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A church choir sings during a sparsely attended Sunday mass in Shushi. Shushi was primarily an Azeri city of cultural significance. Once home to 30,000 people, only 3,000 people call it home now.
Mahon travelled to Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Somaliland — five nations that are not formally recognised by the international community as states.
Lands In Limbo defies genre. It is partly documentation, but not complete documentary. Some of the images look like news photos but Mahon has a stated artistic intent. Here is an inquiry about huge geopolitical forces in a globalized 21st century … but it is based upon momentary street photos and portraits.
“I wanted to see what these countries’ national identities looked like, [learn] what’s it’s like to live in such an isolated place,” says Mahon.
Read the full article and see Mahon’s image large at Vantage.
Friends enjoy an afternoon on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia. Much of the Abkhaz coastline is littered with rusting ships and scrap metal.
An Abkhaz man, known as “Maradona,” yells obscenities about Georgian politicians and declares the freedom of Abkhazia.
A man walks into a small store in the center of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh. Stepanakert lost nearly half it’s population to forced deportation of Azeris during the breakaway war.
A man stands among snow covered pig heads in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh.
Karabakhi soldiers stand guard at a war memorial in Kharamort, a village that was once evenly populated by ethnic Azeris and Armenians. The village is now half the size since the Azeris fled and their homes were burned.
During and after the breakaway war with Azerbaijan, Karabakhi-Armenians burned and destroyed not only Azeri villages and town quarters but also desecrated Azeri muslim mosques and cemeteries. This is common practice throughout the Caucasus, used as a deterrence for people wanting to return to their homes.
Men and women walk through the bustling central market in Hargeisa, passing war-damaged buildings.
Shabxan, a young Somali girl living in rural Somaliland, does chores in the home.
A young Somali boy checks himself out and fixes his hair in the mirrors of a small barbershop in Hargeisa.
TEACHING PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE
I’ve known about Vance Jacobs work in a Medellin Prison for as long as it has been in published form, but this recent post by StoryBench reminded me of the excellent and brief video reflection Jacobs gives about his time teaching prisoners to use cameras to document their own lives. Originally, Jacobs was going to be the only person photographing, but at the eleventh hour the sponsoring NGO for thre project changed the concept and he was asked to educate a dozen men in prison.
“You could tell it had been a long time since the prisoners in my class had received this much attention. But I also had high expectations and those expectations led to it being a very important experience. They started taking a tremendous amount of pride in their work and they started to understand that criticism could be a really important part of their work and theta they could grow from it,” says Jacobs.
This type of introspection and self-documentation is vital, in my opinion.
At the final exhibit inside the prison of 35 images, 5 went missing. “To have a photo stolen was a badge of honor,” says Jacobs. “It meant someone thought they were worth stealing.”
Vance Jacobs, a San Francisco-based photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Books and Esquire magazine. He talks about his creative process and behind the scenes details of his different shoots at his ‘Behind the Lens’ YouTube channel. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
10, 11, 12, 13 & 14. © Steve Davis.
TRY YOUTH AS YOUTH
Currently on show at David Weinberg Photography in Chicago is Try Youth As Youth (Feb 13th — May 9th), an exhibition of photographs and video that bear witness to children locked in American prisons. As the title would suggest, the exhibition has a stated political position — that no person under the aged of 18 should be tried as an adult in a U.S. court of law.
In the summer of 2014, selling works ceased to be David Weinberg Photography’s primary function. The gallery formally changed its mission and committed to shedding light on social justice.
Try Youth As Youth, curated by Meg Noe, was conceived of and put together in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Here’s art in a gallery not only reflecting society back at itself, but trying to shift its debate.
The issue is urgent. In the catalogue essay Using Science and Art to Reclaim Childhood in the Justice System, Diane Geraghty Professor of Law at Loyola University, Chicago notes:
Every state continues to permit youth under the age of 18 to be transferred to adult court for trial and sentencing. As a result, approximately 200,000 children annually are legally stripped of their childhood and assumed to be fully functional adults in the criminal justice system.
This has not always been the case in the U.S. It is only changes to law in the past few decades that have resulted in children facing abnormally long custodial sentences, Life Without Parole sentences and even (in some states) the death penalty. In the face of such dark forces, what else is art doing if it is not speaking truth to power and challenging systems that undermine democracy and our social contract?
Noe invited me to write some words for the Try Youth As Youth catalogue. Given Weinberg’s enlightened modus operandi, I was eager to contribute. Here, republished in full is that essay. It’s populated with installation shots, photographs by Steve Davis, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, and video-stills by Tirtza Even.
Scroll down for essay.
Image: Steve Liss. A young boy held and handcuffed in a juvenile detention facility, Laredo, Texas.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Image: Steve Liss. Paperwork for one boy awaiting a court appearance. How many of our young “criminals” are really children in distress? Three-quarters of children detained in the United States are being held for nonviolent offenses. And for many young people today, family relationships that once nurtured a smooth process of socialization are frequently tenuous and sometimes non-existent.
Try Youth As Youth Catalogue Essay
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Isolated in a cell, a child might wonder, “What am I doing here?” It is an immediate, obvious and crucial question and, yet, satisfactory answers are hard to come by. The causes of America’s perverse addiction to incarceration are complex. Let’s just say, for now, that the inequities, poverty, fears and class divisions that give rise to America’s thirst for imprisonment have existed in society longer than any child has. And, let’s just say, for now, that the complex web of factors contributing to a child’s imprisonment are larger than most children could be expected to understand on a first go around.
As understandable as it might be children in crisis to ask “What am I doing here?” it should not be expected. Instead, it is we, as adults, who should be expected to face the question. We should rephrase it and ask it of ourselves, and of society. What are WE doing here? What are we doing as voters in a society that locks up an estimated 65,000 children on any given night? In the face of decades of gross criminal justice policy and practice, what are we doing here, within these gallery walls, looking at pictures?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility, Albany, Oregon, by Richard Ross. “I’m from Portland. I’ve only been here 17 days. I’m in isolation. I’ve been in ICU for four days. I get out in one more day. During the day you’re not allowed to lay down. If they see you laying down, they take away your mattress. I’m in isolation ‘cause I got in a fight. I hit the staff while they were trying to break it up. They think I’m intimidating. I can’t go out into the day room; I have to stay in the cell. They release me for a shower. I’ve been here three times. I have a daughter, so I’m stressed. She’s six months old. At 12 I was caught stealing at Wal-Mart with my brother and sister. My sister ran away from home with a white dude. She was smoking weed, alcohol. When my sister left I was sort of alone…then my mother left with a new boyfriend, so my aunt had custody. She’s 34. My aunt smoked weed, snorts powder, does pills, lots of prescription stuff. I got sexual with a five-year-older boy, so I started running away. So I was basically grown when I was about 14. But I wasn’t doing meth. Then I stopped going to school and dropped out after 8th grade. Then I was in a parenting program for young mothers…then I left that, so they said I was endangering my baby. The people in the program were scared of me. I don’t know what to think. I was selling meth, crack, and powder when I was 15. I was Measure 11. I was with some other girls — they blamed the crime on me, and I took the charges because I was the youngest. They beat up this girl and stole from her, but I didn’t do it. But they charged me with assault and robbery too. This was my first heavy charge.” — K.Y., age 19.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
I have spent a good portion of the past six-and-a-half years trying to figure out just what it is that images of prisons and prisoners actually do. Who is their audience and what are their effects? If I thought answers were always to be couched in the language of social justice I was soon put right by Steve Davis during an interview in the autumn of 2008.
“People respond to these portraits for their own reasons,” said Davis. “A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prisons or justice. Some people like pictures of handsome young boys — they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.”
My interview with Davis was the first ever for the ongoing Prison Photography project. It blew my mind too, but in many ways it also prepared me for the contested visual territory within which sites of incarceration exist and into which I had embarked. Davis’ honesty prepared me to face uncomfortable truths and perversions of truth. It readied me for the skeevy power imbalances I’d observe time and time again in our criminal justice system.
The children in Try Youth As Youth may be, for the most part, invisible to society but they are not far away. “I was just acknowledging that this juvenile prison is 20 miles from my home,” says Davis of his earliest motivations. If you reside in an urban area, it is likely you live as near to a juvenile prison, too. Or closer.
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Prisoners, and surely child prisoners, make up one of society’s most vulnerable groups. Isn’t it strange then that rarely are they presented as such? Often depictions of prisoners serve to condemn them, but not here, in Try Youth As Youth.
As we celebrate the committed works of Steve Davis, Tirtza Even, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, we should bear in mind that other types of prison imagery are less sympathetic and that other viewers’ motives are not wed to the politics of social justice. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it’s a different thousand for everyone. We must be willing to fight and press the issue and advocate for child prisoners. Our mainstream media dominated by cliche, our news-cycles dominated by mugshots and the politics of fear, and our gallery-systems with a mandate to make profits will not always serve us. They may even do damage.
Image: Steve Davis. A girl incarcerated in Remann Hall, near Tacoma, Washington State.
Given that the works of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross circulate in a free-world that most of their subjects do not, it is all our responsibility to handle, contextualize and talk about these photographs and films in a way that serves the child subjects most. It is our responsibility to talk about economic inequality and about the have and have-nots.
“No child asks to be born into a neighborhood where you can get a gun as easily as a popsicle at the convenience store or giving up drugs means losing every one of your friends,” said Steve Liss “They were there [in jail] because there was no love, there was no nourishing, there was anger in startling doses, and there was poverty. Tremendous poverty.”
Image: Steve Liss. Alone and lonely, ten-year-old Christian, accused of ‘family violence’ as a result of a fight with an abusive older brother, sits in his cell.Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Davis, Even, Liss and Ross understand the burden is upon us as a society to explain our widespread use of sophisticated and brutal prisons more than it is for any individual child to explain him or herself. The image of an incarcerated child is an image not of their failings, but of ours. We must do better — by providing quality pre and post-natal care for mothers and babies, nutritious food, livable wages for parents, and support and safety in the home and on the streets. Most often, it is a series of failures in the provision of these most basic needs that leads a child to prison.
“Poverty would be solved in two generations. It would require an enormous change in our priorities. Look at how we elevate the role of a stockbroker and denigrate the role of a school teacher or a parent, those who are responsible for raising the next generation of Americans,” says Liss.
(Top to Bottom) Installation shot; video still; and drawings from Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez’s Natural Life, 2014.
Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez. Natural Life, 2014. Cast concrete (segment of installation). A cast of five sets of the standard issue bedding (a pillow, a bedroll) given to prisoners upon their arrival to the facility, are arranged on raw-steel pedestals in the area leading to the video projection. The sets, scaled down to kid size and made of a stack of crumbling and thin sheets of material resembling deposits of rock, are cast in concrete. Individually marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of each of the five prisoners featured in the documentary, they thus delineate the brief time the inmates spent in the free world.
Each of the artists in Try Youth As Youth have seen incredible deprivations inside facilities that do not — cannot — serve the needs of all the children they house. Ross speaks of a child who has never had a bedtime. A social worker once told Davis of one child in the system who had never seen or held a printed photograph.
Documenting these sites is not easy and brings with it huge responsibility. Tirtza Even has grappled with the weight of her work “and how much is expected from them is a little heavy.” In some cases, these artists are the outside voice for children. Liss acknowledges that expectations more often than not outweigh the actual effects their work can have.
“People ask how do you get close to kids in a facility like that. That isn’t the problem. The problem is how do you set up enough artificial barriers so you don’t get too close. So you’re not just one more adult walking out on them in the final analysis,” he says. “I, at least, convinced myself into thinking it was therapeutic for the kids. At least someone was listening to them.”
So far, the efforts of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross have been recognized by those in power. Liss’ work has been used to lobby for psych care and an adolescent treatment unit in Laredo, Texas. Ross’ work was used in a Senate subcommittee meeting that legislated at the federal level against detained pre-adjudicated juveniles with youth convicted of committed hard crimes.
“That’s a great thing for me to know that my work is being used for advocacy rather than the masturbatory art world that I grew up in,” says Ross.
Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, Wichita, Kansas, by Richard Ross. “Nobody comes to visit me here. Nobody. I have been here for eight months. My mom is being charged with aggravated prostitution. She had me have sex for money and give her the money. The money was for drugs and men. I was always trying to prove something to her…prove that I was worth something. Mom left me when I was four weeks old — abandoned me. There are no charges against me. I’m here because I am a material witness and I ran away a lot. There is a case against my pimp. He was my care worker when I was in a group home. They are scared I am going to run away and they need me for court. I love my mom more than anybody in the world. I was raised to believe you don’t walk away from a person so I try to fix her. When I was 12 my mom was charged with child endangerment. I’ve been in and out of foster homes. They put me in there when they went to my house and found no running water, no electricity. I ran away so much that they moved me from temporary to permanent JJA custody. I’m refusing all my visits because I am tired of being lied to.” — B.B., age 17.
Richard Ross’ works in the Try Youth As Youth exhibition at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
The walls of David Weinberg are not the end point of these works’ journey. An exhibition is not a triumph it is a call to action. The work begins now.
Programming during the exhibition — phone-ins to prison, discussions with ACLU lawyers and experts in the field, conversations with formerly incarcerated youth — will all direct us the right way. The gallery space works best when it sutures artists’ creative processes into a larger process that we can shape as socially informed citizens. Our process of building healthy society.
“Kids need us,” says Liss. “They need our time, they need our involvement, and they need our investment. If you own an automotive shop, open it up to kids and the community. It does take a community.”
There are a host of wonderful arts communities doing work, here in Chicago, around criminal justice reform and social equity — Project NIA, 96 Acres, AREA, Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, Lucky Pierre and Temporary Services to name a few.
The arts can trail-blaze the conversation we need to be having. Photography and film are the ammunition with which we arm our reform arguments. First we see, then we do. If art is not speaking truth to power, then really, what are we doing here?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
David Weinberg Photography is at 300 W. Superior Street, Suite 203, Chicago, IL 60654. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Telephone: 312 529 5090.
Try Youth As Youth is on show until May 9th, 2015.
Text © Pete Brook / David Weinberg Photography.
Images: Courtesy of artists / David Weinberg Photography.
Last month, I popped round to Stockholm Studios in NYC and was wrapped in blankets, ginger tea and the ends of a busy shoe rack. And so it was Episode 2.13 of the LPV Show was born.
Tom Starkweather manned the mixing desk while Bryan “Photos On The Brain” Formhals probed with the important matters of the day. I can’t really remember what we talked about in the first half of the show — certainly Prison Obscura, and I recall revealing my fear of Big Brother. We also had a good laugh about all those headlines in photography writing that describe very literally the content of the photographs and immediate crush the mystery and wonder of it all. After demolishing those low-hanging topic-fruits, we moved onto more serious stuff and tried to position Peter Van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11. We concluded it was one of the best — if not the best — photobooks about modern war to have emerged in the 21st century.
LPV just busted out four posts that relate: the show itself, a selection of images from Prison Osbcura, a selection of spreads from Disco Night Sept 11, some photographs of my mug and the recording in session, and (bizarrely, but lovingly) an LPV curation of my Instagram images.
It’s a right laugh getting together in ACTUALLY IN PERSON and having a conversation. You should try it!
It’s also nice to know that there is a small amount of accountability attached to your answers as it will be published and exist, for all of time, in Big-Brother-Big-Data-Centers in the deserts of the Southwest.
THE DEMISE OF “CANADA’S ALCATRAZ”
In late 2013, and after 178 years in operation, Kingston Penitentiary in Canada closed. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, the maximum security lock-up was one of the oldest operating prisons in the world and was considered “Canada’s Alcatraz.”
Geoffrey James photographed inside Kingston during its final year in operation and in the immediate aftermath of its closure. His book Inside Kingston Penitentiary (Black Dog Publishing) was recently published
The transitional moment in which the prison operated and James photographed makes for prison photography study unlike anything I’ve come across before. James uses both B&W and color to image the architecture, daily activities, cells, common spaces, staff and prisoners.
It’s not apparent if the spaces in James’ photographs are lived in or not. Are we seeing an institution in wind-down, abandonment, stasis or half-use? In truth, all of these things, and the effect we are left with is that prison environments are wholly unnatural — people aren’t supposed to live or work in cages. And yet, a collision of behaviours, laws and controls has resulted in the construction of a man-made space to confine. James’ focus on Kingston’s 19th Century architecture and modern-day graffiti remind us of that.
I selected my favourite images from the 192-pages of Inside Kingston Penitentiary to accompany this conversation with Geoffrey James.
Scroll down for out Q&A.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about the prison.
Geoffrey James (GJ): Kingston Penitentiary (KP) had never really been documented in its 178-year history, except for press photographs of the destruction following a major riot in 1971.
The fact that it was closing gave me an opportunity to make the case for a historical document, with a university publication and exhibition. Fortunately, the warden and commissioner both realized that the day KP closed, it would become a different animal — a ruin, more or less, or a place of dark nostalgia. Eventually, approval for my project came from the Privy Council, the innermost sanctum of the government. Canada’s Corrections Service is famously closed and hermetic and, in general, prisons are the unknown element of the criminal justice system.
GJ: I have always had a curiosity about prisons, and KP is the most mysterious place of all — older than Canada, visited by Dickens, and notoriously tough. I went in without a huge amount of prior knowledge. From the responses I have had, I think a lot of people share my surprise about what I found. On one level the prison is impressive — it was built in the period of Late Georgian architecture, when there seemed to be no bad building.
GJ: Kingston was built by the prisoners, who first had to quarry the limestone. Its architectural language is highly symbolic, designed to impress and intimidate, as well as to hide what it is going on in side — no wire fences, but huge walls and a forbidding entrance.
PP: What is the prison system like in Canada?
GJ: The U.S. is a complete outlier among industrialized nations in the number of people it incarcerates. As Canada is next door, the perception is that we have a more benign system, which to some extent might be true. That said, it is clear that under the current government, prison policy is becoming noticeably more punitive in its intentions. We have had minimum mandatory sentencing laws, which surprisingly brought a response from U.S. law enforcement experts and prosecutors (and even conservative senators) saying this was ill-advised. Parole rules have been tightened and vocational training has been dropped in favor of cognitive behavior modification courses.
GJ: Even the $5.80/day that a prisoner can earn by working in the prison has been subjected to a 30-percent claw-back. At a time of falling crime rates, there has been a flurry of prison-building. There is an emphasis on “victims rights” which tend to concentrate on retribution and punishment. There is less emphasis in trying to prepare prisoners for their release. For the first time that I can remember, prison policy has become very much a partisan issue in parliament.
PP: How do Canadians think about prisons, officers and prisoners?
GJ: One of of the chaplains at KP said to me that Canadians don’t know much about what happens in prisons, and don’t care to know, which just about sums it up. There are the people who join the John Howard Society and work actively to try to improve conditions in prisons, as well as help prisoners on their release. There are the readers of the tabloid press, which often tries to paint prisons as holiday camps or “Club Feds.” In between, there is the majority of the population that tends not to pay too much heed, unless something horrific catches their attention.
PP: What sort of thing captures attention?
GJ: In Canada, we had not long ago, when a young woman named Ashley Smith ended her life while being watched on video by guards who had been ordered not to intervene, because she was always “acting out.” One of the things that some people learned from this was the widespread use of solitary confinement in Canada, though here it goes by the euphemism “administrative segregation.”
PP: What did you want to achieve with your work and the book?
GJ: I would hope that people looking at my book might be disabused of the notion that a maximum security is an easy place to be. For me, the most surprising thing were the words and images that the prisoners left on their walls, messages of anger, despair, regret and sometime also of wisdom and humor. People tell me they have been moved by these images.
PP: There’s evidence of staff in your photographs. That might sound strangely obvious but in America it is very rare that prison staff want to appear before the camera. Was that just part of your approach to capture as many angles of the prison and its people?
GJ: I tried to photograph as many aspects of prison life as I could. I was given remarkable latitude, and was always accompanied by a corrections officer. The attitude of the staff varied, as did that of the prisoners. There was sometimes a certain wariness about my presence, but I also met some outstanding and open officers.
GJ: The one requirement of the project was that I had to get a written release for every person depicted in the book. I think it significant that there was only one refusal among staff and prisoners. Not a single prisoner objected.
PP: What did the prisoners think of you and your camera?
GJ: Prisoners have a total sense of their own environment and know when there is a new species around. I found that prisoners — like the corrections officers — tend to be different on their own than when in groups. I had a difficult moment on the toughest range (or cell block) of the prison, where the prisoners had just been given a collective punishment, and decided to get back through me. Mostly, though, I took one person at a time, and learned some surprising things. I had the easiest relationship with the native prisoners, who have their own space for work and ceremonies, and who were an interesting group. They were lucky in that they had access to elders and could learn things about their heritage that they might not have had growing up.
PP: Do you have a political angle with these photographs?
GJ: It is a mistake to adopt an a priori “political” position. It is more effective to let the pictures tell the story without any rhetoric from me, although the book has a rather intricate structure that tells its own story. Or the story I wanted it to tell. I took some pains not to sensationalize the subject — I dialed back a little on the darkness that comes off those walls.
PP: You photographed Kingston Penitentiary as it closed down. Visually, I’d say there is an element of elegy. Was this intentional?
GJ: I am not sure whether the pictures are elegiac. I attempted to keep everything straightforward, neither dramatizing nor trying to make things overly emotional. But the truth is that the place has its own very strong aura. I visited the much newer maximum-security prison that many prisoners were sent to, and found it much scarier — cramped and sterile and so efficient that contact between staff and prisoners is minimized. A lot of the guards were very attached to the place. There was even one well-known prisoner who died before I started shooting who refused to leave for a lower-security institution because he considered it home. The staff refer to this as “nesting” and there seems to be a deliberate attempt not to make things comfortable in any way.
PP: Are there any particular aspects of history of Kingston Penitentiary, of which viewers should be aware?
GJ: When I researched its history, I was staggered to learn how early the problems of the institution started. Only 13 years after it opened, and a few years after Charles Dickens visited it (and found it very well administered), there was a commission of inquiry into the terrible regime of public flogging. KP had a long, troubled history.
In its closing months, there was very little in the way of rehabilitation, other than programs designed to modify cognitive behavior — programs for sexual offenders and those who had committed family violence, for example. It was interesting to me that in the 50s, the prison had its own band and on summer nights broadcast a variety show throughout the province. Now, it is all PlayStations, TV’s and boom boxes. The term that I heard over and over again from the officers was warehousing. Which pretty much sums it up.
PP: Thanks, Geoffrey.
GJ: Thank you, Pete.
All images: Geoffrey James.
I’ve said before that Angola prison is probably the most photographed prison in the nation. Damon Winter, Bettina Hansen, Darryl Richardson, Tim McKukla, Sarah Stolfa, Adam Shemper, Lori Waselchuk, Deborah Luster, Serge Levy, Frank McMains and thousands more. Even I’ve had a go!
This is the second in an ongoing occasional series I have going with Clarke in which we chat about the whys and hows he’s going to prisons … which he is doing more frequently these days.
Remember, while all this palaver occurs in public-accessed areas, Albert Woodfox — the single member of the Angola 3 still incarcerated — awaits potential release on bail and a third trial. All this, in spite of the State of Louisiana’s case against him being largely discredited. As we’ll learn from Clarke, Louisiana has a strange definition of justice.
All images: Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Why were you in Louisiana?
Giles Clarke (GC): I originally went down to the area to explore the toxic industrial corridor that runs from Baton Rouge south, along the banks of the Mississippi River, to New Orleans. The area is otherwise known as “Cancer Alley.” While researching that horrible story, I read in a local paper that Angola Prison would be holding its Prison Rodeo. It seemed like a good thing to do on a Sunday in the Deep South.
PP: Now, c’mon Giles, everybody and his mother has photographed the Angola Prison Rodeo. Why did you want to shoot it?
GC: A couple of years ago, I had made a short commercial film for ‘SuperDuty’ Ford Trucks, which featured about ten 1800lb bulls and some rather small Midwestern bull-riders. Seeing those bulls REALLY close-up left a deep impression. The guys who rode them were pros but they often got hurt. When I read the ad for the Angola Prison Rodeo, my thought was ‘How the hell are a load of prisoners going to deal with these huge animals?’ and secondly, ‘Why the hell are the prison letting them do it?’
Then, of course, there is the legacy of Angola. It just so happened that Herman Wallace — one of the Angola 3 — had died only 2 weeks before the rodeo. I attended his funeral in New Orleans which was held the day before the rodeo. It was a very moving occasion. If you know the story of Herman Wallace, then chances are you want ask some questions — which is what I did when I got into Angola the very next day.
PP: Was there anything specifically different you wanted to do at the Rodeo, or Angola generally? What did you want to achieve with your photographs?
GC: Most of the prison media officials were about as unhelpful as they could be. Yes, they were courteous and let me talk to the prisoners before, but when it came to the actual event, they kept us well away from the arena. We photographers were penned high-up in the nosebleed seats. Almost the whole rest of the audience was closer. It was blindingly obvious that they didn’t want to show the reality and the gore.
Whenever we asked about injuries we were fobbed off. That was a shame. Fact is, it’s brutal and it’s not pretty when things go wrong. Which they do a lot.
PP: The Angola Prison Rodeo looks pretty gladiatorial, but I’ve heard arguments to say it’s good for the prisoners — prize money, selling arts, meeting friends and family, glory and honor. What is your reading of the event?
GC: I was really skeptical to begin with but having talked to many of the prisoners who were involved in the event, I soon realized that this event was something that they really looked forward to. There was plenty of money at stake. If you pluck the puck from the bull’s nose, you win $500! Thats a lot of cash on the inside. Of course, the glory. If you win the rodeo you get to wear ‘Angola Prison Rodeo’ belt buckle.
At the end of the day, its a big money-making exercise that involves the prisoners. They make the products, sell the tickets for rodeo and take home about 10% of those earnings. The warden says this money goes back into rehab programs. If that’s really the case, then its a good thing.
PP: Who were weirder? The prisoners, the staff or the public?
GC: It’s hard to focus that question. I’m from the UK and to be honest, I find all this stuff fucking weird! I find the entire Louisiana justice system almost laughable … except for many its far from laughable. In Angola, there are over 5,000 men are held for life with no chance of parole — they’ll never ever leave. They talk about rehabilitation, but for what? So you don’t get sent to the punishment wing for your entire life? It’s all so messed up but they seem to think they are on the right path.
You gotta remember also that 2,000 staff family members live on the grounds of Angola. It’s work that is welcomed and promoted. Incarceration for many is a profitable business that needs to be continually fed. It’s an ugly beast whichever you look at it. Guess it’s better that Angola 40 years ago, when conditions were mostly described as squalid and medieval.
PP: When you spend time in Louisiana, does Angola Prison start to make sense?
GC: Well, as much as any prison can make sense. Mass-murderers and serial killers need to be locked and probably sent down for the rest of their lives, but in the USA, and especially in Louisiana, they want to lock you up as soon as they legally can often for crimes that do not comprehensibly meet the sentence.
I am very cynical toward the American justice system. It can work for you, if you have the money. Most don’t, so down they go for, usually for as long as they can *legally* send you down. Clearly, it’s better if you ain’t black. The prison business is big bucks for so many that it’s now sadly an accepted part of American society. For Angola, its a dead end. It’s depressing and fucked up. What else can I say?
PP: And so does the rodeo make sense?
GC: The rodeo was actually thought up by Jack Favor, a man who was framed for two murders and wrongly convicted for life in Angola. He was eventually released in 1974. As a former rodeo rider himself, he is the man who instilled the original self-discipline mantra into rodeo riders in Angola when it opened to the public in 1967. The whole idea came from a wrongly convicted prisoner. That was interesting to me. For the prisoners here now, it is an honour to be picked for the twice annual rodeo. And a chance to gain some self-worth and respect … and cash.
PP: Tell us about your relationships with the prison administrators.
GC: I don’t have a lot to say about them, other than they have unions, want full jails and probably don’t really give a fuck about most of the people they oversee.
They have families and need a job. I’m sure they are decent enough people but I can’t imagine that it’s much about helping people. I’m not sure one grows up saying “You know what, one day I want to work in a prison.” Maybe some do? Either way, the prison industry, like the military, is pretty much one big lie that we all tow along with. “It’s for the sake of safety and security.” Bollocks. It’s big business full stop.
PP: Did you meet Warden Burl Cain?
GC: I did. And I liked him. I found him refreshing and honest.
PP: He’s a bit of a media-celeb at this point and he divides opinion.
GC: While other journalists at the event asked him fairly straightforward rodeo related questions, we asked him some pretty tough things in regard to conditions, the Angola 3 and Herman Wallace. Cain answered them all directly.
Cain can be credited for turning Angola into the place of relative calm that it appears to be today. That had to happen. The dark legacy of Angola was something he wanted to wash away. His rehabilitation programs which give the prisoners work and more importantly, self worth, cannot be underestimated in prison reform. In many ways, he’s just the gatekeeper. He has to keep a clean and busy prison. I was impressed by him and hope others might model prisons after him. It was Burl that made sure that I was allowed back into the facility the next day for a private tour. It would not have happened without him. I thank him for that.
PP: Did you meet memorable prisoners, who said things to you that you maybe cannot say in your pictures?
GC: I met Bryce, (above) prisoner #582440, both at the rodeo and the following day inside his jail wing. At 26-years-old and serving life with no chance of parole, Bryce had been at Angola for 3 years, and said it’s the best prison he’s been in. He was locked up for second-degree murder, but is trying to fight the charges.
“It was a bar-fight, someone threatened my brother, I pulled a gun, it dropped and fired. That stray bullet killed a man,” he said.
The original charge was manslaughter, but, as Bryce said, “This is Louisiana.” I asked Bryce how he survives knowing he’ll never return to the outside world.
“How do I keep going? It’s all about respect in here. As long as I respect the next man and don’t show weakness then it’s all fine. The rodeo is something I look forward to all year so I behave ‘cause this is a real privilege.”
PP: What do you want folks to take away from your Angola photos?
GC: Why do we have 5% of the worlds population but 25% of the world’s prisoner population? Are we really doing this right?
In the eyes of those who run the current incarceration system, things are going just fine. But with the decriminalizing of certain low-level drug offenders and minor repeat offenders, one must assume that the authorities are also nervous about keeping these ridiculous occupancy levels so high. Private prisons are a huge worry. As are the new immigration centers that are bursting at the seams. From the outside, the U.S. seems to encourage mass-incarceration and most members of the public are still sort of okay with that. It’s fucked up.
One hopes that pictures can affect change but the reality is that no-one in authority really wants to affect change or be the focus. Many like it all the way it is — it keeps the dollars coming in after all.
PP: Thanks Giles. Until our next collaboration …
GC: Thank you, Pete.
All images: Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage.
Prison Obscura is currently at the mid-point of its New York showing at Parsons The New School of Design. At this moment, I wanted to share with you a few installation shots made by Marc Tatti for Parsons.
I also took the opportunity to re-issue the Prison Obscura catalogue essay (originally published by Haverford College) on Medium. Read Can Photographs of Prisons Improve the Lives of Prisoners?
I have hi-res images of all artworks and installation shots. Should you need any, drop me a line.
Enjoy the weekend!
All images: Marc Tatti.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.