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Tracey: “I lost my family. I lost my job and I lost my home. I spent 14-and-a-half years in the Department of Corrections.”
PUSHED TO THE MARGINS
What do you do when you law prohibits you from living within a reasonable distance of any of society’s communal spaces and social services? That’s the question thousands of sex offenders find themselves with, and the perpetually-liminal existence they inhabit.
I’ve not written about sex offenders — imprisoned or otherwise — very much on this blog. This is due in most part because I’ve not a wealth of knowledge. But it is also because it is an easy population to ignore. This is my failing. Sex offenders are a group that receive little-to-no sympathy or understanding. And, this, despite their crimes being massively different from one another and their pathologies and psychological profiles dictating their offence but not, by any means, their potential improvement and contributions into the future. Prison Photography has lazily sidelined the issue as to maintain a safe distance from one of society’s trickiest topics within criminal justice.
Sofia Valiente‘s photographs of ‘Miracle Village’ a community of registered sex offenders in Florida give me the opportunity to tackle this. Valiente has just released a book of the project with FABRICA and the work was featured on The Marshall Project this week.
Valiente’s book contains writings by 12 sex offenders who live in the isolated community in West Palm Beach County, Florida.
A (VIRTUALLY) IGNORED ISSUE
Firstly, I should say that this is not the only work of this type. Danish photographer Steven Achiam made images of sex offenders in a trailer park, also in Florida. I’ve known this work for years but, again, never quite dared to bring it up.
Secondly, I will say that the laws against sex offenders living in proximity to children differ state-to-state, are almost arbitrary, mostly unenforceable and rarely consider whether the crime was against a child in the original case.
Furthermore, exclusionary zones put off-limits ludicrous amounts of roads and public thoroughfares. For example in Revere, Massachusetts, the Prison Policy Initiative mapped out what proposed laws would look like and found that 99% of the city would be off-limits.
Finally, I take my information from those I trust most. Laurie Jo Reynolds — an incredibly effective campaigner, serial grant winner, darling of the anti-prison movement, and hero of mine — has long argued against sex offender registries which put individuals on the list as risk and do not improve public safety. Reynolds also says that registries do not prevent crime only pile expensive punishment, admin and enforcement on top of a severely misunderstood problem.
All that said, we need to approach the issue of sex crimes with less fear and judgement and realise we have not yet found the most sensible, safe, restorative, economical or humane ways to deal with this tough, tough issue. Maybe Sofia Valiente’s images are an invitation to do so?
Richard: “Up until the age of 18, I had a terrible stutter. I hated talking. I was always a good student and often knew the answers to the questions asked in class. However, I never raised my hand because I dreaded being called on. My stutter was bad, and when I was talking to a girl it was even worse. When I discovered Internet Chatt in 1988, and I could communicate without having to talk, it was the greatest thing ever.”
“Living in Miracle Village is quiet, peaceful, yet isolated. When people call me about jobs, they never know where Pahokee is.”
Paul on his porch. “I don’t know when I started making bad choices.”
Gene in his El Camino.
Matt exercising in the back shed in the village with David and Lee. “Growing up with my mom was enough, I’m ready to move on. All I did was go to school and take care of the house. It was like living in boot camp. She was the one that called the cops on me in order to protect her job or so she said.”
Ben taking a walk around the sugarcane fields that surround the complex.
Objects on Rose’s refrigerator include a photograph of her children (their eyes were obscured by the photographer to protect their identities).
Lee laying down inside his room. Lee went to prison when he was 18 and served 12 and a half years of his 15 year sentence. He is serving the other 2 and a half years on conditional release. His restrictions include a 7pm curfew, no driving other than for employment purposes- not alone, no internet, monthly urinalysis, no contact with minors even family members, GPS monitoring and paying the cost of his supervision. He must register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life. “You can clean me up, put me in the ‘right’ clothes and give me an honorary membership, but I will still be that outsider and that is that.”
Gene laying down with his dog Killer for a nap. “As a sex offender I can not trust anyone…. All they have to do is call 911 and say that a sex offender has bothered them and Bang! I am in jail. No questions asked.”
Doug after a day of working outside. He helps out in the community by doing occasional lawn work and other maintenance jobs. Doug lived in a tent in the woods prior to coming to the village. Because of distance restrictions he was unable to go home after serving his time and had difficulty finding a place to live. “After I got into trouble I became homeless and couldn’t get a job so I lived 2,500 feet into the woods.”
After stints at Haverford College, PA; Scripps, CA; and Rutgers, NJ, my first solo-curated effort Prison Obscura is all grown up and headed to New York.
It’ll be showing at Parsons The New School of Design February 5th – April 17th:
On Thursday, February 5th at 5:45 p.m, I’ll be doing a curator’s talk. The opening reception follows 6:30–8:30 p.m. It’d be great to see you there.
Here’s the Parsons blurb:
The works in Prison Obscura vary from aerial views of prison complexes to intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals. Artist Josh Begley and musician Paul Rucker use imaging technology to depict the sheer size of the prison industrial complex, which houses 2.3 million Americans in more than 6000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of $70 billion per year; Steve Davis led workshops for incarcerated juvenile in Washington State to reveal their daily lives; Kristen S. Wilkins collaborates with female prisoners on portraits with the aim to compete against the mugshots used for both news and entertainment in mainstream media; Robert Gumpert presents a nine-year project pairing portraits and audio recordings of prisoners from San Francisco jails; Mark Strandquist uses imagery to provide a window into the histories, realities and desires of some incarcerated Americans; and Alyse Emdur illuminates moments of self-representations with collected portraits of prisoners and their families taken in prison visiting rooms as well as her own photographs of murals in situ on visiting room walls, and a mural by members of the Restorative Justice and Mural Arts Programs at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, PA. Also, included are images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown v. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that which went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was ruled that every prisoner in the California State prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare.
Parsons has scheduled a grip of programming while the show is on the walls:
Mid-day discussion with curator Pete Brook and Tim Raphael, Director, The Center for Migration and the Global City, Rutgers University-Newark.
Wednesday, February 4, 12:00–1:30 p.m.
Co-hosted with the Humanities Action Lab.
These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice.
Friday, February 27, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Mark Strandquist.
Windows from Prison
Saturday, February 28
A workshop led by Mark Strandquist. More information about participation will be available on the website.
Visualizing Carceral Space
Thursday, March 12, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Josh Begley.
Please spread the word. Here’s a bunch of images for your use.
At The New School, Prison Obscura connects to Humanities Action Lab (HAL) Global Dialogues on Incarceration, an interdisciplinary hub that brings together a range of university-wide, national, and global partnerships to foster public engagement on America’s prison system.
Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
I’m a big fan of the work having previously interviewed Sébastien while the work was ongoing and applauded the time he spent three-days locked up in Belgium’s newest most high tech prison. That experience helped van Malleghem understand that there are some very thin but very significant thread that connect the cameras and lenses of security, with the cameras and lenses of photographers and journalists, with the cameras of news and entertainment.
In his formal statement to the Lucas Dolega Award, van Malleghem says:
These images reveal the toll taken by a societal model [the prison] which brings out tension and aggressiveness, and amplifies failure, excess and insanity, faith and passion, poverty.
These images expose how difficult it is to handle that which steps out of line. This, in a time when that line is more and more defined by the touched-up colors of standardization, of the web and of reality TV.
Always further from life, from our life, [prisoners] locked up in the idyllic, yet confined, space of our TV and computer screens.
In an interview with Molly Benn, Sébastien (mashed through Google translate) says a couple of valid things. They answer key questions young photographers have, firstly about access, and secondly about behaviour in the prison.
No one will tell you up front “You should contact so-and-so.” I went to see the mayor of Nivelles. I forwarded to the director of the prison in Nivelles, who referred me to a government worker. Those exchanges took 8-months. Every time I was asked to re-explain my project. Eventually, I received written permission by email but, still, each warden could still refuse me if he wished.
In prison, everything is constantly monitored. My first challenge was to get out from under the constant control. Upon entry into prison, you are immediately assigned an agent, supposedly for your safety but mostly to monitor what you’re doing.
But the prison officer ranks are often understaffed. I quickly noticed that they preferred to work their usual job than be my baby-sitter. So. I asked questions, showed interest in their profession, and I gained their confidence. After this, they let me work quite freely.
Basically, photographing in prison is a precarious exercise. I recall the words of one photographer who reflected on this best when he told me he never presumed he’d be let back in the next day or next week. He made images as if that day in the prison was his last.
Van Malleghem’s prison work follows on from years documenting Belgian police.
LUCAS DOLEGA AWARD
Lucas von Zabiensky Mebrouk Dolega grew up between Germany – his mother’s homeland, Morocco – his father’s – and France. Never one to respect authority for authority’s sake, he needled the inconcstencies and the inbetween spaces of persons’ experience and identity. On January 17th 2011, in Tunis, Lucas died on the streets amid a riot. He was covering the “Jasmin Revolution” in Tunisia.
The Lucas Dolega Award honours Dolega’s spirit and contribution. The award recognises freelance photographers who take risks in the pursuit of infomration and informing the world. Previous recipients are Emilio Morenatti (2012), Alessio Romenzi (2013) and Majid Saeedi (2014).
Mom Were OK, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Mid September, 2005 © Copyright of Zoe Strauss
STRAUSS AT HAVERFORD
Strauss will be there too. Talking and everything.
Friday, January 23rd.
Drying Money, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Mid September, 2005 © Copyright of Zoe Strauss
TV on Second Floor, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Mid September, 2005 © Copyright of Zoe Strauss
This is my hometown, Toms River, NJ, 2012. © Zoe Strauss.
In Sea Change, Strauss traces the landscape of post-climate change America. In photographs, vinyl prints, and projected images, Strauss treads the extended aftermath of three ecological disasters: Hurricane Katrina in the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2005); the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Southern Louisiana (2010); and Hurricane Sandy in Toms River, NJ, and Staten Island, NY (2012). Lush and leveled landscapes; graffiti pleas and words of encouragement—Strauss’s camera captures lives decimated and dusting off: the fast and slow tragedies of global warming, the damage we can repair, and the damage we can’t.
I had no idea Strauss was working on a survey of disasterscapes in America. Following her 10 years of photographing in Philadelphia and celebrating the colours and characters of her beloved home city — and then presenting her photographs annually beneath Interstate 95 — it makes sense that Strauss would gravitate to the realest of struggles for real people at a time when real (climate) change is unleashing real events.
Sandy, Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon catastrophes left millions of Americans floundering, thousands dead, communities torn from the ground. In the immediate aftermath of such events, attention focuses on the official and governmental responses, but Strauss is more interested in the long tail of disasters and of informal vernacular responses. Strauss seems hell-bent on reminding us that after the camera crews leave, there’s still generations of rebuilding to be done (especially ecologically).
In Sea Change we see Strauss’ usual dark humor and restless documentation of the frayed edges of our nation. She’s holding up a mirror to the inconvenient messiness that we like to think we can deal with quickly and efficiently, but Strauss’ world is in a state of constant entropy, and it’s the invisible, the workers, the poor, the animal kingdom and the dissenters that lose out most when the shit hits the fan.
We all know that we’ve permanently altered our planet’s climate systems; we all know we’re on the hook. But we also know we can look anywhere-else, any time we want. And we know we don’t have to live on the Gulf Coast, or in the path of hurricanes. And we know that when things go south, we can turn our heads to the news and make a distant appraisal about whether the clean-up is happening quick enough or not, or watch some talking heads, or wag our finger at some government official.
Strauss’ victory in all her work — and particularly in Sea Change — is that she marries the visuals in her inquiries and her work so that they sync with her experience of the world. She is keeping herself honest through her photography. Perhaps Strauss can keep us honest too?
Foundational to Strauss’ work too is a deep respect. Zoe is irreverent, for sure, but she is also respectful of people. Entropy is going to happen; change is constant. People are going to win and people are going to lose, amidst change. That’s life. The degree to which people’s fortunes differ … and the degree to which people win and lose … and the degrees to which those statuses are kept permanent, that’s not just “life” though. It’s for us to decide how disaster will effect our collective in the long term. It’s for us to decide on the most equitable distribution of resources when many have literally been swept away.
When people fall down, we help them up. Rebuilding is everyone’s business. In Strauss’ world, love is the response to entropy and its disruptions.
Running: January 23–March 6, 2015
Reception and opening talk with the artist: Friday, January 23, 4:30–7:30pm
The exhibition is accompanied by a publication designed by Random Embassy, Philadelphia, featuring essays by artist Zoe Strauss; The New Yorker contributing writer Mattathias Schwartz; Helen K. White, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Haverford College; and a poem by Thomas Devaney, MFA, PEW Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry, Haverford College.
Oiled Water Coming Inland, Waveland, Mississippi, Early July, 2010 © Copyright of Zoe Strauss
Billboard, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Mid September, 2005 © Copyright of Zoe Strauss
We’ll Be Back, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Mid September, 2005 © Copyright of Zoe Strauss
Contact (my mate) Matthew Seamus Callinan, Associate Director, Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and Campus Exhibitions
Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Haverford College, 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA 19041
Tel: 610 896 1287
Don’t Forget Us, Mississippi Gulf Coast, July 2010 © Copyright of Zoe Strauss
On show will be photographs from two projects — Gumpert’s ongoing Take A Picture, Tell A Story, and images from “I Need Some Deodorant. My Skin Is Getting Restless” which were made between 1996 and 2002 at the Alameda County’s Psychiatric Emergency Services at John George, Oakland. In both bodies of work, Gumpert uses oral history (audio and text interviews) to add description, depth and context to the experiences of his subjects.
If you’re in the Bay Area, I strongly recommend a trip through the Caldecott Tunnel out to Moraga.I’ve long been an admirer of Gumpert’s work, specifically Take A Picture, Tell A Story which is part of my curated effort Prison Obscura.
Click on the flier below to see it larger and glean all the critical information.
Tameika Smith, San Francisco, CA. SF CJ2. 9 July 2012.
Chris Goshen, San Bruno, CA. San Francisco. CJ5. 27 June 2009.
Deborah Lee Worledge, San Francisco, CA. CJ1 Men’s jail. 4 April 2008.
Michael Johnson, San Bruno, CA. CJ5.
FERGUSON, THE ZINE
David Butow is raising cash on Kickstarter to fund the printing of a zine of his images made in Ferguson over the past 3 months. The images have been made, the edit done and the sequencing finalised. I’ve seen a PDF of Ferguson and it is a zine that is taut and emotional. It is also quite different from other projects I’ve seen coming out of Ferguson. Many of the scenes framed by Butow have multiple vignettes playing out in them all at once. They’re considered and crafted images. It’s both a photographers’ photography project and a statement relevant to all. It works as art and as political marker. It is relevant to documentarians and also, I think, will stand up to the test of time. Butow travelled to Ferguson twice — once after Michael Brown’s death and once after the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson. As well as 34 photographs, Ferguson also includes raw interview transcripts used in the grand jury deliberations. One offers a nuanced view of the neighborhood where the shooting took place and of Michael Brown himself. “The work goes beyond the violence to offer an intimate and emotional portrait of the community’s reaction – from conflict to prayer – and puts the meaning of what occurred in Ferguson in historical context,” says Butow.
Please consider backing this timely, no-nonsense, self-starting publication. Printed in California, using recycled paper and inks. 64 pages, 34 original B&W photographs. 8.5″ x 11″
Jerome at 15. © Zora Murff
Hey y’all. You might have heard about the launch of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system. You might also recall that I was excited by the launch.
Excited because I think we’ll all benefit from having focused, smart and quirky analysis of America’s carceral, criminal and correctional territories. But, excited also, because I’ll be contributing features of photographers’ work.
My first piece about Zora Murff, Tracked: A Photographer Reveals What It’s Like To Be A Kid In The System was published this week.
Here’s an excerpt.
In addition to slinging his camera, Murff works as a “tracker” for a program that provides low-risk juveniles alternatives to incarceration. He coordinates transportation to therapy and counseling sessions, contacts schools to make sure that the juveniles are attending classes, collects urine samples for drug tests, and monitors the juveniles’ locations through data from their ankle bracelets.
“My job is to be a consequence, to insert myself into their lives while the adolescents themselves are struggling to exert control over their development,” says Murff who wanted to capture how juveniles in the system are supervised and monitored, and how the resulting lack of privacy can impact their development.
“Cameras are typically used by the state to surveil,” he says. “I too am recording, but my camera is there in a collaborative capacity. I feel that the people I’m photographing have taken back a level of control.”
If you want to learn more about Zora Murff’s work you might be interested in this long interview I did with Murff on Prison Photography in January, 2014.
I really can’t recommend enough the daily newsletter of criminal justice news put together by The Marshall Project’s Andrew Cohen. It’s called Opening Statement and it brings together the best links and most pressing stories. Indispensable. Get it!
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.