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It’s rare one gets such a fine art look at incarceration. Lieven Nollet‘s images of Belgian prisons are contemplative set ups. The majority of his 50+ strong portfolio focuses on the fabric, wall textures, light and shadow of prison. Here I’ve selected three of his portraits, which I think hold attention the longest.
The same disquiet and still of Nollet’s interior studies continues in his shots of people. This isn’t quite Roger Ballen or David Lynch territory but Nollet’s photographs edge toward dark-chamber otherworldliness.
Generally, anonymity reigns too, so I’m being a contrarian by selecting Nollet’s portraits. Crafted to seem outside of our reality and certainly outside of time, Nollet’s photography doesn’t give us a social justice narrative to latch on to, but they may provide an emotional response that has us decrying shady, forgotten corners of prisons. Some of Nollet’s frames resemble hospital and morgue interiors and I’m certainly left with a feeling that these spots off the map are reserved for quarantine and/or civil death.
For the sake of positioning the work, I’d say it has elements of Jean Gaumy‘s tight European jail photographs, the spiritual element of Danilo Murru‘s photographs of Sicilian prisons and, to a degree, the cool observances of Donovan Wylie.
One of the few humanising components of the work is the presence of birds. A few years back, I was speaking with a prisoner in Washington State who spoke of a sparrow that had lived in the rafters of his old cell block for months. The sparrow had not gone unnoticed by any prisoner and all were concerned for its wellbeing. At once anthropomorphised, the sparrow was seen as another victim of lockdown. The bird brought a slice of life to the cell tier, but no prisoner didn’t wish for its eventual escape.
When we see animals behind bars these days, it is usually down to a dog-training program news story. Such stories are gold for a local paper, but the dogs and the photographers are groomed for a neatly packaged tale. Before the economics of the prison industrial complex took a grip, many prisons operated their own farms and many with pasture, cows and milking parlors. Prisoners in Louisiana’s Angola Prison still today breed horses for the New Orleans Police Department. In dank and crumbling prisons, complaints about rodents are common; mice and rats about the ankles are a reminder of the hole prisoners are in, whereas birds becomes a symbols of, and connection to, the great beyond.
With phrases such as jailbird and “the caged bird sings,” avifauna metaphors may seem cliche to us on the outside, but I understand why a lot of prisoners’ creative writing turns to freedom as embodied by flight and birds. And I understand why they nurture them.
Jane Lindsay‘s exhibition From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time closes at the Northlight Gallery on the Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, this coming Saturday, the 29th. Try to make it if you can.
Lindsay has transformed the space with a multimedia installation of photographs and video within and around a modified jail cell and a dinner table. It’s intended to be an environment in which the discussion of complex and emotionally charged issues of safety, justice, civil liberties and social responsibility is supported.
The meditative space includes framed and light-box portraits, prison art and letters as well as the products from light painting and art workshops as well as extended discussion with prisoners at the Pinal County Adult Detention Center about food security, nutrition and agribusiness.
‘Why are they talking about food?’ you might ask. Well apart form the fact that nutritious food is not guaranteed in many U.S. prisons, food is a foundational part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Lindsay believes a person’s ability to fulfill his or her basic needs of food, shelter and a sense of belonging directly influences their potential. Furthermore, if and when these needs are uncertain, teachable skills and coping mechanisms will either support positive development toward self-actualization or distort such development.
Lindsay is calling for balanced lives and balanced views.
(More of the project on Lindsay’s website here.)
Lindsay’s work is replete with compassion. I had the pleasure to meet and speak with her in 2011. Out of that meeting, I invited her to exhibit her work Gems in my co-curated show Cruel and Unusual at Noordelricht Photo Gallery in Groningen, Netherlands. Lindsay is no bleeding heart liberal, though. She has a strong moral compass and her work ties issues of transgression and social ills to poverty and inequality. We need such complex appreciation of complex issues. She also has every excuse to be angry, afraid and vengeful. Some years ago, a close member of her family was brutally assaulted and the recovery for all was tortuous. It is likely still ongoing.
For Lindsay, the the judicial process that purports to hand down justice, was more trauma. The perpetrator was convicted, but the sentence gave Lindsay no peace. She saw that prison — in most cases — rarely addresses the underlying issues of poverty, mentorship, security and social inequity she identifies to be at the core of criminal behavior.
To quote the press release, From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time employs the theme of the family meal to represent the sustenance both literally in the form of food and figuratively in the sense of belonging created within the community and within the home around the dinner table. Lindsay urges audiences to reconsider the roll of the family and civil society as well as definitions of victim and perpetrator.
Lindsay worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor for 15 years in Texas. Her clients included victims and people who were on parole and probation. Since returning to college as a mature grad, Lindsay has pursued art that tackles education, mutual respect and responsibility. Crucially her work directly involves prisoners, families and even detention officers.
“By involving prisoners and their families in self-actualization through creativity, society is directly influenced, the outside world becoming a safer place for everyone,” explains Lindsay. “The inclusive nature of the project promotes agency of the prisoners, presenting them not just as subjects, but also as direct contributors to the telling of their story.
With the aid of Detention Officer Sandra Price, Lindsay developed the program to include 25 prisoners, both female and male, who were serving time accused of drug offenses, theft or violent crimes.
“A vast majority of our inmates behind bars have the skills and talents needed to succeed in life and pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, because they have committed a crime, their dreams were temporarily put on hold,” says Sheriff Paul Babeu in the Northlight Gallery press release. “When they are successful in society it greatly reduces their likeliness of reoffending.”
Lindsay received an MFA in photography from Arizona State University. She moved to Arizona from rural West Texas where she worked as a counselor, social worker and investigator. She has shown her work in several venues including, Texas Photograph Society, Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock Texas, Cooper Grand Hall in New York, Photoville in New York, Noorderlicht Photography Gallery, and North Light Gallery in Tempe, Arizona. Her short film “Dan’s Big Find” recently won the Arizona award in the Arizona International Film Festival. Jane teaches photography at Mesa Community College and she is a TA at ASU.
From the Outside In: Sustenance and Time is exhibited as part of PhotoTapas, a statewide Arizona celebration of photography that involves the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, alternative art spaces such as the Ice House in Phoenix, as well as ASU’s Northlight Gallery.
DDSB is just about bonkers enough; it is left-field (in all fields, actually, and steaming) and DDSB proves there is a photo project for absolutely everything.
“I began to notice the appearance of dog shit bags,” explains Darwell, whose 2011 project chronicles the growing epidemic. “At first I spotted them tucked away in dry stone walls or behind said wall. But then they began to appear everywhere, hanging on fences and thrown into bushes. Anywhere they could be found they would be.”
While seemingly silly and scatalogical, the project points to a real issue that many city-dwellers feel is out of control. Americans own 83.3 million pet dogs. In Europe, the figure is 60 million, including 8.5 million in Britain. Those big stats mean it only takes a small proportion of irresponsible owners to make an unsightly mess.
Darwell’s not showing anything that the vast majority of people haven’t seen before — and it’s the familiarity with the images that calls attention to the problem. In the past, Darwell has documented other environmental issues, including various nuclear sites, like Chernobyl, but when he’s not been working on long-term projects he’s been at home in rural Cumbria, England, walking his dogs.
“The local parks became particularly troublesome but even beauty spots were not immune,” says Darwell. “Why go to the trouble of bagging your pooch’s poop to then simply chuck into a bush or hang on a railing?”
For Darwell, the whole affair has descended into a turdy farce with no behavioral logic.
“I photographed the same dog shit bag twice, a year apart and it still hangs in exactly the same place! There is a move to encourage people to use biodegradable poop bags. So the owner bags the poop then hangs it in the tree, the bag biodegrades and the poop falls to the ground where it was originally. Do you then re-bag the poop? The more you think about it the more insane it becomes.”
Even “dog wardens” in Darwell’s local park haven’t been able to curb the madness.
“They watch dog walkers through binoculars to make sure they bag the poop … but they don’t watch what then happens to the bag.”
Flinging bags of poo tends to be something dog owners try to do unobserved. For all his poop stalking, Darwell has only once witnessed a dog owner chuck a bag away, and it wasn’t the type of person you’d expect. “It was a little old lady,” says Darwell. “She chucked it in the river! I was gobsmacked.”
On that occasion the log floated out of sight and out of mind, but another time Darwell spotted a bobbing bagged doo-doo and chased it down. It was like that plastic bag scene from American Beauty but instead of airborne, Darwell’s polyethylene muse was half-submerged and struggling to keep its turtle head above the surface. “I was amazed it floated,” he says.
UK citizens aren’t the only ones walking alongside their four-legged friends straight into a canine-gut-stew-terror. On an Australian beach, Darwell found himself surrounded with yellow dog poo bags. In Germany, the bags are red, but you see fewer of them, as the Germans provide more bins, says Darwell, who has extended his stool survey internationally.
The British are, on available evidence, a resourceful bunch using any plastic sheaths they have at hand — nappy bags, shopping bags, etc. But for Darwell, all of this is just doubling the problem, not containing it. He wonders if leaving it to biodegrade might be a better solution. “Yes, I know there are, or can be, serious health implications, but then the poo would disappear in a matter of days,” he says.
This universality of bagging and discarding hit home when a magazine editor in Seattle asked Darwell to stop by his office to discuss his pictures. The editor was amazed to find out Darwell was from England — he thought he recognized the bags from his local park.
Home or away, DDSB has clearly struck a chord with folk. Laughably, often it is a conversation starter for Darwell.
“It’s amazing how many people now say, ‘John, I saw a dog shit bag yesterday and immediately thought of you.’”
Darwell has pinched this particular series off but his fecal fascination has not entirely run its course. He may follow through with a different angle.
“I notice a lot of people walking along with the tell-tale bag hanging from their hands vainly looking for a bin to dispose of the offending item,” says Darwell. “I’ve toyed with the idea of developing a new body of work of portraits of people carrying bags.”
The book DDSBs is now available through mynewtpress in signed and numbered limited editions.
John Darwell was part of the group show Confined (2011) at Bluecoats Gallery in Liverpool, the catalogue for which I wrote the foreword.
All images: John Darwell
Artist Jesse Krimes stands in front of his 39-panel mural Apokaluptein:16389067 (federal prison bed sheets, transferred New York Times images, color pencil) installed, here, at the Olivet Church Artist Studios, Philadelphia. January, 2014.
The New York Times has a track record for high quality visual journalism. From experiments in multimedia, to its magazine’s double-truck features; from its backstage reportage at the swankiest fashion gigs, to their man in town Bill Cunningham. Big reputation.
NYT photographs are viewed and used in an myriad of ways. Even so, I doubt the editors ever thought their choices would be burnished from the news-pages onto prison bed-sheets with a plastic spoon. Nor that the transfer agent would be prison-issue hair gel.
In 2009, Jesse Krimes (yep, that’s his real surname) was sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary for cocaine possession and intent to distribute. He was caught with 140 grams. The charges brought were those of 50-150 kilos. Somewhere in the bargaining it was knocked down to 500 grams, and Krimes plead guilty to conspiracy. The judge recommended that Jesse be sent to a minimum security prison in New Jersey, close to support network of friends and family, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) opted to send him to a medium security facility in Butner, North Carolina — as far away as permitted under BOP regulations. That was the first punitive step of many in a system that Krimes says is meant first and foremost to dehumanise.
“Doing this was a way to fight back,” says Krimes who believes ardently that art humanises. “The system is designed to make you into a criminal and make you conform. I beat the system.”
Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing Krimes speak about his mammoth artwork Apokaluptein:16389067 during an evening hosted at the the Eastern State Penitentiary and Olivet Church Artist Studios in Philadelphia.
The mural took three years to make and it is a meditation on heaven, hell, sin, redemption, celebrity worship, deprivation and the nature of perceived reality. Krimes says his “entire experience” of prison is tied up in the artwork.
In the top-left is a transferred photo of a rehearsal of the Passion play at Angola Prison, Louisiana.
Through trial and error, Krimes discovered that he could transfer images from New York Times newspapers on to prison bedsheets. At first he used water, but the colours bled. Hair gel had the requisite viscosity. As a result, all imagery is reversed, upturned. Apokaluptein:16389067 is both destruction and creation.
“It’s a depiction of represented reality as it exists in its mediated form, within the fabric of the prison,” says Krimes. “It was my attempt to transfer [outside] reality into prison and then later became my escape when I sent a piece home with the hopes that it could be my voice on the outside in the event that anything bad ever happened and I never made it home.”
ART AS SURVIVAL
Krimes says this long term project kept him sane, focused and disciplined.
Each transfer took 30-minutes. Thousands make up the mural. Krimes only worked on one sheet at a time, each of them matching the size of the tabletop he worked on. A notch in the table marked the horizon line for the 13 panels making up the center horizontal. He shipped them home. Not until his release did he see them together.
The enterprise was not without its risks, but Krimes found favour being a man with artistic talent. He established art classes for fellow prisoners in an institution that was devoid of meaningful programs.
“Prisoners did all the work to set up the class,” says Krimes.
Once the class was in place, guards appreciated the initiative. It even changed for the better some of the relationships he had with staff.
“Some helped mail out sections,” he says of the bedsheets which were, strictly-speaking, contraband.
Krimes would cut sections from the New York Times and its supplements, sometimes paying other prisoners for the privilege.
“In prison, the only experience of the outside world is through the media.”
The horizon is made of images from the travel section. Beneath the horizon are transferred images of war, and man-made and natural disasters. Krimes noticed that often coverage of disasters and idealised travel destinations came from the same coasts and continents. Influenced by Dante’s Inferno and by Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, Krimes reinvigorates notions of the Trinity within modern politics and economics. The three tiers of the mural reflect, he says heaven, earth and hell, or intellect, mind and body.
One can identify the largest victories, struggles and crimes of the contemporary world. All in perverse reverse. All in washed out collage. There’s images of the passion play being rehearsed at Angola Prison from an NYT feature, of Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution, of children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School massacre, and of a submerged rollercoaster in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The women’s rights panel includes news images from reporting on the India bus rape and images of Aesha Mohammadzai who was the victim of a brutal attack by her then husband who cut off her nose. Krimes’ compression of images is vertiginous and disorienting. We’re reminded that the world as it appears through our newspapers sometimes is.
The large pictures are almost exclusively J.Crew adverts which often fill the entire rear page of the NYT. Jenna Lyons, the creative director at J.Crew is cast as a non-too-playful devil imp in the center-bottom panel.
Throughout, fairies transferred straight from ballerinas bodies as depicted in the Arts Section dance and weave. Depending on where they exist in relation to heaven and earth they are afforded heads or not — blank geometries replace faces as to comment on the treatment of women in mainstream media.
The title Apokaluptein:16389067 derives from the Greek root ‘apokalupsis.’ Apokaluptein means to uncover, or reveal. 16389067 was Krimes’ Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number.
“The origin [of the word] speaks to the material choice of the prison sheet as the skin of the prison, that is literally used to cover and hide the body of the prisoner. Apokaluptein:16389067 reverses the sheet’s use and opens up the ability to have a conversation about the sheet as a material which, here, serves to uncover and reveal the prison system,” says Krimes who also read into the word personal meaning.
“The contemporary translation speaks to a type of personal apocalypse – the process of incarceration and the dehumanizing deterioration of ones personal identity, [...] The number itself, representing the replacement of ones name.”
PRISON ECONOMICS: THE HAVES & HAVE NOTS
One of the most interesting things to hear about at Krimes’ presentation was the particular details about how he went about acquiring materials. In federal prison, just as on the outside, money rules. Except inside BOP facilities the currency is stamps not dollars (something we’ve heard before). A $7 book of stamps on the outside, sets a prisoner back $9.
Access to money makes a huge difference in how one experiences imprisonment.
“People who have money have a much easier time living in prison but that is usually rare except for the white collar guys or the large organized crime figures,” says Krimes.
“Prisoners who have money in prison gain automatic respect and power because you are able to have influence over anything really — most people without money will depend on those with cash to be the buyers of whatever products or services they need.”
Without cash to hand, a rare skill comes in handy. Krimes could make art. In prison artists are afforded much respect. Ironically, free society doesn’t treat artists with the same respect, but I guess we’ve already established that we’re dealing in reversals here?!
“We had to provide some kind of skill or service in order to receive money or books of stamps. Some people cook for others, do laundry, do legal work, or artwork.”
In FCI Butner, a high-quality photorealistic portrait would go for as much as $150. Or, 20 books of stamps. Krimes did portraits and tattoo designs, spending proceeds almost exclusively on hair gel and coloured pencils.
“The majority of portraits I did were for the guys who had money or else I did them for free, for friends or those going through hard times.”
The prison sheets came for free. Krimes smiles at the irony that these sheets are made by UNICOR, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ factory and industries arm. UNICOR makes everything from steel frame beds to bedsheets; from U.S. military boots and helmets to plastic utensils. In 2005, UNICOR generated $765 million in sales – 74% of revenues went toward the purchase of raw material and equipment; 20% toward staff salaries; and 6% went toward inmate salaries.
I’d liken Krimes’ acquisition of bed sheets to liberation more than to theft. His image transfers are appropriation more than homage. The scope of the project reflects the sheer size of American prison system. The ambition reflects that of the individual to survive, not the system to improve its wards.
That such a large statement came out of the prison sytem (in one piece!) is a feat in itself. That Apokaluptein:16389067 is so layered and so plugged into contemporary culture is an absolute marvel. That the photographs of international media are the vehicle for that statement should be no surprise at all.
All images: Sarah Kaufman
One of the cardboard boxes in which Krimes shipped out a completed panel. The boxes are made by the federal prison industries group UNICOR which employs prison labour. The box is marked with “ESCAPE PROOF GUARANTEED.”
I never expected to make comment on the career of Miley Cyrus here on the blog, but then again, I never expected to come across the greatest sketch of Miley Cyrus ever made.
The drawing, titled Miley Twerking, was made by my friend Christian Nagler. It originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Issue of Actually People Quarterly (APQ), an indie print publication based in San Francisco. APQ and Nagler kindly provided permission to share the picture.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see a thumbnail image of Miley Cyrus in the sidebar of some website. Collections of Cyrus-resembling pixels are ubiquitous. In terms of describing Miley-Cyrus-the-person, a photograph is almost meaningless. In terms of describing Miley Cyrus-the-product, a photograph is the perfect hype-spinning money-making tool.
The reason I like Nagler’s sketch so much is that skewers the ridiculous theatre of her MTV Awards twerking AND undermines the grotesque image-driven publicity machine that surrounds her. It lays bare what she is and discards the useless debate of who she is.
Cyrus is, as with all celebrities, almost unknowable. She is not a person, but a product. She is no longer a who, but a what. Photography when it encounters celebrity elevates and promotes the what. Photography may purport to depict the who, but it does not.
This is my reading and not necessarily Nagler’s intent. I think he is genuinely interested in Cyrus; perplexed by the who, the what, and the gap between.
“The reason I think Christian’s picture is amazing is because it leaves space left open,” says APQ founder and editor, Sarah Fontaine. “It doesn’t totally proscribe an opinion on her. There’s a level of investment. A drawing takes time but a photo takes an instant.”
If I could even know Cyrus, I don’t think I’d dislike her. Everyone wants to have an opinion about Cyrus’ conduct. Some think her various states of undress hinder the movement of our culture toward one of gender equality. Often Cyrus is the focus of vitriol and frustration, but perhaps we should be looking at society as a whole? I’ll defer to Gloria Steinem and suggest we hate the game, not the player.
“I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists,” said Steinem.
Photography upholds, forwards and fortifies the game. Nagler’s sketch respectfully questions the game. My thoughts on photographing Miley Cyrus? Don’t.
Kansas, MO and Brooklyn, NY based artist Jaimie Warren is the recipient of the 2014 Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer. This is a curious selection for many reasons — all of them good.
Secondly, her work is wacky. The meanings of her images are elusive and you’ve got work hard with them. As many photographic artists do, Warren plays with ideas of fantasy, fun, performance and artifice, but she does so in much more aggressive, brazen way. These are not the cool, clinical images of studio assemblages we see from many young (MFA-bearing) image-makers.
I really, really enjoy Warren’s disfigured portraits and tableaus. They’re pop, they’re a bit grotesque, they cinch perfectly into the shock-visuals of audiences habituated to the Tumblr-driven flow of images. Warren’s work is Peewee Herman meets Carnivale meets that bonkers Halloween party you went to in 1997.
Thirdly, it is great to see an award go to a photographer who isn’t just a photographer. For all the intelligent image detournement in her work, Warren is not operating from a fine art ivory tower. Quite the opposite. Central to Warren’s work is constant collaboration with communities. Her main vehicle for making art is the non-profit community arts initiative Whoop Dee Doo.
Whoop Dee Doo works with communities “to create unique and memorable events that challenge the everyday art venue or community event.” Everything from concept to end product is intended to fit the needs of host communities, and all acts are “truly inclusive endeavors that celebrate differences and unabashed self-expression.”
Probably the best and quickest way to get a handle on the art and performances is to view the Whoop Dee Doo Vimeo Channel.
Whoop Dee Doo has worked with youth programs including Caldera Arts (Portland/Sisters, OR), Operation Breakthrough (Kansas City), the Boys & Girls Club (Kansas City), Big Brother/Big Sister (Kansas City), Girls, Inc. (Omaha, NE), Experimental Station’s Blackstone Bicycle youth Program (Chicago, IL), Urgent, Inc. and the Rites of Passage Program (Miami, FL), Muse 360 and 901 arts (Baltimore, MD), as well as college interns at the University of Central Missouri, Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Kansas City Art Institute, the University of Chicago, Maryland Institute College of Art, Rockhurst University, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Bulls fan in La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau/Michael Jordan basketball painting by dosysod of the Independents, 2012.
Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Nun with some of my Mother’s Favorite Famous People in the Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs of the Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece by Fra Angelic, 2014.
From looking over the portfolios, I reckon the folky-rainbow-eclecticism of Warren and her collaborators’ work reflects something close to common feeling. What else could there by except fun, wild variance and complexity when the hands of dozens go into making something?
Breaking down stereotypes and barriers between age, gender, culture and sub-culture is one of Whoop Dee Doo‘s main objectives. The group is open to designing performances and workshops “between unlikely pairings of community members that ultimately blossom into exceptional and meaningful interactions.”
A lot of the time, the use and outcomes of awards can be hard to pin down, but I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before Warren is putting the $10,000 to use making more happenings with communities. Because she always has. Let the merriment continue.
The Baum Award for An Emerging American Photographer is a project established out of the conviction that photography is a powerfully influential medium with the capacity to emotionally connect with audiences in ways that words cannot. This ability to reach people on a visceral level can transform awareness to understanding and lead interest into action – fundamental aspects of a healthy and vital society.
Click here to see previous Baum Award winners.
Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement
2014 is the 50th anniversary of the passage of The Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Danny Lyon was the first staff photographer — between 1962 and 1964 — for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lyon would go on to make some of the most important bodies of work about the American condition (The Bikeriders; Conversations With The Dead) and as such his very early work as a very young man is often overlooked.
The Etherton Gallery’s exhibition ‘Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ opened on Saturday and shows 50 silver gelatin prints from Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; and Danville, Virginia. We see images of student protests and mobilization against racism, lunch counter sit-ins, student beatings, tear gassings, the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr., and the unscheduled visit of a young Bob Dylan to SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, Mississippi. Lyon, was harassed, beaten and jailed during his two years as a staff photographer.
SOME THOUGHTS ON AZ
Where better to look back on an era in which society treated people with different coloured skin than in modern day Arizona? The passing of SB1070 in 2010 was a legislative bill that essentially permitted veiled racism and racial profiling. In activism, folks are always on the look out for new allies and for audiences who really need to hear the message. A message of anti-racism message and some historical perspective is vital for residents of Arizona currently. I’m not saying that people of Arizona are inherently racist; I am saying the services and institutions that claim to serve them have procedures that result in racist acts.
There are some fine activists in Arizona (they’ve necessarily and wonderfully organised) and this is particularly true of Tucson and some clever geographer-activist-academics. May Lyon’s photographs play their part in making Arizonans and us angry. Lyon would want nothing more than his show to leave us rageful at our society of inequality.
Etherton Gallery, 135 S. 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701 Tel: 520.624.7370. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Danny Lyon: Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement’ runs through March 15, 2014.
All photos: Danny Lyon © Dektol.wordpress.com. Courtesy of the Etherton Gallery
Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.
Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?
Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.
Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.
The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.
PP: What was the impulse then?
AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.
PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?
AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.
A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions. But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.
I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.
That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.
PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?
AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.
PP: Are you afraid of death?
AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.
PP: Where do we go when our time is up?
AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.
PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?
AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them. This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.
PP: Thanks, Amy.
AE: Thank you, Pete.
In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.