This morning, I took my eye off the prize. I succumbed to surface and to common narrative.

“60-years ago today Rosa Parks sat on a bus, held a mirror up to a racist United States, changed history,” I tweeted.

What I said was true … but it was reductive. And it was in fewer than 140 characters. For a moment, I settled.

We need courageous historical moments as way-markers and inspiration in the ongoing fight for equality, and we mustn’t mistake them for job done or mission accomplished. What she started, we must still continue.

“Social justice requires social action,” says Mike Lee, Executive Director of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) an organisation with whom I am allied and who responded to my tweet by pointing out that since Rosa Parks was fingerprinted and booked into jail, over 70 million people have joined her in law enforcement and FBI criminal databases.

“Rosa Parks was arrested while demanding social equity,” wrote PLSE in an email this morning. “This creation of her criminal record is often cited as the tipping point for the civil rights movement of the 1950’s, 1960’s, and beyond.”

Rosa Parks changed history but she didn’t heal all social ills.

70 million is quite the acumulation of permanent information. Quite a new order of magnitude in state control. Have the advances we’ve made in employment opportunity, and even educational opportunity, been met with anything close to equality within the machine of criminal justice? I don’t think so. Permanent records have permanent effects and debilitate people in their efforts to move forward in life with secure housing, jobs and access to social services.

“It is estimated that one in five Philadelphians has a criminal record,” says PLSE which has, in recent years, expunged over 5,500 criminal records in Philadelphia County for 3,000 low-income individuals. PLSE conducted over 200 educational know-your-rights workshops about criminal records creation, dissemination and destruction. It has donated over $5,000,000 of pro bono legal representation and facilitated 900 hours of AmeriCorps community service in expungement hearing representation. PLSE settled two employment discrimination cases based on criminal history.

Let’s honour Rosa Parks in a continuation of her fight for equal rights. Let’s act, not just talk. Do, not just ‘Like’. And perhaps today, on Giving Tuesday, Give?

I was asked to nominate a book for TIME’s Best Photobooks of the Year 2015 list. So I chose a newspaper.

Will Steacy‘s Deadline is an absolute cracker. One for the working man.

I was proud to nominate Deadline because is brings attention to, as Steacy describes, “the silent army, the gears of the working press, the behind-the-scene workers whose eyes, ears and hands touch a story before it goes live/printed and after the reporter hits send.”

Here’s what I wrote:

Appropriate design and layout are central to a photobook. A newspaper format was the obvious choice for Deadline, Will Steacy’s homage to, an examination of, a downsizing Philadlephia Inquirer. 

But after making the obvious choice, Steacy had a long way to go and a high standard to meet. Deadline is a workers’ history of a paper that in the eighties was known as the “Pulitzer Machine.” 

Fanatical in its view of both the newsroom and the printing presses, Deadline honors the labor of the copyboys, the reporters, the inkers and the editors equally. Decorated journalists reflect back on the Inquirer’s “Golden Age” and Steacy’s dad reflects on generations of their family working in newspapers. In five sections, the amount of research, fact-checking, phone-calls, line-editing and captioning in Deadline is astounding. A collaborative and self-reflective cousin of the newspaper format it references and reveres. Unrepeatable. Unbeatable.

Steacy can breathe easier, now, after completing the epic project.

“This, for me, was an initiation into my family’s newspaperman club and as close as I will get to calling myself a sixth generation newspaper man.”

From where I stand, Steacy looks like a newspaper man. You?


In the Ninieties, America was gripped by a fear of violent crime. The Crime Bill (aka The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) was on the Senate floor being debated. The largest crime bill in the history of the United States, it provided for 100,000 new police officers and $9.7 billion in funding for prisons. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took the floor for 3-minutes and argued that efforts to tackle crime are worth nought if there’s no accompanying effort to tackle inequality, the lack of opportunities and economic exclusion.

Inspired by Vox’s guide to talking with family at Thanksgiving about politics, I wanted to add a few thoughts to what we should think about everyone’s favourite kinda-unlikely candidate for President.

First, what Sanders said:

A society which neglects, which oppresses and which disdains a very significant part of its population—which leaves them hungry, impoverished, unemployed, uneducated, and utterly without hope, will, through cause and effect, create a population which is bitter, which is angry, which is violent, and a society which is crime-ridden. This is the case in America, and it is the case in countries throughout the world.

Mr. Speaker, how do we talk about the very serious crime problem in America without mentioning that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, by far, with 22% of our children in poverty and 5 million who are hungry today? Do the Members think maybe that might have some relationship to crime? How do we talk about crime when this Congress is prepared, this year, to spend 11 times more for the military than for education; when 21 percent of our kids drop out of high school; when a recent study told us that twice as many young workers now earn poverty wages as 10 years ago; when the gap between the rich and the poor is wider, and when the rate of poverty continues to grow? Do the members think that might have some relationship to crime?

Mr. Speaker, it is my firm belief that clearly, there are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them. But it is also my view that through the neglect of our Government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence. And Mr. Speaker, all the jails in the world–and we already imprison more people per capita than any other country–and all of the executions in the world, will not make that situation right. We can either educate or electrocute. We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails. Mr. Speaker, let us create a society of hope and compassion, not one of hate and vengeance.

[My bolding]

I don’t see eye-to-eye with Sanders on all matters related to criminal justice, but he’s my preferred 2016 Pres. candidate is so far he’s called for a complete disbandment of private prisons, he’s spoken out against police brutality and he ties crime to education; short story–he’s interested in root causes. Sanders tactic is to move talk about crime into talk about economics, quickly. As a democratic socialist, for decades, Sanders’ closing remarks and underlying message has been that everything that is faulty in America stems from inequality and from extreme poverty. I understand that, most see the argument, some agree.

Unfortunately, most who identified crime and deviance as a problem in recent decades, have decided the solution was not more public school funding, higher wages, more social services. No, they decided the answer was policing, courts and prisons. The degree to which Sanders’ logic of economic-underpinnings to social behaviour/crime can be debated, but we shouldn’t debate that the opposing view that more discipline and punishment would tackle crime has proven not to be the case.

I agree with Sanders that prisons are a symptom of a society. Prisons exist because society has run out of ideas and, frankly, run out of patience for those who disrupt and disobey the one-size-fits-all expectations of a 20th century empire in decline and denial. Prison also cater for a society that has run out of jobs.

The Crime Bill was not a good thing. It’s a stain on Bill Clinton’s presidency, but I don;t think that it will, or should, effect Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. Paradoxically, it could hurt Sanders. While he opposed the 94 Crime Bill in debate Sanders was a “good democrat and voted for it.

Sanders is the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton running for the Democratic nomination. Clinton was bought decades ago. Sanders’ is more daring in the reforms he proposes and he is not in the pocket of corporate America. Sanders talks about a broader response to our fears and I can get behind that. Now, as in 1994, we cannot build prisons as a way out of an inequal society. To the contrary, prisons drive and deepen the schism between the haves and the have-nots.


On the eve of Thanksgiving, it is good to remember our shared humanity. It’s also good to acknowledge our shared crimes and remember the blood spilt on the American continent. Yes, it’s imperative to celebrate common values and spiritual connection, but never at the expense of false narrative. Thanksgiving is an ideological construct to lessen the burden of a genocide perpetrated by first European and, later, White American settlers.

Yes, we need to commune and yes, we need to pause, often, and to be grateful for all we have, but let’s not wholly embrace a mythos that paints settlement of America by violent outsiders as one big picnic.

I just republished, on Medium, my 2009 Prison Photography interview with Ilka Hartmann, who photographed the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz in 1970/71.

Because our relationship to the past is our relationship to one another

Read: Photographing the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz: An Interview with Ilka Hartmann

See: Ilka Matmann’s photographs of the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz.


All images: © Ilka Hartmann



Earlier this year, Zora Murff contacted me and asked if would write some words for his debut book Corrections. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I’m a huge fan of the work. I interviewed Murff at length in January 2014 and I wrote about Corrections for the Marshall Project in December 2014.

Corrections is a collection of images made by Murff made between 2012 and 2015, while he worked as a Tracker for Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Interspersed with his portraits of teens and still life studies of monitoring equipment are anonymised mugshots.

Today, the book was made available for pre-order. Books ship December 7th.


Throughout Corrections, Murff is investigating the psychology, the coercion and the effects/costs/benefits of control. We’re dealt a teasing glimpse of how electronic monitoring works for the state and niggles against presumed natural freedoms. These frictions play out against the hormonal whirl of teenagers trying to find their place in the world.


“By reconsidering the role that I played in the lives of the kids I worked with, I began to acknowledge the burden that comes with tasking young men and women with continued complicity,” writes Murff. “My stance as a consequence kept our relationships in a state of flux ranging from stable to tenuous – a constant motion mirroring the discord that develops between the system’s intentions and outcomes. Through employing ideas of anonymity, voyeurism, and introspection, Corrections is an examination of youth experience in the system, the role images play in defining someone who is deemed a criminal, and how the concepts of privacy and control may affect their future.”


Murff provided services to youths who were convicted of crimes and were monitored while on probation.

“Juveniles in my charge were asked to comply with services which may include: electronic monitoring, therapies, drug screening, and community service; it is my responsibility to have continual contact with them to ensure these expectations are met,” he says.

Electronic Monitoring (EM) is becoming more and more common. EM is characterised–by its supporters–as a more humane, less forceful and cheaper alternative to incarceration. However, it’s use and long-term effects (especially for children) have been the subject of relatively little study or public attention.


“These services, which allow juveniles to stay in their homes, show a higher rate of success than strict incarceration. Although community-based services are built to foster a collaborative relationship between juveniles and service providers, attaining the actualization of teamwork becomes problematic when juveniles feel that they have done nothing wrong, are victims of circumstance, or do not fully understand why they have committed a crime,” says Murff.

My essay/introduction focuses on the business practices, markets and language behind the electronic monitoring industry and how this boom sector of criminal justice may or may not be the panacea law enforcement hopes for.

“The system has been put in place to provide rehabilitation, but it is far from being a straightforward process,” writes Murff. “Many influences outside of the youths’ control such as education, socioeconomic status, and race all play a role in whether or not a youth reoffends — all of these factors possessing the propensity to lead them to extended periods of incarceration in the juvenile system or to involvement with the criminal justice system as an adult.”


I’ll share my full essay (with Murff’s photos) in the new year, but at this moment I urge you to order a copy.

Murff and his publisher Ain’t Bad have manufactured a beautiful object about a crucially current and unexamined topic of criminal justice.



Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. His work has appeared in The British Journal of Photography, WIRED, VICE Magazine and PDN’s Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora is a member of Strange Fire Collective with Jess T. Dugan, Hamidah Glasgow, and Rafael Soldi.



Title: Corrections, 2015
Introduction: Pete Brook, Prison Photography
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
ISBN: 978-1-944005-01-6

Start shipping on December 7th. Pre-order now.


Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.


Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.

Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.

This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. WilkinsSteve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.

It’s a great exhibition.

As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.

Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.

Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.

Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.

Scroll down for our discussion.

Cruz, Camilo

Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?

Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.

As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.

Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.

Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.

We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.

Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona

PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?

RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.

We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.

MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.

PP: California Institute for Men and  California Institute for Women.

Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?

RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.

PP: How did you select the artists?

RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.

MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).

Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the  series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”

PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?

RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.

MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.

PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?

RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.

MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).

pinkel, sheila

© Sheila Pinkel

PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?

RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.

Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.

MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.

Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?

RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.

MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.


PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?

RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.

We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.

MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.


The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.

PP: Anything you’d like to add?

RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.

Follow the Wignall Museum at Chaffey College on Facebook and Twitter.


Sean O’Hagan writes:

Lyon was a pioneer of what might be called immersive photojournalism, steeping himself in his subject matter in the manner of pioneering 60s writers of the New Journalism school such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson. He builds the visual narrative around extended personal accounts by selected inmates, the often intimate descriptions of life inside illuminating his already powerful images. “The text of the book, compiled from prison records and convict writings, presents the lives of a few of these men,” he writes in his introduction. “They are the heroes of this book. I knew each of them as well as a free man can.”

[…] On every level, then, Danny Lyon’s approach flies in the face of detached documentary reporting, but it is this that also makes his work so viscerally forceful.

Read the full piece: Conversations With the Dead: Book review – 60s prison life in the US


Up against the wall, tied to a post, kneeling at a ditch, hundreds of WWI allied soldiers were killed for desertion. Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews visited 23 sites of execution and made photos at the same time of day and the same time of year.

Shot At Dawn is halting and haunting.

I just wrote about the series for VantageWW1 Allied Soldiers Remembered In Photos Made At Sites Of Execution:

Particularly on this day, Armistice Day, Memorial Day, it is worth meditating on Shot At Dawn. The history of photography is indelibly tied to that of war. Too often we’ve seen graphic images from which we turn away and too often photography has been used as a tool by murderous regimes. Yet, we must seek out photographic projects that bring context, calm assessment, forgiveness of ourselves and empathy for our enemies. It’s take great skill to make relevant and poetic images about death that resonate; it takes greater skill to illuminate the suppressed personal histories of the past’s forgotten victims. Shot At Dawn is an artwork for the ages.










Chloe Dewe Mathews: Shot at Dawn was commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of 14–18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions.

Shot At Dawn is on show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin (25 August 2015–17 January 2016) and at Ivorypress in Madrid (27 May–16 July 2016).

The book Shot at Dawn is published by Ivorypress.

Read the full piece: WW1 Allied Soldiers Remembered In Photos Made At Sites Of Execution.



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