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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
When I was growing up, the dad of some kids at my school worked at the local prison. I had no idea what his day-to-day responsibilities were. Still don’t. This despite the fact I’ve since worked with, been on holiday with, and spent many weekends with the brothers and sisters in the family.
I have no idea, if the dad was involved in some extra curricula or fraternal pursuits; I don’t know if he wanted to even hang out with his co-workers outside of the prison. His job was a fact, but an unexplored and little discussed fact in the parish.
I also had no idea that the England Prison Service Football Association (EPSFA) existed. Not until Positive Magazine featured Riccardo Raspa‘s photographs did I learn of this 40-year-old organisation.
These are the best footballers in the country who happen to work as full-time prison guards.
The EPSFA arranges games between it and RAF, Army, and university football teams and other. It is fed by four regional teams made of the prison guards with the silkiest skills. Raspa photographed a single game and also followed one prison officer inside to photograph him at work. As such the information sways between the recreational tone of sport and the more serious business of control and power behind the bars.
Positive Magazine quotes, Michael Hayde, the England Prison Service coach as saying, “If a prisoner finds out what you are involved in and to what level it does make a difference to how they react and treat you.” And I can believe it. Football, particularly in Britain, is the great equaliser. It’s as accessible as chat about the weather or what you had for your dinner last night.
I’m almost inexplicably drawn to this project. The pictures are quite ordinary but they’re shot with care and some respect.
My care is probably due to nostalgia for the smells and sounds of an evening football match in Blighty and the unexpectedness of this project. (This story would never emerge in America).
But also, the prison staff are humanised here. I’ve said many times before that prisons, especially in America, are toxic places and everyone suffers to some degree. Prison staff are derided as second rate cops or, worse still, glorified babysitters. It’s a tough job and the disproportionately high levels of relationship/marriage failure and drug & alcohol abuse among prison employees testifies to that. Yes, there are corrupt officials and yes, abusive state employees are less seen — and possibly even ignored — because of the feared population they work with. That said, we cannot decarcerate and we cannot radically scale back on prisons if we are not focused on alternatives to incarceration. Bile and hatred for a profession will get us nowhere; it will only distract our energies from finding solutions. And that’s coming from someone who is well aware of the messed-up-shit prison guards have done when no-one is watching.
It is precisely because Raspa’s photographs ask us to view prison officers as individuals that I wanted to include it on the blog. It’s a tough proposition in many ways.
Megan Slade, author of the Positive Magazine, article thinks the EPSFA has got short shrift in the media.
“Despite being a national football team,” writes Slade, “little or rather hardly any press has been covered of the EPSFA, whether due to the nature of the profession this team is part of, or perhaps mainstream football leagues overshadow lesser known associations, they seem to go unnoticed.”
This is not surprising. I guess the quality of football is only just a small step above sunday league stuff. The operations of an amateur football team rarely warrant media spotlight — it has to be an exceptional case.
The lack of coverage here is nothing to be surprised or appalled by. In fact, it is wholly consistent with the distribution of everyday prison stories — you know the ones not about escape, riots, celebrity inmates, serial killers or dog-training programs.
All images: Riccardo Raspa.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.
EYE ON PDX
Susan Wright, Texas
Matt Rainwaters is an editorial features photographer, based in Austin, Texas. Photographer Lance Rosenfield told me, “Matt is a specialist at making portraits through bullet proof glass.” For the past few years, Rainwaters has been the go-to-man in the lone star state for interview-room portraits. Collected, these portraits are the series Offender.
As well as Texas prison portraits, Offender includes some images from Rainwaters’ 2010 trip to Guantanamo.
Of Rainwaters’ Guantanamo images, I have never before seen photos like his shots of magazines with crudely redacted images of women inside the pages. The layers, scrawls and obvious surface of those images of images seem to encapsulate the malevolent drudgery that is the deadlock between disfunctional fundamentalism and more disfunctional American legal standards. When two resolute systems that cannot accommodate each other an create faint-compromise, they do so with results of zero utility. Perverse and pathetic.
Unfortunately, when I spoke to Matt, I wasn’t familiar with the redacted-image magazine images, so I didn’t ask him about them. Darn! I hope they spark some inquiries of your own.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
PP: Recently, I spoke with Alan Pogue, a documentary photographer in your home city Austin. Alan said it’s easy to get a photograph in a visiting room but if you need to get inside the living quarters and inside Texan prison facilities you pretty much need a lawsuit. What do you think about that?
Matthew Rainwaters (MR): I’d say that’s fair. Getting access to the visiting rooms is fairly easy if you have a commission and if you have the media contact. Getting beyond that though I’ve never been able to.
The writer I work with and I have had great ideas for stories but getting past the visiting room is not gonna happen. There’s been times when literally I could have walked just past the line and made a much more compelling portait, but it’s just not allowed.
PP: How does one get access to the visiting rooms?
MR: If you go to the Texas Department of Justice website there is a ‘media’ section. Contact the media liaison with details of the publication that you’re working for. Once you have the commission, you tell them the story and the prisoner that you’re planning on working with. The negotiations are straight forward.
PP: In how many Texas prisons have you made portraiture?
MR: I’ve been to various facilities in Hunstville, TX; one in Palestine, TX; and I’ve been to four different facilities in East Texas.
PP: Are there any limitations on the equipment you take in?
MR:You are subject to a search every time you go in. I typically have my lighting kit – two strobe heads, a bag with stands and various modifiers, reflectors, cloths, back drops. I’ve never had a problem getting kit in and out.
PP: How do you shoot through reflective bullet-proof glass?
MR: There’s a few tricks that you can use. Sometimes a polarizer will help. Sometimes if it’s a small enough booth I can have an assistant stand behind me with a dark cloth and that will cut down on reflections and then from there it’s just understanding the fundamentals of photography. Lighting, contrast, and trying to work with the available light.
Trying to use a strobe through glass is next to impossible.
From there it’s just talking with your subject, getting to know them, and then trying to effectively communicate their story that the writer is also telling.
Wayne East, Texas
PP: Can you describe each of your subjects and their particular stories?
MR: I photographed Wayne East. He was convicted of a murder. This is a pretty compelling story. He spent 19 years on death row before a woman started championing his cause. Not incoincidentally, she was the victim’s cousin who believed that East is innocent.
She raised a bunch of money, spent a lot of her own money and basically petitioned to get him off of death row. He was recently paroled. after 30 years for the crime.
PP: It wasn’t a wrongful conviction?
MR: East has always said he is innocent. The question remains: Was he really guilty or is he innocent as she also believes?
The other story I was really close to was that of Susan Wright (top image). My images ran in Texas Monthly for an article titled 193. She was convicted of murdering her husband by stabbing him 193 times.
Susan Wright, Texas
MR: The story goes that Wright’s husband would come home and beat her. The defense attorney never brought up battered woman syndrome.
Well, one day he came home and started rough-housing with their kid, slapped him around, and that’s actually what drove her over the edge and she tied him to the bed and then ended up pulling a knife out and stabbing him 193 times. This whole idea of battered woman syndrome and her being psychologically damaged from years of abuse was never brought up during the defense. So she was up for an appeal for parole and I believe that’s still pending. I don’t know how that’s played out.
PP: There’s another compelling portrait of a female in that story was it the prosecuting attorney or the DA?
MR: Kelly Siegler, prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office.
The court proceedings were aired on Court TV and Siegler was a controversial character because she was very theatrical in her closing arguments. She ended up tying one of her law assistants to the table and climbed on top of him and proceeded to count out 193 stabs, every single one she simulated with her pen. All on TV. A lot of people believe that those theatrics are responsible for convicting Susan.
Kelly Siegler, District Attorney prosecutor, Texas
PP: What was your first prison shoot?
MR: Steven Russell. You may be familiar with him from the movie I Love You Phillip Morris starring Jim Carrey as Russell.
Russell is Texas’ most notorious escape artist. He’ll be in prison for the rest of his life, even though he was originally convicted of a white collar crime. Russell fell in love with a man in prison, escaped to be with him, and then continued to escape over and over again. So what could have been a relatively short prison sentence has been compounded by the crime of escape four times over.
Russell was in the most maximum security prison – the Michael Unit out past Palestine. He has one hour of sunlight each day. He’s locked up in the same way as the most violent offenders, although he’s a completely non-violent offender.
All four times that he escaped were completely nonviolent too, so it’s sort of tragic. Does he deserve to be there? You know, that’s questionable. He did escape but it’s a sad story nonetheless.
Steven Russell, Texas
PP: Let’s move from the US to the US’ outlying territories? When did you got Guantanamo and why?
MR: I went to Guantanamo for Esquire UK in March, 2010.
PP: For how many days?
MR: It was a three day stay on the base.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about Guantanamo Bay. The media portrays it as solely as a detention facility on the coast of Cuba but what I didn’t realize until I got there it’s been a functioning military base since 1906 – a lot of it’s operations have to do with immigration and refueling point for US allies.
MR: We did the media tour of the prison facility. We went to some of the different camps. Saw how, in some cases, some of the inmates live communally, in other cases some of them are locked down. There’s definitely a lot of secrecy still. It’s not as transparent as they would have you believe. There’s some camps that you don’t have access to at all and there’s some camps that they don’t even admit to existing on the island and they don’t show up on any maps. But it’s been proven that there are certain inmates that are held there in a mysterious location.
MR: What is extremely frustrating about photographing at Guantanamo Bay is the strict security protocol. At the end of every day, you sit down with an officer and they look through every single photo.
Sometimes very arbitrary reasons or sometimes very good reasons, they will delete a photo. If they don’t like the way it may represent the prison then they’ll delete those photos too.
Every single photograph goes through this “filter.” I had maybe 60% of the images I shot deleted before I came home.
PP: Is it fair to ask if there’s any points of comparison between Guantanamo and the Texas prisons? Did you feel as though the monitoring is different? Did you feel as though the administrations understood your role as a media person differently? Do you find any irony in the fact that Guantanamo is one of the most secure and notorious prisons in the world but they provide these three days media junkets, something state prisons do not provide?
MR: Within the Texas prison system we’re there to photograph a specific individual. So you’re led into an interview room or booth. I’m there to take a photograph of that person whereas in Guantanamo Bay the subject isn’t a specific person it is the entire facility.
PP: But in both cases, for different reasons, the authority is media savvy and happy to work with you?
Guantanamo Bay a lot of people believe, and quite possibly rightfully so, should be shut down because it is a publicity nightmare for the United States. Everything they’re trying to do with the media at Guantanamo is to try and show how fair, how honest, how transparent, everything is and they’re really trying to deflect this image of it being a detention facility that practices torture.
The institutionally genius part of Guantanamo Bay, from the administration standpoint is no-one is stationed at Guantanamo Bay. People are only deployed to Guantanamo Bay, so no-one stays there for longer than a year-and-a-half and that goes to the highest ranking people, including the admiral who’s in charge of the Joint Task Force.
So, when you ask them about issues of torture or enhanced interrogation methods everyone can default stock answer over and over again. We kept running into, “I don’t know, I wasn’t here.”
Institutionally it’s set up in that way and that was probably the most frustrating thing as a journalist. No one can tell the whole story. The institutional memory of the place is at best a year old.
PP: Your work has a very distinct look. So, how would you say it fits in with other photography made in prisons? And I’m asking that in terms of like who has the power? How does it inform the public?
MR: I’m photographing individuals and as an editorial features photographer. Portraiture is mostly what I do so I’m trying to set up a dialogue with my subject that is fair to them and it’s honest to the story. I have to quickly learn how to make people comfortable, disarm them, get them to open up to you so that you can be fair and honest to them.
I typically have an hour to work with a subject, it’s a different thing than say a documentary looking at a place over and over again. I’m working work within the confines of limited time and semi-limited knowledge of the person and trying to break all that down and create a portrait.
PP: What is the reaction of your subjects? What do they think will come about through your interaction with the camera as a mediator?
MR: A mixture of skepticism and hope. They hope that telling their story will better the legal decision that may be looming. Maybe it’s a plea for an appeal or they just want to tell their story. Maybe they feel like they haven’t been able to tell their side of the story?
But there’s also skepticism because they don’t know necessarily the turns that the story may take and they don’t know what the recent side of the victim’s story, nor the reactions to it.
Imprisoned subjects can be guarded at first. Usually, there’s 10 to 15 minute window where you’re talking on the phone through the plexi glass. I’ve got my camera just sitting there and I’m not taking photos, just taking the pulse of the person and getting to understand them … and that will dictate everything.
Wayne East, Texas
PP: You’re building what could be loosely characterized as a portfolio of visiting room prison portraiture. Is there a common aesthetic that runs through those that you’re either conscious of or you’ve just started to notice as these projects mount up. Not in a pejorative sense, I want to describe Offender as creepy. Is that okay?
MR: Well, it’s definitely that institutional aesthetic – you’re so confined with time and space you literally have to learn to make do with whatever’s thrown at you.
Now that I’ve done it quite a few times I know what to expect; “Am I shooting through plexi-glass today or am I shooting through a screen? Do we maybe have an open room to work with which maybe means I can actually set up a back drop and maybe a light or two? Am I free to interact with the person without talking on a phone?”
It’s a dark subject but it’s also mostly working with honest stories – fascinating stories, but yeah, creepy at times. Ultimately, these are stories that need to be told and that’s why I enjoy photographing, I believe it’s some of the most honest work that I do.
PP: Thanks Matt.
MR: Thank you, Pete.
Steven Russell, Texas.
© Sye Williams. Gertha Griffin is serving time for assault with a deadly weapon. She shares her poem, “Waking up in a Cold, Dark Room.”
Friend of the blog and former PPOTR interviewee, Sye Williams has launched a new website. The images from his Women in Prison series are crisper and there’s a few images – such as the one above – that he had not published before.
Last year, I listed a swathe of projects that photographed similar representations.
© Helen Grace Ventura Thompson
Despite these numerous projects, execution is still an invisible act. Perhaps rightly so – it is very gory. But it is gory paid for by tax dollars. The many projects focusing on last meals are reflex actions to this invisibility.
Sometimes the most interesting discussions can arise from the most left-field of questions. In that spirit: We can learn the last words of the executed, but what if we saw a last photo?
A Guardian gallery explains Thompson’s work, “The idea behind the project was to juxtapose the morbid context surrounding the meal with the relative mundanity of the food itself.”
The dissonance between morbid and mundane may jolt people. I hope that a jolt may kickstart conversations, because without a debate to follow then Thompson’s images and those like them are little more than studio experiments.
Food unites us all so we should be compelled by these images, one would think. What would you choose to eat before being fried or poisoned? Yet, for me, food photography is so ubiquitous it’s boring – I’m as uninterested by commercial gigs with painted food-props as I am by Instagram shots of my friend’s friend’s appetizer.
I also feel a little uncomfortable with the reverence laid over the photos of last meals, especially in light of the ultimate act of violence unleashed shortly after that last bite. Prisoners I have spoken to always talk about the inescapable noise of prisons. Photography is a quiet medium and these photographs are quieter than most.
I accept that Thompson’s job wasn’t to meet my unorthodox wandering thoughts, but I feel short-changed by her images. I wonder who makes the meals that Thompson references? And where do they get eaten? We’ve seen photographs of electrocution and gas chambers; bullet-ridden firing squad chairs; video tours of death houses; portraits of condemned men; and a photograph of a stainless steel table at which a last meal is eaten, but never see a photo of someone actually chowing down their last meal. Does anyone sit down with them?
Thompson’s style mimics fine art painted still lives and as such the reality, the noise, and the act of eating (or in some cases, a prisoner’s choice not to eat) are lost. Time is lost. Scott Langley has done the best job of reinserting time into a body of images documenting the most final of events.
Would a photographer following the acts (and meal) of a condemned man or woman be as distasteful as people witnessing his or her death from behind mirrored glass? If so, what’s the alternatives? Could we imagine allowing a condemned man or woman – with a disposable camera – to document his or her own murder, should they choose to? We see images of, and by, dead people all the time. The environment for executions is so controlled and sanitised they’d be quite boring pictures … until the subject turned the camera on him or herself. That’d be dripping with emotion; that shot would have a time stamp. That type of shot falls the other end of the scale to Thompson’s distantly crafted images.
Think about it. The media formula for executions is to report the last meal, the last words, the last breath and the last body spasms. Wouldn’t you be far more interested in seeing the last image? An image made by a person who knew they were about to die? Isn’t that the shot that no one else could ever get?