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Ira, who is HIV-positive, gives birth to Zhenia, her eighth child. Odessa, Ukraine, 2005. © Joseph Sywenkyj.

DIGNITY AND COMPASSION

The W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund is now accepting entries for its $30,000 Grant in Humanistic Photography. a.k.a. the Gene Smith Grant. It is designed to allow the winner to complete a current or future documentary project. Deadline is May 31.

In addition, it will soon be taking applications for the $5,000 Howard Chapnick Grant. Applications accepted June 1 – June 30.

Both awards go to projects produced in the spirit of W. Eugene Smith’s humanistic approach to storytelling — that which “documents the human condition with compassion and portraying his subjects dignity.”

$30K GENE SMITH GRANT

This is a big one.

Past winners included Peter van Agtmael, Krisanne Johnson, Darcy Padilla, Lu Guang, Mikhael Subotzky, Stephen Dupont, Trent Parke, Maya Goded, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Gideon Mendel, Carl DeKeyzer, Cristina Garcia Rodero, Paul Graham, Graciela Iturbide, Donna Ferrato, Milton Rogovin, Eugene Richards and Jane Evelyn Atwood among others

“Each year we are both humbled and inspired by the quality of work,” say Marcel Saba, president of the Smith Fund Board of Trustees. “We are honored to have supported so many remarkable photographers and incredible projects.”

Finalists are selected by a three-juror panel on the basis of the substantive and intellectual merit of their project. Finalists are then asked to submit a comprehensive photographic print portfolio, to write (if necessary) a more detailed and focused proposal and to answer questions about their project.

$5K CHAPNICK GRANT

The Howard Chapnick Grant is presented for leadership in fields ancillary to photojournalism, such as editing, research, education and management.

It was established in 1996 to honor the memory of Howard Chapnick who led Black Star photo agency, and acknowledges the value of his enormous contribution to photography. The annual $5,000 grant may be used to finance a range of qualified undertakings, which might include a program of further education, research, a special long-term sabbatical project, or an internship to work with a noteworthy group or individual. This grant is not to be used for the creation of photographs.

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Learn more and apply at the Smith Fund website.

GRAVE ISSUE AND A GRAVE VIDEO APPEAL

Prisons are hostile, and potentially lethal, environments for transgender individuals. The acute need for understanding, medical care, and protection from predatory abuse is made visible for us through the remarkable efforts of Ashley diamond, a woman incarcerated in the mens’ Georgia State Prison.

Hearing her case and the evidence put forth by her advocates, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it is a wonder Ms. Diamond is still alive. She has suffered no fewer than seven serious sexual assaults in the three years of her term.

Georgia’s prison system is notoriously dysfunctional and brutal. The prison in which Ms. Diamond is incarcerated is Georgia State. It had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison. Ms. Diamond’s access to safety is merely one of her request in the recent lawsuit. Mainly, Ms. Diamond asks that her medically diagnosed condition of Gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria is recognised by the Georgia Department of Corrections and that they provide her the hormones that she was taking for 17 years prior to imprisonment.

Ms. Diamond describes her incarceration to this pint as nothing short of torture. Her gender identity is held in contempt by the authorities and her vulnerable situation is in no way accommodated. Bravo to her for forcing a lawsuit against the state in order to secure recognition, medical hormones treatments. This is a fight that will not only elevate the visibility of the severe issues facing LGBQT in prison but may secure human rights hitherto ignored or trampled.

Ms. Diamond and transgender prisoners like her are in a perilous position.

In reporting on the case and the subsequent Federal level support for it, The New York Times says, “Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants. Transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.”

When budgets for non-profit advocacy groups are so scarce and the resources and intractability of the state opposition is so large, media outreach and messaging has to be perfect. Bravo to SPLC for delivering a message in which Ms. Diamond is front and center. From a contraband cellphone, Diamond makes a direct plea to the public. The illicit nature of the act adds a sense of urgency to the appeal. It is as if all other avenues have been cut off and desperate times require desperate measures.

It’s a bold move and possibly not without its consequences. I would not be surprised if the GDOC was to retroactively punish Ms. Diamond for possession and use of a cellphone. Given the daily threat to which Ms. Diamond is subject, it hardly seems sanction for possessing a cellphone would be high on her list concerns. Whatever the extent of “risk” is involved in publishing this cellphone video it is another significant lens through which we can see this case, this story and this political action.

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Video still from Ashley Diamond’s prison cell video.

ALLIES

It is also crucial that other prisoners are present in the video. It is empowering to see anonymous prisoners feature as allies and supporters. It balances the narrative of prisoners only being predators. Prisoner-led self-organisation is the most quickly silenced but the most effective of resistance against the state and prison industrial complex. I wonder if videos such as this could potentially add further to future struggles?

A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON PRISON VIDS

I’ve been promising myself for years to in some way put together an analysis of contraband cellphone photo and video footage. The only definitive thing I can say is that I’ve not seen the vast majority of it and never will.

99.99% of prisoner made recordings are shared between devices, between loved ones and never uploaded to the internet for public viewing. If they do make it to social media they are on the internet behind passworded social media accounts.

Often when prisoner made cellphone videos emerge it is to villianise the prisoner further. News stories peddle in public consternation — we abhor prisoners who might be seen to be thumbing their noses at authority. We also like to frame the stupid or “foolish criminal” and mock them when their video gets them caught. But the truth is, prisoners are very, very sensible with their videos and digital distributions. Why do you think we see so few prison videos?

Prisoners have an interest in protecting their assets — this applies to cellphones that are expensive to acquire and very, very useful. Prisoners have zero incentive for making it publicly known they have or had have had a cellphone. Most prisoners use cellphones to contact families as a cheaper alternative to a price-gouged market. And, let’s remember that phones — like any contraband — get into prisons through the hands of staff as much as they do because of family visitors or civilians.

If the cellphone becomes an issue for the prison administration then their complete lack of understanding of the complaint is exposed — it’d prove the point being made by Diamond and SPLC that the Georgia DOC has demoted human rights to the point of endangering lives.

SPLC’s strategic use of Diamond’s video testimony is deliberate, timely and well-advised. It accelerated and humanised the issue. I, for one, hope it might be a method repeated in the future to benefit the crucial legal battles of prisoners. If so, it could also change our appreciation of prisoner-led political actions.

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American photographer Willow Paule has spent half her time, in recent years, in Indonesia. She recounts in PsychoCulturalCinema how she slowly learnt about the past incarcerations of her two friends. Their conversations together led to more questions. Paule writes:

Through my research and conversations with these former prisoners in Indonesia, I discovered that they had faced rampant corruption, extortion, and violence in prison. I found that people were often convicted without solid evidence, that they sometimes possessed only small amounts of narcotics or marijuana but were given long drug distribution sentences, while large time dealers got off with lighter sentences. The person with the fattest wallet got the best treatment.

I learned that mentally ill people often became police targets, and periodically drugs were planted on them in order for police to meet arrest quotas. Once they were locked up, they didn’t necessarily receive adequate care, and they sometimes created turmoil in the cramped cells they shared with the general population. Many people told me disheartening stories about human rights abuses in Indonesian prisons.

My focus is the U.S. prison system, but as I say, dryly and reductively, on my bio page, “problems exist in other countries too.” Paule knows this all too well. She recorded the art that her two friends created as a matter of survival and also their difficult reentry into society. There, as here, jobs are difficult to come by for former prisoners and the stigma of prison lingers long.

The extent to my knowledge on the Indonesian prison system spans the length of Paule’s article. The system sounds dire.

“Prison sentence lengths were decided depending on bribe amounts and prisoners had to pay for a cell or face daily beatings and electrocution in solitary confinement,” writes Paule.

Connecting Paule’s years-old inquiry to today, in the U.S., is Paule’s desire to repeat the methodology and record the stories of returning citizens in America.

There’s no shortage of people in this country with whom Paule could meaningfully connect and weave their history and story over a long period as she did in Indonesia. It takes more than just images though; I encourage Paule and all young photographers to use audio, family archives, collaborative processes and — as Paule did here — a focus on non-photo 2D artworks. Most of all, I encourage young photographers to empower not only individuals impacted by incarceration through the telling of their stories but also to empower small local communities by exhibiting and programming the work with those most closely implicated in the issue.

Simply put, a show at the local community centre is as important as one in the brand name gallery downtown. The former deals in hearts and minds, the latter in sales.

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Originally posted on The Prison Arts Coalition:

Project: An anthology of writing by artists who lead/teach (or previously led/taught) arts workshops inside correctional facilities. I seek submissions to construct a book proposal for publication.

Submission Guidelines + Instructions: Writing must be inspired by your prison work. It does not need to be directly connected to a specific event, experience, or person. Please indicate where names/identifying information has been changed.

  • Writing may be fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, experimental, non-traditional, un-categorizable.
  • You may submit as many pieces as you like (though not all are guaranteed inclusion in the anthology)
  • No length restrictions
  • Previously published material is acceptable, though un-published is preferred
  • .doc or .docx format, 12 pt. font
  • Email submissions + submission form to correctionswriting@gmail.com

Submissions accepted now through September 15, 2015

About: My name is Leigh Sugar. I previously edited the Annual Anthology of Michigan Prisoner Creative Writing and facilitated creative writing workshops inside Michigan state prisons (both…

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LET’S AGREE TO AGREE

There’s nothing new here that advocates for prison reform don’t already know, but it’s worth a listen just to hear Obama declare that Omar was his favourite character in The Wire.

The conversation starts off pretty left of progressive with Simon asserting that “What the drugs didn’t destroy, the war on them did.” It’s a line he uses often but it’s a good one, and an accurate summary.

Obama makes pains a few minutes in to stress sympathy for police forces. To be expected from a leader who is taking the effort to first and foremost express sympathy for people who may have antagonist views toward an arrogant and broken record of policy as regards crime and punishment in American cities.

The political turn turns us toward the children. If we can’t all rally around a love of the children then what have we? The depiction of struggling Baltimore schools in The Wire was particularly hard for Obama, he says.

These 12 minutes weren’t a total waste of time. Simon got to register his dismay at the failings of government to help poor and addicted people. Obama got to express optimism for the more sensible debates we’re having about crime and transgression and where that might take us. He was very excited about bipartisan buy in, without any criticism that’s its come decades later than it should. Oh, that’s right people’s lives impacted by tough-on-crime-rhetoric were political footballs for the past 40 years.

The most sensible and realistic thing in the conversation is the closing remark of Obama when he says if we keep being honest about putting our policing, policy and sentencing failures right, we may see an improvement in about 20 years.

This was good PR for everyone involved. I doubt Obama would have sat down with Simon for this same conversation in 2009, but now it’s safer to be sensible — government budgets have told us so.

It’s not really significant what Obama and Simon said when they sat down together. Of most significance is the fact they sat down together, for the cameras, at all.

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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.
Lands in Limbo: Abkhazia
An Abkhaz man, known as “Maradona,” yells obscenities about Georgian politicians and declares the freedom of Abkhazia.
Lands in Limbo: Nagorno Karabakh
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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