“Curiosity was the initial spur. Surprise, shock and bewilderment soon took over. Rage propelled me along to the end.”
Jane Evelyn Atwood on photographing in women’s prisons.
This is the third and final installment in my series Women Behind Bars. The second part looked ta the writing of Vikki Law and the first looked at the journalism of Silja Talvi. It was Silja who recommended Jane Evelyn Atwood’s work.
When discussing the work of a prison photographer, it is preferable to do so within the specifics of the region or nation they document. Prison Photography‘s key inquiry is how the photographer came to be in the restricted environment of a prison and these details differs from place to place. Such inquiry is complicated by Jane Evelyn Atwood‘s work because she visited over 40 prisons in twelve countries over a period of one decade. In some cases I know the location of a particular image and in others I don’t. I suggest you compensate for this by buying the book Too Much Time for yourself.
Above is a women’s penal colony in Perm, Russia. It holds over 1,000 women – the majority of who work forced hard labour. Here we see women who are in solitary confinement experiencing their yard privileges – half an hour in outside cages. Most women in the prison are there for assault, theft or lack of papers.
Below is a scene from a Czechoslovakian prison. The scars are not the result of genuine suicide attempts but of regular self-mutilation – a problem more common among female prison populations than male populations.
Another reason to pick up Atwood’s book would be that there isn’t much stuff out there on the web – and that which is is low resolution or small-size. You can see a small selection from Atwood’s Prison series at her website; small images at PoYI; and a really good selection of tear-sheets at Contact Press Images.
By far the best stuff on the web concerning Too Much Time is an Amnesty International site devoted to the project. It includes a powerful preface in which Atwood lays out her raison d’etre. Next Atwood provides a “world view” comparing the prison systems of France, Russia and the US (each a five minute audio). Then comes three specific photo-essays with audio (Motherhood, Vanessa’s Baby, The Shock Unit). Finally, Atwood provides six stories behind six photographs. The stories are many and the facts more astounding than the emotions.
While Atwood’s pictures present the many individual circumstances of the prisoners, Atwood has identified a common denominator; “Of the eighteen women I met in [my] first prison, all but one seemed to be incarcerated because of a man. They were doing time for something he had done, or for something they would never have done on their own.”
Atwood qualifies this, “One woman told me her husband forced to set the alarm to have sex with him three times a night. She endured it for years and finally killed the man that kept her hostage. Another woman’s husband was shot by her daughter after he had stabbed her in the arm as a “souvenir”, poured hot coffee on his wife’s head for not mixing his sugar, and urinated all over the living room after one of the children refused to come out the bathroom. The woman was serving time for “refusing to come to her husband’s aid.”
What is most impressive about Atwood’s work is that it predates photojournalism’s wider interest in prisons by a couple of decades. She had at first tried to gain entry into a French prison in the early eighties. Her failure is unsurprising given Jean Gaumy of Magnum was the very first photojournalist inside a French prison in 1976.
It is a scandal that the discussion over shackling women during labor and gynecological examination continues today. Atwood captured the brutality of it decades ago.
Atwood’s work veers consciously between two reality of the women’s situation – the environment and the body.
Many of her photos share a compositional austerity. The hard angles of institutions run according to ‘masculine mathematics’ (dictating sentencing and experience) are repeated. Atwood punctuates this stern reality with flourishes of femininity … and touch.
Some may think Atwood has over-reached herself with a global inquiry and I’d be sympathetic to the point if anyone else had come close to her commitment. Even considering each prison system in isolation, Atwood’s work can hold its own. Her work in Perm, Russia is particularly powerful as it orbits closely around the issue of uniform, identity and the complications it brought to bear directly on her documentary.
At the Amnesty site, Atwood brings up many interesting points of comparison. She identifies the US system as the most sterile with a legal mandate to treat female prisoners in the same manner as male prisoners. But she also says that if there is grievance or complaint to be settled, US prisoners have recourse to do so. Such allowances are not made in France.
On the other hand, children are excluded from all but a couple of US prisons. The security threat is cited as the reason: a child inside a prison is a constant vulnerable life and constant hostage target. The claim seems a little bogus when penal systems of other countries are brought into consideration.
Biography: Jane Evelyn Atwood was born in New York. She has lived in Paris since 1971. In 1976, with her first camera, Atwood began taking pictures of a group of street prostitutes in Paris. It was partly on the strength of these photographs that Atwood received the first W. Eugene Smith Award, in 1980, for another story she had just started work on: blind children. Prior to this, she had never published a photo.
In the ensuing years, Atwood has pursued a number of carefully chosen projects – among them an 18-month reportage of a Foreign Legion regiment, following the soldiers to Beirut and Chad; a four-and-a-half-month story on the first person with AIDS in France to allow himself to be photographed for publication (Atwood stayed with him until his death); and a four-year study of landmine victims that took her to Cambodia, Angola, Kosovo, Mozambique and Afghanistan.
Atwood is the author of six books. In addition, her work has been including the ‘A Day In The Life’ series. She has been exhibited worldwide in solo and group exhibitions. She has worked for LIFE Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Stern, Géo, Paris Match, The Independent, The Telegraph, Libération, VSD, Marie-Claire and Elle. Atwood has worked on assignment for government ministries and international humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Handicap International and Action Against Hunger.
She has been awarded the Paris Match Grand Prix du Photojournalisme (1990), Hasselblad Foundation Grant (1994), Ernst Haas Award (1994), Leica’s Oskar Barnack Award (1997) and an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award (1998). In 2005, Atwood received the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from Bard College, joining a company of previous laureates including Edward Saïd, Isaac Bashevis Singer and E.L. Doctorow.