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Every Friday Evening, in New York City, Women and Children Board Buses Headed for Upstate Prisons

Photographer Jacobia Dahm Rode Too and Documented, Through the Night, the Distances Families Will Go to See Their Incarcerated Loved Ones

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There are various ways to depict the family ties that are put under intense strain when a loved one is imprisoned. Photographers have focused on sibling love; artists have focused on family portraits, and documentarians have tracked the impact of mass incarceration across multiple generations. Often, the daily trials of family with loved ones inside are invisible, unphotographable, psychological and persistent—they are open ended and not really very easy to visualise.

One of the many strengths of Jacobia Dahm’s project In Transit: The Prison Buses is that it very literally describes a time (every weekend), a duration (8 or 10 hour bus ride), a beginning and an end, and a purpose (to get inside a prison visiting room). In Transit: The Prison Buses is a literal example of a photographer taking us there. Dahm took six weekend trips between February and May 2014.

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Dahm’s method is so simple it is surprising no other documentary photographer (I can think of) has told the same story this way. Dahm told me recently, that since the New York Times featured In Transit: The Prison Buses in November 2014, the interest and gratitude has been non-stop. I echo those sentiments of appreciation. Dahm describes a poignant set of circumstances with utmost respect. It is not easy to travel great distances at relatively large cost repeatedly, but families do. As a result, they take care of the emotional health of their loved ones — who, don’t forget are our prisoners — and society is a safer place because of it.

“Honestly, I don’t know why they place them so far away,” says one of Dahm’s subjects in an accompanying short film.

The women on these buses—and they are mostly women—are heroes.

I wanted to ask  Jacobia how she went about finding the story and photographing the project.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea come from?

Jacobia Dahm (JD): In the fall of 2013, I began studying Documentary Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. When the time came to choose a long-term project, I realized I had been captivated for a long time by the criminal justice system here in the U.S., where I had lived for the past decade. Frequently the severity of the sentences did not seem to make any sense, and the verdicts seemed to lack compassion and an understanding of the structural disadvantages that poor people — who make up the majority of prisoners— face. In short, sentencing did not seem to take human nature into account.

My sense of justice was disturbed by all of this. I was shaken when Trayvon Martin was killed and his killer walked free. Or when shortly after, Marissa Alexander, a woman who had just given birth, was given a 20-year sentence for sending a warning shot into the roof of the garage when cornered by her former abusive partner. Her sentence has since been reduced dramatically. But it’s complex: Where does a society’s urge to punish rather than help and rehabilitate come from? In both cases there was a loud public outcry. What’s remarkable is that there are frequent public outcries against the US justice system, because the system simply does not feel just. So I decided to do some work in this area.

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JD: But how do you even begin to photograph injustice?

My original plan was to take on one of the most worrisome aspects of US criminal justice: I wanted to photograph the families of people who were incarcerated for life without parole for non-violent offenses. But New York State does not incarcerate in that category and, as I had classes to attend, travel to further locations would have meant trickier access and less time with the subjects.

In conversation with one of my teachers Andrew Lichtenstein, who had done a good amount of work on prisons, he mentioned the weekend buses that take visitors to the prisons upstate. And once I had that image in my head — of a child on these buses that ride all night to the farthest points of New York State to see their incarcerated parent — I wanted to go and find that image.

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PP: How much preparation did you need to do? Or did you just turn up to the terminus?

JD: I researched the bus companies beforehand, some of them are not easy to find or call. And I had to find out which company went where. I also looked into the surroundings of each prison beforehand. I knew I would not be able to go into prison and knew most of them are in the middle of nowhere, so I had to make sure — especially since it was in the midst of freezing winter — that I would be within walking distance of some sort of town that had a cafe.

The first time I went upstate, it was on a private minivan. I had just finished reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s amazing non-fiction book, Random Family that narrated life over a decade in the 1980s and 90s in the South Bronx. The characters in the book travel with a company called “Prison Gap” which is one of the oldest companies running visitor transportation in New York City, and so I felt they were the real deal and decided to use them on my first trip upstate.

It was a freezing February night in 2014 and we gathered in a Citibank branch south of Columbus Circle for two hours before the minivans appeared. Many people came in to use the ATMs and some looked at us wonderingly, but no-one would have known that these people were about to visit prisons. What they would have seen is a mostly African-American crowd, mostly women, waiting for something.

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PP: I see Attica in your photos, did you just photo one route or many?

JD: The bus I ended up focusing on — because riding on the same bus would allow me to get to know passengers better — went to six different prisons in the Northwest of New York State: Groveland, Livingston, Attica, Wyoming, Albion and Orleans. Most buses and mini vans ride to a number of prisons, that way they always have a full bus because they serve a wider demographic.

I wanted to be on a bus that went to Albion, the largest women’s prison in NY State, because my assumption was, that female prisoners get more visits from their children, simply because the bond is almost always the most crucial one. But I was wrong, because as it turns out, women have fewer visitors, and for a number of reasons: Women tend to act as the social glue and make sure visits happen. And so when they’re the ones who are incarcerated, not everyone around them takes over or can take over the same way. Some dads are absent and if the children are raised by the grandmother, that trip will be very difficult to make for an elderly person.

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PP: What were the reactions of the families to your presence, and to your camera?

JD: The time I traveled upstate I was squeezed into the back of a white mini van, the only white person traveling up and the only one with a camera strapped around her neck. We drove all night and barely talked. It felt otherworldly thinking we are now driving to the Canadian border, but I forced myself to take at least a few pictures through the frozen window and of hands etc. Later the next morning we were moved to a larger bus and that bus was the one I rode on for the next five rides between February and May.

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JD: The first one or two times I took the trip, I did not take many pictures on the bus and I photographed the towns instead. I could quickly tell there was a sense of shame involved in having family in prison, and people where uncomfortable being photographed, which I understand. People had to get used to me first an understand what I was doing. So I did what you do when you are in that situation: I introduced myself to people, I took some pictures and brought them a print next time.

Once they had seen me on the bus more than once they were starting to be intrigued. I also told them that I too was a parent and could not imagine having to bring my children on such a long and difficult journey, and that I was sorry this was the case for them. I think it was rare for many of these women to encounter any kind of compassion from others, and it might have helped them to open up to me.

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PP: You describe the journeys as emotional, tiresome, grueling.

JD: You’re on the bus all night without getting much sleep. The expectations of the visits can be tense, because the mood of your entire relationship for the next week is depending on a few hours. But the journey has also been expensive and most likely exhausted all your funds for the week. During the visit you will be watched closely by the correctional officers, some of them might be rude to you. And if you bring your kids that aspect might be particularly difficult because you’re in no position to stand your ground.

You worry and hope your kids sleep well because you want them to be in good shape for the visit. I knew a grandmother who slept on the floor so her grandson could get the sleep he needed.

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JD: Another one of the moms I knew was not allowed to bring her three kids to Attica because Attica only allows for three people to visit. The child that was left at home with a babysitter or family member was upset and that puts stress on the entire family.

PP: Why are New York State’s prison so far upstate?

JD: New York has around 70 state prisons, and many of them are in rural, post-industrial or post-agricultural areas. You could not get to some of these towns with public transport if you wanted to. The prisons have been economic favors to depressed rural areas that have little else to offer in terms of jobs, but not factored in is how these favors tear families apart and further widen the distance between children and their incarcerated parents.

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PP: Do other states have similar geographic distances between communities and prisons?

JD: I am only beginning to understand what the system looks like in other states, but I believe people have to travel far in most states, as there seems to be no policy on the part of Departments of Corrections to place prisoners in proximity to their families.

In California for example, most prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison come from Los Angeles, and that prison is a 12-hour ride away. In Washington D.C. it seems a large part of the prisoners are placed federally, rather than within state, so the distances can be even larger. And with distance come increased travel costs that poorer families have a very hard time covering with regularity.

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JD: Considering that family ties are crucial in maintaining mental health and key in helping the prisoners regain their footing when they are out, it is a cruel oversight not to place people closer to those that are part of the rehabilitation process. Statistics tell us that the majority or prisoners have minor children.

PP: What can photography achieve in the face of such a massive prison system?

JD: I think at the very least pictures of an experience we know nothing about can create awareness, and at best it can move people to develop a compassion that can move them to act. I think a photograph can give you a sense of how something feels. Seeing is a sense of knowing, and it’s easy not to care if you don’t know.

In the face of the U.S. incarceration system — a system that seems to be concealed from most people’s sight but at the same time permeates so many aspects of the American life and landscape—it feels particularly important to me that photography plays the role of a witness.

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A rest stop at night in Pennsylvania. April 26, 2014.

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PP: How do you want your images to be understood?

JD: I think my images highlight a difficult journey that many people know nothing about.

The focus of the journey, and of my photographs, is on the people that connect the inside of a prison to the outside world: the families.

It might be that by seeing how an entire family’s life is altered people seeing those images and beginning to understand something about how incarceration affects not just the person on the inside, they are maybe capable of a compassion they don’t usually afford for prisoners themselves.

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PP: How do you want your images to be used?

JD: It’s hard to say because I believe an artist’s intention has limits when it comes to how the work is used.

I want people to put themselves in the families’ shoes. I want these images to help people begin to imagine what the secondary effects of incarceration are and how they could be softened. 10 million children in the US have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, and that is not a good start in life for a very large number of the most vulnerable population.

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BIOGRAPHY

Jacobia Dahm (born Frankfurt, Germany) is a documentary storyteller and portrait photographer based in New York and Berlin. She graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2014, where she was a Lisette Model Scholar and received the Rita K. Hillman Award for Excellence. Dahm’s photography and video has been recognized with awards from Rangefinder and the International Photography Awards. Her work has been published by Makeshift Magazine, The New York Times, Shift Book, AIAP and Prison Photography. Her key interest is documenting issues of social justice.

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8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. Examples of kites (messages) written by prisoners. These were discovered before they were smuggled out.

Too often since writing this post, I have lamented the dearth of images of solitary confinement. We have suffered as a society from not seeing. A few years back a change began. Solitary confinement became an anchor issue to the prison reform and abolition movements. Thanks largely to activist and journalist inquiry we’ve seen more and more images of solitary confinement emerge. However, news outlets still relying on video animation to tell stories, which would indicate images remain scarce and at a premium.

Robert Gumpert has just updated his website with photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison. Some are from the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) that has been the center of years of controversy and the locus of 3 hunger strikes since the summer of 2011. Other photographs are from the general population areas of the supermaximum security facility.

Click the “i” icon at the top right of Gumpert’s gallery to see caption info, so that you can be sure which wing of this brutal facility is in each photograph.

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Despite seeing Gumpert regularly, I am still not aware of exactly how these images came about. I think Gumpert was on assignment but the publication didn’t, in the end, pull the trigger. Their loss is our gain. Gumpert provides 33 images. It’s a strange mix. I’d go as far to say stifled. Everything is eerily still under dank light. We encounter, at distance, a cuffed prisoner brought out for the camera. Gumpert’s captions indicate interviews took place, but there are no prisoners’ quotes. In a deprived environment it makes sense that Gumpert focuses on signs — they point toward the operations and attitudes more than a portrait of officer or prisoner does, I think.

The gallery opens with images from the SHU and then moves into the ‘Transition Housing Unit’ which is where prisoners who have signed up for the Step-Down Program are making their transition from assigned gang-status to return to the general population. Critics of the Step-Down Program say it is coercive and serves the prisons’ need more than the prisoners.

Note: It doesn’t matter how the prisoner identifies — if the prison authority has classed a prisoner as a gang member it is very difficult to shake the label. The Kafkaesque irreversibility of many CDCR assertions was what led to a growth in use of solitary in the California prisons.

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8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. A SHU cell occupied by two prisoners. Cell is about 8×10 with no windows. Bunks are concrete with mattress roles. When rolled up the bunk serves at a seat and table.. Cones on the wall are home made speakers using ear-phones for the TV or radio. Speakers are not allowed.

I’ve picked out three images from Gumpert’s 33 that I think are instructive in different ways. While we may be amazed by the teeny writing of a prisoner in his kites (top) we should also be aware that these were shown to Gumpert to re-enforce the point that prisoners in solitary are incorrigible. The suggestion is that these words are a threat and we should be fearful. But we cannot know if we cannot read them fully. How good is your eyesight? Click the image to see it larger.

As for the “speakers” made of earphones and cardboards cylinders! Can those really amplify sound in any meaning full way?

And finally, to the image below. I thought the quotation marks in the church banner (below) were yet another case of poor prison signage grammar, but reading the caption and learning that the chapel caters for 47 faiths, makes “LORD’S” entirely applicable. Not a single lord but the widest, most ill-defined, catch-all version of a lord (higher presence/Yahweh/Gaia/Sheba/fog-spirit/Allah/fill-in-the-blank) in a prison that is all but god-forsaken.

See the full gallery.

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8 June 2012: Crescent City, CA. California State Prison: Pelican Bay Prison. The religion room serving 47 different faiths and beliefs.

 

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Edmund Clark is cheeky, thoughtful and a bit subversive in his critique of institutional power. During his 10 days embedded at Bagram Airbase in October 2013, he realised most people there don’t ever get outside its confines.

But Bagram has nice paintings of murals to provide an idealised Afghanistan.

My latest for WIRED, The 40,000 People on Bagram Air Base Haven’t Actually Seen Afghanistan I consider his latest body of work and book Mountains Of Majeed:

Clark documented the infrastructure needed to support a military base that covers 6 square miles and employs 40,000 people. He photographed everything from the mess halls and laundry to the sewage treatment system, but the colorful murals and paintings dotting the base most intrigued him. They depict an idyllic, romanticized vision of the local landscape and Hindu Kush, one free of war. The reality, of course, was much bleaker, with the distant peaks of the mountains beyond Bagram riddled with conflict and danger.

Read the piece in full.

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Fight Hate With Love, a documentary film about Philadelphia-based artists and activist Michael Tabon (a.k.a. G-Law a.k.a. OG-Law) has been shortlisted for the Tim Hetherington Trust‘s inaugural Visionary Award.

The film made by Andrew Michael Ellis, director of photography at Mediastorm is about “one man’s journey to change the world and still be the guide his family needs him to be.”

The film looks inspiring, but as with any narrative arc, the protagonist faces challenges. It seems the stresses of Tabon’s art and activism upon his family is the emotive hook, Ellis is molding.

I met Tabon and his wife Gwen this time last year as he was embarking on his third self-imposed lock up in a self-built cell on the cold February streets of Philly. They did not display the tension as they do in Ellis’ trailer. Tabon was putting his un-prison cell together and Gwen was helping with supplies, PR, food & drink, and vocal support. It was clear they rely on one another to make work and to meet the silent, unending need for Tabon’s love-filled message.

Tabon’s manipulation of visual tropes is cunning and effective. He has reclaimed the cell, the orange jumpsuit and the shackles. He has jogged 10 miles a day for seven days around Philadelphia with a 40-foot banner reading FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE. He has walked with a ball-and-chain from Selma to Montgomery.

“Tabon has been caught in the revolving door of the prison system since he was sixteen years old. Incarceration became a way of life, seen as an inherited destiny for America’s young Black poor, until he had a revelation – that he could break the cycle of the womb-to-prison pipeline gripping marginalized communities across the country,” says Mediastorm.

It’s wonderful to see Tabon on the Mediastorm platform and Hetherington Trust’s radar. His unorthodox but unmissable approach to social change needs to go national.

Youtube trailer here. Follow Tabon on Twitter and on the web.

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We hear often, from the extreme political right and left, that Washington D.C. is broken. People across the nation grumble about how the power-heeled mingle with elected representatives on Capitol Hill and achieve little for the everyman. Putting the efficacy of the political system aside, what about Washington D.C. as a city? What about D.C.’s governance and its ability to provide for its residents?

A look at Kike Arnal‘s series In The Shadows Of Power would tell us that D.C. is failing and it is the poor and disenfranchised it fails most. The series features photographs of youth locked in the city’s jail (above).

“Washington, D.C. is truly a world symbol in ways most people do not understand. It is my hope that the work in this book might expand that understanding,” says Arnal.

Cross Section: a different tour of Washington D.C.

I visited D.C. last week and it felt good and weird. The video exhibit at the Hirschorn was amazing, the Reflecting Pool was drained and scummy, a new $400M Museum Of The Bible had just been announced, and the Ethiopian food was tremendous. But I got the feeling I was treading the visitors’ routes rather than the locals’ usual routes. I stayed in NoMa, which is a new acronymic fancy recently applied to the area North of Massachussetts Avenue.

[ Note: Acronyms are surefire evidence of realtor-orchestrated change — think SOMA, NoPa and TriBeCa. ]

NoMa is where the new headquarters of NPR are located. It’s undergoing massive change as Washington D.C. spiffs itself up in the blocks north of The Mall, Union Station and Congress. Historically though, it has been a poor area. No more. The poorest residents of D.C. are pushed around, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. All the while, the D.C. metro area is the “centre of the free world.”

The economic downturn of 2008 barely touched D.C. With such a high proportion of government jobs, the capitol didn’t suffer in the same way cities reliant on industry and services did. As a result, migration into D.C. among the young and hungry picked up, and the renters market boomed. Areas that had, for the longest period, been home to lower economic classes changed wholesale. For example, vacant lots in the 14th Street area — which was devastated by 1968 riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination — were only developed in the last decade. And even then it was with Target, Starbucks and other chain name stores.

The area was left to waste until such a time it was useful for corporate/consumer interests.

Exhibit Washington: Life in the world's most powerful capital

Arnal talks about the body of work on C-Span here and Ralph Nader sings the praises of In The Shadow Of Power on Democracy Now! In that same program, Arnal talks about the photo of the coffeeshop (above).

In the Shadow of Power was sponsored by the Washington, DC, based Center for Study of Responsive Law which was founded by Ralph Nader in 1968. The Center has sponsored a wide variety of books, organizing projects, litigation and has hosted hundreds of conferences focusing on government and corporate accountability.

BIOGRAPHY

Kike Arnal is a Venezuelan photographer and documentary filmmaker based in New York City. His photographs have been featured in the New York Times, Life, and Newsweek, among others. His video, Yanomami Malaria, produced for the Discovery Channel, covered the spread of disease among populations of indigenous people in the northern Amazon. Follow Kike on Tumblr.

 

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I wrote a piece about Chris Nunn‘s photographs in Ukraine, for Vantage.

Read Accidentally Photographing War In Ukraine.

Nunn, an Englishman, has been hopping flights to Ukraine since 2006 — first with a Ukrainian a girl he dated at uni, and later to trace his roots.

In early 2013 and without a jot of the language he went in search of a connection to the country and its people.

To quote me:

“He had no idea that he was about to be wrapped up in a regional conflict that would draw the world’s attention. His photography became less a personal journey and more an accidental documentary of a nation in steady decline toward war.”

Nunn even ended up in camp with Ukrainian Army conscripts. His mix of portraits and environmental shots is quite poignant. I received an email from Nunn this morning:

“Donetsk. I had no idea at the time that I’d probably never be able to return there, as a normal civilian, [when I made the photos]. Maybe, now, only possibly with special press permission? It’s a mix of good and bad memories … which is true for Ukraine, in general, I think.”

Who knows what to think? With ceasefires crumbling, who knows what comes next?

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MEETING THE PRISONER CLASS IN POLAND

One might argue that, in the world, there are as many reasons for making an image as there are images. Polish photographer Kamil Śleszyński was curious about how prisoners thought about freedom and “why many prisoners couldn’t live outside [of prison] and would come back again.”

Carrying a camera along with you in these inquiries may or may not help you find answers, but in any case you’ve some images to reflect upon, to lean on, and to mold toward some sort of conclusion.

Śleszyński reached out to me and shared his project Input/Output, which consists of photographs made within a prison and in a re-entry centre that supports ex-prisoners. Both facilities are in the city of Bialystok. The images were made between September 2014 and February 2015.

Using a limited number of sheets of 4×5 film forced Śleszyński to be selective with his exposures. The majority are posed portraits. I wanted to find out what he discovered during the project.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

Click any image to see it larger.

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Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): In the intro text to Input/Output you suggest that prisoners are institutionalized and are bound by what they learn in prison. Can you explain this more?

Kamil Śleszyński (KS): The man who goes to prison needs to adjust to the rules prevailing there. On the one hand, the rules are created by the Polish prison system, on the other hand by the prisoners themselves.

For example, Grypsera is a prison subculture. Those prisoners who adhere it rules are known as Grypsera too. They have own language which is based on polish language. Grypsera was created in the past century and determined the tough rules, hierarchy and standards. Today, these rules have loosened somewhat but many of them are still alive.

The prison environment is permanently stigmatising. This is perfectly illustrated by words from the book “The Walls of Hebron” written by Andrzej Stasiuk: “To the prison you go only one time. This first. After that, there is no prison. There is no freedom too. All things are the same.”

Polish prisoners are not taught independence because it is not technically possible within their reality. Resocialization is a key issue, but most progams toward it are not enough. Therefore, freed prisoners cannot deal with freedom itself. It is easier to get back behind bars where everything is either black or white.

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PP:  Many of your subjects have tattoos. Are tattoos important in Polish prisons?

KS: Tattoos were an important element of prison subculture. Tattoos on their faces and hands allowed quickly define the criminal profession. Military ranks tattooed on their arms, define the length of the sentence. There were a lot of different types of tattoos. Only deserving criminals could have it.

Today, these rules are loosened. Tattoos do not always have the prison symbolism, sometimes are associated with religion.

PP: You shot in a prison in Bialystok. What is its reputation?

KS: The closed wards were the worst, because prisoners are spending 23 hours a day in a cell. Prisoners can be a little crazy as a result.

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PP: Why did you want to photograph inside?

KS: I grew up in the neighborhood of the prison. Often I was walking near by the prison walls and watching prisoners. They were standing in the windows bathing in the sun. I was wondering why they were behind the walls. This curiosity stayed with me.

PP:  How did you get access?

KS: The year ago I met director and journalist Dariusz Szada-Borzyszkowski. He was working with a prisoners. He cast them in performances. He put me in touch with the right people and gave valuable hints. His help greatly accelerated my work.

PP: What were the reactions of the staff?

KS: Prisoner chiefs had a positive attitude to the project. In one of the prison facilities I had a lot of creative freedom.

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PP: What were the reactions of the prisoners?

KS: Gaining the confidence of prisoners takes a long time, and this was a key issue for the project. Prisoners are understandably distrustful — they’re afraid that someone from the outside can deceive or ridicule them.

One of the prisoners told me that he don’t want to work with me because prisoners are not monkeys in a cage. I spent a lot of time to convince him that I wouldn’t misrepresent him. In the end, he was involved in the project so much that he convinced other prisoners to cooperation with me.

I was shooting with an old camera 4×5. Many of prisoners were interested in my shooting technique because they had never seen such equipment. It was a new experience for them.

PP: Did the prisoners have an opportunity to have their photograph taken at other times?

KS: Prisoners are photographed by the staff upon entry into the prison and at the time of their departure. During imprisonment is not possible to be photographed … unless they are involved in a project like mine.

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PP: Did prisoners have photographs in their cells?

KS: Sometimes prisoners have photos of their loved ones in their cells.  This helps to survive in isolation.

PP: Did you give prisoners copies of your images?

KS: Prisoners are collaborating when it is profitable. The photos were a reward for participating in the project. Many of them sent photos to their loved ones.

PP: What do people in Poland think about the prison system? And of think prisoners?

KS: People don’t know much about prisons and prisoners, and guided by stereotypes. They want to know how it is inside, but do not want to have anything to do with the prisoners. They are afraid of them.

I hope that such projects like mine, will help to change those points of view. I got scholarship from the Marshal of Podlaskie region for the preparation of a draft photo book about the prisoners. It wasn’t easy, but the scholarship suggests to me that views are slowly changing.

PP: Overall, is the Polish prison system working or not? Does it keep people safe, or rehabilitate, for example?

KS: The polish prison system puts too little emphasis on resocialization.

PP: Thanks, Kamil.

KS: Thank you, Pete.

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© Richard Ross

I never thought I’d see a trans prison guard. I didn’t think transgender persons worked in the corrections industry and — given the culture of prisons — I did not expect that a trans person would ever want to.

However, she exists and her name is Mandi Camille Hauwert.

The Marshall Project continues to uncover surprising and new angles on this nation’s prisons. Their profile of Hauwert Call Me Mandi: The Life of a Transgender Corrections Officer is no exception. It is a story with which Richard Ross, a well-traveled photographer of prisons, approached them. Alongside the photographs are Ross’ own words.

Hauwert began work at San Quentin as a male, but transitioned in the job and has been taking hormones for 3 years. She faces hostility from fellow staff.

It’s worth noting how dangerous prison systems are to transgender folk. A few weeks back, I attended Bringing To Light a conference in San Francisco, at which I learnt the routine brutalisation of LGBQIT persons at the hands of the prison system — threats of rape, the use of solitary “for protection” and all its associated deprivations, the denial of prescribed hormones, and many other daily humiliations.

Janetta Johnson spoke about surviving a 3-year federal sentence in a men’s prison. She and her colleagues at the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) now help trans folk deal with trauma and reentry following release.

Unwittingly and without buy-in, transgender prisoners swiftly expose the oppressive logic and total inflexibility of the prison industrial complex. Follow TGIJP‘s work and that of the other organisations that presented at Bringing To Light. Their work often goes unrecognised in the larger fight for reforms and abolition, but it precisely the prisons’ adherence to patriarchy and outdated constructs of gender that establishes the tension and abuses.

Ross’ Call Me Mandi: The Life of a Transgender Corrections Officer is a brief but illuminating feature. Read it.

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