By Zarina Holmes
Prison photography is about visual democracy and preserving humanity. But how do you look at it? Sojournposse speaks to Pete Brook, photo researcher and editor of Prison Photography, to understand the task of documenting and telling the complex story of the incarcerated community.
Photo © Melania Comoretto
Q: A prison is not an easy subject to look at. Why choose prison photography as your subject?
Precisely because it is difficult to look at. The justification for a lot of photography is that it is revelatory, showing us things otherwise unseen. Yet, prisons are tightly-managed, closed systems so when photography comes up against prisons those claims are tested.
But more than that I have particularly strong views about the need for prison reform, particularly in the United States which has quadrupled its prison population in the past 30 years. Do photographic activities have anything to add to – or can they fuel – progressive public opinion?
Where did my interest in American prison politics begin? Back in 2004, I wrote a research paper on the San Quentin Prison Museum. In order to evaluate the museum’s narrative, I needed to quickly learn the history of California prisons and the current politics of incarceration. The figures astounded me. The mass incarceration of American citizens since the early eighties is unprecedented in the “free societies” of human history. The expansion of the prison industrial complex had more to do with a culture of fear and opportunist politics than it did with crime – the declaration of the Drug War, spineless politicians, sensational media and a raft of tough-on-crime legislation bankrolled by single interest groups created the perfect storm of short-sighted legislation for prison expansion. The consequences have been disastrous.
It was America’s use of prisons as a tactic of control – of primarily the economically disadvantaged – and the associated abandonment of social justice that spurred my sense of injustice and consequently my interest and energy. It is fair to say that my activism would not have been stirred in the same way had I looked at the penal history of the UK, my home country.
Photo © James Nachtwey
Q: Who normally commissions prison photography, and for what purpose?
I don’t think anyone commissions prison photography! Sometimes a prison reform non-profit may have an assignment with specific goals for a photographer, but without doubt the most insightful prison photography projects are those undertaken by photographers who probably aren’t looking at financial reward. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are activists, but they certainly have a commitment to telling the stories or relating a commentary on prison spaces and those within them.
Q: Why is it important to document prisoners and how do we appreciate this type of work, from social and aesthetics points-of-view?
A lot of the time I try to offer a context for the images, either through historical or statistical facts about the prison system depicted. I think accompanying text or audio are essential ingredients for many prison photography projects because almost the entire audience has little or no familiarity to use as entry point to the images.
There’s a lot of cliches in prison photography – bars, receding cell-tiers, barbed wire, tattoos. Often this is due to legal restrictions about showing an identifiable person, but often it is down to the photographer depicting the physical fabric of prison sites and presuming this communicates some ‘truth’ on the existence within. I don’t think this is the case.
I’ll add a caveat. People are tempted to believe that creating an image from within a prison – a rare/privileged viewpoint – is in and of itself a subversive act. In fact, what I often discover is that photography in prisons and other sites of incarceration is not challenging the organisational structure of the institution but rather working within its protocols. Thus, many prisons neutralise “the power of photography” or the camera’s ability to operate as a tool for social change.
For prison photographers, gaining access is only the first step in developing the project.
Wordwood Scrubs (2010). Photo © Bettina von Kameke
Q: Some of these prisoners are there for a reason, because they have committed real crimes. As punishment, they are incarcerated in correctional facilities. Why should the public be reminded of their deeds through these images?
Why shouldn’t the public be reminded of their deeds? Law has punished the offender and they serve time. The deed is done. The prison embodies the response of the authorities; the conditions, the security and the opportunities for self-improvement should be what defines the worth of a prison institution.
Upward of 90% of prisoners are going to be released. During their time inside they must have education and rehabilitation programs. People should not be warehoused; that won’t improve people.
I place such an importance on responsible media generally, but particularly with regards crime and as part of that prisons. In America and other Western nations to a lesser degree, prisons have slowly been abstracted from the minds of those in dominant society. That is, they’ve been built as supermodern citadels in the high desert or backwater towns. If you look merely at the application of criminal justice resources along geographic terms, one can identify the enforced mass movement of entire communities.
In 2005, The Spatial Design Lab in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University completed a project ‘Million Dollar Blocks’: “A disproportionate number of prisoners come from a very few neighborhoods in the country’s biggest cities. In many places the concentration is so dense that states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to incarcerate the residents of single city blocks. When these people are released and reenter their communities, roughly forty percent do not stay more than three years before they are reincarcerated.”
“The efficacy and origins of laws, particulalry relating to non-violent crimes, is a whole other debate, but even if you agree or disagree with the legal sanctions and punishments for those found guilty under law, those individuals shouldn’t just go away or be forgotten or ignored.”
The cyclical movement of the individuals from inner-city neighbourhoods to upstate prisons has not been productive. If we consider the research which says that the most important factor in released inmates not re-offending is the existence (even nurturing) of family relationships while incarcerated, the problem with moving prisoners 8 hours from their families is clear.
New York State has many activist initiatives to transport family members to prison for visiting at low cost. In California ‘Get On The Bus‘ unites children with incarcerated parents.
Remann Hall (2002). Photo © Steve Davis
Q: Why is it important for us to reflect the prisoners humanity and dignity in the photographs?
I don’t think this should be a prerequisite for photography in prisons, but I think honest story telling will reflect the humanity and dignity that exists in prisons. People are not expendable once they’ve been sentenced by law. No matter what somebody has done, they don’t deserve to be invisible. Despite attempts to make prisons unseen, they are pockets of life that exist WITHIN our societies.
Q: Out of sight, out of mind. Do you think as the media, we grossly overlooked this section of the community? Is this why there isn’t too much helpful coverage on prisoners’ well-being and issues?
I have to be careful with making generalisations. I would say prisons and their populations are wilfully ignored by most people in American society. The mainstream media woefully serves (and in some cases abuses) those deemed as transgressors in society; it cannot be relied upon for balanced analysis or storytelling about the prison system.
To my mind, the prisoner is the most disenfranchised member of society. He/she is denied the vote and have to earn it back again following release. This is not the case in Europe. In the UK, the House of Commons has again defied a European ruling on Human Rights to deny prisoners the vote. That debate will continue I am sure.
In the US, prisoners are denied open communication which I believe is fair, but they are also denied meaningful mediated communication with the outside world. I am thinking about the control of information that leaves a prison and how the media in some ways has an excuse for its failure to cover the issues reliably. Mainstream media is against the same obstacles we all are, but I still feel it is a matter of political and editorial will.
Take the state of Georgia for example. In December, prisoners in Georgia instigated a mass coordinated protest. It was non-violent and their demands were fair. Given that this has been described as the biggest prison strike (which is very different to a riot) in American history it is surprising how short a time it spent on the radar of only a few mainstream media outlets (The New York Times, AP, Slate). Most of the meaningful coverage was the effort of left or activist websites and blogs.
I would single out Laura Sullivan of NPR as the most tenacious of national reporters focused on the systemic shortcomings of America’s prisons, jails, bail and court systems.
Mickael, Avignon (2001). Photo © Mathieu Pernot
Q: Coming from material culture background, I am used to producing works that celebrate human’s perfection (especially for advertising purposes). Seeing Prison Photography made me realize that we can be very blinkered by the mainstream media. Is this project about visual democracy?
Certainly. It is a tiny dent in the side of a mammoth fashion and advertising vehicle that simultaneously destroys the reality of the human body. Please don’t get me started on the manipulation of images or the marketing that relies on them. The late comedian Bill Hicks probably touches on the truth of marketing (explicit) in a way others with bigger words often struggle.
But not to digress. The sanitizing of imagery and the human form is a well trodden discourse. To be positive, one only has to look in the right places for the counterpoints. And, to be fair prison imagery is probably one of the least effective in tackling the cynicism of our visual culture.
So, if I may, I recommend a different project ‘American Able’ is brilliant work by Holly Norris which takes direct aim at American Apparel “for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women who are employees, friends and fans of the company. However, these women fit particular body types. Their campaigns are highly sexualized and feature women who are generally thin, and who appear to be able-bodied.”
One other thing. I haven’t considered at length before the shapes and different abilities of bodies in prison. I believe that the same medical conditions exist within prisons as outside, but also note that prisons have higher instances of mental health diagnoses and contractable disease. Sometimes health services in prisons can help treat these, but often (as is the case in California) the total inadequacy of prison run health-care is dangerous and unconstitutional.
Grace Before Dying. Photo © Lori Waselchuk
In depicting the body I often think about how those outside dominant culture are presented as “other”. Large criticisms often fall upon photojournalism and it’s view of famine, war and rape in the developing world. I find it interesting therefore that when, James Nachtwey (the most decorated war photographer since Robert Capa) looked at strife and turmoil in his own country, he went to the prisons of Texas and focused on the inner turmoil, psychological burdens and weightlifting strength of inmates. Muscles that exist in prison are a strategy for survival and power, not for selling the latest diet supplement or shakeweight. Muscles in prison are, however, not as common as some prison photography leads us to believe. There’s a lot of bowed and broken bodies in prisons.
Q: Do the prisoners appreciate being documented? Does it help them to get their stories out to the public?
Each prison photography project has different levels of engagement and not all “tell a story” in the traditional sense. For example, Danilo Murru looked at the cells of Sicilian and Sardinian prisons without their inhabitants and as such cast them a spiritual monastic spaces. He had an approach that gently nudged the viewer into consideration of confinement but was not explicit with his description of particluar inmates or their stories.
If you asked a prisoner their main use for photography it would be for – and of – their families. I have considered the photoshop businesses that will “transport” subjects from a visiting room to a location of their choice. The notion of millions of visiting room polaroids being dispersed across America has fascinated me for some time. It is vernacular photography with common purpose but too much sentiment and possibly shame to ever be brought together in one place.
So, I don’t exclusively look at photography done by outsiders, for which the lens only points in a single direction. I am currently very interested in collaborative projects. Examples would be Steve Davis with the girls of Remann Hall in Washington State, with Robert Gumpert who interviews all his portrait sitters in San Francisco Jails and with Mohamed Bourouissa who directed and curated an exhibition of cell phone imagery. I’ll even look at illicit cell phone imagery. All of these of course raise interesting issues about how imaging is used in prisons, what its purpose is, and who maintains power through those lines of sight.
Photo © Mohamed Bourouissa
Q: Prison photographers that we should look at?
Danny Lyon for his submersion into Texan prison subcultures of the 1970s. Melania Comoretto for her empathy with female Italian prisoners. Deborah Luster for her multi-year collaboration with prisoners, during which she estimates she gave away 15,000 portraits to Louisiana prisoners. Lori Waselchuk for ‘Grace Before Dying’ her noble depiction of America’s aging prison population and Prison Hospice at Angola Prison, Mathieu Pernot for his clever look at family members “howling” over prison walls in Barcelona and Avignon to family members. Edmund Clark for ‘Still Life: Killing Time’, the first photo project on the UK’s first designated prison geriatric ward. Stephen Tourlentes for his intelligent night-time landscapes; a reflection on the isolation but ominous presence of American prisons.
But then there are archives by anonymous photographers which are not politically motivated but equally rewarding to view. For example, a Sydney Police photographer from the 1920s or glass plate negatives from the New Orleans Police Department.
Truthfully, there are too many to mention. Recently, I summarised my ongoing research with ‘A Brief History of Prison Photography‘ and you’ll find many links to good works there.
Jenar Jury. Photo © Deborah Luster
Pete Brook is also the lead blogger of Wired’s Rawfileblog. Read his articles on prisonphotography.wordpress.com.
“Sojournposse Interview and the Question: Do Prisons Neutralise the Power of Photography?” by Pete Brook on Prison Photography (18 March 2011):
“Think about it – the most famous prison images of the 21st century are those of Abu Ghraib. Those images had a global reach and brought about change yet they were amateur shots leaked against the interests of the US military (the prison authority). Photographers are never going to just walk in the front gate unannounced. Nor are they going to be welcomed by prison administrations to document the pain and abuses within.
What does that make prison photographs then?”
“Yet another mental health #fail…” by David White on duckrabbitblog (18 March 2011):
“Well, photography is a very limited medium. Of course no photographer could visualise the complexities of such a situation, which is why the interview and the text on Valentina’s site is so important. I wish more photographers (especially photoJOURNALISTS) would give us such written contexts.”
From EASA Media Anthropology Network (19 March 2011):
“The film ‘presunto culpable’ was shot inside a prison in Mexico City and now has caused major national outrage at the fact that many innocent people are put in prison because the police never bothers to look for the real culprits, the Justices seem happy to let things pass by them, and fake
attorneys practice law inside Mexican prisons. All of this happened because cameras were allowed in a Mexican prison.”(Real name and address withheld)