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Two white cops posing with rifles as they stand over a black man lying on his belly with deer antlers on his head. For years, the image was kept under wraps. The Chicago PD said they wanted to protect the man who wasn’t the cop in the picture! — yeah, the one lying on the floor subjected to humiliation. But it is secret no more.
The Chicago Sun-Times writes, “A Cook County judge has refused to keep secret the shocking image of former Officers Timothy McDermott and Jerome Finnigan kneeling with what the police department says is an unidentified African-American drug suspect.”
“Believed to have been taken in a West Side police station between 1999 and 2003, the Polaroid photo was given to the city by the feds in 2013 and resulted in McDermott, a clout-heavy cop, being fired last year by the police board in a 5-to-4 vote,” the Sun-Times continues.
Finnigan is now serving a 3-and-a-half years in prison for leading a robbery ring and McDermott is currently fighting his dismissal. In McDermott’s case, he should walk away quietly and accept he got off lightly, but clearly he’s not the brightest or most modest of individuals.
You can and should read the full story about how this potent image was the loci of a multi-year backroom political tug of war. The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to publish it was not taken lightly. In an excellent and long statement made by Jim Kirk, publisher and editor in chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, the knowns and unknowns are laid out so there can be no misunderstanding. Kirk warns against presuming to know everything from this single image. He writes:
Photographs can do a number of things. They can help frame a news story or put it into better context. They can convey details and nuances of a story that might otherwise be lost.
But if we don’t know all the facts surrounding a photograph, some things are left open to interpretation. It is why news organizations are careful in considering the images they run and try as hard as possible to detail what is being displayed.
It’s an offensive image, so much so that this newspaper had to think long and hard before publishing it today. When two Chicago Police officers pose like hunters with rifles over a black man with deer antlers on his head, a responsible newspaper cannot withhold the image from its readers, especially when you consider that one of the officers, Timothy McDermott, was fired because of the image and is fighting to get his job back.
There is a lot we don’t know, including most importantly, the name of the suspect. We also don’t know exactly when the Polaroid photo was taken, though it is believed that the image was snapped at a West Side police station sometime between 1999 and 2003. Was the man forced to pose? Was he coerced into wearing those mocking dear antlers? Was he the involuntary victim of a sick joke or, in his own mind, in on the joke? We exhausted all avenues before printing the story. We don’t know and the police say they don’t know either.
This photograph will offend people, as it offends us. We also know it can be a tool to raise the level of constructive discourse to make our city better.
It’s the type of caveat and engagement with an image I’d like to see next to every news photograph, but we know no writer, editor or human has the time for to add that deep contextual treatment to all visual news content.
Fascinating image, unfolding story and analysis from within the industry. A potential case-study for journalism students, I’d suggest.
Photo: Meghann Riepenhoff
I’m one of five jurors for this years annual juried show at SF Camerawork. Y’all should enter. Here’s the blurb …
CALL FOR ENTRIES: HEAT
HEAT registers the volatility and restlessness that comes with long hot summers: violent crime rates increase, leases expire and people seek new homes, global weather changes signal an alarm, and warm summer days bring adults and children alike into the streets, parks, and beaches.
SF Camerawork invites artists to submit work that responds to HEAT: the social, political, and climatic conditions of rapidly changing environments. Following the lead of social and political advocates around the world, SF Camerawork asks artists working at all levels in photography to participate.
Art is politics. Particularly in the realistic forms of photography and filmmaking, what gets assigned, shown or sold reflects political considerations. […] Politics is in the air. All you need to do to get the message is breathe. – Danny Lyon.
Photo: David Butow
Deadline: Monday, June 15, 2015, 5pm PST.
Notification: Finalists will be contacted on July 1st.
Exhibition Dates: July 23 – August 22, 2015.
Opening Reception: Thursday, July 23, 6-8pm.
Application Fee: $50 application fee for up to 15 images.
ENTER NOW ON LENSCULTURE AND CREATE AN ACCOUNT TO UPLOAD YOUR APPLICATION
EXHIBITION AT SF CAMERAWORK: 2-5 finalists will have a 4-week exhibition at SF Camerawork.
LIVE ONLINE REVIEW SESSION: Finalists will receive a one-on-one review with a juror through this innovative platform hosted by LensCulture.
20 JUROR SELECTIONS FEATURED: 20 juror selections will be exhibited on interactive screens at SF Camerawork as part of the exhibition.
FEATURE ARTICLE ON LENSCULTURE: Finalists will be featured in an article on LensCulture.
ONE YEAR MEMBERSHIP: All entrants will receive a one-year membership to SF Camerawork.
HEAT 2015 JURY
Pete Brook, Writer and Curator, Founder: Prison Photography
Jim Casper, Editor and Publisher, LensCulture
Seth Curcio, Associate Director, Pier 24 Photography
Janet Delaney, Artist and Educator
Heather Snider, Executive Director, SF Camerawork
Please email info@sfcamerawork with “Call for Entries” in the subject line.
Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork‘s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas in the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we strive to create an engaging platform for artistic exploration as well as community involvement and inquiry.
SF Camerawork is a membership-based organization.
1011 Market St., 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery hours: 12:00 – 6:00 pm
Tuesday – Saturday (also by appointment)
Photo: McNair Evans
If you’re in New York this Thursday and can spare the time, please think about joining four photo practitioners and I for Everyday Incarceration – Visualizing the Legacy of Mass Incarceration, a panel discussion about images of prisons and the associated social issues. We’ll be tackling the core question: Who gets to tell the story of a locked up nation?
THE LINE UP
Zara Katz and the Department of Visual Journalism at the CUNY J-School have done a great job of putting together a panel with diverse perspectives and practices – one documentary storyteller using video; one photographer who’s eye on the issues stretches back decades; one lawyer using software code and images to engage audiences and empower prisoners; and one former correctional officer turned campaigner armed with his photos from the job. Check the bios below!
THE PORTRAIT STUDIO
After the panel, we invite you to sit for a portrait and to tell us your experience with incarceration. The photos will appear on @EverydayIncarceration, a collaborative Instagram feed.
The panel takes place in Room 308 of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, at 219 W. 40th Street, NY 10018.
6:30-9:30pm on Thursday, May 14th.
Lashonia Etheridge-Bay, a 39 year-old woman who was granted parole in 2011 after spending 18 years in prison. Bulisova’s series Time Zone follows Etheridge-Bay’s return to society. Photo: Gabriela Bulisova.
Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary photographer and multimedia artist based in Washington, D.C. Over the past five years, she focused her attention on underreported and overlooked stories regarding incarceration and reentry, especially the impact on families. Bulisova has received numerous recognitions and awards, including The National Press Photographers Association’s Short Grant and Open Society Institute’s Moving Walls 18. In 2005, she was awarded the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in photojournalism at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington D.C. and is a member of Women Photojournalists of Washington.
Michael is 17 and has ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder. He is on Ritalin. He is under house arrest and wears an electronic monitoring device. He was arrested for possession of a knife and violating probation. He is living in a hotel room with the rest of his family, 7 people in total. San Jose, California 1999. Photo: Joseph Rodriguez.
Joseph Rodriguez was born and raised in Brooklyn. His four-decade photography career examines incarceration, gangs, police and reentry, as well as families, communities and cultures across the globe. After being incarcerated at Rikers Island as a minor in the late-60s, Rodriguez turned to photography as a guide in his life. In 1985 he graduated from the International Center of Photography in New York. He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and has published work in multiple top-tier outlets including National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine. He has received numerous awards and grants including New York Foundation for the Arts, Open Society Institute, National Endowment for the Arts, to name a few. Rodriguez currently teaches at New York University and as a visiting artist at national and international universities.
Photo: Lorenzo Steele.
Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction officer (1987-1999) who mostly worked in the juvenile units at Rikers Island. He was regularly the photographer at events and celebrations with his fellow officers. In 1996, Steele began bringing his camera to the prison to document his experience there. That included daily violence and abuse of inmates and correctional officers. The deep emotional and physiological impact of his experience at Rikers compelled Steele to start a visual arts education program where he shares his photographs and prison experience with middle school and high school students.
Image courtesy of Nikki Zeichner/Growing Up Through Pictures
Nikki Zeichner began exploring multimedia storytelling with the Museum of the American Prison, a project that she initiated in 2012 to offer mainstream audiences a way to understand personal and experiential details of incarceration in the U.S. Her interest in telling stories about incarceration grew out of her experiences working as a criminal defense attorney in New York City and regularly visiting with clients held in federal and state pretrial detention facilities in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Nikki recently completed a Master’s degree in Integrated Digital Media from NYU’s Engineering School and is spending 2015 in San Francisco designing civic tech tools for a small, post-bankrupt municipality in Northern California. She remains in regular contact with the incarcerated individuals she worked with creatively on museum projects.
GIVING POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Sol Aramendi is an absolute force. Community smarts, a big heart and bloody hardwork makes her THE instigator for photography and inquiry among the immigrants living in New York city. Project Luz, an organization she founded, delivers photography workshops. Most are conducted with residents of Queens — the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.
The workshops function as cultural orientation and serve to empower immigrants who might be hesitant to explore beyond their new neighborhoods. Aramendi helps them out of their shell, onto the subway and into the boroughs. Photography is an excuse to engage with the world.
Aramendi’s moved toward teaching photography workshops after taking inspiring courses herself with Sergio Larrain (2004) and Adriana Lestido in Argentina. Aramendi also campaigns to promote breastfeeding among immigrant women, facilitates community discussion groups about domestic abuse, and provides a space for children with autism to scratch records. She is developing an App for day laborers to report workplace employer abuses.
I am fascinated by Aramendi’s emphasis on the social aesthetic above and beyond any image aesthetic, and so it was great to catch Aramendi between her many commitments and pose a few questions about her background, motivations and relationships.
Scroll down for our Q&A
Project Luz workshops in the field.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): How did you get to be here in New York teaching photography and roaming the streets with cameras?
Sol Aramendi (SA): I moved from my hometown in Argentina to Rosario to Buenos Aires where I studied furniture design, film school. Later I trained and worked as an architect. At that time I was interested in black and white photography and sign dup for workshops taught by Adriana Lestido. There was a shanty town in Buenos Aires and I was interested in the many people who lived off garbage — sourcing, salvaging, reselling, recycling.
Simultaneously, I was taking people around the city to photograph architecture. I had a photo-lab in my house and taught from home. This was 1999. There was a financial crisis. Another one! I’d been working as an architect for 10 years and I felt I wanted something different.
I had a continued relationship with one family who survived from working with garbage. I traveled with them on the train to the dumps. It was called tram blanco – the ghost train — because most people never even saw it or knew it existed. It was invisible. Worse still, the operators charged more money than a regular ticket … just to go to work with garbage.
PP: It sounds like you relocated to New York relatively recently?
SA: Yes, and I knew I wanted to continue the work. It had to be for the local community. I wrote to all the museums — MoMA, Queens Museum, and so on — asking for free tours in Spanish for immigrants.
Queens Museum immediately called me back. They had just received a half-a-million dollar grant for community engagement. The museum was empty. It was a huge building, but immigrants using the park thought it was abandoned.
We did a class. On the final day and closing presentation of my course, there were 100 people. Afterward, the Queens Museum gave me the position of that person I had been asking for! I began guiding tours in Spanish at the weekends.
PP: Since, you’ve also been contracted by MoMA, also.
SA: MoMA has 20 community partners. I am one of them. It’s only 30 hours a year, but you can get a lot done in that time. Our project—inspired by Carrie Mae Weems—is about family.
PP: What do you do in your workshops?
SA: I bring people to the museum. We look at images. We make images. Color, black and white, then film, now digital. I’ve learnt how to engage the community, about how to listen; that is the most important thing. I was teaching them basic things but always relating it to art. Everyone can have an opinion about art.
Various workshops from down the years. Sol has been involved in programs for everything from street photography, to studio portraiture, to lighting, to post production to classes on theory and photo history.
PP: What’s your approach?
SA: We learn through art but mostly we’re getting to know the city. The photography is an excuse!
Immigrants come here and they live in an imaginary space. They want to come here, but they don’t “arrive” here. They are in limbo. Through storytelling, I help them to imagine a more *real* place and being. I want them to feel a belonging to the city and to the spaces.
I had a woman who had lived here for 8 years but she did not know Manhattan. Migrants travel all this way, across borders, and then they are paralyzed in the place that they are. They don’t know more than 10 blocks around. Little by little they discover their own potential. After our MoMA visit, one student asked “Do we have another VIP tour, this week?”
People change themselves. We open a door and from there, they walk themselves. Many of them live subject to stereotypes. Understandably, some of them are embarrassed but they can know their community and space by describing it.
PP: What is the outcome of your workshops?
SA: We make publications in both Spanish and English. One for each workshop series. We’ve made 25 publications.
SA: The format is set, so it is just a case of inputting the photographs and text we create. It’s newsprint. Together, we pick the subject of the publication and always relate it to immigration and place. We made one with union workers, one with day laborers, we encouraged a conversation between those two groups.
We made a newspaper with the New York Public Library. Some publications are in Mandarin. I encourage participants to distribute. We print many and I give participants a lot to share at public events.
Aramendi (center) with children from one of her ‘Through the Lens’ workshops pose for a group photo.
PP: You seem to share everything you make?
SA: I do a lot of portrait projects. If there’s a community event, I set-up an outside studio, make portraits, upload them on Flickr. People can download for free.
Christmas portrait studio (top); “Spooky Halloween” portraits studio (bottom).
SA: Project Luz teaches classes on social media and encourage immigrants to use it to communicate. They make virtual “tour guides” for their families back home. So when we visit a place, we’re thinking how to describe it visually and later publish online.
PP: These are all immediate benefits for participants. What is the secondary audience for their photographs? Here in NYC or further afield?
SA: I made an installation inside an old bank vault which included 300 portraits of migrants at work. It was about money and security and labor. After seeing those pictures people said they realized just how many jobs around them are completed by migrants — bus driver, delivery, everything we eat and drink — from morning to night, it goes through immigrant hands.
Portraits made by Sol and her team during a Migrant Day Open House.
PP: What are the main issues that immigrants face?
SA: Access. I do a lot of work for people to go to a museum, but that work can end at the front desk … because of the way staff look at them. It can be enough to make them stop. After they cross that barrier — it is a lot, but really nothing — they realize they can do a lot of other things.
We talk about society, domestic violence, and I also teach them about the law of what they can photograph. I tell them to photograph at all the train stops. I tell them they can photograph the police. We cannot take pictures in the school. But everything else we can do. We look at the lawsuit between Philip Lorca DiCorcia and the Hasidic Jewish man who objected to his image being made on the street.
I ask students always to discuss and to defend photos or issues. Maybe they can later do the same at their work-place. Maybe they can tell their boss, “No, I only have to work 8 hours, not 12.” I let them know that it is okay to have healthy doubt and to question.
Sol has led workshops for printmaking for women.
PP: What are immigrants’ relationship with law enforcement in Queens like?
SA: This is their city – they’re living, working and contributing so they can use the public transport, public spaces, art spaces. But it’s not always so easy. For example, the park around the Queens Museum is frequently used by migrants for celebrations such as Cinquo de Mayo. Two years ago, the police started doing raids. May 2nd, 3rd, 4th; they started in Queens, so on the 5th people didn’t come out. We all know where the immigrants live.
Immigrants are convenient for the economy but they are also required to keep quiet — to stand in the corner and to look down. No.
PP: How many of your students are legally documented?
SA: I don’t ask. It is not my preoccupation. But I would guess 80%. There’s 12 million undocumented immigrants in America so there are many in New York.
A lot of the students work as photographers at the weekends photographing the community events. There’s many events and parties. One group from Project Luz created another group called Latinos En Foco so they’re getting together and learning more lighting. They’re students teaching new students.
PP: Latino communities have a lot of events. Does photography play a ritual role?
SA: They’re taking photographs all the time. It used to be you only had a photographed mad once a year in the main house, with the man with the donkey. So there is clothing and performance in photography that is very ritualistic. Photography gives the ability to communicate it immediately with the family back in the home country.
PP: Is photography ever a threat for undocumented individuals?
SA: We talk about it the first day. I go with them the first time they go out in Corona. People on the street think you’re from Immigration, but we talk about how ICE works. ICE is not going out on the street to take your photo; they know where you are.
Images from a weekend of Migrant Camera workshops at the 2014 Open Engagement conference at Queens Museum, NY.
PP: Can you measure the benefits of Project Luz’s workshops?
SA: It’s difficult. How many of them are empowered? What is empowerment? For sure, they know more about photography. Can talk about themselves and express their opinion? This, for me, it is the most important thing. I can agree or not, but at least they are expressing themselves.
PP: I’m presuming Project Luz serves people from all Central and South American countries as they are all present in Queens?
SA: In Queens, it is mostly Mexican and Columbian. Some Ecuadorian and other nationalities less.
PP: How did this all begin?
SA: I started the social practice program that Tom Finkelpearl (former Queens Museum director) did with Greg Sholette. I know I wanted to do something that gave frame to Project Luz. I am one of five social practice artists in residence and I teach on Saturdays. I have a partnership projects with United Photo Industries in Brooklyn, and with Prerana Reddy at the Queens Museum.
Photographs from Sol Aramendi’s portrait project promoting positive images of immigrant women breastfeeding.
PP: What did you think of the Open Engagement (2014) conference. What do you think of the art and social practice ecosystem?
SA: I worry about diversity, that Social Practice is too white.
Community arts have been going on since the sixties and now we’ve white students coming to the communities with credentials and think they know [how to construct a project]. There has been this debate. But not everything is like that. I understand that everyone was talking about diversity. It is a preoccupation. I would like it to be more diverse.
I worry because some artists go to immigrant communities and they use them. Tokenism. It can seem like it collaboration but it is not. There were several projects that came to Queens that proposed to make portraits of immigrants, and of “the American Dream.” Several … so that makes me nervous.
Images from Project Luz’s “Seeing With Light” workshop at El Barrio, NY.
PP: Is a long term project necessarily a better project?
SA: In my experience, things take a long time. You make mistakes and it takes a long time to get to know a community. Are we listening? This is the question I ask of myself all the time. Are they doing what I want or are they doing freely what they want? For me, long duration is good. Create leadership and then let the community go; let it build its owns groups and make their own mistakes.
It’s tricky to judge using time as criteria; results depend on the project, the teacher, the conversations, the student. Two months could be good. Two years is very good.
I worked for just two weeks in Turkey on a project and it worked. I didn’t speak the language but I could communicate.
In 2012, a workshop led by Sol visited the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA and later made images of their own based upon ideas of identity, costume and image circulation.
PP: You’re working on a new App. It sounds like true political and activist art.
SA: From a day of discussions with day laborers and NY NICE, one student suggested making an App to report issues in the building trade. NICE was also working on a App for wage theft. My role is pedagogical. I create the questions.
PP: So that employers can’t take advantage of non-documented workers?
SA: Yes. The App includes messaging, a fact-checked and filtered ‘Hall of Shame’ of bad contractors. We presented it to 11 organizations with day laborers to secure feedback as we developed it.
This App is to inform laborers and to ostracize disreputable employers. The fines are low for wage theft, so it happens often. Instead of paying $7/hour, some contractors pay $4. A laborer says they’ll complain, the employer threatens to report them. There’s also a lot of agencies that don’t pay immigrants. A business that has an immigrant worker already saves hugely on their [taxes, insurance] costs.
We have funding and it is in the development stages.
© Sol Aramendi. Meyolotzin Mexica, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Welcome to my hood, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Dancing with myself, 2011.
In her own work Sol constructs elaborate sets to write one page visual allegories.
PP: Which photographers are relevant? Which do you show your students?
SA: Latin American photographers. Sometimes we are embarrassed of our heritage, so I introduce photographers to make them proud. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gabriele Stabile, Miguel Rio Branco from Brazil, Adriana Lestido, from Mexico, came and gave a lecture in Spanish.
Students also have to find photographers. I ask them to research five names and bring them in. We look at contemporary photographers such as Hank Willis Thomas. We’re going to look at Carrie Mae Weems and talk about Latin American culture around the kitchen table as Weems did with her series Kitchen Table.
PP: Paula Luttringer?
SA: I admired Slaughterhouse greatly.
PP: The first project of Luttringer’s I discovered was Wailing of the Walls.
SA: Allesandro Sanguenetti. I always share her work with students. And Esteban Pastorino Diaz who made the longest exposure. Literally! The longest physical negative. Over 30 meters. He makes landscapes look like models. He’s fascinating.
Alejandro Chaskielberg from Argentina, too.
The first exhibition I worked on was ABC DF — a huge exhibition of Mexican photographers.
Daniela Rossell did Ricas y Famosas / Rich and Famous (1994-2002) which I thought was showy and tacky.
SA: I was a student of Lestido. She goes into projects 100% and with her heart. I learnt a lot from her about teaching. As a photographer, I admire Francesca Woodman’s life and work.
PP: And which organisations you admire? That may or may not include those working in photography or the arts.
SA: Organizations that DO something! For example El Puente in south Williamsburg, Immigrants Movement International (IMI) and Tania Bruguera’s projects. I like projects that don’t necessary rely on a strict idea and allow flexibility. It is a mistake to intervene in a community with your own “final” idea. Process is vital — it is important to be able to change through dialogue and engagement. The result almost doesn’t matter; the process is where connections are made.
I look to political groups such as Tucumán Arde, which was a group of previously mainstream artists in the north of Argentina who jointly denounced the Argentine’s military action. Never again has something so radical happened in Argentina.
You have to CHANGE something. You have to DO something that is useful. Life is short so better use time working on something that’s of use.
PP: Is photo central?
SA: It has been, but I am not sure it always will be.
PP: Wendy Ewald says it does none any favors if you give someone the ability to make a bad photograph. You can’t just dump cameras in the hands of people. You empower people by teaching them about photography and enabling them to make a good photograph.
SA: The goal of my work is not to make a good photo. If they can realize a good photo that is good, but the goal is for them to have access, social mobility and they can make their own decisions and they can take leadership.
PP: Long may you continue. Thanks Sol
SA: Thank you , Pete.
Site Unseen: Incarceration flyer. Featuring the work of Jack L. Morris, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for almost 25 years.
Do artworks made on opposite sides of prison walls work together in a gallery space?
Yesterday, at the Los Angeles Valley College, in Valley Glen, CA the exhibition Site Unseen: Incarceration came down form the walls. It was an exhibition bringing together prisoner-made art with artworks made by outside artists about prisons. (Catalogue in PDF, here)
Some artists I knew — Alyse Emdur, Anthony Friedkin, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Mark Strandquist, and Margaret Stratton. Others are new to me — Robert V. Montenegro, Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes, Robert Stockton and David Earl Williams.
Shamefully, all those names with which I am unfamiliar I quickly learnt are prisoners. Why shame? Well, it’s all about consistency. I value activism that is built upon close alliance with, and information, from prisoners. There are no better experts on the system than those subject to it. At the very least, I should know and support the leading Prison Artists.
However, when it comes to painting and illustration, I have adopted lazy double standards. Without examination, I have demoted prisoner made art — commonly referred to by the catch all “Prison Art” — to an inferior status. I have prejudged most Prison Art. For my own comfort, I have bracketed Prison Art as naive and limited. I’ve conveniently focused on scarcity of supplies inside prison of prison to cursorily explain the lo-fi aesthetic of Prison Art.
My “logic” blinded me to the invention, resourcefulness and resistance inherent to almost all prison art. Hell, we’ve got prisoners making work out of M&Ms.
Site Unseen: Incarceration, therefore, is a nice kick back in the right direction. If we don’t have prisoners’ own artwork upon which to meditate then we lose site of the issues fast. As much as I have championed the work of Emdur, Ross, Strandquist and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, I want to now celebrate the works of Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes and David Earl Williams.
I wish also to applaud Sheila Pinkel for bringing together inside and outside, and for committing the oppressed and their allies to one another upon gallery walls.
Sheila Pinkel. Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (2014). 7’ x 14’ Archival ink jet prints. Pinkel remarks, “Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration includes the major laws that have resulted in the expansion of the prison system, the Sentencing Reform Act (1984), Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law (1986) and Three Strikes Law (1994). It is important to note that in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, rate of incarceration was declining as people adopted the ‘rehabilitation not incarceration’ attitude. However, after the Rockefeller Drug Laws took hold, incarceration in the United States began to grow exponentially. Also included is demographic information about the high rate of incarceration of non-white people and women, the great number of people being held in solitary confinement and the massive amounts of money being made by investors in the prison industrial complex. The backdrop for the graph is a set of images from U.S. history taken in the 19th and 20th centuries that reflect the treatment of minorities and prisoners. The poor, non-white and uneducated make up the majority of incarcerated today.
Origins of the Show
In 2004, Pinkel exhibited for the first time her mammoth work Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (above). While the shared title between this catalyst work and the exhibition confuses matters a little, it demonstrates the degree to which Pinkel is bound to prison reform. Passion + politics is usually a good recipe for art.
Pinkel’s motivations for mounting the show are many — concerns for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case; an awareness of slavery (past and present); the doctrines of ownership and manifest destiny; sensitivity to the quiet traditions of aboriginal people; a raised consciousness toward the unparalleled use of torturous solitary confinement; and the profit making industries of the prison industrial complex; and more besides.
The urgent issues within the reform and abolitionist movements are so great that often they can drown each other out, or obscure one another. Perhaps, that is where silent 2D artworks come to play their part. Perhaps, a gallery space in which viewers can mediate their own responses is a hushed but vital contribution to the reform debate?
David Earl Williams. Parrots (1996). 22” x 28” Ball point pen.
It is helpful for me to interrogate the idea that gallery shows and art have an effect upon political realities. I make a conscious effort to justify my workand others’ and to continually ask if analysing images and creative output from prisons changes the daily experience of the United States’ 2.3 million prisoners.
I conclude, often, that conscientious and intellectually honest analysis of images from prisons plays its role in the wider discussion needed to drag us out of this prison crisis.
Prison Sketches in the Absence of Prison Photos
Undoubtedly, in the past few years, solitary confinement has emerged as one of the main, digestible and terrifying issues behind which reformers could win arguments, gain traction and mindshare. The public now know that 80,000 people on any given day are subject to psychological torture within our prisons.
Many of the photographs of Supermax and solitary units — and there are not many — have come about because of court ordered entry to facilities. With the exception of Social Practice make-believe, artists and photographers have, for the most part, failed to image these dark, hidden spaces for the public. I’m apportioning no blame here, just pointing out fact. With that understanding, then, it is significant that the majority of prison artists in Site Unseen are either in solitary or on death row.
Brendan Murdock. Tower (2012). 9” x 12” Linoleum cut print.
One of the artists in Site Unseen is Jack L. Morris, a creative spirit with whom Pinkel has had a lasting personal and professional relationship. In 2011, Pinkel began corresponding with Morris. At that point, he’d been incarcerated for 31 years. In 1978, aged 18, Morris was sentenced to a 15 years to life for being an accomplice to a murder. When the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) opened Pelican Bay Sate Prison (the first state-run Supermax in the nation) in 1989, Morris was transferred. He’s been in solitary confinement since.
“During this time he has not seen sunlight or touched another person,” says Pinkel.
Jack L. Morris. Turtle (2012). Dimensions: 12” x 12” Medium: pen, pencil, peanut butter oil, pastel color.
Pinkel points out that the decision-making power to place someone in solitary is solely in the hands of the correctional officers. Checks and balances against abuse in this ‘Us vs. Them’ equation are largely absent. Pinkel believes that Morris, like many prisoners in the SHU, is subject to a Kafkaesque situation in which solitary is inescapable. While policies are shifting after attention from Sacramento politicians, it remains incredibly difficult to get out of the SHU if CDCr has classed you as a gang member.
“Jack has not been involved in gang activity and has had no ability to be involved in it since he has been in solitary. However, he is repeatedly denied release from solitary and has had his designation increased to active gang affiliation,” says Pinkel. “At the moment, there is no legal way for him to get out and, to my mind, there is no good being served by his continued incarceration, either in solitary or in prison at all.”
Alyse Emdur. Anonymous backdrop painted in New York State Correctional Facility Woodburn (2012). Dimensions:42” x 52” Inkjet print.
Clearly, Pinkel has an affiliation. Put that aside though and consider Morris for his work and you can’t help but be impressed. In order to prevent himself “losing his mind”, Morris created poems, drawing and letters. Pinkel published them in the book The World of Jack L. Morris: From the SHU.
“Together,” says Pinkel, “they form a complex picture of a talented person who believed most of his life that he was not intelligent.”
And so we arrive here. At Morris’ and other art from inside. To be mesmerised by the intricacy of the work is understandable, but more-so we should be quietly and slowly scrutinising the work and using it as a gateway to a psychology we must surely hope we, or any of our loved ones, ever come to know.
Prison illustrations work very similarly to photographs in some ways, in that tropes recur and we find ourselves glossing over them. We presume that the system gives rise to them same type of images of flora, fauna, cars, tattoo-inspired designs, versions of women, motorcycles, sad clowns, tears and blood. These things are prevalent, but individual touches exist in the gaps and it is there we may identify the individual artist.
Gabriel Ramirez. De Profundis … Dreams (Before 2007). 11.5” x 15” Medium: Pencil on manilla envelope.
The worst thing prison art and photography, alike, can be is misunderstood as aesthetic cliche and used as excuse to bypass the social conditions from which they arise. Prisoner art from solitary is the most reliable source of imagery on which we can rely to learn about extreme confinement. We just need to give it space to percolate. A gallery can do that.
There’s a perverse clash of time appreciation at work in order for prison art to have an effect. The artist labors for days and weeks on a single piece and goes to great lengths to deliver it outside the institution. On the outside, we’re spoilt for images and it’s almost luck or strange happenstance for us to spend more than a few seconds with an image. But, it is possible and a gallery can do that.
Mark Strandquist. Windows From Prison (2014). Banners 5’ x 11’. Digital prints on vinyl.
As might evident, I am largely in support of Site Unseen. However, looking over the catalogue, I am a bit skeptical toward the mix of works. Does Mark Strandquist’s work (above) that relies heavily on public education and engagement work when he cannot transform the gallery into a workshop space or collaborate with local reform groups? Are we getting to the point that a prison show cannot exist without the work of Richard Ross!? (I’m friends with Richard and had breakfast with him this morning; he won’t mind the snark). It just seems Ross might be an easy option.
Is Site Unseen a prison art show supported by outside sympathisers, some of whom happen to be artists? Or is it a genuine attempt to level the field and present artists inside and outside as equivalents? The latter is a tough proposition. I have seen it done though. The Cell and the Sanctuary (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History) managed to knit insider and outsider artists works together, but they managed it effectively because they were all either students or faculty in the William James Association’s Arts In Corrections program at San Quentin. A visual thread ran through The Cell and the Sanctuary that is not as immediately apparent in Site Unseen.
Margaret Stratton. Ship’s Passenger Log, December 1916, Ellis Island, New York City, June 29, 1999, 10:35 a.m. (1999). 16” x 20”. Archival digital print.
The main culprit, for me, is the work of Margaret Stratton (above). I’ve constantly wondered what use have images of decaying/ abandoned prisons for connecting us to pressing contemporary prison issues. I can find value in most other works in Site Unseen as they’ve a clear umbilical cord to the tumorous, pulsing Prison Industrial Complex. We can sense the toxic bile of the system in the majority of the works. We can wonder at the ability to stay sane and creative from within such a system. I get none of that awe from Stratton’s work.
I understand Stratton’s B&W images employ a different route to the issue and I don’t want to suggest there’s any inherent flaw in the work or its tactics. The fault, if any, lies with the decision to include this type of work that I identify as an outlier within the collected works.
Four Convicts, Folsom Prison, CA (1991). Dimensions: 11” x 14” Black and white gelatin silver print.
Another , but slightly less obvious, outlier is Anthony Friedkin’s photo of four Folsom prisoners in the early 90s. It is a captivating portrait for sure (one that I featured very early on Prison Photography) but it is hardly representative — of either recent photographs from prisons, or the U.S. prison population as a whole. Friedkin is best known for his illuminating access into, and photographs of, gay culture in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His respectful treatment of these derided communities was light years ahead of mainstream political consciousness. Friedkin lived among the LGBQT community and the intimacy and support shows through in his work.
I cannot think that Friedkin had a mere fraction of that sort of access to the prison population. I suspect he made his image above on a single visit to Folsom Prison. I have not seen any other photographs from prison by Friedkin. And so, this image, is neither representative of Friedkin’s work. It is ham, distant and reliant on the tropes of prison cliche. Not only is it out of place, it is out of time.
Gabriel Reyes. Like a Hook (Before 2007). 8.5” x 11”, Ball point pen on paper.
As far as I am concerned, any and all mentions of Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes and the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s performances (below) are absolutely essential and cannot be reiterated enough. Each are powerful statements on the nature of power and the over-reach of state control.
LAPD’s dramatisations are informed by the experiences of people who have been incarcerated and Emdur’s collected portraits and large format photos of prison visiting room backdrops originate from a keen engagements with the visual logic of carceral systems.
Robert Stockton. Fight (Before 2007): 8.5” x 11”. Pen, additional color.
Prisons and criminal justice reform are gaining attention in the news and public consciousness (a good thing), but just because the conversation is being had and the appetite for a show like Site Unseen might be more ready, the challenging logistics of putting together a curated show of this kind remain unchanged. Kudos to Pinkel for bringing togther artists from inside and outside prison invested in the same goal of making the U.S. a less dangerous, punitive and misunderstood place.
At first glance, the mix of ‘prison art’ on one hand and ‘art made about prisons’ on the other might appear incongruous, but that attitude is exposed as flawed very quickly. As the majority of works in Site Unseen emerge as responses to this country’s brutal, class-dividing prison system, I must conclude that they can do nothing but work together. And so must we if we’re to scale back on decades of fear, bad law and failed policy. If you need resolve and fire-in-your-belly for the task then merely look to the work of those who are subject to confinement. You’ll find it, quietly roaring, there.
GRAVE ISSUE AND A GRAVE VIDEO APPEAL
Prisons are hostile, and potentially lethal, environments for transgender individuals. The acute need for understanding, medical care, and protection from predatory abuse is made visible for us through the remarkable efforts of Ashley diamond, a woman incarcerated in the mens’ Georgia State Prison.
Hearing her case and the evidence put forth by her advocates, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it is a wonder Ms. Diamond is still alive. She has suffered no fewer than seven serious sexual assaults in the three years of her term.
Georgia’s prison system is notoriously dysfunctional and brutal. The prison in which Ms. Diamond is incarcerated is Georgia State. It had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison. Ms. Diamond’s access to safety is merely one of her request in the recent lawsuit. Mainly, Ms. Diamond asks that her medically diagnosed condition of Gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria is recognised by the Georgia Department of Corrections and that they provide her the hormones that she was taking for 17 years prior to imprisonment.
Ms. Diamond describes her incarceration to this point as nothing short of torture. Her gender identity is held in contempt by the authorities and her vulnerable situation is in no way accommodated. Bravo to her for forcing a lawsuit against the state in order to secure recognition, medical hormones treatments. This is a fight that will not only elevate the visibility of the severe issues facing LGBQT in prison but may secure human rights hitherto ignored or trampled.
Ms. Diamond and transgender prisoners like her are in a perilous position.
In reporting on the case and the subsequent Federal level support for it, The New York Times says, “Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants. Transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.”
When budgets for non-profit advocacy groups are so scarce and the resources and intractability of the state opposition is so large, media outreach and messaging has to be perfect. Bravo to SPLC for delivering a message in which Ms. Diamond is front and center. From a contraband cellphone, Diamond makes a direct plea to the public. The illicit nature of the act adds a sense of urgency to the appeal. It is as if all other avenues have been cut off and desperate times require desperate measures.
It’s a bold move and possibly not without its consequences. I would not be surprised if the GDOC was to retroactively punish Ms. Diamond for possession and use of a cellphone. Given the daily threat to which Ms. Diamond is subject, it hardly seems sanction for possessing a cellphone would be high on her list concerns. Whatever the extent of “risk” is involved in publishing this cellphone video it is another significant lens through which we can see this case, this story and this political action.
Video still from Ashley Diamond’s prison cell video.
It is also crucial that other prisoners are present in the video. It is empowering to see anonymous prisoners feature as allies and supporters. It balances the narrative of prisoners only being predators. Prisoner-led self-organisation is the most quickly silenced but the most effective of resistance against the state and prison industrial complex. I wonder if videos such as this could potentially add further to future struggles?
A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON PRISON VIDS
I’ve been promising myself for years to in some way put together an analysis of contraband cellphone photo and video footage. The only definitive thing I can say is that I’ve not seen the vast majority of it and never will.
99.99% of prisoner made recordings are shared between devices, between loved ones and never uploaded to the internet for public viewing. If they do make it to social media they are on the internet behind passworded social media accounts.
Often when prisoner made cellphone videos emerge it is to villianise the prisoner further. News stories peddle in public consternation — we abhor prisoners who might be seen to be thumbing their noses at authority. We also like to frame the stupid or “foolish criminal” and mock them when their video gets them caught. But the truth is, prisoners are very, very sensible with their videos and digital distributions. Why do you think we see so few prison videos?
Prisoners have an interest in protecting their assets — this applies to cellphones that are expensive to acquire and very, very useful. Prisoners have zero incentive for making it publicly known they have or had have had a cellphone. Most prisoners use cellphones to contact families as a cheaper alternative to a price-gouged market. And, let’s remember that phones — like any contraband — get into prisons through the hands of staff as much as they do because of family visitors or civilians.
If the cellphone becomes an issue for the prison administration then their complete lack of understanding of the complaint is exposed — it’d prove the point being made by Diamond and SPLC that the Georgia DOC has demoted human rights to the point of endangering lives.
SPLC’s strategic use of Diamond’s video testimony is deliberate, timely and well-advised. It accelerated and humanised the issue. I, for one, hope it might be a method repeated in the future to benefit the crucial legal battles of prisoners. If so, it could also change our appreciation of prisoner-led political actions.
TEACHING PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE
I’ve known about Vance Jacobs work in a Medellin Prison for as long as it has been in published form, but this recent post by StoryBench reminded me of the excellent and brief video reflection Jacobs gives about his time teaching prisoners to use cameras to document their own lives. Originally, Jacobs was going to be the only person photographing, but at the eleventh hour the sponsoring NGO for thre project changed the concept and he was asked to educate a dozen men in prison.
“You could tell it had been a long time since the prisoners in my class had received this much attention. But I also had high expectations and those expectations led to it being a very important experience. They started taking a tremendous amount of pride in their work and they started to understand that criticism could be a really important part of their work and theta they could grow from it,” says Jacobs.
This type of introspection and self-documentation is vital, in my opinion.
At the final exhibit inside the prison of 35 images, 5 went missing. “To have a photo stolen was a badge of honor,” says Jacobs. “It meant someone thought they were worth stealing.”
Vance Jacobs, a San Francisco-based photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Books and Esquire magazine. He talks about his creative process and behind the scenes details of his different shoots at his ‘Behind the Lens’ YouTube channel. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.