With the express intent to shine a light on the lives of women imprisoned in Oklahoma for non-violent crimes, Yousef Khanfar‘s project and book Invisible Eve should be an excellent contribution to the visual resources we can use to inform ourselves about mass incarceration. It is, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Invisible Eve has a couple of inherent problems that I think are worth pointing out. The first, to be fair, might just be a snag of language and a misinterpretation on my part, however, when I read that Khanfar asked the women to write statements of advice to younger generations so that “the fault of one being might be the salvation of another” it raised alarm bells. In the phrasing, there is a presumption of guilt that falls solely on the individual. Nothing is as simple as that and, for me, the way we warehouse non-violent offenders is as criminal as the act for which the individual is condemned and controlled.
If one accepts that the prison industrial complex is the problem, not the solution, any language that verges on the moralistic is troublesome.
As for the portraits, they are fine. They’re straightforward, maybe a bit sugary, but probably exactly what the women would want (it is safe to presume Khanfar gave them multiple copies). For women with children, the portraits are a particular gift.
The second, and most glaring, issue for me are the “handwritten” notes. Bear with me.
Khanfar has said that his realisation that he couldn’t change the women’s circumstances and was his motivation to ask them to help others. Oklahoma has the ignoble distinction of being the U.S. state with the highest per capita rate of female incarceration. Khanfar notes that the women are “cast away and forgotten” and that his photographs are “not to condemn or commiserate, but to serve as bridges of understanding.”
Why then, did Khanfar choose to transcribe their words and publish them in a faux-handwritten font? The notes are all in the same handwriting! By choosing to do this, Khanfar has completely erased one of the few evidences that each of these women are individuals; one of the essential bridges to understanding.
The personal touch of individuals’ hand(writing) would have been a powerful element that has been overlooked in the project.
Take a look at the texts below and let me know what do you think. Am I being to precious or is the exclusion of the women’s own scripts a sizable mistake on Khanfar’s part?