciplines.


“Team El” chronicles the love story of Lashonia and Sean Thompson-El, two Washington, D.C., residents who were both, as teenagers, convicted of separate violent crimes and who both endured decades of imprisonment. When they met as adults, both were working to process the anger and trauma of their pasts. Now they do that work together, while also working to help fellow formerly-incarcerated people reintegrate into society outside prison and to prevent others from entering the system at all. Neither disclaims responsibility for the violence in their pasts, but both are aware of the systemic forces that enabled that violence and the failures of a carceral system not designed to rehabilitate.


So is Ms. Chittum, who met the Thompson-Els as a sophomore. They’re now so close that they consider each other family. For her, the relationship between Lashonia and Sean is as powerful a statement about the system they’ve endured as their anti-carceral work is.


“A lot of returning citizens [from incarceration] carry this heavy weight, and it can be hard to fully get past that and truly form stable relationships,” Ms. Chittum said. “Prison messes you up—and it’s supposed to, it’s designed that way. But [Lashonia and Sean] are really great about focusing on healing, and part of that is understanding when they need to be alone, or just to have space. And their relationship is so beautiful. They’re so in love, it almost feels like they’re still in high school.”


In an interesting paradox, while Ms. Chittum’s deep attachment to the Thompson-Els is an essential part of her storytelling, it also, in a way, allows her to disappear. Sometimes figuratively—some photos capture moments that feel almost too intimate to have been observed by an outsider—and sometimes literally, as in the few photos where she gave the couple a point-and-shoot film camera and asked them to document each other. As close as Ms. Chittum and the Thompson-Els are, she wanted to give them the tools to tell their own stories through their own eyes.


“This project was very, very collaborative,” she said. “They worked with me, and I really wanted their input. They love each other in a much more intimate, romantic, personal way, and they've known each other longer, and they have these similar life experiences. It was necessary to see them that way.”


Ms. Chittum credits her adviser, Assistant Professor of Photojournalism Matt Eich, with helping her recognize and develop her unusual skill set.


“He kind of helped me realize that one of my skill sets is photographing intimacy—being able to make photos where it looks like I shouldn't have been there, or that they didn’t notice me,” she said.


She also credits her cohort of fellow photojournalism students with creating an atmosphere that makes intimate, personal, and experimental work possible. Other projects going up in NEXT this week include, for instance, classmate Ari Golub’s multimedia project in conversation with his Tourette’s syndrome.


“The Corcoran’s program is unique in that it allows you to explore more of a fine arts approach,” she said. “It allows us to cross boundaries in that way, and we have a pretty diverse range of how connected people are to journalism versus fine art or in the middle like me. I really wouldn’t want to go anywhere else to study this.”


To see more from NEXT, please visit the online exhibition or see a PDF map of NEXT installations on the Foggy Bottom campus.