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A 1916 American Mug Shot

For anyone who thinks photography has only recently been abducted by state and corporate power for the purposes of control, think again. For anyone who thinks that high-tech-surveillance was the birth of photography being used to discipline and order humans, think again. Cyborgology recently had a great piece by Liam French lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John, about the historical connects between image-making and criminal justice. French writes:

The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.

One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens.

Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision argues that the breadth of surveilling techniques and technologies has extended to the Internet.

Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.

French references both a 2006 article about Mark Michaelson’s book and collection of mugshots and last years viral pic of Jeremy Meeks‘ mugshot to raise the idea that law enforcement photography (mugshots included) have transcended their forensic roots.

Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.

Furthermore, French argues, that John Fiske’s theory that dominant power uses system to segregate and dominate apply here. Fiske says that authority will rely upon systems and “improve” them all the while facing resistance from the lesser power. Crucially, the lesser power uses the same systems to subvert and counter dominate. Sometimes the lesser power is successful and sometimes the larger power replaces old systems with new ones of greater efficiency or new tactics. In any case there is always a push and pull.

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Booking photo of Jeremy Meeks, 30. (June 18, 2014). Credit: Stockton Police Department

 

So in the case of mugshots, there has always been inherent control attached to state-dominate manufacture and exchange of mugshots. Until social media found a way to interrupt that exchange.

Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s mugshot of the day website and the countless mugshot magazines like Busted were examples of larger authorities using the mugshot to their own ends. Arpaio’s use served not the general fraternity of law enforcement but his own ego. Busted wanted to bend the use of mugshots to its own profitable ends but interestingly did so without inconveniencing the state’s power; to the contrary dollar-mugshot magazines enhance the states criminalisation of individuals.

Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.

It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.

From dusty archives, to venerable vernacular objects, to art-world comedy-fetish, to online consumable, we need to consider deeply our relationship to mugshots. And to the criminal justice systems from which they emerge. Especially as one week we’re approaching them as shallow entertainment and the next we’re demanding a right to them in order to confirm or dispel controversy and conspiracy surrounding in-custody death.

Read French’s full piece Most Wanted: Cameras, Criminal Justice and the Persistence of Vision here

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Yesterday, I included an existing Medium story, by Peter Schafer, in the Vantage publication. Diary of a Sex Tourist is a very unusual account. Firstly, a man is speaking frankly about his use of sex workers in the Dominican Republic. Secondly, the man is a photographer who chose to pay for services in order that he could get closer and, by his appraisal, make better images. Thirdly, the work ends up focusing not so much on the sex industry as a whole but on private moments between Schafer and D_____ throughout their three year association.

It’s very unusual not because these things don’t happen but because these things are rarely admitted to or spoken of in public.

The images exist between amateur modeling, devotional portraits, candid shots, reportage, phone snaps and voyeurism. They are many things at once just as Schafer’s position on his work and the issue of sex-work is generally. The piece ends with advocacy. Yes, advocacy. Of sorts. Schafer calls supports the Global Network of Sex Work Projects‘ call to Amnesty International to support a move to decriminalise all sex work. They’ve launched a petition which (at the time of writing this) has 8,000+ signatures. It reaches far further than previous moves to decriminalise sex work.

Schafer believes the change will empower women. Many leading female celebrities who have figure-headed campaigns for women’s rights oppose the petition, but Schafer fairly notes that the recommendations to Amnesty International were made based upon feedback provided by sex-workers themselves. Molly Smith writing for the Guardian asks that Amnesty International not be bullied out of acting upon its own findings by Meryl Streep and others.

Asking women who work in the sex trade about the laws that are required to protect them most seems like good policy making.

Opponents to wider decriminalisation, that this petition proposes, worry that it will merely shield pimps and abusive men from the law and not improve women’s lives significantly. Streep, Steinem, Winslett et al. want to maintain the Nordic model of decriminalisation as the policy for worldwide progressive standards. “Legalisation keeps pimps, brothel keepers, and sex-slavers in freedom and riches. Criminalisation puts the prostituted in prison […] What works is the ‘third way’, the Nordic model, which offers services and alternatives to prostituted people, and fines buyers and educates them to the realities of the global sex trade,” says Steinem.

Smith and other supporters of widening decriminalisation, say the Nordic model–also known as the Swedish model–has serious problems. The Nordic model decriminalises the selling and keeps the buying as an offense, but it is applied inconsistently in some cases used by police against vulnerable migrant sex-workers.

The Nordic model also strips the sex-worker of agency. It assumes that all clients are enacting a type of male violence. So, the model is designed to slowly counter that, reduce demand and eradicate the sex trade. Schafer on the other hand believes that paid sex can be an equal exchange, a loving exchange and even part of friendship.

Ultimately, where you stand comes down to what type of interactions you think characterise the sex-industry most and which ones should be protected by, and combatted by, law enforcement. Currently we’re on the lefthand-side of this 4-bit chart. Most pliticans are reluctant to venture toward the righthand side.

Criminalisation / Decriminalisation / Wider decriminalisation / Full legalisation

If you feel that all, or nearly all, interactions between women and male clients and pimps are coercive and abusive, decriminalisation can still break and discourage those interactions. The criminalisation of sex-work (still very common) targets male clients and pimps the same, but has proven very unsafe for female sex workers.

I don’t know what the answers are. I do know that there are many women and men who make good and safe livings from sex work. Equally, there are many, many women who are coerced into sex-work and “trafficked” quickly becomes the best term to describe their circumstance. But even then those two simple binaries are not a reliable reflection of matters. In Schafer’s case, it doesn’t seem like there is a pimp involved in his exchanges with D____. She seems in control. That said, D____’s voice, except a couple of paraphrases by Schafer, is absent. In the pictures, D____’s bottom features in a disproportionate number of the pictures.

In places that have decriminalised sex-work, they’ve done so by putting in place legal qualifiers, paperwork and parameters of operation. These things have been found to obstruct safe practice of safe sex-work. Molly Smith writing for the New Republic notes that New Zealand is an example to follow and has been extensively praised by the U.N. for its removal of bureaucracy and an approach that forefronts women’s safety and access to services. “The director of the U.N. Development Programme’s HIV, Health and Development Practice observed, in accidentally amusing phrasing, “I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand“,” recounts Smith.

Clearly, there is a debate to be had. I’d like to see that debate led by the sex-workers themselves, but given how marginalised they are it seems unlikely. I know I’ll be following the thoughts of Molly Smith from here on out.

One final thing, I cannot talk about sex-work, without mentioning Red Light Dark Room; Sex, Lives & Stereotypes, a stellar photography and book project by Gemma Rose Turnbull.

Turnbull, during a residency with non-profit organisation St Kilda Gatehouse, taught, photographed and interviewed street sex workers. Red Light Dark Room is a collaborative, frank look at sidelined and denied lives by those who live them. Importantly, the work doesn’t victimise, or claim to save, or preach; it describes and lays out the details for audiences to find connection.

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A small, unbreakable tin wall mirror in a solitary cell. Reflection is of a slatted window. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.

The suicide of Kalief Browder was the latest, most tragic reminder of how much of a hell hole Rikers Island is. It was the combined effects of broken bail and juvenile prison systems that killed Kalief.

Take your pick of the coverage from The Guardian and the New York Times, to New York Magazine. What has been consistent in the coverage of Rikers as information about conditions and treatment is that visuals have been limited and it has relied on the progression of lawsuits and news FOIA requests. Whistleblowers have been few and far between and prisoners’ testimonies are notoriously difficult to verify.

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An August 2013 fight in the George R. Vierno Center, caught on surveillance tape.

That makes the recent feature Rikers Island, Population 9,790, a joint effort between The Marshall Project and New York Magazine noteworthy. In the expansive effort involving more than half a dozen journalists, we hear from a couple who both went to Rikers in the same year (she was pregnant); a teacher on Rikers; a couple of recent prisoners; an officer, the commissioner of the department of corrections; a girlfriend of a slain prisoner; a former volunteer-librarian; various visitors; a mental health professional; and others.

The selection of imagery (as well as an overview map) is one of the most diverse visual presentations of Rikers that I have seen online. It includes Ashley Gilbertson‘s straight shots from common areas, wings and solitary cells, Ruth Fremson‘s work from the kitchen, surveillance video stills, photos of prisoners by Clara Vannucci and Julie Jacobson, Instagram images found under the hashtag #Rikers, environmental studies by Librado Romero, and archival photos by my friend and former correctional officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.

Bravo to the photo editors of The Marshall Project and New York Magazine.

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The recreation center at the bing. Photo: Officer Lorenzo Steele Jr.

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Contraband, including jail-made weapons and drugs. Photo: New York City Department of Correction via AP.

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The view from Instagram, #Rikers: Clockwise from left: The bridge to Rikers; bathroom graffiti inside the vistors center; the new maximum-security wing; the entrace to a chapel; a correction officer at an adolescent unit; an exercise and recreation area. Photo: Kelsey Jorgenson/Edgar Sandoval/JB Nicholas/Bryan R. Smith/JR/Gee Force.

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Prisoners at “Rosie’s” the women’s unit. Photo: Clara Vannucci.

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Inside a solitary-confinement cell. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for New York Magazine.

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A toilet in an occupied cell on G wing.

Blood stained, scum-stained, litter-strewn, dirty as all hell, hell-hole of a prison. That’s an accurate description HMP Pentonville based upon 8 images included in a recent report on the infamous Victorian prison in North London.

I’m intrigued by evidentiary photos; I reckon they can often tell us more than an exposé-chasing photographer can. All we know is that employees of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate Of Prisons made these images. They exist for the record and I can only show them here because HMIP puts out its reports online in PDF format and I took a few grabs. Even then, I only came across them because Charlotte Bilby flagged them for me.

Bilby, Reader in Criminology and Faculty Director of Research Ethics Department at Northumbria University, says that she knows not of previous inclusions of photographs in HMIP reports. I don’t either, but UK prisons are not something I’m particularly knowledgeable about.

Let’s say for now that these photos are a new discover, if not a new departure.

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The C wing showers.

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Area outside J wing.

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An empty G wing cell.

I wonder what other government-employee-made and , technically, publicly-available images exist? I wonder if a broader selection of pics would give the British public a deeper understanding of Her Majesty’s prisons and jails?

Also, I hope other prisons aren’t as bad as Pentonville.

Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons said his team found during an unannounced inspection that consditions at HMP Pentonville had deteriorated since its last inspection (2013) when things were bad already. With 1,200 men and young offenders, HMP Pentonville is overcrowded.

“It continues to hold some of the most demanding and needy prisoners and this, combined with a rapid turnover and over 100 new prisoners a week, presents some enormous challenges,” says a report summary. “Continuing high levels of staff sickness and ongoing recruitment problems meant the prison was running below its agreed staffing level and this was having an impact on many areas.”

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The changing area in the C wing shower.

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A food trolley.

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Blood on a bunk bed.

In response, staffing levels have increased and the authorities remain confident in the warden and the leadership of the institution. While, they believe things can improve quickly, they identified many areas for vast improvement.

  • most prisoners felt unsafe as levels of violence were much higher than in similar prisons and had almost doubled since the last inspection;
  • prisoners struggled to gain daily access to showers and to obtain enough clean clothing, cleaning materials and eating utensils;
  • prisoners said drugs were easily available and the positive drug testing rate was high even though too few prisoners were tested;
  • the prison remained very overcrowded and the poor physical environment was intensified by some extremely dirty conditions;
  • some prisoners spoke about very helpful staff, but most described distant relationships with staff and were frustrated by their inability to get things done;
  • too little was being done to meet the needs of the large black and minority ethnic population, disabled prisoners and older prisoners;
  • prisoners had little time unlocked with the majority experiencing under six hours out of their cells each day and some as little as one hour;
  • the delivery of learning and skills was inadequate and there were not enough education, training or work places for the population;
  • acute staff shortages had undermined the delivery of offender management, which was very poor; and
  • the quality of resettlement services was very mixed.

The UK’s use of an independent inspectorate for prisons is a very effective check-and-balance for a hard-edged system that can easily corrupt itself behind closed doors. The fact that prisoners feel unsafe in the transportation vans and cell tiers is the biggest red flag for me here.

It’s worth noting, then, that these photos only reflect the visible messy disfunctions of HMP Pentonville. The uptick in violence and drug use was learnt through prisoner questionnaires.

Read the full report here.

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Piles of clothing on ridges outside D wing.

ihatechoosingausername

 

“I spent so much time counting down the days to my court date when I would sit in this very holding cell for about 7 hours. If court is at 9, they bring you down to the holding cell at 5AM and don’t bring you back up until after 2PM count. On one hand it was nice to have all that time to think, on the other the anxiety was a full-time job,” says ihatechoosingausername.

Yesterday ihatechoosingausername posted some snaps from jail alongside stock pics and some funnies too. It is niftily titled So I  Just Came Home From Jail.

In 13 images (make sure to click to see the full gallery after the 10th image) and a few words she describes her entry and exit from Henrico County Jail in Virginia. her past addiction and wish to stay clean, her new felony record, the struggles to find work, her imminent homelessness and her frank cluelessness on what is next.

It went viral. Over 340,000 views at the time of writing.

In an update, ihatechoosingausername said:

Wow, Imgur, the support I’ve received after making this post has been absolutely amazing! Thank you so much for the kind words. Also, through this post I got to talk to one of the people who fed me while I was homeless in the park last winter and let him know just how much good he’s doing in the world by giving sammiches to the homeless.

This is not an obvious feel good story but there’s a realness about ihatechoosingausername’s words that leave us hoping it will become one. Time will tell. I wish ihatechoosingausername the best of luck.

No trolls in sight. To you Internets, well done for not being a dick.

“If a book can have a trailer, I guess this is sort of that,” wrote Steve Davis in his email this morning.

Me Steve have a long history* but that in no way discredits what I am about to say. Whether I am biased or not (I am) this video absolute nails it. Why? The process of image-making is often messy. It get messier the more people are involved. Making photographs inside a prison — for Steve and his students — involves local authorities, management and staff. Everyone thinks they have a say or a role. If everyone is a photographer, then everyone is a photo-critic, or worse, everyone is the Photo Police.

Davis

Remann Hall Girls-4

Steve saw nice things and he saw absolutely devastating things. He met kids raised to be racists and they were very personable. He encountered kids stuck in the system and devolving to the oppressed and hardened personalities required for survival. He met staff who were moving heaven and hell to give these troubled kids the best shot at the rest of their lives, and he met adults who had already written them off and goaded the kids.

As Steve says, layers of contradictions and complex challenges exist in juvenile detention facilities. These images will not give you any easy answers; they will probably throw up more questions.

This is the best, quickest and truest introduction to Steve’s series Captured Youth that currently exists. If you like what he says an dyou like the images then pre-order the book of this work Unfinished at Minor Matters Books.

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Remann Hall Girls-2

*Steve Davis was my first ever interview on Prison Photography. That happened because he was geographically the closest when I started the site. He didn’t have to say yes to the interview but he did. I must have done something right because a year later he invited me to his class to give a lecture. Steve Davis’ student were the first college students I ever presented material to. Years ago, when I was going through a really hard break-up and needed to get out of town, I headed down I5 and crashed on Steve’s couch for a couple of nights. Photographs made by incarcerated boys and girls who were students in his workshops feature in Prison Obscura. Next year,  Prison Obscura will be shown at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Steve is the coordinator of the photography program at Evergreen and introduced the show to the gallery’s curator. Steve is a friend.

pjp

In the conventional definition of the word, there are not many funny things about prison. In spite of that, those oppressed by the system are still leveraging humour in order to process and overcome America’s dehumanising and oppressive prison industrial complex.

The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) is a case in point.

“Poetic Justice Project is California’s only theatre company comprised of formerly incarcerated actors appearing in plays that examine crime, punishment and redemption,” explains PJP whose latest production is INSIDE/OUT: A Comedic Look At Prison and Re-Entry

PRESS RELEASE

Bay Area audiences will witness a unique marriage in June: the happy union of a 500-year-old art form with cutting edge social justice theatre. Poetic Justice Project will present its Commedia Dell’Arte play, INSIDE/OUT, at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland and on Alcatraz Island.

Commedia Dell’Arte is a style of masked, improvisational slapstick comedy that dates back to 16th Century Italy. INSIDE/OUT follows character Damian from prosecution to prison to parole as he wears whatever mask he needs to survive. Damian is saved by the love of a good woman, and by his determination to never return to prison.

The play is directed by Gale McNeeley, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and Scuola Internazionale Dell’Attore Comico in Italy. INSIDE/OUT was co-created by McNeeley and actors Leonard Flippen, Jorge Manly Gil, Janet Guess, Nick Homick and Caroline Taylor-Hitch. The actors have all been incarcerated—in prison, jail or juvenile facilities. Most have no previous theatre experience when they come to Poetic Justice Project.

INSIDE/OUT shows Friday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Center, 925 Brockhurst St., Oakland. Tickets are $15 and available from Brown Paper Tickets, 800-838-3006, and at the door. On Saturday, June 20 at 2 p.m., there is a free performance on Alcatraz Island.

Based in Santa Maria, the project was founded by Artistic Director Deborah Tobola in 2009. Tobola and Poetic Justice Project recently received the the Santa Barbara County Action Network’s “Looking Forward” Award for Leadership and Vision.

Poetic Justice Project It is a program of the award-winning William James Association, which provides arts instruction to prisoners, people on parole and probation, and youth at risk of incarceration.

QUESTIONS? MEDIA CONTACT

Deborah Tobola, Artistic Director

tel: (805) 264-5463
eml: deborah@poeticjusticeproject.org

P.O. Box 7196
Santa Maria
CA 93456

Keilani

 

FIRST EXPOSURES

In a necessarily generic statement about the project, San Francisco’s teen photography program First Exposures says its online exhibition Communication “explores how the photograph communicates meaning and the different ways in which that meaning can be interpreted based on context.” That’s a broad way of saying that their activities are rooted in developing visual literacy AND photography skills. The teenage image-makers have use antique processes, and made exquisite corpses, biographical images and studies of work and family.

In a city that is currently quite-very hard to love, I think it is absolutely essential to find things in San Francisco that are pure and you can admire. As a writer, I think it is important — everywhere and always — to recognise voices that emerge not out of market needs but out of community needs. These are the two reasons at the top of a long list as to why I am applauding both the First Exposures program and the products of its young participants.

Everything that the pros are doing these kids are doing.

– If you like A Piece Of Cake, First Exposures has its Exquisite Corpse.

– If you like Anna Atkins and Lochman & Ciurej, First Exposures has it’s own Cyanotypes.

– If you like the self exposition and exchange in work by Jeremy Deller or, say, Bayete Ross Smith and Hank Willis Thomas in Question Bridge, First Exposures has Letters To A Stranger.

– If you like Arnold Newman, you’ll dig First Exposures’ response to his work Zoomed In.

– If you like LaToya Ruby Frazier‘s depictions of family and Paul Graham‘s depictions of labour, then First Exposures has Work/Family for you.

– If you are into the collaborative portraiture of Anthony Luvera, Wendy Ewald or Eric Gottesman, you’ll love First Exposures’ Portrait/Self-Portrait.

The kids stay in the picture!

Recognition, too, to the unnamed staff and volunteers who facilitate these youth photography program. In San Francisco and elsewhere.

ELSEWHERE

Literacy and personal development through photography is a familiar notion. Programs for youth include The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Street Level Media, Chicago; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; Youth in Focus, Seattle: Focus on Youth, Portland; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; and AS220 Youth in Providence, Rhode Island.

Incredibly, Young New Yorkers (YNY) actually uses photography (as well as video, illustration and design) as intervention in the cogs of the youth justice system.

“The criminal court gives eligible defendants the option to participate in Young New Yorkers rather than do jail time, community service and have a lifelong criminal record. The curriculum is uniquely tailored to develop the emotional and behavioral skills of the young participants while facilitating responsible and creative self-expression,” says YNY.

Also in New York, is JustArts Photography Program (formerly the Red Hook Photo Project). The exhibition Perspectives featured the photographs of teens from Red Hook, Brooklyn. The JustArts Photography Program (more here and here) is run through the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC).

I encourage you to find programs in your local area and contribute.

MORE?

Please feel free to name other programs in the comments that I’ve not included here.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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