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The banality of the design is on full display. The windowed room is where lethal chemicals are stored and used. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

In 2006, the State of California approved a plan to construct a new execution chamber at San Quentin Prison. This week, The Avery Review published an article by Raphael Sperry titled Death by Design: An Execution Chamber at San Quentin State Prison which breaks down the budgeting, the politics and the design wrapped up in the contentious project. Not to mention the secrecy surrounding many details. Just as we’ve learnt about supply chains of chemicals for new drug “cocktails” being used by States to murder people, so too Sperry takes an in-depth look at the manufacturers behind the apparatus of death. It’s a wonderful, informed and terrifying breakdown of what we do to deliver “justice.” It’s a lovely foil to my past lyrics on the aqua green aesthetics of murder at San Quentin and it reveals the absurdity of the death penalty, the most vicious and foolishly symbolic of punishments.

“The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility,” writes Sperry. It’s a project all about sight — political oversight, design based upon sight-lines for both executioner and witnesses. Sperry’s insights are chilling and revelatory. Below, I’ve selected the parts that intrigued me most, but you really should head over to The Avery Review to read the piece in full.

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CAD Model for San Quentin Lethal Injection Facility. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

DEATH BY DESIGN

Painted sheetrock walls, resilient flooring, vinyl cove base, and fluorescent lighting are used in a thoroughly predictable and pedestrian manner, much like a dentist’s office in a strip mall. The buttresses of the adjacent prison housing block, which a more creative designer might have incorporated, are instead covered by new framing; a storage room is used to occupy one of these irregular alcoves. But there is more to this design than meets the eye. Sometimes the banal is not ordinary.

The all-new facility for lethal injection provides more workspace around the body of the condemned man, an adjacent secure workspace and chemical storage room, and separated viewing areas for the various categories of observers. […] Bureaucratic skullduggery initially led to an unrealistically low project budget of $399,000: just under the $400,000 requirement to request legislative authorization of the project.7 Perhaps some secret executive-branch projects stay secret; in this case the state legislature found out about the project, causing further delays (they weren’t happy about having been hoodwinked) and an eventual approved budget increase to over $850,000. This included the use of inmate labor provided by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDCR) vocational training program.

The general layout of the suite of rooms was borrowed from previously completed projects in other states. Unlike in other states, where death chamber design materials are generally only available when they have been released in response to lawsuits, the final project was presented on a tour that included the federal judge presiding in the case, reporters, and a press release that included output of the CAD model used to design the project (now no longer available). Still, when I made a public request for the identity of the architect(s) and engineer(s) responsible for the project, CDCR would not provide an answer.

The Lethal Injection Chamber is a project that teeters on the edge of visibility and invisibility. CDCR exercised unusual control of the project budget in order to try to keep the project invisible. Yet a floor plan of the design proposal eventually became part of the court record submitted by CDCR to prove the constitutionality of the new facility, making it permanently available to the public. Newspapers published photos of the competed chamber and ancillary spaces and developed infographics of the layout. Nevertheless, today it is an incredibly difficult space for members of the public to visit unless they are part of the highly specified group of participants in or observers of an execution.

Perhaps in the same spirit, or perhaps because of the general obsession with the control of sight lines in prison environments, visibility within the Lethal Injection Room itself is carefully controlled. Witnessing the death of the condemned man is a central component of the execution ritual, with prescribed access for family members of the condemned man, family members of the victim, prison staff, and witnesses to verify that vengeance has been earned for the aggrieved public. Accordingly, the execution room is something of a fishbowl, surrounded on all sides by windows, including a band of wall-to-wall glazing for the public witness and media viewing room. However, mirrored glass is used along the line where the victim’s family might see the inmate’s family: a line that crosses the body of the condemned man, as the two families are positioned at opposite ends of the room just as they are presumed to be of opposite sympathies regarding the murder. Although it is not uncommon for the family of the victim in capital cases to object to the execution of the perpetrator, either out of a generalized objection to killing or after personal reconciliation, the plan denies the opportunity for this kind of potentially healing contact between families. Just as positions of state-driven authority are fixed in a courtroom, with a jury one level up and the judge above them, the dichotomous relations of innocent and guilty inherent in the finality of the death penalty are fixed around the body of the condemned man.

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The death penalty debate, especially in California, now hangs on a tenuous balance between the desire for revenge (an “eye for an eye”) and revulsion at the spectacle of suffering driven by our own blood lust (with a subtext of racism). CDCR—the department charged with conducting executions, and the owner of the chamber in architectural parlance—would clearly prefer to go about its business and has a long history of avoiding public oversight (unsuccessfully in this case), but continuing the death penalty is subject to judgment by a California electorate that is trending toward abolition. Part of the design’s banality (and its low-budget, medical undertones) may be intended to visually deescalate the death penalty debate in order to perpetuate the status quo. But perhaps even the CDCR embodies the same unresolved questions about execution that continue to reverberate in ballot referendums, courtrooms, and public debates. The bland nature of the execution chamber may also indicate a lack of investment in the procedure’s future, a realization that this is no permanent edifice but rather a set of rooms that may be demolished or at least renovated for some other purpose before long.

RAPHAEL SPERRY

Raphael Sperry is an architect and green building consultant, President of Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility, and Adjunct Professor at California College of the Arts where he teaches the course “Rights, Power, and Design.” He is writing a book on architecture and human rights.

THE AVERY REVIEW

The Avery Review is a new online journal dedicated to thinking about books, buildings, and other architectural media. It’s aim is to explore the broader implications of a given object of discourse (whether text, film, exhibition, building, project, or urban environment) and to test and expand the reviewer’s own intellectual commitments.

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The Lethal Injection Facility is the windowless box adjacent to the older, still functional cell block. The CMU exterior walls predate the interior renovations for the new death chamber.

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Injection Room. Window and hose ports to Infusion Control Room at right, mirrored window for victim family viewing in center, public witness / media gallery on extreme left. Courtesy of the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

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This is the last week you have to catch the ADPSR-created exhibition Sentenced: Architecture & Human Rights at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

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Pursuant to my recent conversation with Beth Nakamura, I feel it necessary to focus on particular aspect of Oregon’s prison system on which she and Bryan Denson reported. The Blue Room.

Inside the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution, Nakamura photographed the Blue Room, a space in which prisoners watch videos of nature. Nakamura’s photographs and Denson’s words is the first news reporting on this fringe behavioural management method.

Firstly, why does the Blue Room exist? Prisoners in solitary are completely deprived of nature. In the IMU at Snake River, they are locked in their cell for 23 hours and 20 minutes every day. Prisoners’ only time outside of their windowless cell is 40 minutes in a concrete pen with high walls and a metal grate between they and the sky. IMU, the hole, SHU, the cooler, the box, solitary, call it what you like, extreme isolation makes men mad. Solitary is psychological torture. Neuroscience proves as much. Solitary is deprivation made physical.

The working hypothesis of the Blue Room is that exposure to video recorded scenes of nature will calm prisoners. It began operation in April 2013.

Let’s just pause right there and consider what  is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged. The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.

There are many employees of the state — such as Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU at Snake River — who acknowledge that solitary destroys one’s sense of self. In his article, Denson quotes Gilbertson:

“I’ve seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they’ll almost appear to be completely normal,” Gilbertson said. “After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them.”

Nearly two-thirds of the 200+ men in Snake River’s IMU suffer moderate to severe mental illness. Solitary makes them more prone to violence.

In the past 25 years, states across the U.S. have built, staffed and populated Supermax prisons that specialise in abuse. Once in operation, even well-meaning employees and mental health care-givers can’t change the structure therein; their primary function is to limit the damage of the rigid, brutalising environment.

If we really wanted to provide prisoners with some nature, we could open a gate and let them go sit out in the yard for the afternoon! Put a window in their cell?! Give them exercise options beyond the standard “dog-pen.” But no. From within a carceral logic that says controlled bodies stay within the walls, ludicrous makeshift responses such as the Blue Room emerge.

When I first learned of the Blue Room’s existence, I immediately thought to the scene from the film A Clockwork Orange in which the character Alex has his eyes pinned open and is forced to view “scenes of ultra-violence.” The notion that psychological ills can be rectified by the sights and sounds of projected montages, for me, is the domain of fiction. What would Stanley Kubrick make of this private screening room? Or Anthony Burgess, for that matter? Would they conclude that Snake River prison is as dystopic as the near-future-Britain they created in novel and cinema?

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Film still, from A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick.

My first question about the Blue Room is not does it work? Rather, I have to wonder, why does it need to exist? What conditions of social order and disciplinary regime give rise to its “need” and justification?

The Blue Room is a pilot program drawing upon lesser-tested theories in eco-psychology. Denson explains that it came into being through a series of conversations.

In a 2010 TED talk, biologist Nalini Nadkarni talked generally about how nature can be used to rehabilitate and prisoners with jobs skills. At the time, I thought Nadkarni’s implementation of programs to identify moss species and raise endangered frogs as part of the Prison Sustainability Project was fantastic. I still do. Laudable initiatives. (I’ve talked about Nadkarni-started projects here and here on the blog before).

During her TED talk, Nadkarni mentioned she was thinking about installing large-scale murals of nature in the Supermax facilities of Washington. The Washington DOC was supportive but the correctional officers were opposed and the idea was shelved. Then, in late 2012, a Snake River corrections officer named Kevin Karpati watched the TED talk. Karpati emailed the link to Mark Nooth, the prison’s superintendent. Nooth, in turn, emailed the link to Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU. Gilbertson contacted Nadkarni and asked if it could work.

This is where I wish to acknowledge that the people involved in instituting the Blue Room are making — from within a very restrictive law enforcement environment — efforts to improve the lot of prisoners. They have initiated the Blue Room as a response to severe deficiencies in the system. They cannot change the penal codes and administrative laws, but they can change the available practices within the walls. The Blue Room is an attempt to restore positive sensory input within a facility that routinely denies such inputs.

Nadkarni said she hoped it would work but had no evidence. All agreed that the only way to know was to test the hypothesis. An interior exercise room was converted to a screening room with projector and two chairs.

Nadkarni, along with National Gepgraphic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.

[Previously, I’ve written about bibliotherapy (the calculated use of reading lists to spur prisoners’ self-directed correction of “deviance”) in San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. The videotherapy at play in the Blue Room could be interpreted as a modern day equivalent. Words replaced by images?]

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Denson reports that early anecdotes and observations suggest that the Blue Room can have a calming effect. “Lance Schnacker, a researcher for the Oregon Youth Authority, studied the disciplinary records of Snake River’s IMU inmates in the year before, and the year after, the Blue Room opened,” writes Denson. “He calculated that those who didn’t get the unique therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a slight dip. Schnacker cautioned that these data were preliminary, but promising.”

Should we be surprised? Give prisoners any small amount of added agency and the opportunity to take-in stimulus that breaks the norm and the monotony then, I’d argue, we would observe a change in behaviour. And most likely, toward the positive. Again, I am left to wonder why prison administrations are initiating small-scale projects such as the Blue Room, instead of taking a step back and recognising that the institutional logic which returns to solitary time-and-time again is the more fundamental issue to address.

Nadkarni, Thys, Schnacker and eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach are set work with Snake River staffers to observe prisoners, conduct surveys and correlate results to existing mental health files. They hope to be able to determine to what degree exactly the Blue Room calms prisoners.

However, determining whether the Blue Room does or does not reduce suicidal or violent tendencies is a red herring. The study misses the point. Whether prisoners see 20-minute long reels of guppy fish and seaweed, or not, doesn’t alter the fact that solitary confinement makes people lose their minds. Why are we interested in mitigating the effects of a barbarous facility when we should be dismantling the walls of the facility altogether?

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All images: Beth Nakamura

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Prison Obscura continues to travel. If you’re in or around New Jersey then you should know a version (a tighter edit) of Prison Obscura is currently on show at Alfa Arts Gallery in downtown New Brunswick. The show runs until November 1st.

The official opening was last Friday (10th) and coincided with the Marking Time: Prison Arts & Activism Conference at Rutgers University and hosted by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW). To give you a taster of the presentation, below are some snaps taken by staff at Alfa Arts Gallery. But not before a few notes of thanks …

GRATITUDE

I’d like to thank Alfa Art Gallery-owners Chris Kourtev and the entire Kourtev family for generously giving over their space for three weeks to house the show. Thanks to Nicole Fleetwood, Sarah Tobias and all the staff at IRW involved in bringing Prison Obscura to NJ. Thanks for a wonderful conference too!

I’d also like to extend my thanks once more to Matthew Callinan, Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford. Matthew continues to make sure the logistics for each venue are taken care of and, in this case, gave up an entire Sunday to drive from Philadelphia and install the show. Thanks to the staff at John B. Hurford Center for Arts & Humanities at Haverford, who continue to support the exhibition.

For more information about the exhibition, visit the Prison Obscura website.

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© Ruddy Roye

PDX Design Week wrapped up last weekend. Before I moved out of the city, I was asked to do a guest post for the PDXDW blog. I don’t know much about design, so I wrote about photographers that are making good use of emerging technologies or commenting on our brave new world dominated by emerging and automated technologies.

Thanks to Taryn Cowart for her assistance getting it published.

With some line-editing, I crosspost the listicle below.

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PHOTOGRAPHY’S BEST

Good photography is good vibes. Often, even bad photography is good vibes. The world needs Seflies, SnapChat cheekiness, cat GIFs, and Doge bombs. However, sometimes, we have to search out the good stuff. We need to look around and ask what’s at stake. Frankly, there’s not a lot resting on your cellphone pictures — they’re not changing the world. When the technologies and file formats with which they were made are obsolete, no-one will care if your phone snaps are lost forever. Least of all you?

When we talk about art, journalism and photography we should be able to single projects out and to define worth. Some creative endeavors are world-changing. I want to give a nod to photographers and artists working with images who inform us about the world and some of its urgent issues. As users and consumers, I want to believe we can leverage rapid publishing and sharing for political and social improvement.

BEST USE OF INSTAGRAM

Ruddy Roye was the first photographer to really stake his style on the meaningful caption. He ditched the hashtags and asked real people some real questions. Based in New York most of his portraits are of people in his neighborhood and jollies around the Big Apple. His feed drips with humanity and reveals stories you couldn’t imagine. This is the REAL Humans OF New York! Also, I like to credit Roye for landing the fatal blow to the snarky #TLDR hashtag.

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© EverydayAfrica

SECOND BEST USE OF INSTAGRAM

Peter DiCampo and fellow journalist Austin Merrill (both white American) set up the Everyday Africa after years of reporting from the continent and witnessing nothing but sensational and scary images of war, tragedy and the like. What about the normal everyday stuff? In an attempt to make the most of boring daily things, DiCampo and a wide cadre of collaborator quickly put together a simple, illuminating, sometimes colorful, and intimate Instagram feed. It’s political but not difficult. Okay, so it’s a free-for-all that promotes aesthetically ordinary pictures, but I’ll take neoliberal relativism over neocolonialist manipulation every day of the week.

EverydayAfrica spurned dozens of loose collective of photographers who set up EverydayMiddleEast, EverydayAsia, EverydayIran and even EverydayBronx. Instagram sponsored an Everyday “Summit” at the 2014 Photoville Festival and ponied up cash to fly in contributors from all corners of the globe. These guys are much better IG-movement than the creepy Christians making VSCO lifestyle shots to pair with their #blessed affirmations and bible quotes.

Watch out though: EverydayUSA has some of the best photojournalists under it’s belt. Photo-industry-folk reckon EverydayUSA will soon eclipse all the other accounts, at which point the whole Everyday movement may have announced its death. Get on this young movement while it’s still fresh and focused on countries other than the one you live in.

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© Mishka Henner

BEST USE OF GOOGLE EARTH

If there’s a controversial topic Mishka Henner hasn’t produced a body of work on, he’s probably in his studio, right now, making it. From censorship, to prostitution in the Mediterranean, from military bases to big-ag food production, from war to big oil, Henner doesn’t shy away from tough topics. His skill is to do so without really leaving his studio. Henner is one of the cleverest, canniest and hardest working artists dealing with Google and the machine age of image-making.

He winds people up with his methods that are anathema to photo-purists but what else is there to do with available imagery if not to capture, ‘shop and frame it in political terms. Google is the all seeing eye that doesn’t care.

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© Tomas Van Houtryve

BEST USE OF PERSONAL DRONES

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates American operated drones have killed between 2,296 and 3,718 people, as many as 957 of them civilians. That’s a whole lot of killing.

The program of U.S. airstrikes which began in 2002, but was only publicly acknowledged in 2012 is a remote war driven by a remote technology. Belgian photographer Tomas Van Houtryve decided the best way to grab Americans’ attention to the issue was to show them how drone attacks would appear in America.

There’s no shortage of projects about drones to get us thinking about the issue. John Vigg has his Google surveilled drone research labs and airports; Jamie Bridle traced a drone shadow in Washington D.C. last year and launched Dronestagram to populate social media sites with satellite views of drone strike sites; Trevor Paglen has photographed drones at distance; and Raphaella Dallaporta took a drone to Afghanistan under the guise of an archaeological survey.

Most recently Not A Bug Splat made a splash. Cheeky and powerful the project installed massive portraits of children in regions subject to U.S. drone strikes, with the intent of pricking the conscience of remote U.S. drone operators stationed in Nevada about to bring the hammer of destruction down on that Waziristan village.

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Screenshot of Josh Begley’s Prison Map

BEST USE OF SURVEILLANCE IMAGERY AGAINST THE SYSTEM

Data artist Josh Begley specializing in scraping images from publicly available sources. He then creates App and websites to publish the info and produce push notifications you can’t avoid.

For his project Prison Map, Begley took the GPS coordinates of every prison, jail and immigration detention center in America and fed them into a Google Maps API code he had modified. He ran the script and it spat out more than 5,300 satellite images — one for every locked facility in the U.S. The prison population in this country has grown 500% in the past 30 years. One in every one hundred adults is behind bars and most of them are poor people. The recurrent patterns of brutally functional architecture within Prison Map are staggering. We’ve been building prisons in high desert and rural backwaters. Begley makes the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) visible once more.

Likewise, for his project Profiling Is, Begley snagged the NYPD’s surveillance shots of business and residences in the NY boroughs which were under monitoring.

He doesn’t stop there. Begley’s App MetaData alerts users to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This didn’t happen until the conclusion of a merrigoround of negotiation with the “apolitical” Apple. Begley finally got his drone strike App approved when he removed all mention the word drone! Now, you can get next-day updates of Obama’s largely-ignored drone war on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen straight to your smartphone.

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© Mari Bastashevski

BEST USE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, MUCK-RAKING AND INVESTIGATIVE NOUS

Mari Bastashevski skirts a fine line between journalist, artist, researcher, photographer and tourist to dig up the personalities and money makers in the international arms trade. Here’s the feature I did for WIRED a while back. Her ongoing project State Business is devastating inasmuch it reveals how pervasive and complicit most nations are in making billions on the slaughter of humans.The US, the UK, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Georgia; Bastashevski’s following of the money takes us all over the place … sometimes even to the carport on the Facebook pages of international arms dealers.

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BEST MAKING SENSE OF SURVEILLANCE

If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. In 2002, after Hasan Elahi was mistaken for someone on the terror watch list and detained for hours at Detroit airport, he decided he’d save the authorities the bother and monitor himself. Caustic, direct, creepy and amusing, Elahi photographed everything he did, ate, shit, saw and worked on. He also GPS tracked his every move on a live web map. The project is titled Tracking Transcience. One of the by-products of the self-monitoring is the creation of a typology of toilets. Taking sousveillance to another level and entertaining thousands while he does it. Brill.

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© MigraZoom. A migrant on a cargo train traveling from Arriaga, Chiapas to Ixtepec, Oaxaca. After crossing the Mexican-Guatemalan border and traveling to Arriaga, migrants hitch a ride on top of cargo trains to Ixtepec. This trip takes about 12 hours. In addition to the risk of falling off the train (amputations and death are common), gangs frequently extort migrants, charging them $100 to ride. They face threats of being thrown off the train, kidnapped, raped or trafficked if they do not pay.

REALEST VIEWS OF IMMIGRATION

There’s some great fine art projects out there about the U.S./Mexican border. Probably, the stand out is David Taylor’s Working The Line, which documents the militarization of the border. But it can be criticised for being to distant and tends to rest on the creaking aesthetic mores of American landscape photography. If we want to see what is really going on during the tough journey’s into North America, we should pay attention to MigraZoom, a project by Spanish-born photographer Encarni Pindado which puts disposable cameras in the hands of economic migrants during their perilous treks northward.

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© David Taylor

Another beautifully shot and more unexpected treatment of new arrivals is Gabriele Stabile’s Refugee Hotel which documents approved asylum seekers’ first nights in America at four hotels adjacent to four hub airports through which new refugee migrants arrive. Respectful documentation that is pregnant with uncertainty.

Taylor’s work is currently on show at the amazing ‘Covert Operations’ at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

BEST USE OF INTERNET FOR DISCUSSION

Photographer Hank Willis Thomas is a prolific force. One of his most recent projects Question Bridge is a platform for black males to ask other black males questions about black identity. Participants do so through video and provide answers similarly. Access is easy, involvement free, connections priceless and it works well in exhibition format too. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson is the latest incident to demonstrate to the entire nation our shared need to face racial inequality int he country. Willis Thomas is doing his bit.

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© Lindsay Lochman and Barbara Ciurej

BEST COMMENTARY ON MECHANICAL AGE FOOD PRODUCTION

With Ag Gag laws becoming ever more common, clever responses to imaging industrial food production must be inventive. Lindsay Lochman & Barbara Ciurej rip on the much-mythologized West and specifically on the hero-worship of Carleton Watkins by constructing sugar-coated and corn-fed diorama reconstruction of Watkins’ landscapes with shitty foodstuffs.

Will Potter ain’t a photographer but he’s putting imagery to good ends. Potter, a TED Fellow, has been reporting on the crack down on environmental activists under homeland security legislation that was designed to tackle terrorist. Instead of chasing bombchuckers, our law enforcement is going after tree huggers. The title of Potter’s book, Green Is The New Red, say its all. Routinely, it has been eco-activists who’ve brought us the shocking footage from inside factory farms. Potter, continuing the tradition of expose, wants to fly drones over feedlots and take advantage of laws being slow to be written. Again, we seeing the convergence of technologies and activist peel back the layers of obscurity purposefully put over our shady business practices in years past.

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© Donna Ferrato

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

The greatest photography work being done to reveal the entrapped, terrorized lives of those victim to domestic violence, is done — perhaps not unsurprisingly by female photographers. Donna Ferrato has trained a lens on the topic for decades. Recently, young gun Sara Naomi Lewkowicz captured similar images to Ferrato as an intimate witness to partner abuse. The parallels were saddening proving that this is a strand of violent psychology we just are not dealing with effectively. To be frank, the issue isn’t being imaged enough; intimate partner abuse remains hidden behind closed doors.

Paula Bronstein was one of the earliest and most direct photographers to document the survivors of acid attacks in Asia. If we’re to mention women’s rights abroad we have to look at the work of Stephanie Sinclair, whose multiyear project Too Young To Wed is pitch perfect. Quiet, weighty, tragic and polychrome portraits of child brides throughout the world. Sinclair’s had help from all the major distributors and grant makers to cast the net of her survey far and wide. The transmedia project is about as good as it gets in terms of audience engagement tactics too.

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© Jim Goldberg

BEST COMMENTS ON WEALTH INEQUALITY

It’s difficult to name a stand out photographer who has taken on the wealth gap in a resonant way. It sounds strange to say but maybe cash is difficult to shoot? This apparent lack is consistent with other art forms though. If Occupy taught us one thing, some issues are designed for public performance, demonstration, walking and protest signs. Think of music, for comparison. In the sixties musicians such as Joe Strummer and Nina Simone emerged with brilliant anger toward social injustice. Despite public disgust made visible in anti-Iraq-war protests and Occupy, there’s not a protest song from the 21st century of note. Perhaps music isn’t the format for anger or the wealth gap either?

Don’t worry, I’m not being a pessimist here. Violent dismay certainly exists. I’m just not convinced art is the realm where we see the most direct political action. Gone are the days of the great labor photographers such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. Inequality was laid bare in the photojournalism of the civil rights era (Ernest Cole, Charles Moore, Danny Lyon) and while those reportages were about money and opportunity they weren’t primarily about the markets. Check out the work of Gregory Halpern for your modern day Milton Rogovin.

The most indelible and forthright description of wealth inequality is Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor, which remains the high point and the tone at which aspiring photographers should aim.

Dang, that’s been a lot of men’s names. I think it right to end with LaToya Ruby Frazier’s name then. She, better than anyone currently making work, ties together class, race, income, post-industrial America, public health, personal health, family and environmental hazard with her generational survey of the women in her family and her home town of Braddock, PA, in The Notion OF Family.

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© La Toya Ruby Frazier

 

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“Tex Johnson, 60″ by Ron Levine, courtesy of the artist.

Later this week, I’ll be attending the inaugural prison arts and activism conference, Marking Time.

Hosted by the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers, and across multiple venues, the event brings together an incredibly committed and skilled cohort of practitioners throughout many disciplines — from dance to yoga, from occupational health to sculpture, and from film making to social work.

I’ll be moderating a panel discussion Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences, with Gregory SaleLorenzo Steele, Jr., and Mark Strandquist on Wednesday afternoon. In addition, a version of Prison Obscura will be on show at the Alfa Art Gallery in downtown New Brunswick.

To emphasise the breadth and depth of expertise I’ve copied out the schedule below. I have made bold and linked the names of artists, activists and academics’ names with whose work I am already familiar … and admire.

I pepper the post with artworks made by photographic artists attending Marking Time.

Marking Time runs 8th-10th Oct. Registration for the conferecne is free.

See you in New Brunswick this Wednesday?!?!

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“Allen and Tanasha, 1998.” Family album. Courtesy of the Fleetwood family.

WEDNESDAY 8TH OCT.

Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am

PANEL: Creative Arts and Occupational Health (ZLD)
Susan Connor and Susanne Pitak Davis (Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare) “Finding Meaning Thru Art”
Karen Anne Melendez (Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare) “The Concert Performance with Adult Females in Correctional Health Care”
Moderator: Michael Rockland (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

WORKSHOP: Steps Taken: Footprints in the Cell (NBL)
Rachel Hoppenstein (Temple University)
Ann Marie Mantey (Temple University)

Session 2: 11:00 – 12:15 pm

PANEL: Law, News, and Art (ZLD)
Regina Austin (Penn Law School)
Ann Schwartzman (Pennsylvania Prison Society)
Tom Isler (Journalist/Filmaker)
Moderator: Tehama Lopez

WORKSHOP: Utilizing Dance as a Social Tool: Dance Making with Women in Prison (NBL)
Meredith-Lyn Avey (Avodah Dance)
Julie Gayer Kris (Avodah Dance)

LUNCH: 12:15 – 1:15 pm

Session 3: 1:15 – 2:30 pm

PANEL: Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences (ZLD)
Gregory Sale (Artist)
Lorenzo Steele, Jr. (Founder, Behind these Prison Walls)
Mark Strandquist (Artist)
Moderator: Pete Brook (Freelance Writer/Curator)

PRESENTATION: The Political and Educational Possibilities of Exhibitions (NBL)

David Adler (Independent Curator)
Sean Kelley (Eastern State Penitentiary)
Rickie Solinger (Independent Curator)

Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm

PANEL: About Time (ZLD)
Damon Locks (Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project)
Erica R. Meiners (Northeastern Illinois University/Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project)
Sarah Ross (School of the Art Institute of Chicago/ Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project)
Fereshteh Toosi (Columbia College Chicago)
Moderator: Donna Gustafson (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Best Practices: Arts, Prisons and Community Engagement (NBL)
Robyn Buseman (City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program)
Shani Jamila (Artist, Cultural Worker, Human Rights Advocate)
Kyes Stevens (Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project)

EVENING EVENTS

4:00 – 5:00 pm Artist Talk: Jesse Krimes (ZLD)

5:00– 5:45 pm Welcome Reception (ZL)

7:30 – 9:00 pm Opening Keynote: Reginald Dwayne Betts (KC)
Welcome Remarks: IRW Director Nicole Fleetwood
Introduction of Keynote: Dean Shadd Maruna, School of Criminal Justice – Rutgers, Newark

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“Exercise Cages, New Mexico” by Dana Greene, courtesy of the artist.

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“That Renown New Mexico Light” by Dana Greene, courtesy of the artist.

THURSDAY OCTOBER 9TH

Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am

PANEL: Theater in Prisons (ZLD)

Wende Ballew (Reforming Arts Incorporated, Georgia) “Theatre of the Oppressed in Women’s Prisons: Highly Beneficial, Yet Hated”
Lisa Biggs (Michigan State University) “Demeter’s Daughters: Reconsidering the Role of the Performing Arts in Incarcerated Women’s Rehabilitation”
Karen Davis (Texas A&M) “Rituals that Rehabilitate: Learning Community from Shakespeare Behind Bars”
Bruce Levitt and Nicholas Fesette (Cornell University) “Where the Walls Contain Everything: The Birth and Growth of a Prison Theatre Group”
Moderator: Elin Diamond (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Prison Architecture, Space and Place (NBL)

Svetlana Djuric (Activist) and Nevena Dutina (Independent Scholar) “Living Prison”
Maria Gaspar (Artist) “The 96 Acres Project”
Vanessa Massaro, (Bucknell) “It’s a revolving door”: Rethinking the Borders of Carceral Spaces”
Moderator: Matthew B. Ferguson (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

Session 2 11:00 – 12:15 pm

PRESENTATION: Sustaining Engagement through Art: The US and Mexico (ZLD)

Phyllis Kornfeld (Independent Art Teacher, Author, Activist, Curator) “Thirty Years Teaching Art in Prison: Into the Unknown and Why We Need to Go There”
Marisa Belausteguigoitia (UNAM) “Mural Painting in Mexican Carceral Institutions”

WORKSHOP: The Arts: Essential Tools for Working with Women and Families impacted by Incarceration (NBL)

Kathy Borteck-Gersten (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Judy Dworin (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Joseph Lea (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Kathy Wyatt (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)

LUNCH: 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Session 3 1:15 – 2:30 pm

PRESENTATION: Visualizing Bodies/Space: A Performative Picture of Justice System-Involved Girls & Women in Miami, FL (ZLD)
Nereida Garcia Ferraz (Artist/Women on the Rise!)
Jillian Hernandez (University of California-San Diego/Women on the Rise!)
Anya Wallace (Penn State University/Women on the Rise!)
Moderator: Ferris Olin (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: 25 Years of the Creative Prison Arts Project: Connecting Incarcerated Artists with the University of Michigan Community (NBL)
Reuben Kenyatta (Independent Artist)
Ashley Lucas (University of Michigan)
Janie Paul (University of Michigan)

PRESENTATION: The Art of Surviving in Solitary Confinement (RAL)
Bonnie Kerness (American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Program)
Ojore Lutalo (American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Program)

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“Theda Rice, 77″ by Ron Levine, courtesy of the artist.

Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm

PANEL: Restorative Arts and Aging in Prison (ZLD)
Aileen Hongo (Educator/Activist)
Anne Katz (University of Southern California)
Ron Levine (Artist)

WORKSHOP: The SwallowTale Project: Creative Writing for Incarcerated Women (NBL)
Angel Clark (Photographer/Filmmaker)
Bianca Spriggs (Artist/Poet)

Session 5 4:15 – 5:30 pm

PANEL: Resisting Guantanamo through Art and Law (ZLD)
Aliya Hana Hussain (Center for Constitutional Rights)
Matthew Daloisio (Witness against Torture)
Aaron Hughes (Independent Artist)
Moderator: Joshua Colangelo-Bryan (Dorsey & Whitney LLP)

WORKSHOP: Bar None: The Possibilities and Limitations of Theater Arts in Prison (NBL)
Max Forman-Mullin (Bar None Theater Company)
Julia Taylor (Bar None Theater Company)

EVENING EVENTS

5:45 – 6:45 pm Reception (NBL)

7:00 – 9:00 pm: Artist Talks: Russell Craig, Deborah Luster, Dean Gillispie, Jared Owen (AAG)

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“Self Portrait” by Russell Craig, acrylic on cloth, 2014, courtesy of the artist.

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“LCIW, St. Gabriel, Louisiana, Zelphea Adams” from One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, by Deborah Luster, courtesy of the artist.

FRIDAY OCTOBER 10TH

Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am

PANEL: Prison Lit (ZLD)

Helen Lee (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) “Eldridge Cleaver’s SOUL ON ICE: A Rhetoric of Confrontation in Prison Writing”
Suzanne Uzzilia (CUNY Graduate Center) “Lolita’s Legacy: The Mutual Imprisonment of Lolita Lebrón and Irene Vilar”
Carolina Villalba (University of Miami) “Radical Motherhood: Redressing the Imprisoned Body in Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography”
Moderator: Monica Ríos (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Photographic Education Program at Penitentiary Centers in Venezuela: From the Lleca to the Cohue (ZMM)
Helena Acosta (Independent Curator)
Violette Bule (Photographer)
Moderator: Katie Mccollough (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: Narrating Injustice: Youth and Mass Incarceration (BSF)

Sean Saifa M. Wall (Independent Artist) “Letters to an Unborn Son”
Richard Mora and Mary Christianakis (Occidental College) “(Re)writing Identities: Past, Present, and Future Narratives of Young People in Juvenile Detention Facilities”
Beth Ohlsson (Independent Educator) “Reaching through the Cracks: Connecting Incarcerated Parents with their Children through Story”
Moderator: Annie Fukushima (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

Session 2 11:00 – 12:15 pm

PANEL: Gender, Sexuality, and Systemic Injustices (ZLD)
Michelle Handelman (Filmmaker, Fashion Institute of Technology) “Beware the Lily Law: Tales of Transgender Inmates”
Tracy Huling (Prison Public Memory Project) “‘She was incorrigible…’ Building Public Memory About A Girl’s Prison”
Carol Jacobsen (University of Michigan) “For Dear Life: Visual and Political Strategies for Freedom and Human Rights of Incarcerated Women”
Moderator: Simone A. James Alexander (Seton Hall University)

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“Beware the Lily Law” by Michelle Handelman, high-definition video, sound, Installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Photo credit: Laure Leber, 2014.

PANEL: Life Sentences: Memoir-Writing as Arts and Activism in a Maximum Security Women’s Prison (ZMM)
Courtney Polidori (Rowan University)
Michele Lise Tarter (The College of New Jersey)
Samantha Zimbler (Oxford University Press)
Moderator: Fakhri Haghani (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

PANEL: The Politics of Imprisonment (BSF)
Dana Greene (New Mexico State University) “Carceral Frontier: The Borderlands of New Mexico’s Prisons”
Marge Parsons (Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund) “Free the Spirit from Its Cell”
Jackie Sumell (Independent Artist) “The House That Herman Built”
Treacy Ziegler (Independent Artist) “Light and Shadow in a Prison Cell”
Moderator: Angus Gillespie (Rutgers-New Brunswick)

LUNCH: 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Session 3 1:15 – 2:30 pm

PRESENTATION: Shakespeare in Prison (ZLD)
Tom Magill (Educational Shakespeare Company Ltd)
Curt Tofteland (Shakespeare Behind Bars)

PANEL: Building Effective Prison Arts Programs (ZMM)
Laurie Brooks (William James Association) “California Prison Arts: A Quantitative Evaluation”
Jeff Greene (Prison Arts Program at Community Partners in Action) “Beyond Stereotype: Building & Supporting Extraordinary Arts Programs in Prison”
Becky Mer (California Appellate Project/Prison Arts Coalition) “National Prison Arts Networking in the US: Lessons from the Prison Arts Coalition”
Moderator: Lee Bernstein

PANEL: Genre and Aesthetics in Prisons (BSF)

T.J. Desch Obi (Baruch College, CUNY) “Honor and the Aesthetics of Agon in Jailhouse Rock”
Anoop Mirpuri (Portland State University) “Genre and the Aesthetics of Prison Abolition”
Jon-Christian Suggs (John Jay College, CUNY) “Behind the Red Door: Real and Fictional Communism in Prison”
Ronak K. Kapadia (University of Illinois at Chicago) “US Military Imprisonment and the Sensorial Life of Empire”
Moderator: Jed Murr

Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm

PANEL: Twenty Years of Teaching Visual and Literary Arts in a Maximum-Security Prison (ZLD)
Rachel M. Simon (Marymount Manhattan College in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility)
Duston Spear (Marymount Manhattan College in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility)

WORKSHOP: Alternatives to Violence Workshops in Prison: Liminal Performances of Community and/as Activism (ZMM)
Chad Dell (Monmouth University)
Johanna Foster (Monmouth University)
Eleanor Novek (Monmouth University)
Deanna Shoemaker (Monmouth University)

WORKSHOP: More Than a Rap Sheet: The Real Stories of Incarcerated Women (BSF)
Amanda Edgar (Family Crisis Services)
Jen LaChance Sibley (Family Crisis Services)
Jenny Stasio (Family Crisis Services)

CLOSING REMARKS (ZLD): 4:00 – 4:30 pm

OPENING RECEPTION FOR PRISON OBSCURA (AAG):4:30 – 6:30 pm

EVENING EVENTS: 7:00 – 9:30 pm (SH)

Tales from the Cell, Mountainview Program
The Peculiar Patriot, Liza Jessie Peterson
Women on Our Own, acapella group of formerly incarcerated musicians

Films to be shown all day on October 9 & 10 at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building, 162 Ryders Lane (Douglass Campus), schedule to be determined.

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Key for venue codes:
AAG: ALFA ART GALLERY
BSF: BLOUSTEIN SCHOOL FORUM
KC: KIRKPATRICK CHAPEL
NBL: NEW BRUNSWICK PUBLIC LIBRARY COMMUNITY ROOM
RAL: RUTGERS ART LIBRARY
SH: SCOTT HALL
ZL: ZIMMERLI MUSEUM LOBBY
ZLD: ZIMMERLI MUSEUM LOWER DODGE GALLERY
ZMM: ZIMMERLI MUSEUM MULTIMAX ROOM

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He went back every year for four years. Between 2007-2010, photojournalist Louie Palu made six trips to Guantanamo. Not quite a compulsion, but more of a requirement, Palu had to go. He’d photographed in Afghanistan and it made sense that he’d take  opportunities to document America’s chosen *homeland* site for its Global War On Terror (GWOT). Guantanamo is another piece in the puzzling puzzle of war against an expanding list of enemies. It is more contained and less flash-bang than any theater of war, but no less violent. Inside Gitmo, coercion and so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques do the damage, replacing mortars and EIDs.

Why did Palu go? We know Guantanamo is so controlled that a photographer’s work is compromised. And yet, he returned time and time again. Perhaps he though he’d be the one reporter who’d see the nugget, catch the frame and get out of there with the shot? Not so. After every visit, all photographers are required to hand over their DSLRs. A member of the Joint Task Force will look over all images and delete any that don’t meet military rules. The photographer is given forms with each digital file number listed individually. The procedure is called an “Operational Security Review.”

Palu’s latest publication GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is a 24-page conceptual newsprint publication. It combines his Gitmo images with scans of the official forms. It is available at Photoeye Books.

GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is abstract, elusive and slippery … which I think is the point. I asked Palu a few questions about it.

Scroll down for our Q&A

[Click any image to see it larger]

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Why did you ever want to go to Guantanamo?

Louie Palu (LP): The detention center at Guantanamo Bay is one of the most infamous results of the “War on Terror” — the most internationally known detention facility of our time. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between history, political events and the human experience. Especially, I am engaged by events or issues that define our time politically.

9-11 and Guantanamo will forever be connected. I am also fascinated by the legal and morale paradox that Gitmo, as it is known, represents in the face of the U.S. Constitution with regards to detaining people indefinitely without trial.

PP: You went many times. Why stop?

LP: Relatively speaking the access went from good, to getting better, to very poor and finally I gave up. I follow Carole Rosenberg’s reporting in the Miami Herald, she is perhaps the best source of reporting on Gitmo there is.

PP: She recently spoke at Columbia Journalism School about her professional experience covering Guantanamo. I follow Rosenberg on Twitter too.

LP: In a recent report she did, it seems the current military public affairs unit there has become exceptionally difficult to work with. I would like to go again, but it looks impossible to work there right now.

Normally each trip lasts four-days.

Day 1: Fly in and get settled. Day 2: Tour various parts of the detention center. At the end of each day everyone goes through what’s called an “Operational Security Review”, also known as an OPSEC Review. In my case as a photographer this involves the deleting of certain photographs right off my memory cards. Basically anything that reveals security features of the prison or direct frontal views of the detainees faces is deleted. Day 3: More touring the facility and more photography and one more OPSEC Review. Day 4. Fly home.

I did do two special photo tours years ago. Most tours have writers as part of the tour group and you can spend hours in areas of no interest to photographers. One of these special photo tours in particular was I think the best access ever for a civilian photojournalist. I think I hold the record for longest OPSEC Review ever, it was an all-nighter! I don’t think they’ll give a tour like that ever again and a number of areas in the prison are now closed and access to the detainees is very limited and basically everyone gets the same photographs now.

PP: You’re a wisened, experienced photojournalist. What did you expect from Gitmo? What did you get?

LP: I try not to expect anything from any assignment, subject or project except that I will do my best and that I am personally engaged in the subject matter. Beyond that, I hoped to make pictures that would last as documents to an important subject in our history.

I think that the manner in which we are forced to take pictures with extreme control should be a part of the history. The control on how I took pictures and the limited access made the images and approach unique. That is what my concept newspaper is partly about.

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PP: We’ve stopped taking about Guantanamo ever since we realized Obama couldn’t/wouldn’t close it down. Why is that? Where does it leave your work?

LP: When you say “we” I would take that as mostly the general public, many journalists keep talking about Gitmo and it’s impact and implications. Though relatively speaking I agree people seem to have disengaged from the issue.

However, we have to understand that Guantanamo Bay is a recruiting poster for many extremists and terrorists and it will continue to be especially while it is open. Take for example the video ISIS (aka ISIL, IS) made of journalists they are executing in Iraq/Syria. The journalists are on their knees in orange jumpsuits. In my mind it’s a copy of the same imagery of the first images released by the U.S. government of detainees in Guantanamo in orange jumpsuits right after 9/11. The image the detention center at Guantanamo Bay paints of America goes against every value the United States stands for in my opinion. So long as the detention center at Guantanamo remains open and the detainees are not given a trial, the United States will have a hard time holding any moral high ground on human rights. It makes it a very serious issue to continue to try and find a solution to. If I interest only a handful of people to keep talking about it I did my job.

The reason I think that we stopped talking about Gitmo is also limited access to the detainees by journalists being one reason and right now there is no shortage wars and disasters of all kinds to deal with, plenty of “fog of war” to keep us off the issue that challenges one of the core value systems of the United States, which is the constitution.

The eyes of history will judge my work years from now. For now, I am satisfied to have published the work and kept the issue in the public’s eye, no matter how small a contribution I have made. From the point of view of a photojournalist the newspaper is a part of that.

PP: Briefly, tell us about your decision to go with a newspaper format to publish the work from Guantanamo.

LP: Well, I had a fellowship with a think tank in Washington DC called the New America Foundation, which involved covering the Mexican drug war. I created a concept newspaper called Mira Mexico. I created it so you could take it apart and re-edit the order of the pictures and also hang it as an exhibition. It was meant to directly engage the viewer to understand how our images are controlled by governments and the media. It’s about the manipulation and our perception of an issue. It’s explained in this video.

Creating an object as something that goes beyond the news cycle is important to continue to engage the public in on important issues. The newspaper format is important in challenging not only traditional formats of news, but also the manner in which we consume information and the platforms we see them in. You can also hang it as an exhibition as each spread is a poster and you can turn it into an educational lesson in editing or controlling pictures. GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review is the part two to my first concept newspaper on Mexico. I am also making a statement in making a newspaper in which the only content is Guantanamo Bay. No advertising or competing content. I edited out every other story.

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PP: What do you hope people take away from GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review?

LP: Well the project has a two-fold purpose. One, obviously it is meant as an artist’s concept fused with journalism to continue to engage the public in a dialogue on the issue. Second, it is meant to challenge the modes in which we are delivered our content and who the gate-keepers are to our news. We need to always ask, who are the editors, curators and or censors we don’t see or ask enough about that shape the way we understand the world through photographs?

I am about to go on a workshop/lecture tour through universities in Canada and the U.S. just as I did with the Mira Mexico newspaper. I’ll be using GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review in classes teaching visual literacy to students. It will be a workshop format where students will each have a copy of the newspaper and re-edit and present to the class why they selected the images they did on Guantanamo. I think empowering young minds to understand how their opinions are manipulated by the use or misuse of photographs is critical to our future.

PP: How does GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review relate to your other bodies of work and areas of interest?

LP: I try to create multi-platform uses for my work and always engage a topic over a long period of time, and usually beyond any news-cycle. My average project lasts between 3-5 years. My first one lasted 15-years. But that won’t happen again!

PP: You must have looked at plenty of other photographer’s work on Gitmo. Who else has done it well?

LP: Actually, I haven’t! I have seen a handful of wire photos from there that are not my style of work, but gives a base of understanding of how news photographers have had to work there. I also have seen numerous art based documentary photographers do bodies of work there, in the end they have all taken many of the same photographs because of the strict control over access. I don’t think anyone has done it “well” including myself since the access is so controlled and photos are deleted. There are sections of the newspaper that deals directly with that issue — the *age of extreme image control* is one of the main layers of meaning in the newspaper. The newspaper is, an object and document that says my access and images were controlled on this issue.

I can’t show you how Guantanmo really is. However, with the newspaper maybe I can show you how it was for me. That is why I created it.

PP: Have you any thoughts (regarding visibility, perhaps?) about how Guantanamo relates to America’s extrajudicial prisons around the globe?

LP: Digital photography is a blessing and a curse. Media campaigns and disinformation operations are easier now than ever. The newspaper is also about photojournalism. You know photojournalists control what we see as well, editing can be seen as censorship by some media critics.

Let me explain, it’s about interpretation of what we are doing, right? If I take 1000 photographs on assignment and I edit only 15 for you to see, what do you call that editing or censorship? This newspaper questions photojournalism as a whole and everyone involved in it including me.

PP: How will Guantanamo end?

LP: I don’t know how Guantanamo will end. Even if it does end as a physical structure, it has become visually symbolic for extremists, they have turned government released visuals linked to the detention center into a disturbing propaganda tool. Events and places like the detention center at Gitmo are never looked at very kindly through the eyes of history.

PP: Thanks, Louie.

LP: Thank you, Pete.

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Marking Time

A few months ago, I shared an announcement for the ‘Marking Time’ Prison Arts and Activism Conference, organised by the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University.

Earlier this week, IRW announced the schedule for the October 8the -10th conference. On it are some inspiring artists whose work I’ve long admired from distance. Great line up.

I’m also pleased to mention that I’ll be moderating a panel, the proposal for which, for your informations, I have copy&pasted below.

Panel: Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences

We produce and consume an enormous quantity of images each day (350 million photos are uploaded daily to Facebook alone and the average person sees 5,000 advertisements per day). While images often reify stereotypes and social causality, many artists are creating and distributing photographs or disrupting dominant visual culture in hopes of supporting or instigating prison activism and reform. By looking at three practitioners with distinct approaches, audiences and strategies, this panel will explore the power, limitations, and corresponding ethics of visual activism. What images do citizens have access to? Who controls cliche and motif? What new images of prisons and prisoners need to be made? How can collaborative modes of producing and understanding images be catalysts for collective action? How can photography get past its role as mere documentation of prisons to help create visions for alternatives to incarceration?

Across New York City, Lorenzo Steele Jr. exhibits photographs he made during his work as a correctional officer deep in Rikers Island. At church groups, in parking lots, in schools, and during summer community days, Steele brings graphic imagery directly to multiple generations within the catchment area of Rikers. Steele’s presentations are accompanied by a number of workshops on conflict reconciliation, criminal justice and community.

Gregory Sale has produced longterm large scale projects that with significant institutional support have managed to bring together many disparate constituencies orbiting the criminal justice world. Sale’s “It’s Not All Black & White” made a conscious effort to wrestle the visual motifs and cliche of crime (striped jumpsuits, pink underwear and even brown skin) that Arizona’s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio has manipulated for his own political advantage.

Mark Strandquist works with communities to create photographs requested by prisoners (“If you could have a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”). After sending images to the corresponding prisoners, the photographs are exhibited and expanded upon through extensive public programing that brings students, policy makers, former prisoners, and many others together to engage with the causes, effects, and alternatives to mass incarceration.

Moderator, Pete Brook will ask the panelists which approaches have worked and which have not. What presentations of material have engaged and persuaded audiences? What different expectations and needs do audiences have which we as artists and activists must consider?

BIOGRAPHIES

Gregory Sale is multidisciplinary, socially-engaged artist, whose work investigates issues of incarceration, citizenship, visual culture and emotional territories. In 2011, Sale orchestrated It’s Not All Black & White, a three-month residency exhibition at ASU Art Museum in Tempe, AZ. 52 programmed events brought together a wide array of constituencies including incarcerated persons, their families, parolees, ex-convicts, correctional officers, elected officials, government employees, members of the community, media representatives, artists, and researchers. It considered the cultural, social and personal issues at stake in the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system in Arizona. Sale’s most recent project, Sleepover grapples with the challenges of individuals reentering society after periods of incarceration.

Sale is the recipient of a Creative Capital Grant in Emerging Fields (2013) and an Art Matters Grant (2014) . In summer 2012, as a resident artist at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, and at VCCA in Amherst, VA, Sale’s work has appeared in museums nationwide including the Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill and the Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville. Sale is Assistant Professor of Intermedia and Public Practice at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. Before that he served as the Visual Arts Director for Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Curator of Education at ASU Art Museum, and as a public art project manager for the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture.

Lorenzo Steele Jr. is a former New York City Correction Officer. He worked for 12 years at Rikers Island, considered by some as the most violent adolescent prison America.

In 2001, Steele founded Future Leaders, a non profit youth that provides workshops, training, education and consultation to children, parents and educators about incarceration and the criminal justice system. Steele has worked as a New York City Board of Education vendor and assisted organizations — such as The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the Nassau/Suffolk (BOCES) school district — with workshops on conflict resolution, bullying and literacy. He has also worked with the Brooklyn District Attorneys office providing gang and prison awareness to at-risk youth. He has lectured at college across the New York area. Steele is the recipient of awards from Congressional, Senate, and State Assemblymen for services to the community and to children’s development.

Mark Strandquist is an artist, educator, and organizer. His projects facilitate interactions that incorporate viewers as direct participants and present alternative models for the civic and artistic ways in which we engage the world around us. Each interactive installation functions not as a culmination but as a starting point and catalyst for dialogue, exchange, and community action. While photography is often used, the visual aesthetics and technical mastery of the medium become secondary to the social process through which the images are created, and the social interactions that each exhibition produces.

The ongoing project Some Other Places We’ve Missed: Windows From Prison was awarded the 2014 Society for Photographic Educators’ National Conference Image Maker Award, a Photowings/Ashoka Foundation Insights Changemaker Award, and the VCU Art’s Dean’s Award by juror Lisa Frieman. Strandquist’s projects have been exhibited and presented in museums, film festivals, conferences, print and online magazines, and independent galleries. The project Write Home Soon was exhibited in the 2012-13 international showcase of Socially Engaged Art at the Art Museum of Americas, Washington, DC. The ongoing project, The People’s Library is part of the permanent collection at the Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library and was presented by Strandquist and Courtney Bowles at the 2013 Open Engagement Conference. Strandquist is an adjunct faculty member at the Corcoran College of Art, a teaching artist with the University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts, a Professional Fellow at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and a Capital Fellow at Provisions Library.

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PREAMBLE: PHOTOGRAPHING FROM WITHIN

One of the most interesting street photographers in America right now is Gabe Angemi. He shoots daily and prolifically. He makes pictures with an iPhone, mostly, but on other cameras too. Angemi is a firefighter in Camden, New Jersey. His profession allows him to get close.

Elevated angles of passing moments in some of Angemi’s photos are reminiscent of images in the many curated Google Street View (GSV) projects. GSV projects tend to divide people. You love them or you hate them. Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture was one of the earliest, one of the best promoted and most divisive of the GSV projects. Why am I mentioning this? Well, Rickard got some flak because he drove-by shot America’s poorest neighbourhoods from behind his computer screen.He didn’t hit the streets himself, but drifted past scenes from the up-high vantage point of a 15-eyed Google car camera rig.

In his look at inequality in America, Rickard *travelled* the streets of Camden. Some of Angemi’s images may look similar but the intent and engagement is vastly different. I’m somehow reassured to know that Angemi is getting down of his rig, chatting with locals, watching the ebb and flow of energies, and shaping the city. He’s also responding to emergencies, securing vacants and putting out fires.

Angemi’s diaristic portrait of the city is raw. But it reflects a place in which 40+% of the population live below the poverty line; a city hall from which three past mayors have been convicted of corruption; a city which can’t support its own schools; and a city in which police misconduct was so rife that law enforcement was placed in the receivership of state forces.

Camden has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. and is often described as the most violent city in America. In 2012, Camden had 2,566 violent crimes per 100,000 people which is five times the national average. Camden is a rough town, but it is more than its poverty. Angemi consistently puts the hardships and everyday events into a wider context.

Whereas Rickard simply restated that poverty exists in America, and in Camden in particular, Angemi is seeing and sharing it daily. He’s mapping change in Camden and he’s also trying to make it a safer place. That makes him one of the most interesting street photographers in the country.

Angemi pushes his stuff out on a popular but private Instagram account, @ANGE_261.

Scroll down for our Q&A

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Are you always using an iPhone? Are you always shooting on the job? Or do you use other cameras and venture out other times?

Gabe Angemi (GA): Not always. But the iPhone is just always there you know? It’s super easy. Occasionally though, it sucks. I also use a 35mm Olympus camera I got from Clint Woodside at Dead Beat Club, and a couple of Polaroid cameras. I’ve been using a Fuji X100 mostly as of late.

Recently, I gave Bruce Gilden and some friends from Magnum a tour of Camden, for a few hours on back-to-back days. I can’t shoot like that; the big cameras and the assistant will never suite me. I love that it’s out there and artists like Bruce are killing it, but I’ll keep making it work with what I got. I suppose that points to why the iPhone works so well for me, it’s just easiest. My photography is more timing, perspective and place than anything else. I suppose I just never had the money to buy a camera that’s *serious*. One day I’ll get a legit one I suppose.

PP: How long have you been a Camden firefighter?

GA: I’ll have been on the job in CMD for 16 years come December. I was recently promoted out of the Rescue Company to Engine Co. 11 in the city’s Cramer Hill section.

PP: How do you take pictures while you’re on call?

GA: I take my job very seriously. Being Johnny on the spot at a fire scene doesn’t jive well with making good photos. I’ve started making photos more and more off duty. The access though — it was invaluable to get me where I could be making interesting photos.

When I was shooting at work years ago, I needed quick and easy so it never interfered with my duty or performance. Hence, the iPhone. Clearly, I can’t have a big ass camera around my neck while I’m fighting fire!

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GA: I rarely shoot on the job these days, it is illegal per department policy now. If I take a photo on duty it is with the intent of using it for a training presentation or a PowerPoint.

PP: Because you train other firefighters in fire abatement, right?

GA: Right. And nothing but harmless stuff goes on my social media. Ethical considerations are a big factor. Problems are to be avoided. I had to talk to an attorney about it extensively a few years back.

PP: When did you decide to start shooting in the city?

GA: I started shooting the day I was hired, using an old film camera. Maybe even before that, when I’d stop in a firehouse to see my dad.

Initially, I was just shooting and documenting “us.” Somewhere along the line, I turned the camera towards the city, the issues, the people, the good, the bad. It all seems so normal now but its surely not. Camden’s a fascinating place. I like to be involved in friction, and trying to solve it. I shoot the friction in places that used to be what America was all about, and still is, but for entirely different reasons.

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PP: Camden is a tough town. Lots of surveillance, lots of blocks where tensions between citizens and cops are high. How do you and your uniform and your camera fit into that?

GA: I think that collectively, the fire department is looked upon endearingly. The residents have family and friends on the job. The locals know we are not there to break their balls or be indignant. We’re just there to help.

It’s funny how most of the outsiders are the ones who confuse us with the police while were on the street. I mean, I get it, it’s a dark blue uniform, but we are clearly not the police; we do not carry weapons.

Anyone who sees us — from the corner boys to the politicians — should know we don’t judge, assume or push buttons that aggravate anything. We mind our own business, we just want to help.

I’m not dumb though, I’m not always going to fit in, and clearly I’m not going to try to fit me and my camera into a spot that isn’t going to work out. ‘Round pegs, round holes,’ as one of our Deputy Chiefs always said. It carries over from my career to my art.

Tensions are indeed high, and yes, the city is heavily surveilled. The municipality and county had acquired some state of the art detection and monitoring equipment by way of federal grants. The whole city sometimes feels like a prison. Cameras are everywhere, and there’s now a shot detection system that can pinpoint gunfire down to a city block.

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GA: Tensions aren’t necessarily a consistent thing, but more like an ebb and flow depending on what’s going on in a particular part of town. Some spots are always hot, others rise and fall. I’m no authority mind you, and I won’t claim to be an aficionado on the vibe on the street between citizens and the law. I pay close attention, but I’m not in any position to really know anything about the police and their plight. It’s not my job. All I really know about them is they have a tough job, and it’s damn dangerous. So is ours.

PP: What’s the reactions of the locals?

GA: My camera gets me smiles, waves, fun poses, friends, conversations and past barriers or preconceived notions. It also gets me dirty looks, threats and projectiles. Obviously, I prefer the former, but just like my job, I take the good with the bad.

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PP: What’s your approach?

GA: I ask sometimes to shoot, sometimes I don’t. I build relationships with people I meet on the street when I’m working and try to create a bond or trust so that I can go to their space and photograph them. Sometimes it takes time, other times it can go down right away. Personalities abound; it’s very cool.

PP: Is Camden been talked about, written about, and/or depicted in the right ways?

GA: No.

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PP: You’ve a professional experience of the poverty, disrepair, vacancy and the destruction/burning of houses. Can you describe what you’ve witnessed in your work and how you’ve secured and watched properties burn never to be replaced? It seems your job — in real time — has tracked the decline of Camden.

GA: Many of the buildings I was shooting initially for teaching purposes are no longer standing. Anyone that does what I do for any length of time should start to inadvertently become aware of the developing issues and predict whats coming or whats soon to happen. I’ve watched the city disappear over the last 16 years. When you drive around and see vacant lots, you become aware that it was once a thriving community, with street lights and brick and mortar row homes lining the sidewalk. People lived here.

Now, whole stretches of fenced in empty lots do not even have the fences anymore, they have been torn out and cashed in at one of the many local scrap yards. You can hear huge sections of fence being dragged through the street — day or night. The sound of hammers and improvised hacksaws emanate from behind rows of boarded up windows, working to remove any type of metal with a high price per pound. One can often smell gas leaking from stolen basement pipes in vacant buildings, thieves are disinterested in even turning the gas petcock off. Used tires are everywhere, lining the streets like weeds. Plastic bags from the bodegas blow like urban tumbleweeds.

PP: Extreme poverty.

GA: At work, When we are out preplanning vacant row homes, we see needles, used condoms, the insides of ball point pens, lighters, baggies, piles of clothes, stacked mattresses, tinfoil “sculptures,” shit buckets, piles of feces in corners, the carcasses of what would have been a pet in the suburbs … I could go on with this list for a half hour.

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We speak to the neighbors, the mail man, the utility provider, squatters, prostitutes, everyone. We just assume the time is coming, you can just sense when a particular spot is going to burn. Then you’d catch the house, or the block, or the building, you turn the corner in the rig at 3am and the street is lit up like your on the surface of the sun.

Its always astonishes me, how it works. Not all of my peers are as tuned in I suppose, or they just prefer to ignore it. That would go for fireman working in any socioeconomically challenged urban city…

But, I think my artistic tendencies and growing up on a skateboard led me to observe closer. I can sorta relate a bit better, growing up in counter-culture mindset. I used to skate, bike, walk or drive around Philadelphia looking at everything from a skateboarding perspective. How could I creatively use the landscape to have fun on my skateboard? Now, I do the exact same thing, but in terms of forcing my way in and out of structures, in terms of understanding who or how many people might be living in a building that is supposed to have no one living in it. I’m constantly training myself to get a better understanding of how poverty affects people out here.

Where are they at? What are they willing to do or endure. I feel that everyone [in precarious or vacant houses] are my responsibility regardless of their job, tax bracket, or societal position. So I pay real fucking close attention and decide what I can and can’t do to make a difference. It’s best to see things up close so you know what you can safely do in the dead of night, maybe half asleep, when you need to be up on your game. We don’t get to warm up. We go full throttle, from a stand still-ice cold position.

The work kills our bodies. We might as well be the buildings were in and out of, becoming more and more structurally unsound over time. I mean fuck, I want to see my girls the next day too, so theres always this friction. I’m not sure exactly how to articulate what I see there, but its fascinating. Its also predictable and above anything else, a travesty. Sitting back is bullshit.

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GA: I always say that Camden should have been Philadelphia. A lot of things and people have conspired both consciously and subconsciously over time, both with premeditation and without, to make this place what it is today. There’s so many issues its overwhelming.

I talk to the folks next door or nearby to where we are operating. It’s heartbreaking. Hearing a woman tell me she’s got kids in her house three doors down from where we just put a fire out. They knew it was coming, they saw squatters in and out, they saw addicts using the houses to get high and shelter themselves. They have perpetual anxiety about not if but when [their place might burn down].

There’s a documentary film called Burn, and one of the featured guys in it has a great quote, “I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen during 30 years of firefighting in Detroit.” That poor bastard has seen some terrible things. I wish I could say I, or any of the guys I work with, were any different. This job can mess your life up, I watched it do it to friends, both mentally and physically. It’s a battle for sanity. We’re getting kicked from all angles, BUT I owe everything I have to the City of Camden Fire Department, and I try to earn that shit every time I go to work, and every time I take, or teach a class. We work hard for what we get, we do a great job, and I’m proud of the work we do.

Camden civilians see more fires than most fire departments.

PP: Fire is a symptom of poverty, right?

GA: I believe so. Our workload is indicative of that. It’s the same in other depressed communities — Detroit; Gary, IN; Flint, MI; Jackson, MS; Stockton, CA; East St. Louis; Bluefield, WV; Baltimore; as well as sections of Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, New Orleans. There are so many places dealing with poverty. It would be hard to argue that fire isn’t tied into a cycle of poverty.

PP: What do you colleagues think of your photography?

GA: I’m not really sure! I struggle to keep it separate, and I struggle to combine it. I have a lot of support from guys I spent years of my life with — they support me and it, even if they don’t get it. I’m sure there are guys who don’t know me too well who are not feeling it or very receptive. Some guys have talked to me about it and now understand. All I can do is keep on being me. I’m not looking to hurt, upset, take advantage or manipulate anyone. I want to throw-up when some one says I’m exploiting people. I’m far more invested in this town and its people.

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PP: What’s next?

GA: I’d like to make a book, Pete. One of these days, I hope to put together a book dummy.

I would also like to do shooting elsewhere. I’d love to find a grant that would allow me to do what I do in Camden, in other cities. I could go hook up with friends in other fire departments and make photos.

But honestly, I’m trying to adjust to a new role in my job. And be a father to my young daughter. My wife is soon to give birth to a second daughter, so time and energy are harder and harder to come by!

Hopefully next year, I’m going to find myself sitting on the co-op board for Camden FireWorks, a great South Camden artistic endeavor. Those involved hope to start some revitalization on South Broadway out of the old CFD Engine Co. 3 fire house. Heart of Camden acquired it and put a ton of time, energy and grant money into refurbishing it into artist studio spaces, gallery and printing press with a program of lectures and classes.

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PP: Anything else you want to add?

GA: I hope that no one ever interprets my opinions, intentions or photography as negative toward Camden. I’m invested here. My father was a CMD fireman for 33 years and busted his ass through two riots and decades of a fire-load that would make most of today’s firefighters quit. I feel that the city looks like it does now by some twisted and fateful design. I give back in my own ways, and try to make Camden a better place.

I can’t get by with out my family, they are the best ever! Thanks Nicole, Maria, Lillian, and Lucia. You allow me to make art, make photos and constantly deal with my obsessive nature and all that comes with it.

I owe a ton more to too many of my friends and influences to write here but they know who they are. ARTNOWNY and the Philadelphia art scene are awesome.

Oh, and firefighters rule! We are here for you.

PP: Cheers, Gabe.

GA: Thank you, Pete.

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