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A RIOT TO REMEMBER

Prison riot, prison rebellion, prison uprising — whatever they’re called, they hit the news, grip public nation and stay long in the memory. In the U.S., Attica is synonymous with prison rebellion. In Britain, it is Strangeways.

On 1st April, 1990, prisoners took charge of Strangeways’ chapel. Within hours they were in control of an entire wing and entrances. They made their way to the roof and began 25 days of public appearances. Britain had never seen anything like it. The nation could not turn away. At first, most were disgusted both by the prisoners’ wanton destruction and their brazenness out in the unusually warm spring sun. These first impressions, though, were founded on unfamiliarity with the system. As a hardcore of protestors remained on the roof into a second, a third and a fourth week, the nation started to think that perhaps there was something fighting for. There was. Better prison conditions.

The Strangeways Riot was the catalyst for the consequent government’s Wolff Report which scrutinised prison conditions across the nation. It was a watershed moment in the history of Britain’s prisons, setting out 12 major recommendations and identifying knackered, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions as the underlying causes of trouble at Strangeways and tensions elsewhere.

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A RIOT FOR THE CAMERAS

It only seems like yesterday I was commenting on the 20th anniversary. Nevertheless, on this historical anniversary I’d like to share some of the most iconic images. They’re all sourced from this Manchester Evening News gallery. The gallery itself is tired and poorly put together (duplicates, cursory or no captions, few image credits, mix of colour and B&W) but there are some gems in there.

Many of these photographs were made from a disused warehouse across the street from Strangeways in which press photographers posted up. Ged Murray probably has the best available archive. I  know Don McPhee was there too (his work is probably in the Guardian archive). Meanwhile, there’s work by Stephanie De Leng out there somewhere, and Chris Steele Perkins photographed Strangeways during the 80s.

What impresses me most about the protest is that the prisoners knew they had a message to deliver and they dominated the narrative as best they could from a besieged position. Most notably, were the regulars appearances of Alan Lord (top), a convicted murderer, who quoted from official prison logs to establish their contempt for the system. He used the words of the authority against the authority. Writ large on chalkboards. All for the world’s media.

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“Media Contact, Now”

The prisoners made requests for media contacts as mediators and guarantors. While the authorities slowly cut off food, water and limited them to the roof, and while protestors were picked off in ambushes, the prisoners still managed to dictate a public show on their terms.

Alan Lord got out in 2012. He now runs a gym in Greater Manchester. He was one of the key figures during the protest and negotiated with the authorities during the siege. When he was ambushed by a snatch squad, it was the beginning of the end for the protest. There’s a feature about Lord in the Manchester Evening News (MEN).

“It’s a tragedy that prisoners had to take that stance. But the warning signs had been there for decades. There were clear warnings within the prison system,” Lord told MEN. “It was an explosion waiting to happen. It could have happened in any prison but unfortunately it was Strangeways.”

He’s now writing a book Life in Strangeways: From Riots to Redemption about his 32 years inside.

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AND TODAY?

Unfortunately, it seems the small gains made in the wake of the Wolff Report have evaporated. Lord Wolff said recently that conditions in Britain’s prisons are the same as 25 years ago.

“For a time after the riot, things were much better and numbers were going down. Unfortunately, prisoners are again being kept in conditions that we should not tolerate, they’re a long way from home and their families can’t keep in touch with them – a whole gamut of things that need to be done and that’s why I would welcome a thorough re-look at the situation and above all trying to take prisons out of politics.”

In November 2014, the prison population in England and Wales stood at 85,925 – close to the record – and it had one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, at 149 per 100,000 people.

For the best account of prisons during the past disastrous 25 years, read Sir David Ramsbotham’s Prisongate. Ramsbotham was the independently-appointed Chief Inspectorate of UK prisons (1995-2000). His findings were shocking and surprised many who were deep in the British culture of corrections — even in the wake of Strangeways.

A cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee recently voiced “grave concern” over increases in assaults on staff and prisners, suicides, self-harm and indiscipline in prisons between 2012 and 2014.

Wolff is calling for a new investigation into the state of the country’s prisons.

“People’s re-offending behaviour has not been tackled,” says Wolff. “You have to look at the problem holistically and that’s what I don’t think we’re doing and not making the matter a political football. The main political parties want to show the public they’re tough on crime because they believe that’s what the public wants.”

“There are things that are better now than then but I fear we’ve allowed ourselves to go backwards and we’re back where we were at the time of Strangeways,” said Wolff.

Meanwhile, “enjoy” these photographs.

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I realised last week that my banner for my Twitter profile was enlarged and pixelated and looked a bit naff, so I put a call out for suggestions for a new one. Out of left-field came artist David Kelly-Mancaux a.k.a. Erkembode who offered any of his sketches from his series Prison Fights. I took the opportunity.

If you’re confused by them, I am too. David tells me they are based upon prison photographs, presumably portraits. He made them in response to his friend’s book Prison Fights about people who’d got into violent altercation. They’re from 2011.

I think, but am not sure, they are the product of a process David calls Visual Translation which seems to me like a mandatory type of doodling. Whenever, wherever. David has made visual translations of poems, poetry reading, Egon Schiele paintings; I don’t think there’s anything off bounds.

I might not fully understand the motives and the process but I don’t understand the world so it works. Also, the process by which I came across the Prison Photography logo was of equal abandon and random.

See the banner at my Twitter account.

And thank you to David Kelly-Mancaux!

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Lands in Limbo: Nagorno Karabakh

A church choir sings during a sparsely attended Sunday mass in Shushi. Shushi was primarily an Azeri city of cultural significance. Once home to 30,000 people, only 3,000 people call it home now.

My article When a Country Is Not a Country about Narayan Mahon’s series Lands In Limbo just went up on Vantage, for Medium.

Mahon travelled to Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Somaliland — five nations that are not formally recognised by the international community as states.

Lands In Limbo defies genre. It is partly documentation, but not complete documentary. Some of the images look like news photos but Mahon has a stated artistic intent. Here is an inquiry about huge geopolitical forces in a globalized 21st century … but it is based upon momentary street photos and portraits.

“I wanted to see what these countries’ national identities looked like, [learn] what’s it’s like to live in such an isolated place,” says Mahon.

Read the full article and see Mahon’s image large at Vantage.

Lands in Limbo: Abkhazia
Friends enjoy an afternoon on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia. Much of the Abkhaz coastline is littered with rusting ships and scrap metal.
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An Abkhaz man, known as “Maradona,” yells obscenities about Georgian politicians and declares the freedom of Abkhazia.
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A man walks into a small store in the center of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh. Stepanakert lost nearly half it’s population to forced deportation of Azeris during the breakaway war.
Lands in Limbo: Nagorno Karabakh
A man stands among snow covered pig heads in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh.
Lands in Limbo: Nagorno Karabakh
Karabakhi soldiers stand guard at a war memorial in Kharamort, a village that was once evenly populated by ethnic Azeris and Armenians. The village is now half the size since the Azeris fled and their homes were burned.
Lands in Limbo: Nagorno Karabakh
During and after the breakaway war with Azerbaijan, Karabakhi-Armenians burned and destroyed not only Azeri villages and town quarters but also desecrated Azeri muslim mosques and cemeteries. This is common practice throughout the Caucasus, used as a deterrence for people wanting to return to their homes.
Lands in Limbo: Somaliland
Men and women walk through the bustling central market in Hargeisa, passing war-damaged buildings.
Lands in Limbo: Somaliland
Shabxan, a young Somali girl living in rural Somaliland, does chores in the home.
Lands in Limbo: Somaliland
A young Somali boy checks himself out and fixes his hair in the mirrors of a small barbershop in Hargeisa.

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AK Press stock after the fire

ATTENTION

Stop what you’re doing. Listen up. Help out.

There was a massive fire in Oakland this weekend. Two people died. 30 people have been relocated from the now charred, smoky, water-damaged buildings. This is a costly tragedy from every angle you look at it. My respects go out to the victims and the victims’ friends and families.

The structure that went up was behind and attached to a building in which AK Press and 1984 Printing — two of Oakland’s phenomenal political publishing operations — operated. They lost paper stock, computers, presses, book inventory and more.

Here’s why they are both so impressive and this is why you should throw them some cash.

AK Press has published and distributed anarchist literature since 1990. It is worker run and collectively managed. Over the years, it has put out some of the staples of my library — including Captive Nation by Dan Berger, Resistance Behind Bars by Vikki Law, and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.

AK has consistently raised the bar for analysis of the prison industrial complex, state violence, violence against women and many other social justice urgencies. AK has built community and audience for radical writers. Precisely because the work has to be in the world, AK has to be in the world. Nobody does it better.

1984 Printing is one of the very few all-women-owned businesses I know. They’re happy, open, dog-loving crafts folk who turn the presses not to turn profit but to build knowledge for a better society. Amy and Richard know all their clients by first name and care for each and every project.

1984 does the best offset printing around — they’ve printed the two Carville Annex Press books So Many Mountains But This One Specifically, by Junior Clemons and It Hasn’t Stopped Being California Here, by Jordan Karnes. They also printed Rian Dundon’s Out Here series.

Yesterday, buildings were redtagged by the City of Oakland, meaning both operations are prohibited from occupying the warehouse and shops and shut down until further notice.

AK is raising money. GIVE

1984 is raising money. GIVE

If all you have between now and sanity is beer money and a punk spirit there’s a fundraising outlet for that with a benefit gig at 924 Gilman on May 9th.

Follow the situation at AK Press’ Facebook and Twitter and blog.

Follow 1984 on Facebook and the blog.

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There’s a 6 x 12 foot cell in the library at Marquette University in Milwaukee. It’s made of wood not cinderblocks. The toilet mimics the stainless steel of actual cells. This mock-up is intended to grip students and activate petitions and political awareness. Hey, if it’s good for politicians, it’s good for college kids.

I guess the installation — made by the theater department at Madison’s Edgewood College — relies on part shock & awe and part compassion. Students can step inside for a few minutes or can elect a 45 minute stint alone with a Bible or Qur’an and pen and piece of paper, just like prisoners. An iPad and headphones play the sounds of incarceration — the audio comes from a Frontline story on solitary.

I’ve questioned the frequent use of the cell floor-plan at prison art exhibitions (here, here and here), but mapping out the confines of a human-cage isn’t the worst tactic to snag people and have them think about the issue. The United Nations has defined solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture. People in long term solitary suffer damage comparable to traumatic brain injury. A 6-sided box, with a door might be very effective in provoking response.

Built last year, the cell at Marquette has previously shown on the Capitol steps in Madison and at churches and schools in Wisconsin. Organizers hope more communities and schools will want to display the prison cell. So do I. Let’s get replicas made and installed at every seat of learning in the country. Youngsters need to know about the brutal, crushing systems older Americans have danced into law. Along side many others, the young adults we anoint with education, privilege and upward mobility are important constituents in the resistance movement.

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All images by Michael McLoone / Journal Sentinel.

 

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My article Surreal Photos from Inside the “Fake Vacation” Industry about Reiner Riedler’s series Fake Holidays just went up on GONE, the travel section of Medium:

It’s hot, the water’s warm, and blue skies stretch as far as the eye can see. Which actually isn’t very far at all since, all sensory evidence to the contrary, we’re indoors — clustered inside a giant plastic globe in one of the oldest industrial centers of Northern Europe.

Read the full piece and see some nice big images here.

Germany; Indoor Pool "Tropical Islands" in Berlin Brandenburg

Las Vegas, Riding on a "Flying Carpet"

China, Shenzhen, Wedding Couple in the Themepark Window of the World

Germany; Indoor Pool "Tropical Islands" in Berlin Brandenburg;

China, Shenzhen;  Empoyees with Torpedo on the Themepark "Minsk World". The Aircraft Carrier was built in the 70s by the Russians. After that it was sold to the Chinese in the late 90s, who decided to bring the Ship from Russia to China to restore it and

Dubai, Ski Dubai, Indoor Skiing Hall, Portrait in the Icecave

Austria; Vienna; Swinger Club Frivoli

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TEACHING PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE

I’ve known about Vance Jacobs work in a Medellin Prison for as long as it has been in published form, but this recent post by StoryBench reminded me of the excellent and brief video reflection Jacobs gives about his time teaching prisoners to use cameras to document their own lives. Originally, Jacobs was going to be the only person photographing, but at the eleventh hour the sponsoring NGO for thre project changed the concept and he was asked to educate a dozen men in prison.

“You could tell it had been a long time since the prisoners in my class had received this much attention. But I also had high expectations and those expectations led to it being a very important experience. They started taking a tremendous amount of pride in their work and they started to understand that criticism could be a really important part of their work and theta they could grow from it,” says Jacobs.

This type of introspection and self-documentation is vital, in my opinion.

At the final exhibit inside the prison of 35 images, 5 went missing. “To have a photo stolen was a badge of honor,” says Jacobs. “It meant someone thought they were worth stealing.”

BIO

Vance Jacobs, a San Francisco-based photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Books and Esquire magazine. He talks about his creative process and behind the scenes details of his different shoots at his ‘Behind the Lens’ YouTube channel. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

See features on Jacobs’ work at GOOD, WonderfulMachine, Photographer on Photography and PDN Online.

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Of all the prison photographers in all of the U.S., Richard Ross is the probably the best at getting his work in front of eyeballs. I think that’s because he asks a lot and often.And because his images are compelling.

This past week, Ross showcased works form his latest book Girls In Justice on PBS News Hour.

By virtue of the sheer breadth of his survey of juvenile prisons, here’s a case of a photographer actually showing us things we wouldn’t otherwise see. The photographic medium is often hailed as being (almost magically) revelatory, but how often is that actually the case. It’s harder and harder to show people something they’ve NEVER seen before. That’s why closed prisons such as systems provide such an interesting locus for inquiry and why I continue my research.

I digress.

Go check out Ross’ work at PBS, and at the Juvenile In Justice website.

“I’m not a sociologist, I’m just the schmuck on the floor trying to make sense of all this,” says Ross.

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Also, check out my essay What Are We Doing Here? (cross-posted to Medium) for the current Try Youth As Youth (TYAY) exhibition as David Weinberg Photography in Chicago. Ross is one of four artists in TYAY, a gallery show that is forcing the debate forward, and endorsing the ACLU in Illinois’ latest campaign against trying children as adults.

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