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Two months ago, I published a conversation with Lorenzo Steele, a former NY City Correctional Officer who now gives community talks and makes pop-up street exhibitions of photographs from during his time on Rikers Island. Steele wants to impress upon communities and particularly youngsters how violent jail is.

Steele has produced a video to promote his ongoing work with Behind These Prison Walls. a group he founded to inform, educate, and empower individuals and steer at-risk youth away from the criminal justice system.

SHUT-Down-McFarland

California used to be a private prison-free state, but as overcrowding, unconstitutional conditions and budget crises have gripped, Governor Brown and legislators have increasingly turned to the quick-fix of leasing private facilities.

“One out of 10 California inmates is serving time in a leased or private prison,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “Women’s prisons are the most cramped: the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla is listed at 182% capacity in last week’s state prison census report, with 1,600 prisoners more than it was intended to hold.”

The latest addition to California’s archipelago of lockdowns is McFarland Women’s Prison operated by GEO group, one of the two largest private prison corporations in the U.S. This is a backward step, not only because it is the reopening of a prison the state doesn’t need, but because profits will be made off of the back of those imprisoned. GEO Group has a history that includes sexual abuse and poor medical care in its jails and prisons.

Grassroots organising is to protest the new prison at the end of this month. From the organisers:

RALLY AT MCFARLAND PARK, 100 FRONTAGE RD, MCFARLAND, CA, THURSDAY, JULY 31, 2014, 5 PM

Rally against McFarland Women’s Prison the GEO for-profit women’s prison recently opened in McFarland, California. Demand that the CDCR cancel its contract with GEO, release all prisoners through available alternative programs and divert the money being used to fund the prison to community-based services.

We will be linking up in McFarland with the Trail for Humanity, women and children marching across California to demand the protection of immigrant women and their families, comprehensive immigration reform and an end to racial profiling, and with members of the California Prison Moratorium Project who are joining the march.

Car caravan in the Bay Area is leaving from MacArthur BART, at 11 am, Thursday July 31, 2014. 
Information about other meeting sites to come soon.

For more campaign information and to sign up to caravan to McFarland, go to http://womenprisoners.org/ or email notomcfarlandgeo@gmail.com or call the California Coalition for Women Prisoners at 415-255-7036 ext. 4.

Women and trans people at two of California’s women’s prisons provided the following statement for our education on the matter.

STOP THE MCFARLAND GEO WOMEN’S PRISON!

We the undersigned incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and  the California Institution for Women (CIW) are outraged that CDCR has signed a contract with the GEO Group, the 2nd largest private, for-profit prison corporation in the U.S. According to the contract, GEO will open a new women’s prison in McFarland, CA by fall of 2014. We call upon California State Legislators to direct CDCR to cancel the contract with GEO and implement existing release programs instead of opening a new prison!

Once again we are shuffled around without regard for our well-being or our human rights. Since VSPW was converted to a men’s prison in January 2013, we have been subjected to overcrowding at historically high levels (CCWF is now at 185% capacity), even while the state is under court order to reduce the prison population. This is discrimination against people in women’s’ prisons!  As a result of this overcrowding, health care, mail services, food and education have greatly deteriorated. We are locked down more frequently, leading to heightened tensions, drug overdoses and suicides. The prison staff has responded by locking more people into solitary, further violating our human rights.

CDCR could easily implement existing programs to reduce overcrowding, such as: Alternative Custody Programs (ACP); Elder and Medical Parole; and Compassionate Release. Instead, on April 1, 2014 GEO announced its new contract with CDCR to open a 260 bed women’s prison with an “enhanced rehabilitation and recidivism reduction program.” This is nothing but a bad April Fool’s joke! The 260 women who are “chosen” to go to McFarland could be released through one of these other programs instead. None of us should be hauled off to showcase a so-called “gender responsive” prison and to put money in the pockets of GEO investors.

GEO is a private corporation whose business makes profit from imprisoning primarily people of color and immigrants. GEO’s press release about the new prison reports expected revenue of $9 million in McFarland’s first year. Think of how much $9 million could do for providing community-based re-entry services!

GEO has been the subject of numerous lawsuits around the country about atrocious, unconstitutional conditions. Private prisons are notorious for operating with even greater secrecy than the CDCR: assaults are 49% more frequent; racist behavior and sexual abuse by staff are widespread.

• GEO is responsible for human rights violations at many of their facilities.  In 2012 GEO was forced to close the Walnut Grove, Mississippi youth detention Center after being condemned for allowing, in the words of Fed. Judge Carlton Reeves, “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk..”

• In March 2014, 1200 people detained in GEO’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA (for immigrants) went on hunger strike to protest the grossly inadequate medical care, exorbitant commissary prices and low or NO pay for work within the center.  Other GEO prisoners have since gone on hunger strike at detention facilities in Conroe, Texas and Stewart, Georgia.

• The city of McFarland is located in an area known as an environmental cancer cluster and breeding ground for Valley Fever.  Instead of opening new prisons in this area, all of them should be shut down.

• In January of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown’s reelection campaign reported $54,400 in donations from GEO Group. GEO Group has spent $7.6 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in the U.S. in the last decade.

• GEO lobbied strongly to advance laws that increased the time served for drug convictions and other non-violent crimes through mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes laws, and truth-in-sentencing laws. GEO was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC) when the model bill that became AB 1070 (profiling immigrants in Arizona) was drafted. These legal changes resulted in significant profits for GEO.

• In McFarland, CA, GEO has signed a contract incentivizing prolonged incarceration over release by charging the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation less per prisoner if the facility is more than half full.

• GEO operates reentry facilities around the state, including the Taylor Street Center at in San Francisco and the Oakland Center in Oakland.  Residents experience these facilities as “re-entry prisons” that are structured to threaten and punish people rather than providing support for people to reenter community life.

It is shameful that CDCR is about to open a for-profit “boutique prison” that does nothing positive to solve the disproportionate overcrowding in the women’s prisons at this time. Assembly Members and Senators, please intervene!  Stop the GEO prison from opening. Instead use this $9 million to fully implement existing release programs immediately and fund community-based (not for-profit) reentry programs.

Thank you for listening to this urgent request,

Natalie DeMola, CCWF

Jane Dorotik, CIW

Fonda Gayden, CCWF

Anne Marie Harrison, CCWF

Valerie Juarez, CCWF

Terah Lawyer, CCWF

ChiChi Locci, CCWF

Maydee Morris, CCWF

Amy Preasmeyer, CCWF

Patrice Wallace, CCWF

If you can make it to McFarland (a typically remotely-located prison) in California’s central valley, I urge you to do so.

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One might think the cob of corn and carrot held by a hand in a prison protest banner is an unusual inclusion, Unfortunately, access to nutritional food in prisons up and down the country is not guaranteed. This symbol is highly indicative of the very basic struggles prisoners take on in the face of slashed budgets and disregard for life’s basics. Poor food and cutbacks in food provision are not unusual.

As part of a peaceful protest at SCI Coal Township, a petition from the prisoners is now being circulated. It includes 22 demands seeking the restoration of human rights and dignity for the people being held in Pennsylvania prisons.

There are hundreds of actions each year for better conditions for prisoners, but I thought the ask for simple nutrition was a good indicator of the desperate situation in some U.S. prisons. The protest is also being supported by DecarceratePA, an abolitionist group I support and admire.

This week, I received the following letter from activist Emily Abendroth and the DecarceratePA group:

In late June, in response to dramatic food cutbacks at the State Correctional Institute at Coal Township, over 1300 men staged a week-long boycott of the prison dining hall. At the end of a week of peaceful protest, with still no commitment to change forthcoming from the prison administration, participants released a list of 22 requests/demands.

The prisoners are asking that prison officials at SCI Coal Township, and across the PA Department of Corrections, honor the basic human rights of people in prison. Among other things, these men are petitioning for: access to adequate food, the ability to hold cultural events, an effective grievance process, respectful medical care, and an end to policies that dehumanize and punish prisoners and their families.

Given the fact that more than 1,300 prisoners at Coal Township were able to stand and act in solidarity with one another in the name of changing current prison conditions, at great risk to their personal livelihood, we on the outside should be aiming not only to match but to massively amplify those numbers in our own displays of support.

Take action now:

Sign the Petition

Share on Twitter

Share on Facebook

Call PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel on 717-728-4109

 and/or SCI Coal Township Superintendent Vincent Mooney on 570-644-7890 to register your thoughts on the demands and situation at Coal Township.

Keep up with breaking news and information from participants on the inside.

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Crowdfunding, eh? What to make of it. I feel like the jury is still out, but then again I have had my head somewhat in the sands of late. I have benefited in the past from a Kickstarter campaign and in the immediate aftermath tried to give my feedback on the dos and don’ts.

Where the successful intersections between cultural production and social justice lie is, for me, a constant internal debate, so I hope this post serves two purposes.

Firstly, to clarify my thinking and to highlight the type of crowd funding campaign that I think encapsulates best practice.

Secondly, to bring a half-dozen endeavors (5 prison-related and 1 purely photo-based) that I think deserve your attention and, perhaps, your dollars.

On the first purpose, I’ve identified common traits among these projects that are indicative of a good practice:

- Track record. These fund seekers appearing out of the blue; they’ve done work in the specific area and have chops and connections.
Direct action. These projects will directly engage with subject and, consequently audience on urgent politic issues
Community partners. These funders have existing relationships with organizations or programs that will provide support, direction, accountability and extended networks
Diversity. Of both product and outcomes. Projects that meld digital output/campaigns and boots-on-the-ground activism get my attention. Creators, in these instances, realize that they must leverage every feasible avenue to get out the political message.
Matching funds. In cases where matching funds exist, I am reassured. It shows that the creator is forging networks and infers that they are inventive and outward looking when it comes fundraising. It infers that we’re all in it together; it might just give us those necessary warm fuzzy feelings when handing over cash on the internet.

On the second purpose, I’ll let you decide.

1. OUTREACH

Let’s start with a campaign to help OUTREACH, a program offered by Toronto’s Gallery 44 that breaks down barriers to the arts by offering black & white photography workshops to 50 young people each year.

OUTREACH’s darkroom is the last publicly accessible wet darkroom in Toronto. Gallery 44 has offered accessible facilities to artists since 1979.

Donations go to workshops costs: photographic paper, film, processing, chemistry, snacks and transit tokens.

OUTREACH has several existing community partners including the Nia Centre for the Arts, Eva’s Phoenix, Toronto Council Fire Native Community Centre, PEACH and UrbanArts.

“I went from being a student to a mentor,” says one participant. “I recently had my work exhibited in the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.”

DONATE HERE

2. DYING FOR SUNLIGHT

In the summer of 2013, prisoners in California conducted the largest prison hunger strike in U.S. history. 30,000 men refused food in protest against the use of indefinite solitary confinement. Some prisoners refused food for 60 consecutive days. Dying For Sunlight will tell the story.

Across racial lines, from within the belly of the beast (Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit) California prisoners mounted a reasoned and politically robust defense of their basic human rights that garnered nationwide attention. Their families joined them in solidarity. This was a true grassroots movement built by those on the front lines of state violence

“We prisoners of all races have united to force these changes for future generations,” Arturo Castellanos wrote from the Pelican Bay SHU.

Filmmakers Lucas Guilkey and Nazly Siadate have spent the past year building relationships, and covering the California prisoner hunger strikes. They are joined by journalist Salima Hamirani and community organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, and California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement in their effort to tell this story.

“In a world of sound bytes, Dying For Sunlight feature length documentary will allow us the time to more fully delve into the questions this movement has raised,” says Guilkey. “Why and how is solitary confinement used in California prisons? What does the movement against it look like? And how did we get to the point where we’ve normalized a system of torture in our own backyards?”

Dying For Sunlight takes the premise that, in order to understand our society with “increasing inequality, militarization, incarceration, surveillance, deportation, and the criminalization of dissent, we must listen to the voices of those who have endured the most repressive form of social control–the solitary confinement unit.”

The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez ruled that solitary for anything more than 15 days is psychological torture, yet California and other states throw people in the hole for decades.

The film is in pre-production and all the fancy-schmancy gear is bought. Donations will go directly to costs associated with travel, expenses and editing related to interviews made up and down the state with family members, formerly incarcerated people, solitary experts, prison officials. They’ll attend rallies and vigils too. They hope to have a rough cut by December.

DONATE HERE

3. CHANGE THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS (AIA) CODE OF ETHICS TO OUTLAW DESIGN OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT UNITS

Raphael Sperry continues his battle to rewrite an AIA ethics code which predates the widespread use of solitary confinement in the U.S.

An architect himself, but on hiatus to concentrate on this political and ethical fight, Sperry points out, “even though only 3 to 4% of prisoners are in solitary confinement, half of all prison suicides occur among prisoners who are in solitary confinement.

The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession.

“The AIA has disciplinary authority over its members. In the current code of ethics, they have language that says that members should uphold human rights in all of their professional endeavors. So it’s pretty clear that members shouldn’t design a Supermax prison or an execution chamber,” explains Sperry. “[But] the language about upholding human rights is unenforceable in the AIA code of ethics. So all we’re asking them to do is draft an enforceable rule associated with it that says that members should not design [a project that commits] a specific human rights violation.”

Sperry’s tactics go to the heart of his profession and tackle this issue that stains our collective moral conscience. It’s strategic and laudable. He’s won institutional support before.

Donations go toward ongoing conversations, writing, speaking, research and pressure on the top brass.

DONATE HERE

4. A LIVING CHANCE

A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole is made in collaboration with females serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California. The word “collaboration” is the important detail. It is made with incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison. CCWP rightly identifies incarcerated women as the experts on the issue of prisons.

Audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs will constitute a website and a publication about LWOP which is considered the “lesser” alternative sentence to the Death Penalty.

People sentenced to LWOP have no chance of release from prison and very slim opportunity for appeals or clemency. There are approximately 190 people sentenced to die in prison by LWOP in California’s women’s prisons. The majority of whom are survivors of childhood and/or intimate partner abuse. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trial.

California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC) and prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. CCWP began in 1995 when people inside the women’s prisons filed a lawsuit against then-governor Pete Wilson rightfully claiming that the healthcare inside prison was so terrible it violated their 8th amendment rights.

A Living Chance was chosen as a recipient of a matching funds award up to the value of $6,000. Already, $2,000 has been raised in individual donations, so the crowdfunding target is $4,000 of a $12,000 total

Donations go creation of the storytelling website and publication, stipends for participants, travel costs to the prisons, and building future effective campaigns.

DONATE HERE

5. THE PRISON PROBLEM, SHANE BAUER’S YEAR OF JOURNALISM

Shane Bauer, a journalist I have long admired, wants to focus for one year on the urgent politics of prisons, specifically those routinely using solitary confinement.

“We spend over $80 billion a year on our corrections system and the cost is growing. At the same time, the number of privately run prisons is on the rise, and the for-profit prison model is spreading globally. In the US, the percentage of prisoners held in private facilities increased 37 percent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these are immigrants, a large number of which remain in pretrial detention for years,” says Bauer. “I’ll show you how U.S. prison practices are being exported to the rest of the world and dissect the systems that lead so many to be locked up in this country.”

For The Prison Problem, Bauer is basically asking for everything he needs to live on in order to create deep investigative journalism: funds to travel, interview, conduct research, and sometimes sue government bodies refusing access to information.

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Bauer reporting in Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, Crescent City, California, 2013.

Bauer promises at least three or four major feature stories, each is the equivalent of a magazine cover story. He’s got the reporting chops necessary —  No Way Out for Mother Jones about solitary in California (video, too) is widely acclaimed.

DONATE HERE.

6. HELPING KIDS OUT OF JAIL AND BACK INTO SCHOOL

Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY) provides educational rights counseling and assistance to young people in Montgomery County, PA who are reentering the community after being incarcerated. It’s asking for a little help. Montgomery County, PA has been identified as having a disproportionate amount of minority youth being involved in the juvenile system, and suffers from a lack of agencies focused on supporting youth reentering the community.

PALY recruits law student, as volunteers, to work one-on-one with reentering youth crafting individually-designed educational plans.

The average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for a year is about $88k per year; educating that same student is one eighth that cost.

The ask of only $10,000 is small by comparison, but the effect could be huge. Donations will cover PALY’s first year of programming costs: training mentors, youth educational programs, and a ‘Know Your Rights’ campaigns for the community.

DONATE HERE.

 

Lucia retrieving her stashed pack in the bushes. California. 2013.

Lucia retrieving her stashed pack in the bushes. Kitra Cahana, California, 2013.

I’ll confess that until I met Kitra Cahana last week, I knew next to nothing about her work. That’s my loss more than anything because her work is fantastic; it’s empathetic and it subtly prods many assumptions of priggish Western culture.

Case in point is Cahana’s series Nomad, which documents the lives of a morphing group of young travellers in the U.S. All of it — the boxcars, the festivals, the tiredness, the freedom, the victories, the marginalised physical and psychological spaces, the run-ins with police and the friendship.

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Mogli tries on a new dress he just found in a free pile at a truck stop in Washington State. Kitra Cahana, 2010.

As a 2014 TED Fellow, Cahana talked about Nomad to a crowd of TEDsters last month. The presentation A Glimpse Of A Life On The Road doesn’t sugarcoat of idealise the lives of these modern day nomads. “Addiction is real,” she says as she begins to list the many hardships that come with living subject to the elements and under the hammer of increasingly punitive laws.

“Who knows that in many American cities it is now illegal to sit on the sidewalk, to wrap oneself in a blanket and to sleep in ones own car?” Cahana asks the TED crowd. She goes on:

By night they sleep beneath the stars …

Some travelers take to the road by choice, renouncing materialism, traditional jobs and university degrees in exchange for a glimmer of adventure. Others, come from the underbelly of society never given a chance to mobilize upwards — foster care drop out, teenage runaways escaping abuse and unforgiving homes.

Where others see story of privation and economic failure, travelers view their own existence through the prism of liberation and freedom.

They’d rather live off the excess of what they view as a wasteful consumer society, than slave away at an unrealistic chance at the traditional American dream. They take advantage of the fact that in the United States up to 40% of all food ends up in the garbage, by scavenging for perfectly good produce in dumpsters and trash cans. They sacrifice material comforts in exchange for the space and the time to explore a creative interior.

Vagabonds confuse most of us. And when I say ‘us’ I mean ‘me.’ Why would someone even do that? Live like that?

To exercise empathy I must meet others at a half-way point, and I must meet them where they are at. And to understand. It was my lesson, from listening to Cahana, that I haven’t allowed my imagination to extend far enough to see a life-on-the-road as a solid political position.

In majority America, given the obvious economic inequality, waste, unemployment, sexism in populist media and the associated perverse obsessions of consumerism, you would think, we have plenty of reasons to opt out?!

Put like that, life-on-the-road seems like one of the more sensible responses. I’ve got a few lessons to learn from Cahana’s friends and subjects.

Kitra Cahana speaks at length about Nomad on the TED blog.

Watch:

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Alexandra Diracles,”Be The Witness” installation view, Houston Street, NYC

Photographic artists who collaborate closely — and as equivalents — with communities to amplify voices and forward political movement are at the forefront of my thoughts right now. As you might now, last month I took part in a discussion about socially-engaged photography practice, at Aperture Gallery, NYC. It would, therefore, be unforgivable for me not to share with you my experience visiting Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration an innovative exhibition curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in Midtown Manhattan. It is the best exhibition with this specific focus I have seen to date.

Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is teeming with powerful and important works. So many, in fact it makes this review quite a lengthy post. Please bear with me, and if nothing else, use the links herein to dig further into the projects.

The exhibition includes portraiture, documentary photography, audio-visual installations, personal narratives and community initiatives. The first thing that should be said is that the space is not ideal for contemplation. Works are hung throughout the openish-plan offices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That said, if you email ahead, you’ll be met out the elevator on the 14th floor by a welcoming staff member. Ultimately, the show will move to NYU in the autumn, so you can take your pick of visitor experience.

Immediately to one’s right upon entry are two small rooms dedicated to desktop presentations of Be The Witness a campaign organized by NYU grads that records the voices of wrongfully convicted exonerees; and Hank Willis Thomas’ Question Bridge an interactive’s trans-media initiative promoting dialogue between black males of all backgrounds in order to redefine black male identity in America. The WiFi was kapput but I was familiar with both these projects previously and know I, we, can experience them from our own home computers. I moved on without asking anyone to reset the router.

Next up was #SANDY, a collection of 12×12 iPhone photos prints captured by photographers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Organised by Wyatt Gallery and the Foley Gallery #SANDY raised $21,000 for rebuilding efforts in New York City. It was an immediate and effective response, but the engagement here seems to be more with technology, buyers and exceptional trauma rather than with the quieter, ongoing struggles of systemically disadvantaged communities. Laudable but hardly aesthetically or methodologically groundbreaking.

Squished into a corridor were the works of four projects that operate completely embedded within communities.

First, the NY-based Laundromat Project which uses public art classes to reinforce community networks. Everyone should know about their empowering work within NYC. It is a model that needs to be repeated.

Secondly, Sonia Louise Davis ‘ impressive Across 116th Street. Throughout the Summer of 2013, in conjunction with the Laundromat Project’s Works in Progress Art Education Program, Davis gave free art workshops along 116th Str. and hosted sidewalk family portraits sessions with neighbors using her large format view camera.

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© Sonia Louise Davis

116th Street runs the full width of Manhattan, from the Hudson River to the East River. Davis seeks to activate communities’ narratives and histories. She provided all participants enlarged prints. In addition, Davis has asked residents to submit their own images of 116th street to a community-authored “ar(t)chive”.

Third, Lorie Novak‘s photographs. Novak has been working in Mexico for over a decade. She uses art and photography to catalyse communities on a wide-range of issues such as anti-violence against women and anti-GMO food crops. The few prints presented were documentation mainly and didn’t provide a deep or coherent summary of Novak’s very good projects — but that is precisely a tension of socially engaged work when the interaction and not an object-end-product is the main focus. With such projects, if posterity and education is to be served, (photographic) documentation is paramount.

Fourth, was a brief overview of Russell Frederick‘s mentorship of inner-city teenage boys. Frederick is well known for his luscious B&W reverent studies of residents of BedStuy, but here he’s encouraging youngsters to use photography for their own ends and means … with the hope of guiding them away from violence. Frederick has worked with the JustArts Photography program in NYC.

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JustArts Photography students explore professional equipment with Russell Frederick

Off the corridor, in a side room, on a TV screen is Hong-An Truong‘s video Rehearsal For Education. Inspired by Gramsci, Truong recorded quotes texts and passages with high-school kids. These are the soundtrack to a conceptual montage of images. The effect is mantra like, but I couldn’t access the atmosphere of the piece nor figure out its extended use. The worth, I hope, is in the transformative nature of performance and theatre enjoyed by schoolchildren during the making.

On a massive wall at the end of the office space is Jamila Mohamad Hooker‘s Foreign Postcards, a crowdsourced visual rally against xenophobia and Islamophobia. People from around the world have exchanged and posed with the project’s postcards to normalise the sight of the Arabic language. The words? Their own name written in Arabic.

While the presentation of tiled selfies filling an entire long wall is impressive, the emotional connect was much stronger in the first instance among friends and family than I was with me, a detached tertiary audience member. That is why I just submitted a request for a postcard with my own name on it! You can too.

The concept is simple. We are all one humanity. A cute, repeatable and adaptable project.

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Examples from Jamila Mohamad Hooker’s Foreign Postcards

If my reactions don’t seem gushing enough quite yet, don’t worry the best is yet to come. Again, placed down the length of a single corridor (taking us back to the front of the exhibition space) are a number of phenomenal projects, many of which I was not previously familiar.

Noelle Theard‘s Sunset Park Rent Strike Photography Initiative, which can be seen at the Galeria Del Barrio website is an audio and photographic collaboration advocating for improvements in living conditions of three Brooklyn residences. Landlords were trying to raise rents on long term tenants and Theard joined their resistance and provided images of the struggle and encouraged communities to do the same.

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Theard is also founder of FotoKonbit, a non-profit that puts cameras in the hands of Haitians. I’m a long time fan. More here.

Over the years, Lonnie Graham has worked in U.S. African American communities and in Sub-Saharan African communities, and in each case on issues of nourishment, subsistence and prejudice. Graham’s political consciousness is global but the effects of his work are definitively local. Before “food desert” was even a term, his Gardens Project was empowering people to grow their own healthy foods bringing with it all the associated benefits. Less obesity, connection with the land, increased attention among children, reduced obesity. The right to food os the right to dignity.

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Harry in the garden, 2003. © Lonnie Graham

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(A poor) installation shot of Lonnie Graham’s Garden Project. © Pete Brook!

Similarly, Ayasha Guerin project Brownstone Bushwick celebrates the consolidating power of nature in the face of urban blight and/or gentrification. Guerin joined up with the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden to document their activities. Her photographs were accompanied by extended captions from the subjects. Guerin is an academic and a researcher and uses photography within a broader ethnological approach. She celebrates the triumphs of Bushwick’s Afro-Caribbean community in beautifying their neighborhood.

Lara Stein Pardo‘s Mobile Public Studio encourages people to have their portrait taken spontaneously in a public space. I cannot think that the positioning of the surveillance camera floating above the heads of the portrait sitters (standers) was accidental. Pardo is exercising her right to photograph publicly, making the briefest of connections. She’s photographing on the street, but she is not a street photographer as her interactions are longer, not fleeting, involve conversation and mutual understanding.

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© Lara Stein Pardo

Christine Wong Yap‘s Make Things (Happen) is one of the few non-photo-based projects included in the show. Make Things (Happen) begins with a wall loaded with free worksheets. Each encourage the public to participate in an artistic endeavor. Pick them up, take them home, do the exercises, share your results with #mkthngshppn on social media.

At first, I was skeptical toward the invite, but soon realised that most of us need a prompt to think about actually making something. An unfortunate number of adults need prompt in order to fire their imagination. This project is never-ending, loose-ended. Something might come of it, something might not, but with the array of genuinely fun and simple actions proposed, the results are on us, not the artist.

People suffering from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia face a huge stigma. Eric Gottesman ‘s repeated and long term projects works alongside youth in Ethiopia to make photographs and videos to raise awareness about the epidemic.

Sudden Flowers is a collective of young people in the Shiromeda/Sidist Kilo neighborhood of Addis Ababa. In cahoots, Gottesman and the youngster install their works in their neighborhoods and throughout the city. They’ve been doing this since 1999. Always getting the voices of the kids out into the communities that will either support or ignore them. These pop-up shows aim to make it the former, not the latter.

“Each of our projects is like a ‘lyric’ in larger poetic structure,” says Gottesman who continues the work still.

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Installation shot of Eric Gottesman’s Sudden Flowers

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Citizens of Babile, Ethiopia attend “Abul Thona Baraka,” a mobile photographic installation comprised of photographs and texts produced by children of the Shiromeda neighborhood of Addis Ababa in collaboration with artist Eric Gottesman. The work addressed themes of stigma, disease, and grief as well as dialogue and participation. The installation, in the form of a traditional coffee ceremony, travelled to various Ethiopian cities and town in 2006.

The last space to experience is the boardroom in the centre of the offices (the two corridors described above have run either side of it and you’ve circled it). This is a large open space and rightfully it is dedicated to some of the larger and more arty prints.

Kristina Knipe powerful series of portraits and object studies engaged me deeply with the personal struggles of people who have engaged in self-harm. Knipe’s work is mysterious and — while always being respectful — skirts the edges of the issue. It’s as if she is operating from within a deep understanding of her subjects prior victimhood and hard earned relief in recovery. There’s anonymity sometimes and things inferred. There’s no shame involved, of course, but there is the acknowledgement that in unideal circumstances thing unsaid is sometimes just how it is.

There’s a visceral and coherent atmosphere to the series, which is not something I can usually say wholeheartedly about the flat photographic reproductions; the medium rarely allows it. A triumph.

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Leannet’s Arm Healed © Kristina Knipe

Finally, we encounter Paul T. Owen‘s Todos Somos Ellas (We Are All Them) photographs that bring attention to the violence against women in Mexico. Owen asks his subjects to pose, seemingly defenselessly before the camera, so as to anonymise them and to bring them and us into solidarity with victims of femicide.

“These are not portraits of individuals,” explains Owen, “but symbols who represent the thousands who have died violent deaths because of their gender.”

After a shocking number of news stories of rape in India, after the kidnap of 200+ schoolgirls in Nigeria, after the UC Santa Barbara shooting and the #YesAllWomen campaign, Owen’s work is as timely as ever. But let’s be frank, grave violence inflicted upon women throughout most societies can only be responsibly described as ‘routine’. As Rebecca Solnit so wisely said, recently, violence may not have a race, it may not have a class, but it certainly does have a gender. In the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) have been victim to rape. I don’t believe that enough reliable, caring and suitably responsive infrastructures and attitudes exist to reduce this figure, yet. This is unacceptable. Owen’s portraits reflect the desperate and trapped circumstances many women find themselves in.

All women? All people. All of our problem and shame upon which to work collectively.

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© Paul Owen

From the inferred silent violence implicit in Owen’s work, we move to photographs that display the best of our awkward and necessary shared being.

The show closes out with 5 or 6 portraits from Richard Renaldi‘s Touching Strangers which has enjoyed widespread acclaim recently. It’s responsible work. Renaldi provides a growing experience for photographer, subject and viewer alike. It gently and endearingly pricks our consciousness by asking us if we’re doing enough to actively see and empathise with the people around us. Touching Strangers is optimistic and it deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.

EXHIBITION DETAILS

Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is hosted jointly by the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the The Nathan Cummings Foundation.

It is currently on show at the The Nathan Cummings Foundation, 475 10th Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10019, through October 2, 2014. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing exhibits@nathancummings.org. After October, the exhibition will be on show at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

Lorenzo Triburgo is creating some of the most enagaging photography coming out of Portland. He is best known for his series Transportraits, portraits of post-transition transgendered individuals, pictured in front of backdrops (that Triburgo himself painted). This is a little strange given that Triburgo doesn’t really like the portrait genre, nor has he any formal painting training. But in the execution of an idea, Triburgo will go the extra mile.

Transportraits is on show at Newspace Center for Photography, Portland from June 6 to August 15. All images included here are from Transportraits.

Currently, Triburgo is working on a body of work about correctional officers in Oregon, but I didn’t really want to wait until its completion before we sat down and chatted — there’s too much to talk about! Here we talk about identities, gender, teaching, selfies, jails, rural police budgets, how to make portraits respectfully, and Bob Ross.

EYE ON PDX

Eye On PDX is an ongoing series of profiles of photographers based in Portland, Oregon. See past Eye On PDX profiles here and here.

Scroll down for the Q&A. Enjoy!

© Lorenzo Triburgo

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Transportraits is an old project now, but it was the first body of your work I came across. It was well received. In it, I noticed exciting novel facets. Can you tell us about it?

Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): It is a few years old now and it did get seen relatively widely, but for me, the best thing to come out of letters and messages from trans-guys all over the country — and some internationally too — just say thanks. I did not expect that. I’ve done the thing that I wanted to do; I put positive representations out there.

PP: You showed me one of those correspondences, and I’d like to share it with the readers.

LT: Mostly, the guys are happy to share their lives and thoughts.

PP: Here it is:

I’m generally a person of few words. I certainly am not one to write letters. However, I felt that in this case, I needed to express appreciation to you, Mr. Triburgo.

I have identified as transgender for as long as I have known that such a word existed. For years, I lived in fear of myself and of losing my family to my particular “problem”.  I have a husband who has always supported me and my gender identity and encouraged me to take the steps towards transitioning but it wasn’t until seeing your portfolio (via HuffPost) that I actually was inspired to do so.

The men you photographed were so themselves and so proud looking that I realized that I could no longer hide in the shadows of my own self-loathing and let myself be crippled by what my intolerant family thought. I saw the future in those photos and it gave me the strength to take the necessary steps to begin my journey.

So, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your portraits and your vision. They were the final push I needed to live my life.

PP: “I saw the future in those photos…” Wow!

LT: Gives me chills. Just really, really happy about that.

PP: Transportraits is finished now?

LT: Yes. Well, actually, I just had a man who is 65 and just transitioned. He asked, “Are you still shooting because I really want to be a part of this?” I wasn’t / am not really still shooting but heck, why not?

PP: He’s 65! You had to. 

LT: Exactly. He’s in Washington State and doesn’t have a community of trans guys really to hang out with. He met some people online who were in Washington but not really close. We all got together and had a luncheon at his house and these guys came from 4 hours away just to hang out. Looking at my photos, there’s such a ragtag criss-cross of people — a Seattleite who transitioned in the 1970s, so and he was 70-years-old; guys in their mid-40s from rural Washington, and Dane (pictured below) who has just now transitioned at 65.

Dane and his husband have been married 40 years. His husband is in his eighties and he said, “Dane will do what he wants and that’s cool with me. My friends told me, ‘Oh man, everyone’s gonna think you’re gay,’ and I thought, well, so be it.” It is incredible! So and I did shoot those guys and I am going to add them into the project.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

Dane and husband.

PP: Did you have your backdrops with you?! 

LT: Yes. I took them up.

PP: You painted all those backdrops? 

LT: I used Bob Ross’s instruction book. Just sheets of plywood. I accidentally got better at painting as Transportraits project went on.

PP: Why the backdrops?

LT: I started the project doing my own transition. Right before that time, I had a phase in which I thought I would never photograph people again.

But Transportraits was about gender identity and masculinity. I knew I didn’t want to create a documentary type project or a really a personal narrative, I wanted it to be more about my ideas on gender and the ideas I was wrestling with during my own transition.

I considered fabricated nature as the backdrop, basically to suggest nature as a construct. I experimented with projections and scans and collage but concluded painting made the most sense. And if it was about masculinity, then I figured using an American icon such as Bob Ross would help keep it about American masculinity.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

PP: You’ve recently started teaching at Oregon State University. Your courses are about gender. Can you give us a primer on gender representation in photography? 

LT: Photography has had this misconception attached to it throughout its history of presenting a truth, and I think that can be used to both uphold normative ideas of gender. It can also be played with to undermine those ideas. Photography is like a mirror so — in terms of identity based work — I feel like its the perfect medium because it’s a way of representing oneself and the way we construct identities.

PP: Which practitioners’ work inspires you? 

LT: In the late 90s, when I was at college, Claude Cahun was just resurfacing in curricula. All of a sudden, learning about Cahun had such a huge impact on my work and my life. Surrealist photographers in the 1920s were thinking about identity and multiple selves and using photography to look at — and deconstruct — the self as one unit, and one unified self. Excitement ever since. Man Ray too, of course. One of my favorite books is Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. It’s accompaniment to Jennifer Blessing’s exhibition about gender performance in photography from its invention through until the 90s.

PP: And since the 1990s?

LT: Well, identity-based work really went out of vogue.

PP: Why?

LT: I don’t think people really wanted to talk about it. But I think identity as a photography subject is really important.

PP: Oh.

LT: Let’s talk about politics in art. I think of the 90s as a time of resurgence for women in music, in the visual arts, and identity-based politics, right? We were coming off of — and still are — creating work around peer culture in the AIDS crisis. And there was Riot Grrrl, a third wave feminist presence and I think there was a backlash against that.

As identity-based work became commercially less viable it didn’t have the focus it would need in the art world. What do you think?

PP: In both Britain and in America, under Clinton and the Democrats, Blair and New Labour (before Blair went into an illegal war with Bush), the 1990s were a time of peace, a time of economic growth, a time of optimism in many ways. Now we’re all cynics and in reality or perception, under the kosh of wider state controls. Our governments didn’t listen when we refused post 9/11 policies that have torn the world apart.

We are looking inward trying to figure out our place. A lot of identity politics are self made, about the self, but specifically about the anxieties of self. There were no iPhones in the 1990s. We’re in the age of directed advertising. Everything is slick — even, the same — including our own individual forms of production

LT: But this play might lead us to new discoveries? Perhaps identity politics are just getting amplified, again? To me, it’s really interesting now! It’s out-of-control, you know!? The selfie is here.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

LT: The selfie is just so interesting. Photography has imbedded itself in this immediate way in how we present ourselves.

PP: Selfies have been dismissed, by many, as the narcissism of the generation of millennials. They’re not just that; there’s more but I don’t yet know what selfies ‘do.’

I have to presume that there’s nothing inherently bad or damaging about being able to represent the self more readily. But, I am not seeing people use selfies in a way that has the same impact as artists’ self-portraits of the past did. Think of Nan Goldin’s portrait of her black eye after domestic abuse.

People are using the selfie to promote; a selfies is akin to brand identify. We’re like infants just working out what we are doing. I want to see something more “real.”

LT: It could go another way where it just gets less and less real. People might put up more and more facade, but if it goes that way then we’ll there’s a potential for us to lose that “reality” and that gravity.

Still, with the selfie, we are revisiting the very immediate past … immediately. How are we relating to ourselves differently? Who are we when we are in a state of constant reflection of our selves? As that speeds up, it will be interesting as the self and the reflection of the self happen simultaneously.

PP: And what that mean for portrait photographers. What does a portrait provide a population in which everyone has a camera in their pocket? Can you imagine doing a portrait series in like 2020?

LT: In my studio practice, my subjects are there, knowingly, as representations of my ideas.

PP: So, in some ways, you’re portraits maintain a distance?

LT: It would be different if I went to these people’s houses and was photographing them there.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

PP: What photographic works dealing with gender and identity has impressed you? 

LT: Cass Bird for the way she’s interested in various genders; Lyle Ashton Harris was a great influence on me when I was younger — I love the staged elements of it, and that he was fabulous and aggressive at the same time.

Nikki S. Lee for her during the 90s for which she dressed as various identities and immersed herself in different subcultures. Perhaps a bit problematic work but fascinating all the same. Carrie Mae Weems, of course. Adrain Chesser, for the way he shares such intimate moments.

As I’m American and I’m of this [younger] generation, I can’t get away from Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston — their work is part of the patriarchy, right but I can’t help it. I am super influenced by their use of color and humor they employed and underlies their social commentary.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

LT: Eight years ago, before I did Transportraits I wanted to do something working with prison system. I drafted letters. The warden at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) was interested, but I was talking about doing a portraits of the prisoners and their family, but he told me there is actually something of a photo program at OSP that is prisoner-run. It wouldn’t really help to replicate that project. I thought about my proposal some more. While I’m waiting to get prison access and a project brief, I created Transportraits.

PP: A very successful project.

LT: It took over! But now Transportraits is complete, it’s time to re-address this prison issue.

PP: How are you doing that?

LT: Again I put out some letters and a couple of facilities [jails] responded — in Clackamas County and Josephine County.

PP: Both in Oregon.

LT: I’ve coordinated some meeting and toured the facilities. In Josephine County in particular, I had some eye-opening conversations about their funding crisis and the additional stress that is put on their staff and the officers consequently.

My partner works in industrial psychology and conversations she and I had were about current psychological research on law enforcement  officers, particularly correctional officers, and the stress and the PTSD they suffer. I realized that these serious workplace health concerns often go overlooked by society.

PP: In photography certainly.

LT: At the same time that I was thinking about that I was also thinking about privacy issues for prisoners.

PP: They relate?

LT: Absolutely, inasmuch they dictate who and what I am comfortable photographing. Within photography there are issues with privacy … and with power relationships between photographer and subject. Who controls what is seen? Who makes that call? Who’s point of view is being shown?

I felt like photographing prisoners would become problematic. My thinking was solidified during my first tour of a jail — seeing the complete lack of privacy for a prisoner was astounding. Twice every hour, an officer goes down the tier and looks in everyone’s windows to check upon them. To see them being watched in that direct way had an impact on me.

PP: You couldn’t be another person staring down, separated?

LT: It was a danger.

PP: And so instead?

LT: The stresses on officers, and how those stresses are overlooked, hasn’t really been discussed in popular press or art/photography projects. In-depth. In a way that deals specifically with the officers.

PP: I can only think of two or three photographers who have imaged staff sympathetically. Fiona Tan’s Correction is probably the best example, but even that wasn’t solely officers.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

PP: How do you introduce yourself and the work? Are correctional officers open to it?

LT: I talk about the negative stereotypes of officers that are portrayed in popular media. Likewise, the assumption among many that police forces are corrupt. I suggest that my project is potentially something to boost morale. They agree. They’re enthusiastic particularly in Josephine County where they’ve had their budget go to the ballot and be rejected. The taxpayers in Josephine County don’t want to fund the Sheriff’s deputies in or out of the jail.

PP: It’s been national news

LT: People know they’re not going to get arrested for petty crime because there’s not enough staff at the jail to even process you. The Sheriff is interested in bringing that to light.

There’s another part to it. These officers have the most contact with the prisoners, right? My presumption is that the better they feel about their work and their position — the more they feel valued and respected — in the same ways anyone else would, then positive benefits develop. Consequently, we’d see more respectful interactions between deputies and prisoners in their custody.

It’s still early stages, this is “industrial organizational psychology-light” because I haven’t done near enough research.

PP: How does this fit in with your personal feelings about criminal justice and incarceration in America? 

LT: I am challenging myself to approach this and to be open. What is a correctional officer? What makes them? Why are they here in our society to begin with? What are the ways in which these they’re contributing? What are the ways in which maybe they are not? Are there ways in which they try to help prisoner? I’m not interested in taking sides or forcibly portraying correctional officers as either victims or heroes.

PP: You want to get beyond the badge and uniform it sounds like?

LT: It’s about looking at the system as a whole. Officers are part of a system. Right now, I don’t personally know the answer to those questions and so I must ask. I’ll be using audio as part of the project. Officers and their attitudes are an integral piece of the criminal justice puzzle; they’re the people who, at the end of the day, are locking the doors.

Essentially, how do correctional officers uphold the system and in what ways does the system screw them over?

PP: I’ve always said jails and prisons are toxic spaces and they negatively effect everyone in them, staff included. An honest investigation of jails’ and prisons’ labour-force is long overdue. Best of luck and keep us posted. Thanks, Lorenzo.

LT: Thank you, Pete.

© Lorenzo Triburgo

BIOGRAPHY

Lorenzo Triburgo’s photographs have been exhibited internationally. He holds Bachelor of Arts from New York University in Photography and Gender Studies and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has work in the permanent collection at the Portland Art Museum. He is recipient of Aaron Siskind Grant and most recently a project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to complete his forthcoming project working with correctional officers.

Shot in studio

Coinciding with San Francisco’s annual Pride events and the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, Anthony Friedkin’s seminal body of work The Gay Essay goes on show this month at the De Young Museum, in San Francisco.

The Gay Essay chronicles the gay communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco between 1969 a 1973 — an era of great strides for political activism in the gay communities in California and nationwide.

Friedkin (b.1949) has always been committed to documenting cultures in his home state of California. The Gay Essay was one of his earliest efforts; he embarked on it as a 19-year-old. Self-assigned, Friedkin went poolside, to the city streets, and into motels, bars and discos in an attempt to create the first extensive record of gay life in the Golden State.

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“Friedkin found his place in an approach that retained the outward-looking spirit of reportage combined with individual discovery. As an extrovert with an avid curiosity, he developed close relationships with his subjects that enabled him to create portraits that are devoid of judgment,” says the de Young press release. “He did not aim to document gay life in Los Angeles and San Francisco slavishly, but rather to show men and women who were trying to live openly, expressing their individualities and sexualities on their own terms, and improvising ways to challenge the dominant culture.”

In 1973, the San Francisco Art Week wrote, “The Gay Essay is comparable in magnitude to Robert Frank’s The Americans. The exhibit in its entirety is amazingly strong. And for the most part the photographs are singularly beautiful in execution.”

And yet, The Gay Essay has remained known, since, primarily only to photo-boffins. Consequently, I am personally eager to see this work. It’s “footprint” is not as large as its social significance warrants. Indeed, at the time of writing, a search “Anthony Friedkin” on Google has as the first result a speculative piece I posted on Prison Photography nearly five years ago. (Who knows, perhaps Google’s search metrics might shift a little once Friedkin and The Gay Essay enjoy new press interest for this big De Young show?)

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The paucity of images and information on the internet is indicative of a wider photo culture that just hasn’t had Friedkin on the radar. This dearth has been reflected in the real world too. While selections from The Gay Essay have been on public display in museums and galleries in the past, the entire scope of the series — 75 vintage prints — has never been exhibited before in one venue.

The Gay Essay accords with our goal of bringing to light important, and sometimes neglected or overlooked, bodies of work that enrich the history and study of photography, a medium that is central to art and society today,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

If you’re in the Bay Area at any point in the next six months, I recommend catching this exhibition.

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EXHIBITION DETAILS

The Gay Essay runs June 14, 2014 – January 11, 2015, at the DeYoung Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118.

Accompanying the original full-frame black-and-white prints will be contact prints, documents and other materials from the photographer’s archive and loans from the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society that provide valuable historical context and insight into the conception and execution of the work.

Friedkin

Exhibition catalogue: 144 pages, Yale University Press. Hardcover $45.

Read more at Los Angeles Times, and at DRKRM Gallery.

All images: © Anthony Friedkin

BIOGRAPHY

Anthony Friedkin started out as a photojournalist working as a stringer for Magnum photos in Los Angeles. Friedkin’s photographs are included in major Museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco MoMA and The J. Paul Getty Museum. His work has been published internationally including in Rolling Stone, Newsweek and others. He lives in Santa Monica, California.

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