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“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
— Albert Camus.
Photographer Tomas Van Houtryve puts the above quote top and center of his most recent artist statement. He believes that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy.
Researching my latest WIRED piece Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like about Van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days, I was shocked by the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
“The Obama administration doesn’t release a lot of details, so firm figures are hard to come by. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates unmanned aerial vehicles have killed between 2,296 and 3,718 people, as many as 957 of them civilians,” I wrote.
President Obama’s Drone War is not widely discussed. Drones operate remotely and forge the very distance that prevents a critical look at their continued use. Drones dismantle empathy.
If a technology with extremely powerful spying and killing capabilities is shielded from public scrutiny there is bound to be abuse,” says Van Houtryve.
WHAT’S IN OUR WORLD?
Art can foster empathy. At least, that’s an aim of political art, no? There are many worthy projects that have co-opted and subverted drone visuals:
Jamie Bridle traces drone shadows in the streets and launched Dronestagram to populate social media with satellite views of drone strike sites; John Vigg surveilled drone research labs and airports; Trevor Paglen photographed drones at distance; Josh Begley’s App MetaData alerts users to drone strikes; and Raphaella Dallaporte took a drone to Afghanistan to do some archaeological surveying.
Most recently, a JR-inspired Inside Out project named Not A Bug Splat is tweaking the consciences of drone “pilots” by laying massive pictures of children in strike zones. However, the novelty (still) of these projects suggests we are not well-versed in drone operations.
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
Furthermore, I worry about how the definition of the word “drone” is shifting. When we hear “drone” do we think about military-grade killer robots or about newer domestic-use quadcopters?
The photo and video world has embraced smaller, non-lethal drones — we oohed and aahed at this aerial surf video and we protested when the police forced down a drone flown over a traffic accident by an off-duty photojournalist.
Soon, a small drone will be a part of every photographers kit.
Also, new legislation is being written to catch up with the technology and the proliferation of public drone ownership and operation. The FAA had self-appointed itself as the authority on drone use and looked disapprovingly at Joe Public sending lil’ aircraft up in the air. So, the FAA started sending out cease and desist letters and $10,000 fine threats.
The recipients — commercial photographers — weren’t threatening homeland security; they were mostly using camera-mounted drones to map agriculture, oil fields and the like. One commercial drone user, Raphael Pirker, challenged his fine in court. He won and nullified the FAA’s authority over him or any other drone operator.
“Pirker’s attorney maintained that the FAA could not simply declare a regulation without having a public notice-and-comment period. His argument went like this: Congress has delegated to its bureaucracy the authority to make rules, but when new regulations have a substantial impact on the general public, the government must have hearings and take comments,” wrote David Kravets for WIRED.
Until those hearings, it is a free-for-all. We must just hope that creepy idiots who want to spy through windows are the exception.
There’s a third player in the mix though. Between the everyday citizen and the military industrial complex are corporations. Who would bet against Amazon actually delivering your slippers by drone? Or Facebook delivering WiFi via drones to the entire globe in the next decade?
Overall, we hope that citizens retain access to the use of drones just as corporations and the state do. We hope citizens’ drone use is protected by laws similar to those allowing street photography on public thoroughfares.
NEW WORDS IN OUR WORLD
‘Drone’ is a new word in photography. ‘Selfie’ is a new word in photography too. In fact, the emergence of the two words was almost parallel.
The earliest usage of the word selfie can be traced to an ABC Online Australian internet forum, on 13 September 2002. Just seven weeks later, on November 3rd 2002, the first ever lethal U.S. drone strike hit Yemen, killing six.
At the turn of the millennium neither the words drone or selfie, as we know understand them, were in our lexicon. I’d argue the definition of both terms is ongoing apace, but for different reasons. Drone visuals and facts are obscured; we must search them out. Selfie visuals, on the other hand, are impossible to avoid.
At some level, the selfie provides the everyday citizen a type of agency and incorporates our foibles, connectedness, and our awkward relationships with social media. Selfies may not be inherently humanizing but they are individually created and do reflect human idiosyncrasy.
By comparison, drone scopes reduce humans to video-mediated targets. Drone visuals eradicate individuality and of course, very literally snuff out human life. The selfie is, spoken of at least, as a completely controllable form, whereas the drone is an apparatus of control. It’s bottom-up liberation vs. top-down oppression.
The drone and the selfie inhabit different ends of an image spectrum. Both in terms of production and consumption, the selfie is all us and the drone is all them. We know us well. We don’t know them at all.
That these are two of the main new words we are processing together as a culture is intriguing to me.
These are just thoughts out loud and may or may not lead to more fleshed out criticism, but the near-simultaneous emergence and widespread use of the words “drone” and “selfie” alongside their contrasting correlation to human consciousness in our remotely-networked globe might provide fodder for further investigation.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Srey Neth and Lia move into the STAR House, a secondary transition home designed to help victims of sex trafficking to learn the skills to reintegrate into society without falling back to sex work. The teenagers are residents of Transitions Global and have experienced horrific physical and mental abuse largely at the hands of their fellow Cambodians. Photo: Tim Matsui, 2012 Women’s Initiative Grant Winner
The Alexia Foundation has opened its call for entries for the 2014 Women’s Initiative Grant.
There’s a lot of grants out there but the Alexia Foundation Women’s Initiative Grant is one of the best. Why? Firstly, it’s a large amount of money: $25,000. That’s the type of money needed to get at an issue in any depth. Secondly, the expectations are high. The winner has six months to produce the work and then is encouraged to plug in the product (and the lessons within) to a host of diverse media outlets. Thirdly, it is about women and their needs. When U.S. females earn 77 cents for every dollar a male earns; when women are trafficked worldwide; when women are bearing the brunt of holding together families and communities in the face of the prison industrial complex; when women face issues such as these and others which are part of routine gender violence, the Alexia Foundation is making it’s contribution to bring these issues to the table.
I am also a big fan of journalist Tim Matsui who was awarded the 2012 Women’s Initiative Grant. His project Leaving the Life is about domestic juvenile sex trafficking. Latest update here. A trailer for a film ‘The Long Night’ which accompanies the project and produced by MediaStorm can be viewed here.
Photojournalists worldwide are encouraged to apply to the Women’s Initiative Grant. Deadline: June 30, 2014.
From the press release:
Unlike the first Women’s Initiative grant, which specifically focused on abuse of women in the United States, this call for entries is intended to permit the photographer to propose a serious documentary photographic or multimedia project encompassing any issue involving women anywhere in the world.
While considering the idea of women’s issues, several themes have been suggested, including femininity and the culture of abuse; women making a difference, leading, changing things for the better; gender inequality; the direct connection to women and education, and the impact on birth rates, health of children and the productivity of the women; gender discrimination, women in leadership, women in the military, mental health issues. They are by no means intended to influence proposals, but they may help photographers start thinking about this topic.
The Alexia Foundation’s main purpose is to encourage and help photojournalists create stories that drive change. While our traditional grant guidelines put no limits on the subject matter for grant proposals, a number of proposals about women’s rights in the last few years have been so powerful that we have been compelled to create a grant specifically on issues relating to women.
Winner announced Sept. 1, 2014.
Winner has six months to complete project, by March 1, 2015.
Contact Eileen Mignoni at email@example.com with any inquiries.
Jane Lindsay‘s exhibition From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time closes at the Northlight Gallery on the Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, this coming Saturday, the 29th. Try to make it if you can.
Lindsay has transformed the space with a multimedia installation of photographs and video within and around a modified jail cell and a dinner table. It’s intended to be an environment in which the discussion of complex and emotionally charged issues of safety, justice, civil liberties and social responsibility is supported.
The meditative space includes framed and light-box portraits, prison art and letters as well as the products from light painting and art workshops as well as extended discussion with prisoners at the Pinal County Adult Detention Center about food security, nutrition and agribusiness.
‘Why are they talking about food?’ you might ask. Well apart form the fact that nutritious food is not guaranteed in many U.S. prisons, food is a foundational part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Lindsay believes a person’s ability to fulfill his or her basic needs of food, shelter and a sense of belonging directly influences their potential. Furthermore, if and when these needs are uncertain, teachable skills and coping mechanisms will either support positive development toward self-actualization or distort such development.
Lindsay is calling for balanced lives and balanced views.
(More of the project on Lindsay’s website here.)
Lindsay’s work is replete with compassion. I had the pleasure to meet and speak with her in 2011. Out of that meeting, I invited her to exhibit her work Gems in my co-curated show Cruel and Unusual at Noordelricht Photo Gallery in Groningen, Netherlands. Lindsay is no bleeding heart liberal, though. She has a strong moral compass and her work ties issues of transgression and social ills to poverty and inequality. We need such complex appreciation of complex issues. She also has every excuse to be angry, afraid and vengeful. Some years ago, a close member of her family was brutally assaulted and the recovery for all was tortuous. It is likely still ongoing.
For Lindsay, the the judicial process that purports to hand down justice, was more trauma. The perpetrator was convicted, but the sentence gave Lindsay no peace. She saw that prison — in most cases — rarely addresses the underlying issues of poverty, mentorship, security and social inequity she identifies to be at the core of criminal behavior.
To quote the press release, From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time employs the theme of the family meal to represent the sustenance both literally in the form of food and figuratively in the sense of belonging created within the community and within the home around the dinner table. Lindsay urges audiences to reconsider the roll of the family and civil society as well as definitions of victim and perpetrator.
Lindsay worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor for 15 years in Texas. Her clients included victims and people who were on parole and probation. Since returning to college as a mature grad, Lindsay has pursued art that tackles education, mutual respect and responsibility. Crucially her work directly involves prisoners, families and even detention officers.
“By involving prisoners and their families in self-actualization through creativity, society is directly influenced, the outside world becoming a safer place for everyone,” explains Lindsay. “The inclusive nature of the project promotes agency of the prisoners, presenting them not just as subjects, but also as direct contributors to the telling of their story.
With the aid of Detention Officer Sandra Price, Lindsay developed the program to include 25 prisoners, both female and male, who were serving time accused of drug offenses, theft or violent crimes.
“A vast majority of our inmates behind bars have the skills and talents needed to succeed in life and pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, because they have committed a crime, their dreams were temporarily put on hold,” says Sheriff Paul Babeu in the Northlight Gallery press release. “When they are successful in society it greatly reduces their likeliness of reoffending.”
Lindsay received an MFA in photography from Arizona State University. She moved to Arizona from rural West Texas where she worked as a counselor, social worker and investigator. She has shown her work in several venues including, Texas Photograph Society, Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock Texas, Cooper Grand Hall in New York, Photoville in New York, Noorderlicht Photography Gallery, and North Light Gallery in Tempe, Arizona. Her short film “Dan’s Big Find” recently won the Arizona award in the Arizona International Film Festival. Jane teaches photography at Mesa Community College and she is a TA at ASU.
From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time is exhibited as part of PhotoTapas, a statewide Arizona celebration of photography that involves the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, alternative art spaces such as the Ice House in Phoenix, as well as ASU’s Northlight Gallery.
Cameras needn’t always be a security tool. And, in the hands of prisoners, they needn’t be a security hazard. I’m always encouraged to find photo-education-projects in prisons that nurture storytelling skills of prisoners. Therefore, the Inside View project in Guernsey, a Channel Island in Europe, is cause for interrogation.
I’ve written about the history of photography workshops in prisons, but let me offer a quick re-cap. Except for photo workshops in New York in the 1970s to Washington D.C. in the 1980s no other photography classes that I know of have existed in male adult prisoners in the U.S. None occur today.
Internationally, programs in Columbia, Romania and Switzerland prove the model exists. In U.S. juvenile facilities photo education has operated in Washington State and currently exists in New Mexico and Rhode Island. Generally, we can say that these isolated examples are the exception rather than the rule.
A SIGNIFICANT PROGRAM
Given the paucity of photo-workshops, current and ongoing programs such Inside View are noteworthy, and Inside View might even be a program from which we can learn. It could be replicated! Inside View is the brain child of Jean-Christophe Godet, who also happens to be the Director of the Guernsey Photography Festival.
“Designed to help the participants acquire new technical and social skills, a sense of responsibility, a better understanding of themselves and a greater awareness of the environment in which they live in,” reads the press release, the Inside View project gives prisoners access to equipment and teaches them technical skills.
Inside View started at the end of 2010 with workshops taking place each week over six months. To date, three workshops have taken place, always discussing the importance of objectivity and integrity in creating a documentary.
“The thing I can’t get my head round is that these teachers trust us,” says one prisoner-participant in the same press release. “They respect us and give us well expensive kit to hold and to use. The cameras belong to them and it feels good to be given the responsibility to be trusted with their precious cameras. I will always have the camera round my neck, I will teach my children to look after their things and to respect kit”
“I like it when this gives us a chance to show the outside that we don’t live in a 5* hotel,” reflect a another participant. “We are told when to eat, when to exercise, and we see doors but cant open them. I think that our pictures have captured the essence of what it is to lose your freedom. That’s why our photos are so good”
The assistance of the Governor and prison officers was essential for Inside View to play out, with Officers Dave White and Belinda Help at the sharp end of negotiating the exemplary project.
David Matthews, Guernsey Prisons Governor says, “It is important that prisoners can learn technical and life skills whilst in custody, these new skills can help in reducing offending behaviour and aid resettlement. There is a marked difference in behaviour and attitude when prisoners are exposed to these types of activities.”
Let’s be clear, the Channel Island of Guernsey is quite different to the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter. It is a province with a population of only 65,000. It has a single prison — The Guernsey Prison — with only 122 prisoners. For the sake of comparison, that’s 0.005% of the U.S. prison population which stands at 2.3 million.
If we wanted to imagine a similar program taking grip in the American prison industrial complex, we’d have to deal with massive issues of scale and the inconveniences they cause. Nevertheless, the point is made, photography can be a voice for prisoners — to facilitate that there only need be the resources, the will of any given administration, and systems of political and security that are less interested in covering their ass than they are in delivering rehabilitation.
To find out exactly how the program came about, I asked Inside View coordinator Jean-Christophe Godet a few questions.
Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea to put cameras in the hands of prisoners come from?
JCG: Inside View was inspired by a similar project organised by a collective of photographers “FrameZero” at the Wandsworth Prison in London in the late 90’s. The project was run by Jason Shenaï.
PP: You worked with the Guernsey prison services. How did you negotiate that?
JCG: It took almost three very long years of negotiation. My first letters and emails were simply ignored. I finally met Wendy Meade by chance (she came to one of my photography courses) who told me that she was a prison visitor. I took the opportunity to talk to her about my project. She then introduced me to a Deputy Governor who gave me an opportunity to explain in details what I was trying to achieve.
PP: Who is Wendy Meade?
JCG: Wendy is part of The Panel of Prison Visitors comprised of six volunteers, at present appointed by the Policy Council. They are an independent body authorised by the 1998 Prison Administration (Guernsey) Ordinance to pay frequent visits to the prison at any time of day or night. At least two members are required to visit at least once a month.
PP: What were the prisoners’ reaction to the project?
JCG: I think they didn’t know what to expect first. They took the opportunity to join the group as they had nothing else to do..
Very quickly they started to get more and more involved. The course now is completely oversubscribed with a long waiting list. One of the first reactions that I always get is, “What do you want us to photograph? There is nothing interesting here.” I see my role as teaching them to see and look in a different way.
PP: What was the staff’s reaction to the project?
JCG: The course created lots of challenges for the staff as I didn’t want to stay inside the classroom. I needed to have access to every single corner of the prison. In this special environment having a group of prisoners walking around with cameras on hands is obviously a logistical nightmare. The administration finally came up with an idea of having a dedicated security officer who walks around with us everywhere.
I have a great respect for the staff. Their job is not easy and can be very stressful but their attitude has always supportive and helpful. There is nothing we can do without their help so it was important to gain a level of trust but also share some understanding.
PP: You made over 2,000 pictures for the third iteration of the project and edited those down to 40 for the exhibition. Can you tell me about the editing process?
JCG: We did a couple of sessions with the prisoners where we looked at the photos and decided which ones worked best and why. We didn’t have access to computer inside the prison so I processed all the photos in my studio and did the final editing.
My hope is to give prisoners a way to express themselves, building their self-esteem and reaching a sense of achievement and proud in what they managed to produce. I occasionally meet some of them whose been released. When they tell me that they are still taking photos or saving to buy a new camera, it makes my day.
PP: Thanks Jean-Christophe
JCG: Thank you, Pete.
Presented by the Guernsey Prison in collaboration with the Guernsey Photography Festival, Inside View was first exhibited in November 2013, at the Guernsey Prison Visitors Centre. Inside View is on show from 20th of March – 4th April 2014, at the Gatehouse Gallery, Elizabeth College, The Grange, St Peter Port, Guernsey GY1 2PY
Inside View was awarded the Koestler Trust’s William Archer Platinum Award for photography, which attracts more than 5,000 entries from offenders across the UK. The Trust promotes the arts in special institutions, encouraging creativity and the acquisition of new skills as a means to rehabilitation.
Artist Jesse Krimes stands in front of his 39-panel mural Apokaluptein:16389067 (federal prison bed sheets, transferred New York Times images, color pencil) installed, here, at the Olivet Church Artist Studios, Philadelphia. January, 2014.
The New York Times has a track record for high quality visual journalism. From experiments in multimedia, to its magazine’s double-truck features; from its backstage reportage at the swankiest fashion gigs, to their man in town Bill Cunningham. Big reputation.
NYT photographs are viewed and used in an myriad of ways. Even so, I doubt the editors ever thought their choices would be burnished from the news-pages onto prison bed-sheets with a plastic spoon. Nor that the transfer agent would be prison-issue hair gel.
In 2009, Jesse Krimes (yep, that’s his real surname) was sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary for cocaine possession and intent to distribute. He was caught with 140 grams. The charges brought were those of 50-150 kilos. Somewhere in the bargaining it was knocked down to 500 grams, and Krimes plead guilty to conspiracy. The judge recommended that Jesse be sent to a minimum security prison in New Jersey, close to support network of friends and family, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) opted to send him to a medium security facility in Butner, North Carolina — as far away as permitted under BOP regulations. That was the first punitive step of many in a system that Krimes says is meant first and foremost to dehumanise.
“Doing this was a way to fight back,” says Krimes who believes ardently that art humanises. “The system is designed to make you into a criminal and make you conform. I beat the system.”
Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing Krimes speak about his mammoth artwork Apokaluptein:16389067 during an evening hosted at the the Eastern State Penitentiary and Olivet Church Artist Studios in Philadelphia.
The mural took three years to make and it is a meditation on heaven, hell, sin, redemption, celebrity worship, deprivation and the nature of perceived reality. Krimes says his “entire experience” of prison is tied up in the artwork.
In the top-left is a transferred photo of a rehearsal of the Passion play at Angola Prison, Louisiana.
Through trial and error, Krimes discovered that he could transfer images from New York Times newspapers on to prison bedsheets. At first he used water, but the colours bled. Hair gel had the requisite viscosity. As a result, all imagery is reversed, upturned. Apokaluptein:16389067 is both destruction and creation.
“It’s a depiction of represented reality as it exists in its mediated form, within the fabric of the prison,” says Krimes. “It was my attempt to transfer [outside] reality into prison and then later became my escape when I sent a piece home with the hopes that it could be my voice on the outside in the event that anything bad ever happened and I never made it home.”
ART AS SURVIVAL
Krimes says this long term project kept him sane, focused and disciplined.
Each transfer took 30-minutes. Thousands make up the mural. Krimes only worked on one sheet at a time, each of them matching the size of the tabletop he worked on. A notch in the table marked the horizon line for the 13 panels making up the center horizontal. He shipped them home. Not until his release did he see them together.
The enterprise was not without its risks, but Krimes found favour being a man with artistic talent. He established art classes for fellow prisoners in an institution that was devoid of meaningful programs.
“Prisoners did all the work to set up the class,” says Krimes.
Once the class was in place, guards appreciated the initiative. It even changed for the better some of the relationships he had with staff.
“Some helped mail out sections,” he says of the bedsheets which were, strictly-speaking, contraband.
Krimes would cut sections from the New York Times and its supplements, sometimes paying other prisoners for the privilege.
“In prison, the only experience of the outside world is through the media.”
The horizon is made of images from the travel section. Beneath the horizon are transferred images of war, and man-made and natural disasters. Krimes noticed that often coverage of disasters and idealised travel destinations came from the same coasts and continents. Influenced by Dante’s Inferno and by Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, Krimes reinvigorates notions of the Trinity within modern politics and economics. The three tiers of the mural reflect, he says heaven, earth and hell, or intellect, mind and body.
One can identify the largest victories, struggles and crimes of the contemporary world. All in perverse reverse. All in washed out collage. There’s images of the passion play being rehearsed at Angola Prison from an NYT feature, of Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution, of children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School massacre, and of a submerged rollercoaster in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The women’s rights panel includes news images from reporting on the India bus rape and images of Aesha Mohammadzai who was the victim of a brutal attack by her then husband who cut off her nose. Krimes’ compression of images is vertiginous and disorienting. We’re reminded that the world as it appears through our newspapers sometimes is.
The large pictures are almost exclusively J.Crew adverts which often fill the entire rear page of the NYT. Jenna Lyons, the creative director at J.Crew is cast as a non-too-playful devil imp in the center-bottom panel.
Throughout, fairies transferred straight from ballerinas bodies as depicted in the Arts Section dance and weave. Depending on where they exist in relation to heaven and earth they are afforded heads or not — blank geometries replace faces as to comment on the treatment of women in mainstream media.
The title Apokaluptein:16389067 derives from the Greek root ‘apokalupsis.’ Apokaluptein means to uncover, or reveal. 16389067 was Krimes’ Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number.
“The origin [of the word] speaks to the material choice of the prison sheet as the skin of the prison, that is literally used to cover and hide the body of the prisoner. Apokaluptein:16389067 reverses the sheet’s use and opens up the ability to have a conversation about the sheet as a material which, here, serves to uncover and reveal the prison system,” says Krimes who also read into the word personal meaning.
“The contemporary translation speaks to a type of personal apocalypse – the process of incarceration and the dehumanizing deterioration of ones personal identity, [...] The number itself, representing the replacement of ones name.”
PRISON ECONOMICS: THE HAVES & HAVE NOTS
One of the most interesting things to hear about at Krimes’ presentation was the particular details about how he went about acquiring materials. In federal prison, just as on the outside, money rules. Except inside BOP facilities the currency is stamps not dollars (something we’ve heard before). A $7 book of stamps on the outside, sets a prisoner back $9.
Access to money makes a huge difference in how one experiences imprisonment.
“People who have money have a much easier time living in prison but that is usually rare except for the white collar guys or the large organized crime figures,” says Krimes.
“Prisoners who have money in prison gain automatic respect and power because you are able to have influence over anything really — most people without money will depend on those with cash to be the buyers of whatever products or services they need.”
Without cash to hand, a rare skill comes in handy. Krimes could make art. In prison artists are afforded much respect. Ironically, free society doesn’t treat artists with the same respect, but I guess we’ve already established that we’re dealing in reversals here?!
“We had to provide some kind of skill or service in order to receive money or books of stamps. Some people cook for others, do laundry, do legal work, or artwork.”
In FCI Butner, a high-quality photorealistic portrait would go for as much as $150. Or, 20 books of stamps. Krimes did portraits and tattoo designs, spending proceeds almost exclusively on hair gel and coloured pencils.
“The majority of portraits I did were for the guys who had money or else I did them for free, for friends or those going through hard times.”
The prison sheets came for free. Krimes smiles at the irony that these sheets are made by UNICOR, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ factory and industries arm. UNICOR makes everything from steel frame beds to bedsheets; from U.S. military boots and helmets to plastic utensils. In 2005, UNICOR generated $765 million in sales – 74% of revenues went toward the purchase of raw material and equipment; 20% toward staff salaries; and 6% went toward inmate salaries.
I’d liken Krimes’ acquisition of bed sheets to liberation more than to theft. His image transfers are appropriation more than homage. The scope of the project reflects the sheer size of American prison system. The ambition reflects that of the individual to survive, not the system to improve its wards.
That such a large statement came out of the prison sytem (in one piece!) is a feat in itself. That Apokaluptein:16389067 is so layered and so plugged into contemporary culture is an absolute marvel. That the photographs of international media are the vehicle for that statement should be no surprise at all.
All images: Sarah Kaufman
One of the cardboard boxes in which Krimes shipped out a completed panel. The boxes are made by the federal prison industries group UNICOR which employs prison labour. The box is marked with “ESCAPE PROOF GUARANTEED.”
Today, the Huffington Post published 31 Reasons Philadelphia Is The Most Underrated City in America. Having spent two weeks in Philly recently, I can’t argue with most points (veggie friendly baseball park, c’mon!?).
But I can go further. Allow me to add a 32nd reason. Philadelphia’s anti-prison artists and activists.
Case in point: G-LAW. G-LAW, or OG-LAW (God’s Love Always Wins/God’s Love AT Work) is the adopted name of Michael Ta’Bon, an artist and activist who’s message is peace, love and no more prisons.
For the month of February, G-LAW lived in a self-built cell-sized space on the streets of Philly. Lori Waselchuk and I visited G-LAW on the first of the month to see how he was going with construction, buy a coffee and learn more about his project. These photos are from that day. I have not heard how the past four weeks have gone, but as with all of G-LAW’s public happenings, I am sure he’s raised a lot of eyebrows and a lot of discussions.
This isn’t the first time G-LAW has protested prison construction, poverty, inequality and hate. He has jogged 10 miles a day for seven days around Philadelphia with a 40-foot banner reading FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE; he has walked with a ball-and-chain from Selma to Montgomery; and this is, in fact, the third time he’s spent the month of February on the Philly streets in his own prison cell. You can see coverage of the the first occasion in 2011 here and here. One year, he mounted the event in Atlanta.
“JAIL IS 4 SUCKAZ!” is one of G-LAW’s many tags lines. He means everyone. He means you. Taxpayers are suckers for stumping the bill to maintain abusive and broken prison systems. One side of his cell is emblazoned with the phrase.
The project as a whole is called The Un-Prison Cell. It’s “the only prison in America designed to keep you out,” laughed G-LAW. It sounds like progress on construction slowed in the days after I visited, due to vicious weather and troubles getting materials.
G-LAW was also away from the site on February 12th as he joined the monumental People’s Budget Hearing protest at the Pennsylvania capital building in Harrisburg (video, audio, photos). The People’s Hearing was organised by DecarceratePA, one of the most effective and inspiring anti-prison activist groups in the nation. Don’t believe me? Listen to DecarceratePA member Sarah Morris debate PA Prisons Secretary John Wetzel and call him out on the misinformation peddled by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to the state legislature justify proposed prison expansion.
It was through DecarceratePA that I learnt about G-LAW’s art — you can listen to him on their radio show.
Maintaining momentum against massive forces for grassroots movements is a constant effort. A large part of that is being relevant to people outside the choir, having press strategy and adopting visual strategy too. DecarceratePA’s 100-day #InsteadOfPrisons Instagram campaign was the first and only interesting anti-prison campaign use of Instagram I’ve seen. (I adopted the hashtag myself later to spread the words of PA prisoners who’s work was in Prison Obscura.) Also, look how incredible this visual statement is.
Philadelphia should be proud of its grassroots activism. Bravo. More.
Thanks to Lori for some images.
I never expected to make comment on the career of Miley Cyrus here on the blog, but then again, I never expected to come across the greatest sketch of Miley Cyrus ever made.
The drawing, titled Miley Twerking, was made by my friend Christian Nagler. It originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Issue of Actually People Quarterly (APQ), an indie print publication based in San Francisco. APQ and Nagler kindly provided permission to share the picture.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see a thumbnail image of Miley Cyrus in the sidebar of some website. Collections of Cyrus-resembling pixels are ubiquitous. In terms of describing Miley-Cyrus-the-person, a photograph is almost meaningless. In terms of describing Miley Cyrus-the-product, a photograph is the perfect hype-spinning money-making tool.
The reason I like Nagler’s sketch so much is that skewers the ridiculous theatre of her MTV Awards twerking AND undermines the grotesque image-driven publicity machine that surrounds her. It lays bare what she is and discards the useless debate of who she is.
Cyrus is, as with all celebrities, almost unknowable. She is not a person, but a product. She is no longer a who, but a what. Photography when it encounters celebrity elevates and promotes the what. Photography may purport to depict the who, but it does not.
This is my reading and not necessarily Nagler’s intent. I think he is genuinely interested in Cyrus; perplexed by the who, the what, and the gap between.
“The reason I think Christian’s picture is amazing is because it leaves space left open,” says APQ founder and editor, Sarah Fontaine. “It doesn’t totally proscribe an opinion on her. There’s a level of investment. A drawing takes time but a photo takes an instant.”
If I could even know Cyrus, I don’t think I’d dislike her. Everyone wants to have an opinion about Cyrus’ conduct. Some think her various states of undress hinder the movement of our culture toward one of gender equality. Often Cyrus is the focus of vitriol and frustration, but perhaps we should be looking at society as a whole? I’ll defer to Gloria Steinem and suggest we hate the game, not the player.
“I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists,” said Steinem.
Photography upholds, forwards and fortifies the game. Nagler’s sketch respectfully questions the game. My thoughts on photographing Miley Cyrus? Don’t.