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A few weeks ago I wrote, for Wired, a piece about Edmund Clark‘s latest body of work Control Order House. The piece carried the irreverent title This Incredibly Boring House Is a U.K. Terror Suspect’s Lockdown but the details of the project it gets into – two years of negotiating access, Clark’s process which riffs on surveillance and forensic photography, Clark’s the decision to present every photograph he took in the order he took them, etc. are important, mildly complex and worth getting one’s head around.
The house Clark documented belonged to a pre-trail UK terror suspect, under house arrested, referred to in legal documents as CE.
Control Order House is the only existing photographic study of a residence occupied by a person under a UK control order. It is not an exposé, however. Given the legal sensitivities, every image was vetted by UK government officials. Clark was not allowed to reveal the identity of the terror suspect — referred to in legal documents as “CE” — nor his location.
“To reveal CE’s identity would be an offence and in breach of the court-imposed anonymity order,” says Clark. “All the photographs I took or the documents I wanted to use had to be screened by the Home Office.”
Clark refers to the book as an “object of control” because at a point, he accepted that, with so many attached limitations, his photography was almost an extension of the state power he was documenting. All of his equipment had to be itemized and registered with the UK Home Office before his three visits.
Wired created a Scribd document (that has no URL, but is embedded in the article) with six pages of Clark’s correspondence with both the terror suspect and the UK Home Office employees.
“Even CE’s lawyers made it clear to me that the I had to careful about what I spoke to him about because the house was (very probably) bugged and that my telephone communication with him would be monitored,” explains Clark. “All my material, even my words here [in this interview] could become part of CE’s case.”
Control Order House is a finely balanced project. It is hampered by so many obstacles to unfettered depiction that our traditional notions of what photography is supposed to do are frustrated. It is not exposé; it is completely descriptive of its own limitations. It’s these limitations from which we must depart in thinking about photography in highly policed spaces. Control Order House should kick-start considerations of lesser seen photographs from the Global War On Terror (GWOT), namely, images of drone strike aftermath, Aesthetics of Terror (as, in this case, distilled by artists), redacted images in magazines distributed at Guantanamo (scroll down), Kill Team trophy photos, American personnel’s own vernacular war photography, and Jihad suicide posters.
Control Order House is about the act of photography. It’s self-referential as kids’ MFA work that deconstructs photographic process, but — unlike those studio experiments — it has roots in a clearly identifiable political territory. It shows us more than we knew but not as much as we would like to know. In so doing it reminds us of all the operations, violence and war crimes carried out on our tax dollar that we never see, never know.
Christoph Gielen, a photographer known for his aerial views of American suburbs has chosen as his next subject super-maximum security prisons — the most controlled spaces in American prison industrial complex. Supermaxes are of particular interest as they are designed specifically for solitary confinement.
As I wrote for Wired.com, today, America has an unusual thirst for putting people in total lockdown.
In consideration of “the severe mental pain or suffering” it can cause, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said that solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mendez recommended that prisoners never be confined in solitary for more than 15 days.
However, in US prisons, stints in the hole can be longer. Much longer. The California Department of Corrections self-reports the average stay on an inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) is six-and-a-half-years. Many have been in the SHU for a decade or more. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 have been in solitary for over 30 years.
I’ve also written previously about how images of solitary confinement – despite its widespread use – are difficult to come by.
“The opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, especially at a time when journalists access is increasingly curtailed,” says Gielen.
Gielen noticed concentric patterns of equivalent interest in the Supermax prisons of Arizona whiel working on his suburbs photo series Ciphers.
American Prison Perspectives is a simple and effective presentation of these design forms. Are gated communities and caged facilities are our preferred housing solutions for the late 20th and early 21st centuries?
With 1 in 100 adults behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other modern society. Of the 2.3 million men, women and children locked up in the U.S., 80,000 prisoners are in solitary. That number includes hundreds of children.
The rapid adoption of solitary by prison authorities as a means to discipline and segregate has led Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to call it one of the “greatest social experiments of our time.” For some sociologists, the parallels that Gielen drew between housing and prisons go beyond visual similarity. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab goes so far to ask, “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?”
The debate on solitary confinement is timely. To quote myself, again:
The Illinois campaign spurred Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to chair the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement last summer. Durbin showed up on Capitol Hill with an actual-size solitary-cell replica.
While for many, the discussion of prisons and segregation can revolve around human rights and legal justice, the issue is particularly relevant today for its economic implications. There was a successful grass-roots campaign to shutdown Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Facility, due largely to the fact that it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement in Tamms, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other Illinois prisons. The closure is currently stalled — held up in court following opposition from the AFSCME labor union with prison guards in its ranks.
“In America, particularly, the long view is hardly ever considered. Fiscal views are considered for on a yearly basis,” says Gielen. “Economically, the widespread use of solitary is unsustainable.”
American Prison Perspectives doesn’t end with the images. In 2014, Gielen plans launch a website devoted to the series and host a public online forums. Furthermore, Gielen foresees symposia across the U.S. with former prisoners, prison architects, legal experts, activists, correctional officer union-reps and prison administrators, along with firsthand accounts of solitary confinement and the perspectives of mental health experts on the effects of isolation.
American Prison Perspectives will illustrate how prison design and architecture reflect political discourse, economic priorities, cultural sentiments, and social insecurities, and how, in turn, these constructed environments also become statements about a society.
American Prison Perspectives is supported by Blue Earth Alliance, the Fund For Investigative Journalism and Creative Time Reports and others. You too can help spread the potential reach of the work with your own donation.
I wish Christoph the very best in this ambitious project.
What happens when you’re a soldier and you are asked to fight in a war your conscience tells you is immoral?
I’m not from a military background and I always opposed the Iraq War, so it was a stretch for me to empathise with Jo’s struggling subjects who, to me, simply made – and continue to justify - rational assessments. How difficult or taxing can common sense be? To get me out my own head, I called on Jo to explain this emotional minefield of a topic.
Scroll down to read our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Where does the title come from?
JMS: The title is to try and explain the difficult position so many of the soldiers found themselves in. Nothing is ever black and white, nothing is ever as simple as right or wrong, and these people were having to make a decision between what they were contractually obliged to do and what they felt was the right thing to do. I felt The Grey Line was a way of explaining the difficult line they were choosing to walk.
PP: You say some of the soldiers were imprisoned for their views?
JMS: Actually, none of the soldiers were imprisoned for speaking out against the Iraq war. Some of the soldiers refused to fight in the Iraq war and were imprisoned for going AWOL, but not for speaking out.
Each person’s story is very different, so I’m always nervous about generalizing. So instead, I’ll give an example. Kevin Benderman was one of the older and higher rank soldiers I interviewed and he was very opposed to the Iraq war. He was deployed to Iraq for a short period. Over there his opinions really became clear and he felt strongly that being in Iraq was the wrong thing to do. When he came back he applied for Conscientious Objector status but it was denied. So he refused to go back. He was court martialed and given a 15 month prison sentence.
Kevin said he always knew that he would get a prison sentence. It was fascinating to hear how his morals were so strong he was compelled to go against the military and risk his career. It wasn’t that he was a pacifist, or had found God, he just strongly believed that what America was doing in Iraq was wrong. That’s what really impressed me about some of the people I interviewed, they really stayed true to how they felt. Kevin knew if he spoke out and refused to fight, his career would be ruined, he’d be accused of being a coward and he faced imprisonment, but he still refused to go to Iraq.
It’s like another person I met who refused to deploy to Iraq. He was openly gay, and could easily have got out through the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Policy, but he felt if he wanted to leave for moral reasons it would be wrong as he would see it as taking the easy option. Instead, he applied for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied, so was then imprisoned for refusing to be deployed.
Kevin Benderman can explain his situation so much more clearly that I ever will. He said to me:
“Have you heard the term, “I cannot in good conscience do that…?” Well, that’s how it was for me.
I took a look around when I got over there. We weren’t fighting an army, there were no weapons of mass destruction. None of that stuff was there. We were just bullying the civilians. We weren’t fighting soldiers; we were just kicking doors down of civilians’ houses and taking them out and that’s not what I joined the army to do. I mean, if there had been a soldier over there I would have fought a soldier, but that’s not what we were doing… not at all[…]
There was no doubt in my mind that I’d go to prison. I had to be made an example out of. I mean, I was an NCO for one. I wasn’t a young kid and they knew that if I was able to do what I was trying to do it would only strengthen my argument. They had to make an example out of me so that no one else would try it.
With all the charges they were trying to give me I could have got seventeen years. They tried to charge me with larceny, desertion, missing movement. I knew it was a bunch of bullshit. I knew they weren’t gonna be able to stick all that stuff on me. I was convicted of missing movement by design, which carried a fifteen month sentence. It was a dishonourable discharge but it was upgraded to bad conduct. But that still isn’t very good. I mean you can’t really do a whole lot with a bad conduct discharge.
I know I did the right thing but it just didn’t really change anything, you know? I invested twelve years of my life in the military. I gave that away. I gave away my retirement. I lost my home, my wife … I can’t really find a … well, I’m stuck here driving a truck.
I had more trouble with my family – sisters, brothers and brother-in-law – than with people in general.
My family didn’t even want to hear my reasons for doing what I was doing and they still don’t. Most of the ones who have openly criticised me have never served and don’t know what they’re talking about. More soldiers and veterans agree with me than my own family do. But I’m not really concerned about their opinion and that makes them mad. You know, that was part of the stress; my own family chose George Bush and his stupid ass doing something illegal over defending me, and they wouldn’t even hear my reasons why. […]
There’s still people who say I’m a hero. Well no, I’m not a hero. I was just doing what I thought was right and I really thought that people who made noises about the constitution and the law would stand up for that instead of just wanting someone to be a figurehead for them. […]
A few years ago I took a job in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor. I wanted to go back was because I know I’m a good mechanic and there’re still soldiers over there and I figured they deserved somebody who was conscientious about the work. I had given them the best vehicles that they possibly had. I didn’t leave the military to abandon the people that I served with, but I knew that it didn’t matter. Whether or not it was right to be there […] I’m a good mechanic and they’re still over there. They’re not coming back and we’re not prosecuting Bush and I wanted to make sure that they had the best possible vehicles. Should we be there? No. Are we there? Yes.
PP: Benderman’s is one story of how many? What was the number of soldiers you met?
JMS: Over the space of 5 years I met in total 45 soldiers. 29 are in the book.
PP: Has the story of conscientious objectors been adequately told?
JMS: Before I started the project, I had only associated the term Conscientious Objector to the first and second world war – to times of conscription. So I was intrigued to know why someone would need to apply for conscientious objectors status when they had willing signed up. Meeting with the veterans and doing this project made me realise that of course people who are in the military can have a change of morals and principles just like any ones else does, and some people also realise that they no longer want to be a part of war.
But not all of the people I met with were conscientious objectors. Many of them didn’t even know that the process existed. I was interested in meeting people who had moral doubts about their involvement in the Iraq war, not all were conscientious objectors.
Some people choose to whistle blow and speak out to the media about their experiences, others simply refused to fight and went AWOL. Others chose to keep quiet until they left the military and then spoke out. Speaking out from within the military is a very difficult thing to do. The quote below is from a veteran called Ryan. He was in the Marine Corp and was deployed for 7 months to Iraq. After he was honourably discharged from the military, he decided to speak out about his experiences in the military and about what he came to see as atrocities that he and his colleagues committed in Iraq.
After I made my public testimony, my brother disowned me on Facebook for everyone to see. He said I was a traitor and I wasn’t his brother anymore, that I wasn’t even a man.
Every single person that I served with in the war found out about my testimony and have publicly said that I’m a liar, a bitch, that I’m full of shit, that I’m a fucking American flag-burning, troop-hating, communist.
I understand why a lot of these guys did what they did; they’re not ready to accept that what we did was wrong … because it’s hard. It’s hard to accept that what you believed in was wrong. And not just wrong like two plus two is five, but wrong like you fucking killed somebody and that’s something you have to live with for the rest of your life. Some people just aren’t ready to live with that yet.
PP: What do you hope to communicate with The Grey Line?
JMS: Many of the people I spoke to were very torn between their duty, the bond with the people they fought with and their own belief that what they were doing was wrong. Several soldiers talked about being ordered to do things that they felt very uncomfortable about doing, but that they knew were legal.
I spoke to one soldier who had been a military Intelligence officer in Abu Ghraib. He had absolute faith in the military, but was feeling very uncomfortable with what he was being asked to do. In the quote below, he talks about his experiences of interrogating a young detainee.
He was 16; just a kid, scared to death, and skinny as a rail. We went out to get him from the ‘general population’ [prisoners who aren’t in solitary confinement] area to interrogate him. The general population area was right next to the questioning booth, but they still wanted me to put one of those sacks over his head to transport him. It wasn’t like a normal sack, it was like a plastic sand bag with sand all over it. It barely fit on his head and he was shaking as I put it over him. We used it so he couldn’t see where we were taking him, even though we could see the booth from where we were standing. We had to cuff him too, but his wrists were so skinny you couldn’t put the handcuffs on him. So he just kind of carried them instead. I felt so rotten.
The weirdest thing was when we were in the room with the kid and an MI guy came in and gave the interrogating officer a handful of Jolly Ranchers. It was meant to be put on the table like, if you talk we’ll give you some apple Jolly Ranchers, you know? The kid knew nothing. He was just this guy’s son. Originally we were supposed to interrogate his father, a general in Saddam’s regime, which was why I had agreed to be a part of it. It sounded interesting. But then when we got there, they told us that he had already been ‘broken’ and as a sort of consolation we were told we could interrogate his son.
I only found out afterwards what they had done to break his father. His son had been doused in cold water, driven around in a truck in the freezing cold night, and covered in mud. I guess, at the same time his father was being interrogated somewhere else and from what I understand they told him that they’d take a break from the interrogation and let him see his son.
So the general’s thinking he’s gonna see his son and have some kind of a reunion with him, but instead they just allowed him to see his son naked, shivering, and covered in mud.
A lot of people will probably wonder why I didn’t say something publicly right away, but it would have been pointless. Even though I thought what was happening was wrong, doesn’t mean that it was illegal anyway.
PP: What are your thoughts on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Jo? Was it wrong, justified, legal or illegal? Is your opinion of importance? Does it come through in the work? Or need to come through?
JMS: I was shocked when Tony Blair took my country to war. I couldn’t believe that he could go against the majority of the country’s wishes. I was shocked that he didn’t listen to the advice of the UN. Maybe it was naive of me, but that is how I felt. I think that is why I became interested in the soldiers stories. I had really believed in Tony Blair when he had come to power. I never would have dreamt he would have taken us into a war like Iraq. And that’s why I wondered how some soldiers must have felt. Many people join the military having complete faith in their government, so what happens if then the government goes into wars you think are wrong? As a soldier you have no choice.
People will always say. “You can’t have military that questions every order their given,” but on the flip side what if it was you? If it was you being asked to do something you felt in the bottom of you stomach was wrong? Something you felt went against everything you been taught? Do you ignore that feeling and carry out your contractual obligation or do you listen to your conscience?
In the end I didn’t particularly want to look at the politics of the Iraq war (though a lot of issues are raised in the book). What I wanted to explore was how an individual deals with the doubts they have in times of war. I wanted to look at the more complicated issues affecting a soldier’s decision. There are so many other things that affect one ability to make a decision – commitments to colleagues, expectations of family, financial implications, confusions of loyalty and legality. The aim of the book was to explore the complexity of their situation. There wasn’t a right way or a wrong way of doing things.
PP: How does The Grey Line fit in with your other work? You’ve recently been in Sri Lanka, you hang out with Beth Orton. I mean, to me, all your work is gentle, warm and purposeful so I’m not asking about the style or aesthetics in The Grey Line, I’m asking about its purpose for you as an artist.
JMS: I love doing commercial work and the challenges and opportunities it brings. But my approach and my purpose in doing commercial work is different to my personal work, and its difficult to compare them.
I am interested in people and because I have a camera it allows me to enter their lives in a unique way. I like to tell other peoples stories through my photographs.
For a long time now the theme of morality is something that I have questioned and explored – my own sense of morality and other people’s sense of morality, and how that affects their decisions… I think that I was unintentionally looking for way of exploring this theme with my photography, and when I first met Robert, something clicked.
PP: Can you imagine not having explored this issue? Can you imagine not having made this statement to the world?
JMS: It doesn’t really feel like I made a statement, or at least it wasn’t my statement to make. The men and women that were in the military and had the courage to question are the people making a statement.
PP: Thanks Jo.
JMS: Thank you, Pete
[Right click on the images below to view them larger.]
Jo Metson Scott is a portrait and documentary photographer whose work highlights the relationship between people and their communities. She has been commissioned by organisations including The New York Times, The Telegraph and The Photographer’s Gallery and her work has been exhibited in both the UK and Europe, including Arles Photography Festival, Nottingham Castle Art Gallery, Hereford Photography Festival and the Venice Biennale Fringe. She is repped by Webber Represents. Jo lives and works in London.
In her series Missing Pauline Magnenat has photographed “places where people who disappeared without ever being found dead or alive were seen for the last time. Sometimes, belongings were found later on – a shoe, a skateboard, a jacket – sometimes, there was nothing but the inexplicable absence, the unsolved disappearance.”
Photographing absence is a recurring theme; absences of different sorts.
Jessica Ingram‘s A Civil Rights Memorial documents marked and unmarked sites of hate crime murders of African Americans, as well as Civil Rights triumphs such as interracial communities.
Kalpesh Lathigra‘s Transmission pairs eerie landscapes with portraits of the individuals who transmitted HIV at those sites. Directed at unremarkable spaces, I found myself feeling both hollowness and anger, which is almost inexplicable except for fact of the tragic witness.
Mari Bastashevski‘s File 126 documents spaces left absent by abductions in the Northern Caucases.
Likewise, Dalia Khamissy‘s The Missing photographs those left behind after the disappearance of approximately 17,000 people during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990).
Gustavo Germano‘s The Absent – Ausencias deals with those disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War by asking people to pose in the same locations for photographs that previously included their now absent friends and family.
Even the way Will Steacy photographs Philadelphia at night asks the viewer to mediate on what once was. These Means Streets depicts “the loss and despair that prevails in urban communities to reveal a modern day portrait of the American inner city.”
To photograph absence or aftermath is, partly, to photograph time. It is to make a statement about time. It is to make a visual note of changing times and of changing attitudes, territories, and agreed histories.
There are hundreds of photo projects that wrestle with time. Many of them are listed in this discussion thread on the Develop Photo Facebook Page.
The majority use of photography is a vernacular use.
Vernacular photography (more than professional, purposeful photography projects) is about arresting or preserving time … and usually influencing and warping our perception of things through time; that image we untagged, that exposure we dodged and burned, those negatives we destroyed, that really good picture we circulated everywhere, that lie, that laugh, and that great hairdo.
We are manipulators of time.
For the most part, playing with time through photo is fun (and so it should be), so it stands to reason that more gravely serious content and themes, such as those in the six photo projects listed above, will jolt us.
But, there is a difficult truth in visualising suppressed histories and presenting photographs of absence. A photographer must trust viewers are ready to meet her or his work with openness and rigorous curiosity.
If a portfolio is about absence, then it is also about explanation and subtlety. I hope that the importance of projects about humanity, and its loss, are not themselves lost among the photos of holidays, cappuccinos and cats. My problem is not with fluffy images of that type, but with the prospect of them dominating our visual experience and edging out the education that can come through photos and stories of people beyond our daily experience.
Mishka Henner & Liz Lock published a blurb book called Photography Is, which is a collection of over 3,000 statements about the medium extracted from their original context without a source in sight. I was reminded of the book reading David Campbell‘s succinct The Difficulty Of Talking About Photography.
Ironically, it is Henner & Lock’s pilfered and reordered words, that mirror best our disparate, frustrating and ever conflicting thoughts toward the photographic medium. I think our expectations are a scatter-shot too.
Campbell asks, “What, if anything, connects stock photography, fashion photography, art photography, news photography, conceptual photography, documentary photography, amateur photography, forensic photography, vernacular photography, travel photography, or whatever sort of photography?”
What? Our responses and our choices, surely. We should be able to say we control these entirely.
We choose our viewing experiences. We can repeat ad infinitum the snaps we’re used to, or we can run headlong toward subtlety; toward difficulty.
Is your photo diet samey and fattening or is it lean, moderate and varied? How do you consume images? These are questions we should ask ourselves if we are to (as Campbell phrases it) figure out “what a photograph does, how it does it, and who does or does not want it to work in particular ways.”
Body orifice scanner and surveillance camera, HMP Low Moss, 2012
UK photographer and artist, Jenny Wicks – working as an artist in residence at The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University, the largest centre for criminological research in Scotland – set out a year ago to document spaces of said research. Invariably this meant photographing prisons. She photographed in two working prisons – Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Barlinnie and HMP Shotts. She also shot in a new prison, HMP Low Moss, prior to its opening.
I have posted before about Wick’s portrait project They Are Us And We Are Them also completed during the residency. Here, I’d like to focus on Wick’s prison interior photographs.
Wicks’ research broadly titled Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research sought to explore key boundaries: between innocent and guilty, researcher and researched.
“The conceptual frame for the project focuses on the ways criminological researchers relate to the spaces where research is conducted, analysed and disseminated,” writes Wicks. “A central premise is that working in particular spaces simultaneously contributes to their meaning as places of punishment.”
Wicks’ aim was to expose hidden sites. To differing degrees, this is a common aim of photography in prisons, so it is therefore paramount to say that Wicks delivers plenty of interesting images, the likes of which I, and we, have probably not seen before.
Keep reading below.
Scanner and cones on cell wing, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Orifice scanner and zimmer frame, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Gym, HMP Shotts, 2012.
Personal belongings tags, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
My dad used to use the same Carte d’Or ice-cream tubs (see above image) to store screws and brackets in the garage when I was young. It’s a jolt to see such a practical, modest storage solution crop up within a prison.
But then again, prisons are full of the mundane. Images of the ordinary (latex gloves, powdered milk, hygiene products, boring carpet) are balanced with constant, also pedantic details reminding us of the disciplining function of prisons (overly instructive signs, fire safety posters about escape, painted walkway instructions, holding cells, scanners).
Sometimes the juxtapositions seem too ironic, but then in turn sad. The awards that hang over the chairs in the medical office are shinier than the untarnished plaque of ‘quit smoking’ and ‘mouth cancer’ posters. There’s a flimsy lock on the back of the mugshot camera box. Stored neatly in a stairwell are an orifice scanner and zimmer frame side-by-side. This reminds me of Edmund Clark’s evidentiary images of clearly infirm prisoners in Portsmouth, England.
In Wicks’ book (see below), photographs of segregation cells for prisoners follow those of dog kennel cages.
In the HMP Low Moss new library, we see promise. An image of the books stored prior to shelving tells us prisoners read the same horror-schlock (Stephen King) as the everyman reads. Oh, and there’s a vacuum cleaner to maintain that boring carpet.
Also in the shiny new HMP Moss is a row of green-tint-windowed visiting rooms. They look like the sterile, institution environments of cinema – I’m thinking of the psychiatric wing of Michael Mann’s early eighties film Manhunter, in which Brian Cox stars as Hannibal Lector, not Anthony Hopkins.
The electrics still going in and Wicks captures the work of contractors at mid-point. The literal description of construction reminds us of the ties between labour and prisons. These are spaces paid for and made by society to meet a socially-agreed end. Hopefully resources and money invested in a new prison brings about better opportunities for rehab and a positive economic return further down the line through the reduction of crime and its associated social costs.
The prisoners must do work too. Wicks photographed recreation schedules as well as work rosters. We learn from an HMP Low Moss electronic notice board that “the finer details of prisoner mobilization plan are progressing,” a burauecratic way of saying they’ll be moving in soon. Alternatively, if we take note of text in the older prisons, we’ll be reading graffiti. Such-and-suchabody was here. We know that soon enough, prisoners will be there, in their new quarters. Does it matter if the burned graffiti reads “Jobby bum” or “jobby burn”? Does it instruct us more or does it just convince us that prisons are heavily used and heavily contested spaces? If anything, I hope Wicks’ coverage of Scottish prisons old and new demonstrate that – if we must incarcerate people – we do so in sanitary, safe places with wide provision of work, vocational and educational training.
If prisons fulfil those key criteria then prisons should theoretically be able to open gates to photographers. Imagine a day when human improvement and human rights could become the key content of prison imagery?
Keep reading below.
IMAGES: HMP BARLINNIE
HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Detention dog kennels, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Photography apparatus, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Toilets, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Sinks, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Personal belongings in a cell, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Personal belongings in a cell, HMP Barlinnie, 2012
Wicks believes (and I concur) that depictions of crime, and crime science, in popular culture represent that world through a narrow and increasingly hackneyed set of spaces – the crime lab and courtroom offering two examples.
“As the residency progressed I discovered striking juxtapositions of the mundane and the spectacular in the work of criminology,” says Wicks. “Suicide watch cells, the back of a prisoner transport van, a storage room holding physical restraint chairs and Zimmer frames mark sites of extreme human experience and yet at the same time are part of someone’s day at the office: a site where data is collected, transferred to spreadsheets and displayed to audiences in lecture theatres and conference halls. Exploring this dynamic tension is a key aim of the project.”
Keep reading below.
IMAGES: HMP LOW MOSS
HMP Low Moss, 2012
Bars and Irn Bru machine, HMP Low Moss, 2012
HMP Low Moss, 2012
New library, HMP Low Moss, 2012
HMP Low Moss, 2012
THE BOOK, CORRECT
Wicks was kind enough to send me a copy of Correct. It’s a compact book of 86 pages. You can view a 25-page preview and buy the book through Blurb. My copy came with a fold out of 60 portrait thumbnails of portraits from They Are Us And We Are Them. I include some images below.
Segregation unit exercise yard, HMP Shotts, 2012.
THE EXHIBITION, CORRECT: THE MEANING AND CONSTRUCTION OF SPACE
The exhibition titled ‘CORRECT’: The Meaning and Construction of Place features two audio pieces, and an installation The Gallows, an installation of large format film giclée prints from They Are Us And We Are Them. You can see here a video of The Gallows previously exhibited in HMP Barlinnie.
The exhibition also features The Desk, a digital collage of giclée prints of criminologist’s desks.
“Closely cropped, excluding the life beyond the frame. Voyeuristic and subtly relating to the prison visiting experience: they are intrusive, this is a space where someone lives most of their waking week, a place the research comes back to and is pieced together. A personal space that appears impersonal. Cluttered with cheap plastic Chinese electronics, stationary, diary’s (hand made), mouse pads of choice, daily calendars, hand cream, distinctive handwriting and lots of notes,” writes Wicks.
Finally, and central, the exhibition includes digital C-type prints of prison interiors.
“They are an exploration of crime and justice spaces that criminologists inhabit. Such sites are more usually associated with highly iconic images of justice (bars, ankle tags, gavels) that are part of a larger popular essentialism of crime and punishment, i.e. places of cultural cliché,” writes Wicks. “I aim to demystify these places and the work criminologists undertake. Some of the images juxtapose the often-chaotic lives that occupy these spaces and contradict the harsh realities of prison life.”
‘CORRECT’: The Meaning and Construction of Place is on show now at The Briggait, 141 Bridgegate, Glasgow G1 5HZ from March 3rd – 22nd. Monday- Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm.
HMP Shotts, 2012
Arnhem Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
When photographer David Leventi saw Andreas Gursky’s famous shot of Stateville Prison, Illinois, he was captivated by the architectural form and wondered if there were more roundhouse prisons.
I spoke with David via Skype. He provided me with some prepared answers to questions asked by photographer Sarina Finkelstein. I have interwoven answers to my questions. The quotes are verbatim, but the order is not. The flow works.
Sarina Finkelstein (SF): What was the first round prison you photographed?
David Leventi (DL): The F-House at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois is one of the most architecturally striking prisons — it is the last remaining cell block in the U.S. that follows Bentham’s Panopticon model. It was close to home with no language barrier to contend with, and therefore it became my first.
SF: How many round prisons exist in the world? Have you photographed all of them?
DL: Four working prisons and one ruin. I have photographed all the working ones: Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, Breda Prison in The Netherlands, Arnhem Prison in The Netherlands and Haarlem Prison in The Netherlands. The ruin is the Presidio Modelo on the Isla de la Junvetud in Cuba. Fidel Castro was imprisoned there, and I hope to photograph it one day.
Prison Photography (PP): Now you’ve been to other roundhouse prisons, what do you make of Gursky’s photograph?
DL: All of Gursky’s photos make spaces look bigger. I think Gursky did a lot of post production, I think he extended the space, drawing the image out to the left and right making it look enormous, but its not.
In my photos, Stateville looks big because I’m shooting large format with a wide angled lens, but it’s not THAT big. It’s an illusion.
F-House #2, Stateville Correctional Center, Crest Hill, Illinois, 2010 © David Leventi
SF: This project photographing round prisons seems to be a drastic content shift from your previous work photographing world-famous opera houses?
DL: The prison project developed out of my previous project shooting opera houses. Each was photographed from center-stage and lit solely by the existing chandeliers and lamps.
The opera houses were spaces in which my Romanian grandfather, Anton Gutman, never got the chance to perform. He was a cantor who was interned in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp called Krasnogorsk from 1942-1948. Another prisoner, Danish operatic tenor Helge Rosvaenge, heard my grandfather sing an aria from Tosca and gave him lessons. I grew up listening to him sing in our living room.
SF: So, in your previous project, you photographed cultural institutions that are social gathering spaces of entertainment. But, in this work, you’re photographing prisons — places where people are incarcerated and deprived of personal freedoms for commission of a crime. And, you’re specifically photographing domed prisons. How did you come to choose these particular buildings?
DL: Domed prisons are the closest examples of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model of mass surveillance prison design – a central guard tower with a complete view of surrounding prison cells. This concept was designed so a central observer could monitor all of the prisoners at once, without any particular prisoner being able to feel under inspection.
The domed prisons have the same architectural structure as an opera house (without the opulence), but the difference is in who is observing whom. In an opera house, the audience of many is observing a few. In these domed prisons, it’s the reverse.
The domed prisons are stark buildings. On first inspection, I don’t believe that the viewer identifies the interior as a prison. The ceiling of Arnhem in The Netherlands reminds me of the tartan pattern now made famous by Burberry. The photograph is very graphic, quite unlike the opera houses.
Opera houses and prison houses become a study in contrasts between beauty and squalor, opulence and poverty, serenity and cacophony.
Haarlem Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
PP: How did you get access to the Dutch prisons?
DL: I tried to reach out to the prisons and I tried to reach out to the Minister of Justice but no one would return my emails or telephone calls. There was the language barrier too. Nothing was happening.
Then a man who ran a music company in Utrecht wanted to use one of my opera house images as wallpaper in his office. I gave him a quote and he wrote back saying he couldn’t afford it. I asked, “Would you like to barter?” I asked if he knew anyone who could get me into the prisons. He had a client who was a communications director for the Ministry of Justice. That’s how I got permission!
All three of the prisons are no more than an hour from Amsterdam. No crazy travel involved and all under the same authority. Get into one, get into all three, right?
PP: Are you able to compare Stateville with the Dutch prisons?
DL: Prisoners in Stateville prison are treated like animals. The U.S. government is going to say they committed crimes, well people in the Netherlands committed crimes too. Who knows if they are the same level of crimes but in the Netherlands they have privacy. They have microwaves, TVs; they’re like tiny little apartments. I’m not saying they are the best place to be but it seemed a lot more civilized.
Dutch roundhouse prisons had badminton courts, soccer courts, basketball courts. The Breda prison has trees and benches. Half of it is a covered with a glass floor and downstairs there’s a dining hall and ping-pong tables.
When I was there [in one of the Dutch prisons] some smoke was coming out one of the cells, and the guard there knocked on the door and asked, ‘Are you okay? What’s going on?’ They didn’t know, but the prisoner said, ‘Something caught on fire in the microwave, there’s no problem.’ The guard went away.
Once the [Dutch] cell doors close, the prisoners have privacy. At Stateville, with the standard open bars there is no privacy.
PP: You never intended to photograph prisoners, though?
DL: No, only the architecture. It was stipulated that I could not photograph faces anyway. After 6pm in the dutch prisons, men had to be in their cells. Then I was free to walk around and photograph. It’s seems funny for me to say they are beautiful spaces; they are prisons.
PP: Is Stateville beautiful?
DL: It is loud. The warden at Stateville gave me assurances. But he also told me not to show any fear. One prisoners was running against the bars the entire time I was there. Bang. Bang. Bang. Endlessly. It was shocking. Everything at Stateville was the complete opposite to what I experienced in the Netherlands.
SF: What was the process like? How was it different to be in that space, with all eyes on you, vs. being alone in an empty opera house?
DL: I have always had stage fright. Photographing from the center of a round prison causes anxiety. The inmates are all yelling, jeering, talking, in cacophony. You become the center of attention, and taking the photograph becomes a performance in itself. At first I was intimidated, but then I blanked everything out and focused on photographing. It must be the same for the performer.
SF: What equipment are you using and what conscious choices are you making visually?
DL: I work with a large-format camera so that I have the utmost control in making sure the composition of the image is architecturally symmetrical. I pay close attention to ensuring the lines are straight for perfect repetition, curves of the convolutions of ceiling and higher and lower catwalks are parallel and empasize Euclidean geometry.
With this camera, I am also able to flatten out the space to make it look more like a painting. For instance, the industrial chandelier hangs down, but it looks askew, as if it is tilted toward you.
SF: What is the importance of having 40×50, 50×60 and 72×90 inch prints?
DL: Prints have to be large in order for all of the details to separate and be seen. When they are small, details meld together and you lose the ability to feel the texture/coldness of the prison bricks, to see the blur of prisoners behind cell doors.
I want the viewer to experience what it feels like to be surrounded by the space.
Breda Prison, Netherlands, 2011 © David Leventi
Death Row with Inmate Mural (Sad Clown) in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.
My parents are thinking about moving out of the house I grew up in. They asked me how I felt about it. In truth, I don’t mind one bit. Still, I appreciate them asking. Places hold memories, for sure, and it was mindful of them to ask my brothers and I how we felt about the house, its relationship to our memories, and a future without it. We Brooks, though, are a pragmatic bunch and feel that as soon as the house is vacated it stops being a home and just bricks and mortar for others to occupy and make their own memories. Likewise, we Brooks will make newer memories in my parents’ new home when we gather for holidays and so forth.
This occurred to me as I was browsing Emily Kinni‘s series Sites Of Execution. Kinni is interested in how quickly the function and memory of places change and her pictures demonstrate how rapidly change can occur. She has photographed not just former sites of execution in the U.S. but, specifically, the former sites of execution in the 17 states that have abolished capital punishment. If the places in Kinni’s hold memories they are violent, sad, retributive and final.
Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair and Lethal Injection. Now Unused Conference Room in the New Jersey State Prison. New Jersey, 2011.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Lobby of the State office Department. Alaska, 2011.
I noted Kinni’s work 18-months ago, with criticisms that the series was not complete and that her statement was unintentionally misleading. I am pleased to report that my ‘Watch This Space’ caution has been met with a well-rounded project. Kinni’s survey of the sites (which took over two years) is thorough and her elusive images require work by the viewer to decipher what’s going on. The variety of reused spaces are convincing reminders of how fleetingly history and memory deal with even the most traumatising events.
Interestingly, Kinni is not a crusader for the abolition movement; her images are not intended as a call to challenge death penalty laws in 33 states … and nor do they read that way.
“My affinity for these sites, cannot be considered without the political and historical issues of the death penalty, but it isn’t where it begins,” says Kinni. “My interest is in the evolution of these sites – how places for execution are changed and what the sites become eliminating their historical relevance.”
Many photographers have dealt with memory and landscape by contrasting their images of seemingly benign sites with captions that describe past horrors or crimes. Four worth mentioning would be Eva Leitolf‘s Looking For Evidence – a survey of hate crimes in Europe; Jessica Ingram‘s A Civil Rights Memorial – photographs of hate crimes in America; Joel Sternfeld‘s Landscape In Memoriam – photographs of interpersonal, corporate and environmental crimes; and Taryn Simon‘s The Innocents - an obfuscation of memory and testimony.
Tensions between apparently innocuous images and their factual captions will always capture my attention. Such purposeful tensions are engaging.
Old Sparky, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Leather Mask and Three Switches, West Virginia Penitentiary. 2011 (right).
Gas Chamber on the Spectator Side. Gas Chamber. Still sits in the now abandoned New Mexico State State Penitentiary. New Mexico, 2011.
Original Execution Chamber. Electric Chair. Now a Vocational Space in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. New York, 2011.
Some of Kinni’s sites are no longer prisons and she was helped with her research by local experts.
“I was fortunate enough to meet people among a select few – if not the only people living – who possess facts and documents about where the last executions took place,” says Kinni. “They owned historical evidence within their personal collections and homes that didn’t exist elsewhere. Without their knowledge, I would have been at a huge loss.”
In other cases, where prison space has been repurposed, Kinni experienced the same labyrinthine negotiations common of prison photography projects.
“The level of negotiation varied state by state,” she says. “The hardest negotiations were in states where people I had begun communication with particular officials, who changed positions or retired unbeknownst to me.”
I like this project. Take a look.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Janitorial Break Room. Minnesota, 2011.
The Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a parking lot in the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Hawaii, 2012.
Original Site of the Last Execution. Hanging. Now a Department Store. Rhode Island, 2012.
Original Site of Execution. Hanging. Now a Residence. Wisconsin, 2012.
Original site of the Execution Chamber. Was last used as a basketball court for inmates until the Prison closed. The chamber has been recreated using original materials inside the prison walls in its own museum. Electric Chair. West Virginia Penitentiary, 2011.
Original Site of Execution, Hanging. The prison was torn down and buried below the field which is now in it’s place. A Sign raises a question of what will be next for the site. Maine, 2012.
Original Site of Execution. Electric Chair. Now a Retirement Home. Vermont, 2012.
Original Site of Execution, Electric Chair. The prison was torn down and is now a highway lane. Massachusetts, 2012.
Gas Chamber, Closed, New Mexico State Penitentiary. 2011 (left); Gas Chamber, Open, New Mexico State Penitentiary, 2011 (right).
Site of the Original Execution Chamber, Hanging. Now Empty Space inside Iowa State Penitentiary. Iowa, 2011.
© Dave Jordano
Dave Jordano responded to yesterday’s question Have you ever seen prisoners on your daily commute or holiday road-trips? with the above image.
It shows prison workers maintaining the levee along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. It is his only photograph of prisoners.
Dave and I had been in recent contact because I’d interviewed him for Wired.com and featured HIS AMAZING PHOTOS OF DETROITERS, including the one of Glemie below.
Unbroken Down is an attempt to set the photographic record straight. Jordano believes that Detroit is more than a tale of decline and images of the associated urban decay. Yet, a lot of celebrated photography projects made in Detroit recently have focused on ruination as if the apocalypse passed through and kept going.
“Detroit is still a living city. Why hasn’t this been part of the equation?” asks Jordano of most photographic output.
Please check out Captivating Photos of Detroit Delve Deep to Reveal a Beautiful, Struggling City. Many have enjoyed it; I am sure you will too.