What’s the difference between us and them? What distinguishes those labelled as criminals from those without the label? The law has it’s definitions; sentences – in the sense of legal scripts and prison terms – can give us details and legally defined facts, but other factors are at play. What role do images, particularly publicly available images, play? What about portraits? What about mugshots?
UK photographer and artist, Jenny Wicks – working as an artist in residence at The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University, the largest centre for criminological research in Scotland – spent nine months trying to answer these questions through her photography. And she challenged the mugshot.
Wicks’ research broadly titled Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research includes site (prison) visits, audio interviews, documentation, portraiture, a book (in process) and an exhibition (ongoing). I’ll write more about her documentary work in the coming weeks, but I wanted to introduce her work with her Polaroid-backing portraits, which I feel are the most nuanced approach to the critical framework she takes on.
Keep reading below.
Reading through Wicks’ insightful blog Punishing Photography where she has traced her efforts this year, it is clear Wicks is troubled by the mugshot. The mugshot is a space in which the power dynamic between subject and camera-operator is drastically unequal; it could be argued that the mugshot even plays its role in “condemning” the individual. “The mugshot is an image that is taken to indicate criminality,” writes Jonathan Finn in his book Capturing the Criminal Image.
“My portraits are an attempt to challenge the boundaries between them and us […] The mugshot is the first significant, visual display of power where judgment is cast on that person and [it is where subjects] re-cast themselves,” writes Wicks. And, “my portraits attend to the internal spaces within each of us which harbour many unresolved emotions.”
Q: How does Wicks challenge boundaries exactly?
A: She puts her subjects – regardless of their status as prisoners, prison officers or criminologists – under the same gaze and into the same process.
They Are Us And We Are Them has no captions. We are left to guess who and what these people are. Which side of the law are they? We must bring our discriminations and our own judgements to They Are Us And We Are Them. This is a fraught starting point for the viewer; the portraits raise instant questions that are all self-created by the viewer. “Unresolved emotions” indeed.
Brilliantly, Wicks’ aesthetic proposal contrasts with the techno-fetishism of the predominant surveillance culture that is creeping toward widespread use of facial recognition, retinal scanning, iris prints, biometrics and DNA coding.
The closed-eyes motif “is a leveller” says Wicks. In short-shrift, her subjects that appear to be sleeping evoke 19th century photography, of pictoralism and of a reverence attendant in photography (think memento mori photography) before its morph into a medium used increasingly in the 21st century for control and discipline.
“I didn’t want to accept the objectification of the traditional mugshot; the concept was to challenge it. But, nor did I want to deliberately “humanize” the subject, as they would tend to become too meretricious. I did want to present sensitive portraits,” writes Wicks, whose interest spans mugshot aesthetics, history, meaning and the theories of the ate 19th century criminologists Cesare Lombroso and Alphonse Bertillon.
Keep reading below.
Visually, They Are Us And We Are Them riffs on – and works within – Wicks’ historical considerations. The sepia tones of the retrieved and scanned Polaroid backing sheets help frame each of her subjects in a space free of the mugshot associations of contemporary crime and of contemporary time.
Wicks used Polaroids to sure-up composition and to use as reference for developing. Even though she made her *proper* portraits on rolls of film, Wicks kept hold of the Polaroid-backing byproducts and extracted negative images from them.
She describes the extraction of the negative image as “unstable, messy and laborious” but feels the visual counterpoints of Polaroid negative images add “an ethereal element” to her body of work. “I have essentially produced two quite different pieces of work at the same time,” Wicks says.
All in all, They Are Us And We Are Them is about exposing the positives and the negatives and about challenging binaries. Between definitions of good and bad, between criminal and non-criminal, between now and them, between us and them, between black and white, there are many shades of grey.
Wicks appreciated a viewer’s description of these negative images as “womb-like.” I’ve offered my thoughts, but what do you think? Wicks is eager for feedback.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Interestingly, the title They Are Us And We Are Them comes from a quote by John Laub, renowned Professor fo Criminology and the current Director of the National Institute of Justice appointed in 2010 by President Obama. Laub spoke to Fergus McNeill in the excellent documentary film The Road From Crime, about learning about breaking recidivism from the behaviours of Scottish ex-cons who’ve left the life of crime, who’ve “gone straight.”
Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research, a multi-media installation of audio, fine art photography and object sculpture/environmental art was on show at HMP Barlinnie in November 2012. It is a pioneering exhibition given the rarity art shows are mounted within prisons. Very special. In early 2013, Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces will be exhibited in three other Scottish prisons. The show will go on public view at The Briggait gallery, Glasgow in February 2013.