“Prison Polaroids: A Dispersed Portrait of American Life”
I was speaking to Sheila Pinkel recently about photography within prisons. She said only once had she been inside a prison with a camera of her own. We shared wonder at those photojournalists who through luck or nous gain access within US sites of incarceration.
Sheila explained that photography was conducted in the visiting rooms. Standard practice is for a correctional officer or fellow inmate to operate a Polaroid camera and sell the Polaroids at $2 each.
Imagine those Polaroids gathered together and the dialogue they’d rouse as a collection. But this portrayal of America is dispersed, and its dialogue is absent.
In the course of Kefalas’s fieldwork she was invited into more than a dozen living rooms that displayed a “Prison Polaroid”, sometimes held to the wall by a thumbtack or tucked into a framed family portrait on the television set. Prisoners, she learned, can have these taken for only (sic) a few dollars at the prison commissary and usually pen cheerful descriptions such as “Happy Birthday” or “I love you” on the back. When family members come to visit, the commissary photographer will, for a fee, commemorate the occasion with a keepsake Polaroid. One mother showed Kefalas a photo album of Polaroid photographs taken in the prisons’ visiting area – each commemorating one of the few times her daughter and her child’s father had been in the same room together over the course of the six years old’s life. the photos typically feature the inmate in his fluorescent orange department of corrections jumpsuit against a backdrop of a tropical beach scene, perhaps to give the illusion to the loved ones back home that their father is not in prison, but taking a much needed vacation.
After some digging I found this account:
In the processing room there is an inmate store where one can buy articles made by inmates and also buy these cards for $2, good for a snapshot of you and your friend taken in front of this large poster of a waterfall in the woods. I got one of these cards and when my friend and I went to get our picture taken I asked if we could have the dining room and everybody in it in the background. This was a big no-no, as people might be recognized in the photo. I didn’t know. We had our picture taken by an inmate with a Polaroid camera who later passed out the photos to the different tables. It turned out real nice.
Visitors are prohibited from bringing their own cameras or phones to the majority of US correctional facilities. Frequently the visitor buys two, one for the mantelpiece at home and one to return to the inmates cell. But there is no negative – just as there is no album. The Polaroids are dispersed across a nation. I think it would be fascinating to such Polaroids together.
In piecing together this online group of images, I found it difficult to come across images. This does not surprise me.
In what circumstances do people scan their Polaroids of a prison visit for online upload? Just a few; friends & family with blog updates; purveyors of the macabre; journals of the death-row inamtes; inmate support groups and children’s rights organisations.
Please alert me to any other sources.
This is not a Polaroid but it is an image I came across here, with the enlarged image here. I had to include it. I challenge readers to find a better photographic portrait. The adult fights back tears and the child is solemn. Standing for the photo – for pride and for necessity – is a struggle for the father. The personalities are so strong, I wonder what words they have spoken to one another. Surely, the father’s outward show of emotion is typical of the sadness adults bear when behind bars, away from their children. I have no children. I can’t begin to know, even by comparison. These two portraits would excel as individual shots; to put them together is to light a firecracker under the seat of emotive curiosity.
I also found this image on Flickr, which has a stark backdrop by comparison.
How about that as a potent exhibition just waiting to come together? Millions of Prison Polaroids in frames & drawers; homes & cells across America. The dispersed portrait of incarcerated Americans could be assembled in one place. The scale would be overwhelming and the juxtapositions endless. Let me know if the notion intrigues you as much as it intrigues me.