By Salina Christmas
I got into Digital Anthropology for two things: to understand more about labour, and to be a more informed digital craftsman. After the Sojournposse interview with Pete Brook, the Editor of Prison Photography, I asked if Brook knew anyone who knows about the development in labour movement taking place in Wisconsin, US. Bob Gumpert is coming to London for his show, he said. He’s into labour, ask him.
Locked and Found: Portraits for the San Francisco, CA. County Jail. Photo © Robert Gumpert.
We first became familiar with Robert Gumpert’s photography works through the PDFs of prisoners’ photos that he periodically sends out by email. At the launch of his photography exhibition, “Locked and Found”, on prison photography, held at the Host Gallery, London, in April 2011, Gumpert and Sojournposse talked about labour, and of course, anthropology. Gumpert told us his wife is an anthropologist.
Zarina and I arranged to have lunch with him at Brixton Market on 11 April 2011. During lunch, Gumpert explained how he got into prison photography, and talked about the use of photography as direct action and also as a tool of visual research. Gumpert marvelled at the complexity of the seemingly inexplicable racial division in the San Francisco penitentiary, and he spoke of this, and also of his efforts in negotiating his identity in such a segregated circumstance, with frankness. At one point, during one of the many hilarious accounts he shared with us, I joked: “You’re not highly marked”. He was, momentarily, left speechless. With Gumpert, I felt at ease making light of cultural ‘markedness’. Which I don’t do often. But Gumpert does that to you. He has a way of engaging, which disarms you.
I told him about my anthropological fieldwork, which, in some ways, looks at race as a proxy measure. In a way, the lunch wasn’t just a lunch. It was a dialogue. Gumpert has accomplished in photography and labour activism what I am about to embark on. His advice, which I took to my heart, was: “We are all prisoners of our upbringing”. The best we could do is to try to step beyond our cultural upbringing, and try to understand the other. Below is our conversation, which took place on the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Brixton Riots.
Photography as direct action
A bit anthrophometric, but Gumpert doesn't do anthropology. Photo © Robert Gumpert. Image captured from the postgrad computer room at the Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL)
Salina Christmas: I looked at some of your photographs, not just of the prisoners but also the farm workers. Is your photography a method of research? That’s one of the techniques we have in ethnography.
Bob Gumpert: I think anybody in documentaries is doing research. I mean, but it’s visual research. I mean I don’t think I started out that way. I wanted to use photography to start talking about the effects of things I care about. It’s a business where you’re constantly going to places that allows you to go to places in the situations that you have never been before. So you get to see how they’re done. How they function, what they are, how people relate.
SC: I’m sure that you’ve taken pictures of so many things. So many subjects. I’m sure you can do fashion if you want to. [Gumpert smiles and shakes his head resolutely] No? But you decided to focus on the two or three subjects. You know, like the prison photographs. Eighteen years of documenting that. You’re pretty much, like, er–
BG: Single-minded. Er, actually I’m not. When I started out, I photographed labour. And I worked for labour. Because I’ve believed in labour. Which I still do. Believe in unions. And because it gives me an opportunity to see how things are done, and to have the photos used in which ways which I felt both comfortable with and happy about. So the photos would have an effect. And it allows me to know the difference between direct action and indirect action. So I was having direct action, right?
Then, for a number of reasons, both having to do with me and the labour movement, I kinda burned out.
I burned out on labour movement. Specifically Reagan got elected in the States, labour was under severe attack and instead of becoming more aggressive and confronting what was becoming to them, they all kinda pulled out, and specifically… for people like me, like the amount, part of the American labour movement who believed and still does in democratic unions, meaning that the membership, if you’re gonna go out on strikes, the membership plummets. The membership votes on its contracts. The membership takes part, hopefully, in negotiations, which is slightly different than it was here. So I worked for unions that either worked for those kind of organisations, or I worked for unions that sort of believed on some level, and the way it manifested itself. For people like me, it means that I don’t have to do a lot of leaders, the suits, or the pork choppers as they called them in the States.
The images shown at "Locked and Found" captivate. iPhone photo © S Christmas
SC: Pork choppers?
BG: Pork choppers. Ah, and I didn’t have to do grip-and-grins…. Grip-and-grins are when a leader decides to give somebody some minor person, a rank and file generally, an award. So, it’s very simply you have the awards on one hand, generally in the left, you shake hand, and the photographer takes a picture [laughs] And it’s in the business, and it’s called grip- and-grin, regardless…
Zarina Holmes: We call it ‘events’ here.
BG: –Regardless of what it’s called, regardless of whether it’s labour movement or a municipal political event or something, it’s called grip-and-grin in the States. And I don’t do grip-and-grins. Yes. I wasn’t interested. This was not direct action to me. Supporting, doing promo photos of leadership struck me as being, ah, a waste of the news payers’ money to hire me to do that. And it certainly didn’t satisfy my need to play an active role in strengthening the labour movement.
SC: And to see how things are done?
BG: To see how things are done, exactly. I couldn’t work on organising drives. I didn’t do the Health and Safety stuff. I didn’t do photos for use to support stuff for strikes. I just stopped. And I went off to the Phillipines, but nothing changed. In the sense of the topics that I was interested in: I really did not want to cover what Cory Aquino and Marcos did, because to me they were the same people I just ran away from in the States.
Shadowing the homicide detectives
At the exhibition, we are told that in the US, a 'jail', a 'prison' and a 'penitentiary' are three different concepts, unlike what we understand in the UK. iPhone photo © S Christmas
Gumpert then told us that he spent about seven years in Asia Pacific photographing political events. He did works for titles such as Asiaweek and the Far East Economic Review. When the recession hit the region, he decided to return to San Francisco, California, US. His son was already seven, and his wife was working on a PhD. He did not return to labour, and neither did he do grip-and-grins anymore. Instead, Gumpert did portraits of business personalities in start-up companies and academics. “Because I live in the Bay area, there is Stanford, and UC and a few others, and they produced a lot of business people. A lot of Nobel Laureates. So sometimes, it would be academics. It will be a season of academics. That’s all I would photograph for eight nine months. Just the academics,” he said. “And then something would change and then there would be no work. And then, a new season open up and it would be business people.”
BG: It would pay the bills but I knew it wasn’t gonna be anything I like doing. For the most part. It wasn’t why I got into photography. So, I looked around for a project. It had to be something that had to be at home, it had to be something cheap to do, and a friend of mine help me get into to do a documentary, a story on homicide.
And it was meant to be two weeks, and um, we started. And he got fired from his job.
BG: Him and the owner [of the publication] couldn’t get along. He was not gonna get published, so he decided he didn’t want to do it just to do it. So I went to the homicide detectives [and told them] he’s been fired, there’s no place to publish it, but I still like to do this. And they said fine. So I hung around for nine months. I was interested purely from the standpoint of the workers. My friend wanted to do it the classic way, which is the victim is the hub of a wheel, and then out of that hub are all these spokes: they touch the police, they touch the forensics, they touch the victim’s family, the unknown one of the suspect, they’d fine one, the suspect’s family. Yeah, that’s what he wanted to do. I wasn’t interested. I was interested only in the process of the detectives’ work. And frankly, how it related to the TV popular culture.
So after nine months, they didn’t tell me to stop. But it became clear to me that I shouldn’t be hanging around anymore. Not because of anything they said, but because at one point they were interviewing a witness, a witness of a murder…
…When they interview, they would, like if I was the person being interviewed, you would ask questions [points to me] and you would never interrupt [points to Zarina]. But you’d listen. And you’d maybe write down a note or two [points to me again], but you would listen [points to Zarina again]… And it would go back and forth until each of you were done. And at the point they were doing this, this one day, I was standing way off to the side, and I wasn’t taking any pictures. It was nothing new. They finish, they turn to me and said: ‘Do you have any questions?’.
And I thought: I’ve been here too long. This is it. I gotta leave.
Crime beats, stray cops and ‘street justice’
Gumpert (pictured, right): "Your conservatives are our liberals in the US." Sojournposse: "No way!". iPhone photo © S Christmas
BG: So, I um [he falls silent as a police car zips past the market, and waits for its deafening siren to fade away] so then, um, at that point I didn’t know what else to do. I had all this trust which is the hardest thing, so I called them and said: You know, I’d like to do street cops. Where would you recommend? [The detective] said to you can go anywhere, I mean within San Francisco. But I had to go some place where things would happen, otherwise you would just sit around all the time, right? So that kinda eliminated most of the precincts. But there were a couple of precincts, and I said I could do Potrero. Which is actually where I live. I could Hunter’s Point, or I could do The Mission, or I could do the Tenderloin. They ended up recommending Tenderloin because it was a very small area, with not even a precinct, you know. It had a task force, but it’s a very run-down area like Brixton, much more concentrated. They were relatively speaking a lot of murders, a lot of violence, a lot of drug dealing from all over, it was a DMZ, for, for drug dealing.
SC/ZH: What’s DMZ?
BG: Demilitarised zone.
You know, everybody from Oakland and and San Francisco, they would come to the Tenderloin to sell drugs. And as long as they stuck to the pre-assigned, worked out street corner system, they wouldn’t get in fights with each other for the most part, because it was no man’s land. Nobody owned, no gang, no–
SC: Like the town square [in Brixton] two years ago.
BG: So that’s what they recommended and they said, we’ll make you approach anybody you want. But if you go to the Mission, or you go to like Petrero, none of the cops would take you to the projects.
SC: What is a project?
BG: It’s the estate. Because if they do, when you arrive, the situation – whatever it is – instantly escalated. Because, you know, they think you’re white, you’re an outsider, you’re gonna be seen as somebody in the press and so they just gonna go ballistic. So the situation which may have been controllable now would require more squad cars, and so you’ll see what happen is nobody will take you anywhere. I mean, you’ll get in the car and you drive around, this shit happens on the radio but you would never go.
So [the cops said] ‘we recommend you do this other place’. So they did. They approached the captain. I met with them. A week before the day I met them, the Tenderloin quarter just had a, er, internal problem. A cop had been arrested. He was picking up hookers and when they had a warrant, he was trading blow jobs for release.
BG: So [grins] I said: why don’t we wait for you until the situation here kinda calm down a bit. And [the captain] goes: that would be great. So we did. Three months later I came back, and he said fine, and I showed up. I always worked swing shift. The reason for that was I generally work whole shifts eight hours. But it can get kinda boring. And nights if I worked from 11 pm to 6 am in the morning, ‘would have had a hard time doing paid [job]. So the swing shift allows me to do paying work and still be at the project. So four o’clock I went in and introduced me to the people, and they said to all the police officers and they said: how long is he gonna be around? ‘Captain said: as long as he wants. And they said: what does he see? And he said: everything that you see.
And ten months later I stopped.
They did, in fact, in the end, for the most part, let me see everything. But not entirely.
ZH: What do you mean?
BG: They didn’t let me see any street justice.
SC: You mean ‘bang bang’.
BG: No. Where they beat people up. Sometimes, sometimes this happens everywhere. The police just don’t want to bother taking you in.
SC: They just settled it then and there.
BG: So they just, you know.
ZH: And then it would be a waste of paperwork and all that.
BG: End the shift. You know, I mean it’s outrageous. It’s a health and safety, you know. But they would talk to me openly about it. But they wouldn’t show it, or let me be anywhere near it. Then I decided that I wanted to do the public defender’s office.
“The business of blind justice, it’s just a crock.”
We got talking about anthropology at his show. The division of gangs in the penitentiary along the ethnic lines is a topic that we find fascinating, yet baffling. iPhone photo © S Christmas
BG: So I went to the public defender’s office. he let me in. And they have to give permission from the defendant, from the judge and from the DA. The District Attorney. The prosecutor. And so it was a little bit of time that’s spent trying to find the right combination that would allow that. And we finally found a defendant who was being tried for murder. I didn’t care what they were defending right on this occasion. He was being retried. It was a hung jury the first time. So he was being retried for murder. The judge said yes, the DA said yes. So I spent 18 months.
SC: 18 months?
BG: 18 months.
SC: 18 months to get- it was getting longer and longer now? Your observation process gets- -
BG: No. Because the courts taking a long–
SC: Oh, ok [laughs].
BG: No, they do. Then they start up and then they stop. And then they start, and then they stop. And in case of this situation, it was also the extra problem that they wanted the public defender to give this guy a plea, plead out. And he wouldn’t. Because he thought he could win. And he thought he was innocent. And–
SC: No you said he ‘thought’ he was innocent.
BG: Yeah. The defender thought his client was innocent. Um in the sense that he thought it was self-defence. I mean it was never much doubt that he did it. The question only was whether it was self-defence or murder. And so he, um, he wouldn’t plea them out. He wouldn’t even – I mean it was his responsibility, ethic, to represent him. But he recommended that he didn’t take it. And he had done this several times, he’d repeat, and in the United States, what happens when you do that is that you don’t break any ethical laws as a lawyer, but you’re not playing by the rules of the legal club. The court is like a private legal club.
SC: Is it?
BG: It is. I mean if they could hold the courts with they themselves in it and the lawyers, you know, it would be much more fun.
SC: So another group of labourers that you’re observing, basically.
BG: Yeah! So basically, what was going on, what they do with lawyers like this, [who] don’t play by the rules. By the club’s rules. Is they discipline. But they can’t legally discipline them. Because they haven’t broken any ethical law. In fact, they are representing the clients to the best of their ability. So what they do is they punish the lawyer by punishing the client.
And the way they do that is that, you know, the business of blind justice, it’s just a crock, it’s just not, I mean it really depends on the judge, and it depends on an enormous number of factors, not the least of with is the judge. Some judges are really good at brokering deals. Some judges are known to be lenient towards the defence. Are willing to entertain defence motions, creative defence motions. Other judges are known as ‘hanging judges’ and they won’t entertain anything. In fact, they’ll go out of their way to benefit prosecution. All within the perimeters of the law.
How the ‘system’ works
BG: So the way it works, at least in San Francisco, legally, you go to an assigning court and that court assigns you the judge that is gonna hear your case. So in this particular situation, they kept postponing when they would assign this case because they needed two judges that the defence attorney hated. Because the first, you get one refusal as representative. Both sides get one refusal. So they needed two. They needed one that he would refuse, and then they need a second one that was preferably even worse, that he couldn’t refuse. And that’s what they tried – and he told me – that’s what they would do. And in fact six to eight weeks later.
They got the situation they wanted and they got immediately assigned and the district, the public defender said I don’t want that one. And the assigning judge got this smile on his face, well then we’re gonna have to give you Judge Verosso – who was a complete asshole.
And at one point, they told one of this public defender’s client that he was held immediately without bail and my friend the attorney said, but judge, he’s been clean and sober and working for six months, he has a kid in school, and he needs to pick up the kid from school. Can’t you let him pick up the kid at school? And I would bring him back tomorrow morning. And the judge said, no let him fall. The family services, they can take care of the kid. And the attorney had to actually plead, and had to ask for a private – pleaded at the judge to let this work out. So this was the judge that he had.
Well, the judge had a drunk driving arrest.
SC: The judge?
BG: In Marin. Which had gotten covered up.
BG: But the district – the public defender had found out about it.
SC: Oh wow.
BG: So, when he got to sign this. Right. The public defender said, to the assigning judge: Judge, I don’t really think you want to send me to Judge Verosso. And the judge said yes I do. And my friend said no I really don’t think you want to. And the judge said, yes I do, and I am not interested in hearing it. You tell me then. And my friend said, but judge, you know, things happened that we all really wished didn’t become public. And you know, I don’t want to see it become public, and I, maybe we should talk you by the side of the fence. Then we shared an off-the-record chat. And he let me, they both unbelievably let me come up to the side.
ZH: Oh my god.
BG: He said to him, he said: judge, you know as well as I do that you’ve been arrested for drunk-driving and it was covered up, and we had the proof. You assign me this guy, it’s coming out. I want a different judge. And they gave him a different judge.
SC: Every little helps.
BG: And the judge max them up, did 21 years for manslaughter.
SC: 21 years is such a long time.
BG: It’s a long time. He’s out now, because he had a lot of time served, and he got off for good behaviour. I think he did 14 years.
SC: They seem to have longer sentences in the States, whereas here, yeah, I think after some good behaviour, after two years, you can be out, or—
BG: It depends on the charge. Depends on the charge or the circumstances. Depends on whether you’re black or white.
SC: Really? Does that count?
ZH: Uh. That’s new to me: “depends if you’re black or white”.
BG: Or actually I mean it’s not entirely as bad as being in the South. If you were black and killed a white man, that’s ok, you get uh, but if you’re a white man and you killed a black man, you probably get off.
BG: Get no time.
SC: Really? Wow.
BG: So then I got in the, after that, I finally got into the jail. Took a long time to get me into jail.
SC: But you seem to be doing the supply chain correctly – sorry to use the term ‘supply chain’. You know like, from A to B to C to D, you know like—
BG: Yeah, I mean it’s not hard. The only one that was the odd person out was the homicide detectives because they’re cops. So I got two cops, the court and the jail. But um, so I finally got into jail and I spent 40 hours a week for three months.
SC: Which year is this?
BG: It was ’96. I spent the entire week there for three months. Five days a week.
SC: Pete Brook mentioned in one of his blogs. He said that sometimes the camera has the power to like influence the, to tell a story. He says that one of the challenges is that people don’t know when you enter a citadel, the fortress, there’s also the ‘frame’. In anthropology, we learn this thing about ‘the frame’. For example, here we are in this frame [a restaurant], so the decorum says we sit down and talk. I don’t dance on the table. That’s what the frame says. So he says that sometimes when someone brings a camera into the prison, the social settings, the frame, of the prison influenced what is being captured.
BG: Of course it does. Sure. I went in to photograph people at work. That was first in ’96, that’s why I went in. And the prisoners were in the photos because that’s the reason why everybody’s here. As they call ‘em in the criminal justice system, they’re the guests of honour.
SC: The guests of honour?
BG: Yeah, depending on who you talk to. The guests of honour—
SC: Her Majesty’s guests, that’s what they call it here.
BG: Or they’re, they’re the profit.
SC: Or the product?
BG: I mean, nobody, only very cynical people in the system will say that they’re products. But they are. This is a huge money that they accumulate in the States… and there is no criminal justice system without prison. They are the product.
Everything is based around them. You know, how much money it costs to run a prison is based on how much money it costs to house them. How much money the correction corporation of America charges State is based on how much money does it take for us to house the guarded prisoner.
SC: It’s like maintaining a highway.
BG: They’re widgets. They’re like this meat. They’re meat. They’re the meal. Or they’re a piece of clothing. I mean they would, so the State gets, they build the prison and these guys come in and in turn, the State gives you money.
And they know that. The prisoners absolutely know that. Absolutely know that everything everybody has a vested interest in seeing them locked up and stay locked up because they’re making money. And as soon as they don’t belong there, they don’t make money.
SC: It’s like a hotel.
BG: Oh, absolutely!
SC: You check in—
BG: But you’re not allowed to check out.
ZH: [Laughs] Someone else picks up the tab, of course. Obviously.
BG: Well, no. Actually, that’s not true. That’s not necessarily true. There are a lot of situations in the States where you as a prisoner are charged for your stay. Like, in Santa Ana, if you could afford it , and you get arrested and you get sentenced for like drunk driving. Maybe a first sentence. You get like 45 days. Or 90 days in jail. And you don’t want to do that time with the riff raff. You would like to have whatever meals you would have, and of course, you need your mobile phone because you need to continue your little business, right?
So, in Santa Ana, they have refurbished a wing of a jail and you can now purchase, pay for, to do your time there.
ZH: You can purchase like a time share of this place?
BG: Yup. You’re sentenced for 45 days, it’s a lot of profits. US$200 a night. And you can maintain your mobile phone, you will get your own set of clothes, somebody will take care of you, you can order pizza with liberty, it’s completely insane. I mean it’s but it’s perfect. America is a classless society. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
SC: Whereas here, it’s all funded by tax payers ie us.
BG: In that case, it’s fine. You pay. You pay for your time in [the United States], in this kinda weird place.
"Field Work", Gumpert's observation on farm workers, was backed by the Institute of Industrial Relations Gallery, UC Berkeley, California, in 2003. Visit the online gallery
Working with female prisoners
ZH: What about the females we saw, six or. Do you work with the females less than the males?
BG: They’re harder to work with.
ZH: They’re harder to work with? Because you’re a man?
BG: Because they’re women.
[SC and ZH laugh]
BG: Exactly. That’s exactly right [laughs].
SC: Really? I thought women are meek just like lambs.
BG: I think women are vastly experienced more than men. The woman lives in two worlds. One is she has to be competent and run stuff, and the other, you have to look like you’re not in charge. And so, in jail, the women have a completely different operating system. So there’s many things involved. One is, that the woman’s jail, visually, is much harder for me to work with. That has nothing to do with the women, it’s a transition jail in that, architecturally. So it isn’t a linear jail which is can be easy to photograph, looks like every’s mindset of [what a] jail [is]. A linear jail has got bars. ‘Let me out’. ‘It’s dark and noisy’, right? And then, the new jail, which is the one most women are in, are relatively clean, it’s got a gym in it, it’s well lit, it’s got some blank wall, so there’s places for me to photograph.
The women’s jail is a hard system just like the new one. But it’s an older version. And there’s just nothing there. It’s very difficult for me to find a place that works photographically. Either in background or back light. So that’s one problem. Which has nothing to do with the women.
The other problem is that women are reactive. It’s not a problem of a story, it’s a problem of the way they manage the system. So, it’s a kind of a constant battle because women. The men, once the men get used to them, there’s very little manipulation. They’ll try, occasionally, [and then] they just forget about it. Now we just get on with the business. The women never stop. Just never stop.
BG: So it’s always, always some batting of the eyes, they all, you know, ‘you smell good’. I don’t really, all I, they keep on and on. And you just have to deal with it.
BG: And it’s exhausting!
ZH: [Laughs] So men are easier to manage.
BG: Then on top of it, there are the rules that I have to adhere to, and they have to adhere to. We’re gonna do the photos. And one of those rules make no sense whatsoever. But it’s a jail.
Your job, my job, their job, her job. They don’t have the right to question. And essentially, I don’t have the right to question. So, the bottomline for me is, what jail would let me do this for six years? So, none. So I should just shut up. It’s still doesn’t make sense to me who cares. You know. It doesn’t matter. I’m in. I can take whatever photos I want. I come in whenever I want. That’s fine.
The women don’t accept that. So the rule was: ‘Ladies, I take you photo, you tell me your story. Next week, I give you four photos’. And literally give them four photos. And I put the CD in your property with the story. That goes in your property cos the CD can be made in more than one way. So that’s the way it works. So the women took the photos and sent them to their boyfriends in jail. The prison didn’t like this. Why? I don’t know. It’s not a problem when the men down [the jail] do it. But when the women did it, it was a problem. Do I understand why? Do I make an issue out of it? No! But what happens was I got banned from the jail. Because the women did it.
So then I went back and I said: can we try again? They said yes. So long as they understand the rules. So we said fine. I went back. And I explained all this: I give you photos. You can send them home. But you cannot send them to the jail. All the women said no problem, we understand. They sent them home with instructions to send them to the jail. From home. Because why? Because they weren’t sending them to the jail.
So, what happened, I got banned again. So I get back in and I said to the women, you cannot send anything, any of these photos, at any form, from any place to the other jail. And a woman raises her hand and said, and have Xeroxes made instead of photos. And I said, no, you cannot. And I stopped going in. Because it was, I just, at some point, if I keep coming a problem, I’m banned.
So I’ve gone back in now. What the solution has finally become: I don’t deliver the women any prints. It wasn’t their property.
BG: So it has never come up. But it’s that kind of thing. It just kind of different.
SC: It’s not as straightforward. Huh? You think? Negotiating this type of project?
BG: It wasn’t straightforward.
Academia, anthropology and cultural markedness
Nicholus Summers. Photo @ Robert Gumpert
SC: With what you know for such a long time, you could have done like a, a book, a textbook, not just a book, but as a textbook.
SC: You don’t want that?
BG: No, I could. I don’t wanna. You know I’m not a trained—I am not an academic.
SC: You mean you don’t want to be an academic.
BG: I am not an academic. Not academically inclined. And I’m not real analytical. You know, things just appal me, that’s all. You know, I look at stuff like, appalled, but I also, but I’m interested. So I just keep asking questions. But for instance, I now have been asking questions for well over a year about prison politics.
SC: Prison politics. That’s—
BG: Well, yeah. Basically race.
At least in California. And I still don’t have a handle on it. I mean I think I’m beginning to, but I really don’t have much for handling it. Because every time I think I have a handle on it, I asked a question and then I realise, so I really didn’t understand. So,
ZH: You can’t come up with your own theory. That’s what you’re saying.
BG: I mean, because my wife is an anthropologist, I know how they analyse their stuff. And I just, I am not interested.
ZH: You just document.
BG: You know, I’m really interested in how things work, I’m interested in how people relate to one another, I’m interested in rules, but I am also, what training I have is as a journalist. I wasn’t very good at it. What training I had as a journalist – and a journalist is interested in about, like, that deep.
SC: Yeah, very true. Just skimming—
BG: And I’m interested in something that deep. But my wife is interested in like down to the bedrock [laughs]. And I’m not. You know, sometimes too much study.
SC: Yeah, it makes you think, oh my god, I don’t know, I’m in two minds about doing a PhD for that reason [laughs]. I like people but not that much [laughs] for anthropology!
BG: So, you know, I’m still there because it’s direct action.
ZH: Direct action.
BG: These guys, you know, I don’t care if they’re guilty or innocent. It doesn’t matter. To me they’re invisible people that we treat like crap. And it’s wrong. Regardless of what they did.
Some of them are very nice but I sure don’t want to meet them in the street. But they are very nice. And some of ‘em are, and I would guess are innocent of what they’re charged of.
Which is not to say they’re innocent. Just innocent of what they’re charged.
But the bottomline for me is that they’re human beings. That, in many cases, they’re extremely challenged. Or they’re absolutely functioning but in normal society. There’s something went – for me, I look at it and I think something went wrong. I mean they know, they’re, everybody says they’re there because they don’t know how to follow the rules. Right?
They’re there because they break the rules, get caught, and they just don’t know how to adhere to the rules. But in fact, they do. Because their societies have very, very strict codes which they understand and for the most part, they adhere to. So it’s not – whatever is going on, it isn’t that they don’t know how to, it isn’t they don’t, they can’t, there’s something they’re not psychologically incapable of following the rules. There’s something else going on. You know, and in fact, they’re much more you know,
[SC takes out the book, “Aliens and Alienists” by Maurice Lipsedge and Roland Littlewood, and shows it to BG. Prof Littlewood is SC’s lecturer in Anthropology and Psychiatry at University College London]
"Aliens and Alienists: Ethnic Minorities and Psychiatry" is co-written by our Editor's tutor of Anthropology and Psychiatry at UCL, Prof Roland Littlewood, and Maurice Lipsedge. It looks not only at the external migrants, those come from outside the UK, but also internal migrants to London, such as the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots.
SC: It’s been doing my head in. I have to write an essay about it. That’s why I—
BG: You know, when you think about it, these folks live in multiple worlds at the same time. In a way which I don’t have.
SC: You’re not highly marked! [BG goes silent. SC softens her voice] You’re not highly marked. [Laughs] Oh, look at you!
BG: [Recovers] Ok, I’m not highly marked.
SC: [Laughs] Ha ha, I’m highly marked!
BG: But I don’t have to. I mean, I speak American English, I watch people like me on TV [sirens blears in the background]. The rules of the society come from people of my culture. Yeah, I just have to speak the wrong language and follow the wrong rules. But if you’re black, you have to be able to speak English, you have to be able to speak Black American, whatever it is, you have black culture, you have hybrid culture, you have, you know, American culture, you know, the white middle class culture you have to function in. And if you work, you really have to function, work like him, like, you know you’re domestic—Holy Cow! You know. They do that. And nobody seems to give them little credit. It seems to me that you could, that there must be a way if you recognise that, and they don’t recognise that. They don’t recognise that.
SC: They don’t recognise it.
BG: They would be a lot more, um, fully self-confident instead of going for bottom. But um, basically I’m still there because to me, this is an invisible community. I think the State locks up people because like we do, because it is an invisible community. We don’t have to think about them as human beings. And I think that the society – any society – can only be judged by the way it treats its most undesirable people.
I really believe that. So, for me, and because they like this stuff. You know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. You know it’s an exchange for us. I like their stories, they like the photos.
ZH: Do they like the pictures?
BG: Oh yeah! They love ‘em. They pass them around. They’re giving them to their kids. Their mother.
BG: Never mention their father. Gave it to their mother. They said they gave it to their girlfriend.
SC: They never mention their father?
BG: No, almost none.
The politics of race. And art
Photo @ Robert Gumpert
BG: To a great degree. Nothing happens in a jail or in prison. Nothing happens in these places that isn’t prescribed. You break the rules to certain people, you pay the price. And your freedom of movement is much restricted.
It is very interesting. But you have to remember that prison, is that there are rules, there are rules that the systems have that you have to adhere to, and there are rules that are every bit as stringent and inflexible that the prisoners themselves [follow] – you have to remember that. There are two sets of rules.
SC: The formal and the informal.
BG: No. It’s the formal and formal.
SC: The formal and formal? [laughs] Wow, that’s good. I’m gonna tell my supervisor that.
BG: I mean I think that, I think that, semantically, yes, it is the informal and the formal but, yes, the formal and the formal. It’s every bit as stringent. It’s every bit as codified, it’s just not written down. You know, stuff like in prison you don’t share food with somebody from another colour.
So that if you have a set of [potato] chips, because we’re different, you have a set of chips, and I want your chips the only way I can buy from you the chips, is if the packet is still pre-sealed. If it’s opened, or if you stay here, and you see them on the plate and take some, ‘can’t do that. You can’t do this on somebody of another colour.
SC: There’s no contact.
BG: But there’s circumstances when there’s some tattoo artists are better than others. So there are some circumstances where a guy told me. He was a tattoo artist. He designed a tattoo for himself that involved a lot of shading. And he was black. So he checked around and the tattoo artist – I mean he couldn’t do that. So the tattoo artist that was best at shading was white.
SC: Uh huh?
ZH: Ooooh, so they combined force?
BG: Can’t do it. Can’t do it. Cos that’s exchanging body fluid. Ohh, can’t do that.
BG: And uh-oh, we’re talking about death.
SC: You’re joking.
BG: Yeah, it’s heavily—so he went to the guy so he found a black guy who was very good at outlines.
So he found the guy who was really good at outlines so he could draw in this case it was the guy’s painting stylised. So he was really good in doing that. And also because he was really good at that and understood how to use the tattoo gun that they had made. So, the tattoo guy who was having it done goes to the white guy that is really good at shading and said: would you mind instructing me? And the guy said no, that would be fine. So this guy is like sitting here, I am getting a tattoo, the guy giving me the tattoo is black, standing here is a white guy saying no you gotta hold the gun like this, you do it up here, that’s it, you but he could get too far, and he could not do it himself.
ZH: But it’s doable.
BG: Sometimes. He spend an hour and a half. And then he said: art unifies everyone.
ZH: It’s so true!
BG: It was a great line. I asked another guy, black, unknown, he came out of the federal penitentiary, if he’d ever seen it. And he said: no, in our groups that wouldn’t be allowed. But he said it could happen. It isn’t like technically un-allowed.
SC: You see, there is something interesting there about pedagogy. Maybe there’s another sub-set of anthropology that I should explore. It’s like knowledge transfer.
ZH: That’s amazing actually.
BG: It’s such a trip.
Salina Christmas is a multimedia journalist, a photographer and a member of the NUJ New Media branch. She is doing an MSc in Digital Anthropology at University College London. Bob Gumpert’s prison photographs can be viewed on Take A Picture, Tell A Story. “Field Work”, his project on farm workers, was backed by the Institute of Industrial Relations Gallery, UC Berkeley, California, in 2003.
“Can I Make Xeroxes of the Photos, Instead?” By Pete Brook on Prison Photography (6 June, 2011)
“I have often described photographs in prisons as emotional currency. The tenacity and single mindedness of these female prisoners is, to me, quite amusing. They’re resolute in how they want to use photographs, and the variant ways they circumnavigate an unenforcable rule trumps any analysis they make of the rule itself.”