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Susan Wright, Texas
Matt Rainwaters is an editorial features photographer, based in Austin, Texas. Photographer Lance Rosenfield told me, “Matt is a specialist at making portraits through bullet proof glass.” For the past few years, Rainwaters has been the go-to-man in the lone star state for interview-room portraits. Collected, these portraits are the series Offender.
As well as Texas prison portraits, Offender includes some images from Rainwaters’ 2010 trip to Guantanamo.
Of Rainwaters’ Guantanamo images, I have never before seen photos like his shots of magazines with crudely redacted images of women inside the pages. The layers, scrawls and obvious surface of those images of images seem to encapsulate the malevolent drudgery that is the deadlock between disfunctional fundamentalism and more disfunctional American legal standards. When two resolute systems that cannot accommodate each other an create faint-compromise, they do so with results of zero utility. Perverse and pathetic.
Unfortunately, when I spoke to Matt, I wasn’t familiar with the redacted-image magazine images, so I didn’t ask him about them. Darn! I hope they spark some inquiries of your own.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
PP: Recently, I spoke with Alan Pogue, a documentary photographer in your home city Austin. Alan said it’s easy to get a photograph in a visiting room but if you need to get inside the living quarters and inside Texan prison facilities you pretty much need a lawsuit. What do you think about that?
Matthew Rainwaters (MR): I’d say that’s fair. Getting access to the visiting rooms is fairly easy if you have a commission and if you have the media contact. Getting beyond that though I’ve never been able to.
The writer I work with and I have had great ideas for stories but getting past the visiting room is not gonna happen. There’s been times when literally I could have walked just past the line and made a much more compelling portait, but it’s just not allowed.
PP: How does one get access to the visiting rooms?
MR: If you go to the Texas Department of Justice website there is a ‘media’ section. Contact the media liaison with details of the publication that you’re working for. Once you have the commission, you tell them the story and the prisoner that you’re planning on working with. The negotiations are straight forward.
PP: In how many Texas prisons have you made portraiture?
MR: I’ve been to various facilities in Hunstville, TX; one in Palestine, TX; and I’ve been to four different facilities in East Texas.
PP: Are there any limitations on the equipment you take in?
MR:You are subject to a search every time you go in. I typically have my lighting kit - two strobe heads, a bag with stands and various modifiers, reflectors, cloths, back drops. I’ve never had a problem getting kit in and out.
PP: How do you shoot through reflective bullet-proof glass?
MR: There’s a few tricks that you can use. Sometimes a polarizer will help. Sometimes if it’s a small enough booth I can have an assistant stand behind me with a dark cloth and that will cut down on reflections and then from there it’s just understanding the fundamentals of photography. Lighting, contrast, and trying to work with the available light.
Trying to use a strobe through glass is next to impossible.
From there it’s just talking with your subject, getting to know them, and then trying to effectively communicate their story that the writer is also telling.
Wayne East, Texas
PP: Can you describe each of your subjects and their particular stories?
MR: I photographed Wayne East. He was convicted of a murder. This is a pretty compelling story. He spent 19 years on death row before a woman started championing his cause. Not incoincidentally, she was the victim’s cousin who believed that East is innocent.
She raised a bunch of money, spent a lot of her own money and basically petitioned to get him off of death row. He was recently paroled. after 30 years for the crime.
PP: It wasn’t a wrongful conviction?
MR: East has always said he is innocent. The question remains: Was he really guilty or is he innocent as she also believes?
The other story I was really close to was that of Susan Wright (top image). My images ran in Texas Monthly for an article titled 193. She was convicted of murdering her husband by stabbing him 193 times.
Susan Wright, Texas
MR: The story goes that Wright’s husband would come home and beat her. The defense attorney never brought up battered woman syndrome.
Well, one day he came home and started rough-housing with their kid, slapped him around, and that’s actually what drove her over the edge and she tied him to the bed and then ended up pulling a knife out and stabbing him 193 times. This whole idea of battered woman syndrome and her being psychologically damaged from years of abuse was never brought up during the defense. So she was up for an appeal for parole and I believe that’s still pending. I don’t know how that’s played out.
PP: There’s another compelling portrait of a female in that story was it the prosecuting attorney or the DA?
MR: Kelly Siegler, prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office.
The court proceedings were aired on Court TV and Siegler was a controversial character because she was very theatrical in her closing arguments. She ended up tying one of her law assistants to the table and climbed on top of him and proceeded to count out 193 stabs, every single one she simulated with her pen. All on TV. A lot of people believe that those theatrics are responsible for convicting Susan.
Kelly Siegler, District Attorney prosecutor, Texas
PP: What was your first prison shoot?
MR: Steven Russell. You may be familiar with him from the movie I Love You Phillip Morris starring Jim Carrey as Russell.
Russell is Texas’ most notorious escape artist. He’ll be in prison for the rest of his life, even though he was originally convicted of a white collar crime. Russell fell in love with a man in prison, escaped to be with him, and then continued to escape over and over again. So what could have been a relatively short prison sentence has been compounded by the crime of escape four times over.
Russell was in the most maximum security prison – the Michael Unit out past Palestine. He has one hour of sunlight each day. He’s locked up in the same way as the most violent offenders, although he’s a completely non-violent offender.
All four times that he escaped were completely nonviolent too, so it’s sort of tragic. Does he deserve to be there? You know, that’s questionable. He did escape but it’s a sad story nonetheless.
Steven Russell, Texas
PP: Let’s move from the US to the US’ outlying territories? When did you got Guantanamo and why?
MR: I went to Guantanamo for Esquire UK in March, 2010.
PP: For how many days?
MR: It was a three day stay on the base.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about Guantanamo Bay. The media portrays it as solely as a detention facility on the coast of Cuba but what I didn’t realize until I got there it’s been a functioning military base since 1906 – a lot of it’s operations have to do with immigration and refueling point for US allies.
MR: We did the media tour of the prison facility. We went to some of the different camps. Saw how, in some cases, some of the inmates live communally, in other cases some of them are locked down. There’s definitely a lot of secrecy still. It’s not as transparent as they would have you believe. There’s some camps that you don’t have access to at all and there’s some camps that they don’t even admit to existing on the island and they don’t show up on any maps. But it’s been proven that there are certain inmates that are held there in a mysterious location.
MR: What is extremely frustrating about photographing at Guantanamo Bay is the strict security protocol. At the end of every day, you sit down with an officer and they look through every single photo.
Sometimes very arbitrary reasons or sometimes very good reasons, they will delete a photo. If they don’t like the way it may represent the prison then they’ll delete those photos too.
Every single photograph goes through this “filter.” I had maybe 60% of the images I shot deleted before I came home.
PP: Is it fair to ask if there’s any points of comparison between Guantanamo and the Texas prisons? Did you feel as though the monitoring is different? Did you feel as though the administrations understood your role as a media person differently? Do you find any irony in the fact that Guantanamo is one of the most secure and notorious prisons in the world but they provide these three days media junkets, something state prisons do not provide?
MR: Within the Texas prison system we’re there to photograph a specific individual. So you’re led into an interview room or booth. I’m there to take a photograph of that person whereas in Guantanamo Bay the subject isn’t a specific person it is the entire facility.
PP: But in both cases, for different reasons, the authority is media savvy and happy to work with you?
Guantanamo Bay a lot of people believe, and quite possibly rightfully so, should be shut down because it is a publicity nightmare for the United States. Everything they’re trying to do with the media at Guantanamo is to try and show how fair, how honest, how transparent, everything is and they’re really trying to deflect this image of it being a detention facility that practices torture.
The institutionally genius part of Guantanamo Bay, from the administration standpoint is no-one is stationed at Guantanamo Bay. People are only deployed to Guantanamo Bay, so no-one stays there for longer than a year-and-a-half and that goes to the highest ranking people, including the admiral who’s in charge of the Joint Task Force.
So, when you ask them about issues of torture or enhanced interrogation methods everyone can default stock answer over and over again. We kept running into, “I don’t know, I wasn’t here.”
Institutionally it’s set up in that way and that was probably the most frustrating thing as a journalist. No one can tell the whole story. The institutional memory of the place is at best a year old.
PP: Your work has a very distinct look. So, how would you say it fits in with other photography made in prisons? And I’m asking that in terms of like who has the power? How does it inform the public?
MR: I’m photographing individuals and as an editorial features photographer. Portraiture is mostly what I do so I’m trying to set up a dialogue with my subject that is fair to them and it’s honest to the story. I have to quickly learn how to make people comfortable, disarm them, get them to open up to you so that you can be fair and honest to them.
I typically have an hour to work with a subject, it’s a different thing than say a documentary looking at a place over and over again. I’m working work within the confines of limited time and semi-limited knowledge of the person and trying to break all that down and create a portrait.
PP: What is the reaction of your subjects? What do they think will come about through your interaction with the camera as a mediator?
MR: A mixture of skepticism and hope. They hope that telling their story will better the legal decision that may be looming. Maybe it’s a plea for an appeal or they just want to tell their story. Maybe they feel like they haven’t been able to tell their side of the story?
But there’s also skepticism because they don’t know necessarily the turns that the story may take and they don’t know what the recent side of the victim’s story, nor the reactions to it.
Imprisoned subjects can be guarded at first. Usually, there’s 10 to 15 minute window where you’re talking on the phone through the plexi glass. I’ve got my camera just sitting there and I’m not taking photos, just taking the pulse of the person and getting to understand them … and that will dictate everything.
Wayne East, Texas
PP: You’re building what could be loosely characterized as a portfolio of visiting room prison portraiture. Is there a common aesthetic that runs through those that you’re either conscious of or you’ve just started to notice as these projects mount up. Not in a pejorative sense, I want to describe Offender as creepy. Is that okay?
MR: Well, it’s definitely that institutional aesthetic – you’re so confined with time and space you literally have to learn to make do with whatever’s thrown at you.
Now that I’ve done it quite a few times I know what to expect; “Am I shooting through plexi-glass today or am I shooting through a screen? Do we maybe have an open room to work with which maybe means I can actually set up a back drop and maybe a light or two? Am I free to interact with the person without talking on a phone?”
It’s a dark subject but it’s also mostly working with honest stories – fascinating stories, but yeah, creepy at times. Ultimately, these are stories that need to be told and that’s why I enjoy photographing, I believe it’s some of the most honest work that I do.
PP: Thanks Matt.
MR: Thank you, Pete.
Steven Russell, Texas.
Video still. On June 10, 2012, Maine Department of Correction’s employee, Captain Shawn Welch sprays OC spray into the face of prisoner Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after Schlosser, who has an infectious disease, spat at an officer.
The pepper-spray – dispensed at point blank range – to the face of the restrained prisoner was horrific enough, but it was the use of the spit-mask that truly reflects the vindictiveness of this act of torture. Put on prisoner Paul Schlosser’s face after the pepperspray had doused his mouth, face and eyes, the spit-mask kept the irritant closer. If there was one consistent cry from Schlosser it was that the mask be removed.
Last week, the nation was shocked by video footage of Captain Shawn Welch, a Maine correctional officer discharging oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, without warning, into the face of Paul Schlosser. Welch held the Mark 9 canister about 18 inches away. The Mark 9 is intended for disabling multiple people at a distance of no closer than 6 feet.
Some experts say the use of pepper spray can be a reasonable way to get control of a situation, even if a person is restrained, but in this case is seemed wholly unnecessary. It seems vindictive and personal.
The incident occurred in June 2012 and the video came public following a leak. The Portland Press Herald broke the story. Welch was initially sacked but later reinstated following an appeal that took into account his service to the Maine Department of Corrections. It is scandalous that this man returns to a uniform.
Furthermore, as Press Herald OpEd argued the MDOC hunt for the source of the leak missed the point. The issue is the abuse the video shows.
The Press Herald’s coverage of the story has been thorough and I quote from it comprehensively below. The matter that stood out for me was the investigator’s observation that the confrontation became personal between Welch and Schlosser.
In the 24 minutes between Schlosser being sprayed and when he can wash the spray off his face, Welch strolls in and out of the cell holding the OC spray canister, telling Schlosser that if he doesn’t cooperate, “this will happen all over again.”
“You’re not going to win. I will win every time,” he says.
Welch says repeatedly, “If you’re talking, you’re breathing,” suggesting that as long as Schlosser was complaining, he was not in serious medical distress. Welch does call for a member of the prison’s medical staff.
At one point, he whispers to Schlosser, “Useless as teats on a bull, huh … What do you think now?” an apparent reference to an insult Schlosser directed at him two days earlier, according to the investigator’s report.
The investigator concluded that Welch’s treatment of Schlosser was personal.
“Welch continues to brow beat Schlosser and it looks like he has made this a personal issue,” said Durst in the report. “There is not one incident of de-escalation and in fact Welch continues to escalate the situation even after the deployment of chemical agent.”
Schlosser had been self-harming and refusing medical attention, actions which led to the extraction from his cell by riot-gear-clad prison guards.
Welch told an investigator that the use of pepper spray was appropriate because Schlosser, who has hepatitis C, had spit at an officer.
Schlosser gasps and fights for breath. He tries to lean forward to spit out the spray, but the guard holds his head against the back of the chair. One of the guards then puts a spit mask on Schlosser. The mask traps the irritant against Schlosser’s face, at one point covering both his mouth and nose.
Schlosser says he can’t breathe and promises not to struggle or argue anymore.
Pepperspray instantly dries out mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth causing intense and overwhelming pain. Pepperspray leads to a sensation of not being able to breathe, although a National Institute of Justice study found it does not compromise a person’s ability to breathe.
“It’s just like getting jalapeno pepper in your eye, only multiplied by a bunch,” said Robert Trimyer, a use of force instructor and OC trainer with the University of Texas Health Science Center Police Department in San Antonio. Depending on the concentration, OC spray is roughly 300 times “hotter” than a jalapeno pepper.
“It’s painful, but it goes away. The people that have the problem breathing, it’s really more of the anxiety involved,” said Trimyer.
Yerger believes that putting the spit shield on top of the pepper spray would intensify the effect of the spray.
“I have never heard of any trainer I have ever worked with as a peer that would ever say, ‘Put a spit hood on someone after pepper spraying them,’” he said.
“They’re spinning out of control. Restraint, pepper spray, now cover their face — you’re just escalating the situation. In cases I’ve reviewed when people have died in a (restraint) chair, it’s not uncommon to see factors like that involved.”
Above Schlosser’s restraint chair is the Seal of Maine, on which the latin word Dirigo, meaning ”I lead” is emblazoned. Welch only demonstrated to his colleagues how to posture and escalate a situation. The irony ceases to matter when the outcome was so violent.
Independent experts and everyday folk can see that if spit born Hep-C was the real issue here then the spit mask should have been put on long before Welch whipped out his Mark-9 canister. And to be honest, wouldn’t anyone spit after pepper-spray to the face?
Welch was ordered to take a personalised re-training program except the MDOC sent him away: It had nothing to teach him as he had already taken all recommended courses to the highest qualification. Didn’t seem to inform his conduct in this case, though.
After the episode, Schlosser was sent for a time to Maine State Prison in Warren for mental health treatment and returned to the Windham prison, where he is now in the general population. He said he is doing much better and has had no further encounters with Welch, although they see each other regularly.
Laura Schlosser, mother of inmate Paul Schlosser, watches the video Tuesday, March 12, 2013 of an incident involving her son and Welch. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald.
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
Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida
You all know I’m a big supporter of Alyse Emdur and her six year project Prison Landscapes, so it was great to feature her work on Wired.com.
“My act as a photographer is not from behind the lens but as a collector of images,” says Emdur. “I see myself as a mediator. These are people who have had no relationship with the outside world so while Prison Landscapes might be a very small gesture, the people who chose to be involved in this project want to be seen; they have their own agency. They want the outside world to know they aren’t the criminals they are stereotyped as.”
Relatively late in the project, Emdur resolved to visit prisons herself to photograph backdrops at a wider angle. In the space of two weeks, she gained access to 10 prisons on the East Coast. Her photographs offer context to the portraits she had already collected. In informal interviews, Emdur was able to get the perspective of the prison administrations, psychiatrists, superintendents, guards – “people who enriched my understanding,” she says.
“Prison portraits are very intentionally framed to exclude the surroundings,” explains Emdur. “They are hiding what the visiting room actually looks like. For me it is very important to show the viewer, who maybe hasn’t been in a prison visiting room, the details, and to place the backdrops in a context.”
It’s gratifying when my interest in prisons overlap with wider issues of visual culture and with the curiosity of mainstream readers.
The article coincides with Emdur’s book Prison Landscapes, published by Four Corners, London is now available. Alyse Emdur is very grateful that Four Corners will donate books to each of the individuals whose portraits feature in the book.
Prison Visiting Room Portraits, An Interview with Alyse Emdur. (Prison Photography)
Up Against The Wall: Prison Snapshots. (New York Times)
A temporary gig as a set photographer took Jordana Hall to San Quentin State Prison; her heart and consciousness propelled countless return visits. She has worked particularly closely with men who were convicted when juvenile (under 18) and were sentenced to life in prison.
Hall has worked as a volunteer in existing programs; launched her own project that melds poetry, family letters, snapshots and her own portraits; and visited the hometowns and families of prisoners. The ongoing body of work Home Is Not Here is part of Hall’s senior thesis exhibition. It will be on show – beginning April 2013 – at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
I wanted to learn more about Hall’s motives and discoveries.
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Prison Photography (PP): How did you get access to San Quentin State Prison?
Jordana Hall (JH): My work at San Quentin started in June 2011. I was hired as the set photographer for a documentary (working title, Crying Sideways) by SugarBeets Productions. The documentary details the stories of a group inside San Quentin called KIDCAT (Kids Creating Awareness Together).
PP: KIDCAT is a group of lifers sentenced as juveniles, correct?
JH: Yes, you can follow KIDCAT on Facebook.
PP: They describe themselves as “men who grew up in prison and as a group have matured into a community that cares for others, is responsible to others, and accountable for their own actions.”
JH: I began attending KIDCAT’s bi-weekly group meetings as a volunteer. During this period of volunteering, I developed a working relationship with the members of KIDCAT. Showing up when I said I would, being accountable, and most of all keeping an open mind and heart while inside re-assured the men of KIDCAT that I was a trustworthy member.
Then in June 2012, I started working on my senior thesis for my Photojournalism BFA at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. I approached Lieutenant Sam Robinson, Public Information Officer at San Quentin, with the idea of starting the “Home Is Not Here” project. If I had not had the relationship that I do with the men of KIDCAT, Sam would not have been so willing to help. It really is this relationship that I have with the group that has allowed me so many opportunities to continue my work there. I’ve been going into San Quentin for a year and a half now, and have only been able to bring my camera three times.
To be granted access to San Quentin – even minimal access – requires a lot of work. There needs to be a legitimate return for the prison community. In my case, publishing my work to Young Photographer’s Alliance, posting to my website, and eventually in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was enough justification for the prison to allow me to continue working inside.
I never take my access for granted.
There are strict rules about what you can and cannot do, wear and say. If I slip up – even just a little – my access is on the line.
PP: Why did you take on the project?
JH: After hearing the inmate’s stories during the documentary filming, I realized that all of them were just teenagers who were dealt a bad hand. This is not to say they don’t take responsibility for what they did. They definitely do. Their stories resonated to my core; the stories would impact anyone who heard them. I left the prison gates that day realizing that they could be my brother, father, or best friend. I began to think about their families. Most of the men in the group are in their mid-thirties; they have spent more than half of their lives in prison. I thought about how they struggle to keep working relationships with their loved ones for so many years through the prison walls. That wondering led me to my senior thesis project.
Home Is Not Here documents the relationships between an incarcerated person and his family. I seek out the ways in which their relationship can be kept when there are so many barriers involved.
PP: What have you learnt?
JH: I’ve learned that the families of incarcerated people are the least documented victims of crime. Communities shun them for “raising a criminal.” There are limited resources available for them to get help. These families mourn the loss of their loved one’s free life with little to no support.
I learned the truth in the statement, “When one person is incarcerated, at least five people ‘serve the time’ with them.” I have seen family members go about their daily lives with a piece of their heart locked away in prison.
JH: I learned that letters from a child to their “Tio Miguel” (who they have never met outside of prison visitations) would break your heart. I learned that even the toughest looking men still get tears in their eyes when you ask about their family.
I am still learning.
PP: What did the prisoners think of being photographed?
JH: The first day they were most interested in seeing how a digital camera works. I am very hands-on with my subjects, and with the permission of Lt. Sam Robinson, I handed my second camera body to the guys to play with on the breaks during filming. It was both funny as well as saddening to watch their amazement at the foreign device.
The first time I went in, I asked to see an inmate’s cell. The guys all looked at each other, waiting for someone to volunteer. One by one they denied my request to see their space. We ended up going to a stranger’s cell, just so I could poke my head in from the door. Soon after, I fully realized the shame that comes over them when asked about their cells. It is the only space that is their own, but it also the cage they are locked in at night. These 6 x 12 cement cages are a place both of safety and of degradation.
After I stuck around for a year, I approached the cell situation, again. This time they were excited to show me their space. Their family photos on the wall, bookshelf with notebooks, sketchbooks, and wall markings left from previous inmates. “Stay Focused” was scrawled into the yellowed paint next to the metal bunk. It took some time and a lot of trust building for me to get on that level with them.
PP: Did you give the men prints?
JH: Giving the guys the prints is absolutely one of my favorite parts!
The Home Is Not Here project had me traveling to the hometowns of three men. I went with only small clues of what and where to photograph – “The Dairy Queen where I took my first girlfriend on my first date,” or “The restaurant named after the city in Vietnam where my family was from.”
When I brought back prints from my trips, the guys were blown away by how much had changed, and how much had stayed the same.
I was asked by one inmate to visit the grave of his grandmother. They were extremely close and she passed away while he was in prison. When he saw the photograph I took there, he began to cry. It was almost as if I had delivered him a physical place to grieve her passing.
I try to give back to my subjects as much as I can. I try not to be that photographer that comes in, gets the story, and never comes back. They give so much of themselves when they allow me to photograph them, giving prints to them is the least I can do.
PP: What did the staff think of being photographed?
JH: I never photographed the staff, although some day I hope to see some really thorough work done about the people who work in prisons. It would be a fascinating story.
PP: I agree. I’ve yet to see a photography project that suitably deals sympathetically and deeply the complex and stressful dynamics of correctional officers’ work and lives.
PP: Could photography serve a rehabilitative role, if used in a workshop format in prisons?
JH: I think a workshop on photography in a prison would be an incredible idea. These men are so introspective and have so much to offer, creatively. The documentation of life inside prison by an inmate could offer such insight for us all.
PP: Are prisoners invisible?
JH: Yes, I believe prisoners are invisible. Everything about the prison system is set up for them to be invisible, and stay invisible. To be silenced, and out of sight. What I aim to do with this project is to shed some light on a piece of an inmate’s life that is not seen. When people think prison photography they think of hardened criminals, drug addicts, grimy hands gripping cell door bars, and the underbelly of society. I am offering the alternative viewpoint, which is the humanity inside. These men are fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and they all have people who care about them. They also have built communities of support for each other, inside.
PP: What’s been the feedback to your the work?
JH: As I work I like to get feedback from my peers. A lot of people who see photographs of inmates and due to their preconceived notions will shake their head and walk away thinking, “What monsters…” but with the work I do, I try to side step this notion and say, “No, look closer.”
No matter what I do, some people will never see it the way I’d like them to, but for people who can be open-minded, the work gives an inside look to the humanity that exists inside prison, and awareness of the struggles of their families.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
JH: As I move forward in my thesis, I am turning my focus to just one inmate in particular, Miguel Quezada. This is the working statement:
“Estamos Contigo (We Are With You)” - Miguel Quezada (below) was incarcerated at age 16. Now 31, he has spent half of his entire life in prison. Due to a harsh judicial decision that he should serve his sentences consecutively, his first parole hearing is not until the year 2040. He will be 60 years old. Home, for Miguel, rests between the realities of life at San Quentin Prison today, memories of his childhood cut short, and dreams of a faraway tomorrow. His family shares this stress, mourning the loss of their loved one’s free life. From the part of South Modesto, California known for its lack of sidewalks and high crime rate, Miguel grew up in poverty with his parents who immigrated from Mexico. His mother and father, Arturo and Lucila, are almost completely illiterate, so writing letters takes a lot of time and energy. Miguel appreciates it when they do write, but loves when they send photographs. His nieces and nephew, who he has never met outside of prison visitations, write him frequently and give him a sense of connectivity to the outside world. Miguel is one of hundreds of men in the state of California with similar stories – serving life for a mistake made as a teenager. The barriers of the prison walls will never restrain the emotional longing of one human being to be with another.
PP: We look forward to checking in again soon. Thanks, Jordana.
JH: Thank you.
Someone accessed the police archive following MLK’s death to struggle with a biro pen in writing the date of his assassination.
We all know the famous photograph by Charles Moore of MLK’s arrest in Montgomery, Alabama and perhaps one or two photographs of MLK imprisoned in Birmingham Jail; MLK’s letters and the civil rights education have made the narrative and context for MLK’s arrests well known.
That is why I think an intimate tale into the biography of this mugshot would be fascinating. Through whose hands has it passed? How has it’s meaning changed? Is the copy with the scrawls the only original copy? Where are the original prints now archived?
The answers are probably easy to find and I’m just thinking out loud here.
THOUGHTS ON MUGSHOTS
This blog-post is just yet another seedling to a potential chapter of a potential book on mugshots.
I don’t think I’m the one to write a book about mugshots but a few trends make it a visual territory in rapid flux. The current racket and sleazy business opportunities they afford; the mugshot as ubiquitous as Facebook profile pics; their role as photobook Objet d’art; and mugshots’ new-found glory as consumer items, all point toward changing ideas toward – and uses of – this old photographic form.
What’s the difference between us and them? What distinguishes those labelled as criminals from those without the label? The law has it’s definitions; sentences – in the sense of legal scripts and prison terms – can give us details and legally defined facts, but other factors are at play. What role do images, particularly publicly available images, play? What about portraits? What about mugshots?
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 – spent nine months trying to answer these questions through her photography. And she challenged the mugshot.
Wicks’ research broadly titled Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research includes site (prison) visits, audio interviews, documentation, portraiture, a book (in process) and an exhibition (ongoing). I’ll write more about her documentary work in the coming weeks, but I wanted to introduce her work with her Polaroid-backing portraits, which I feel are the most nuanced approach to the critical framework she takes on.
Keep reading below.
Reading through Wicks’ insightful blog Punishing Photography where she has traced her efforts this year, it is clear Wicks is troubled by the mugshot. The mugshot is a space in which the power dynamic between subject and camera-operator is drastically unequal; it could be argued that the mugshot even plays its role in “condemning” the individual. “The mugshot is an image that is taken to indicate criminality,” writes Jonathan Finn in his book Capturing the Criminal Image.
“My portraits are an attempt to challenge the boundaries between them and us [...] The mugshot is the first significant, visual display of power where judgment is cast on that person and [it is where subjects] re-cast themselves,” writes Wicks. And, “my portraits attend to the internal spaces within each of us which harbour many unresolved emotions.”
Q: How does Wicks challenge boundaries exactly?
A: She puts her subjects – regardless of their status as prisoners, prison officers or criminologists – under the same gaze and into the same process.
They Are Us And We Are Them has no captions. We are left to guess who and what these people are. Which side of the law are they? We must bring our discriminations and our own judgements to They Are Us And We Are Them. This is a fraught starting point for the viewer; the portraits raise instant questions that are all self-created by the viewer. “Unresolved emotions” indeed.
Brilliantly, Wicks’ aesthetic proposal contrasts with the techno-fetishism of the predominant surveillance culture that is creeping toward widespread use of facial recognition, retinal scanning, iris prints, biometrics and DNA coding.
The closed-eyes motif “is a leveller” says Wicks. In short-shrift, her subjects that appear to be sleeping evoke 19th century photography, of pictoralism and of a reverence attendant in photography (think memento mori photography) before its morph into a medium used increasingly in the 21st century for control and discipline.
“I didn’t want to accept the objectification of the traditional mugshot; the concept was to challenge it. But, nor did I want to deliberately “humanize” the subject, as they would tend to become too meretricious. I did want to present sensitive portraits,” writes Wicks, whose interest spans mugshot aesthetics, history, meaning and the theories of the ate 19th century criminologists Cesare Lombroso and Alphonse Bertillon.
Keep reading below.
Visually, They Are Us And We Are Them riffs on – and works within – Wicks’ historical considerations. The sepia tones of the retrieved and scanned Polaroid backing sheets help frame each of her subjects in a space free of the mugshot associations of contemporary crime and of contemporary time.
Wicks used Polaroids to sure-up composition and to use as reference for developing. Even though she made her *proper* portraits on rolls of film, Wicks kept hold of the Polaroid-backing byproducts and extracted negative images from them.
She describes the extraction of the negative image as “unstable, messy and laborious” but feels the visual counterpoints of Polaroid negative images add “an ethereal element” to her body of work. ”I have essentially produced two quite different pieces of work at the same time,” Wicks says.
All in all, They Are Us And We Are Them is about exposing the positives and the negatives and about challenging binaries. Between definitions of good and bad, between criminal and non-criminal, between now and them, between us and them, between black and white, there are many shades of grey.
Wicks appreciated a viewer’s description of these negative images as “womb-like.” I’ve offered my thoughts, but what do you think? Wicks is eager for feedback.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Interestingly, the title They Are Us And We Are Them comes from a quote by John Laub, renowned Professor fo Criminology and the current Director of the National Institute of Justice appointed in 2010 by President Obama. Laub spoke to Fergus McNeill in the excellent documentary film The Road From Crime, about learning about breaking recidivism from the behaviours of Scottish ex-cons who’ve left the life of crime, who’ve “gone straight.”
Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces: The Meaning and Construction of Place through Criminological Research, a multi-media installation of audio, fine art photography and object sculpture/environmental art was on show at HMP Barlinnie in November 2012. It is a pioneering exhibition given the rarity art shows are mounted within prisons. Very special. In early 2013, Working Spaces, Punishing Spaces will be exhibited in three other Scottish prisons. The show will go on public view at The Briggait gallery, Glasgow in February 2013.
Isolation exercise yard, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay, Crescent City, California, a supermax-type control, high security facility said to house California’s most dangerous prisoners. © Richard Ross
Solitary confinement is in the news … for lots of reasons – a lawsuit brought by prisoners against the Federal Bureau of Prisons; a lawsuit brought by 10 prisoners in solitary against the state of California; a June Senate hearing on the psychological and human rights implications of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (which included the fabrication of a replica sized AdSeg cell in the courtroom); an ACLU report pegging solitary as human rights abuse; a NYCLU report showing arbitrary use of solitary, a NYT Op-Ed by Lisa Guenther; the rising use of solitary at immigration detention centres; and the United Nations’ announcement that solitary is torture.
Recently, journalists from across America have contacted me looking for photographs of solitary confinement to accompany their article. I could only think of three photographers – one of whom wishes to remain anonymous; another, Stefan Ruiz is not releasing his images yet; which leaves Richard Ross‘ work which is well known.
Stefan Ruiz’ photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison, CA made in 1995 for use as court evidence. (See full Prison Photography interview with Ruiz here.)
With a seeming paucity, I went in search of other images. I found an image of a “therapy session” by Lucy Nicholson from her Reuters photo essay Inside San Quentin. A scene that has been taken to task by psychologist and political image blogger Michael Shaw.
Rich Pedroncelli for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Pelican Bay has been hosting media tours and welcoming journalists in the past year – partly due to public pressure and partly through a strategic shift by the CDCR to appear to be responding to public outcry. Maybe the courts have had a say, too?
© Lucy Nicholson / Reuters. Prisoners of San Quentin’s AdSeg unit in group therapy. (Source)
© Shane Bauer. Pelican Bay SHU cell. (Source)
© Shane Bauer. CA CDCR employees show investigative journalist Shane Bauer the Pelcian Bay SHU “Dog run.” (Source)
Correctional Officer Lt. Christopher Acosta is seen in the exercise area in the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. State prison officials allowed the media to tour Pelican’ Bay’s secure housing unit, known as the SHU, where inmates are isolated for 22 1/2 hours a day in windowless, soundproofed cells to counter allegations of mistreatment made during an inmate hunger strike last month. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP/SF (Source)
The amount of visual evidence still seems limited. It’s not that reporting on solitary confinement is lax or missing. To the contrary, I’ve listed at the foot of this piece some excellent recent journalism on the issue form the past year. We lack images.
Look Inside A Supermax a piece done with text and not images is typical of the invisibility of these sites. National Geographic tried a couple of years to bring solitary confinement to a screen near you. ABC News journalist Dan Harris spent the “two worst days of his life” in solitary to report the issue.
Why do we need to see these super-locked facilities? Well, depending on your sources there are between 15,000 and 80,000 people held in isolation daily (definitions of isolation differ). My conservative estimate is that 20,000 men, women and children are held in single occupancy cells 23 hours a day.
Gabriel Reyes, prisoner at Pelican Bay SHU writes about his experience for the San Francisco Chronicle:
“For the past 16 years, I have spent at least 22 1/2 hours of every day completely isolated within a tiny, windowless cell. [...] The circumstances of my case are not unique; in fact, about a third of Pelican Bay’s 3,400 prisoners are in solitary confinement; more than 500 have been there for 10 years, including 78 who have been here for more than 20 years.”
Solitary confinement is a “living death”; an isolating “gray box” and “life in a black hole.” Imagine locking yourself in a space the size of your bathroom for 23 hours a day. As James Ridgeway, currently the most prolific and reliable reporter on American solitary confinement, writes:
“A growing body of academic research suggests that solitary confinement can cause severe psychological damage, and may in fact increase both violent behavior and suicide rates among prisoners. In recent years, criminal justice reformers and human rights and civil liberties advocates have increasingly questioned the widespread and routine use of solitary confinement in America’s prisons and jails, and states from Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce the number of inmates they hold in isolation.”
The over zealous and under regulated use of solitary confinement to control risk and populations within U.S. prisons is a cancer within already broken corrections systems. I’m posting a few more image that Google images afforded me – but I urge caution – these are just a glimpse and may not be indicative of solitary/SHU conditions. Windows are a rarity in solitary despite three images below showing them.
The main reason I’m posting here is to ask for your help in sourcing all the photography of U.S. solitary confinement we can. Please post links in the comments section and I’ll add them to the article as time goes on.
© Alice Lynd. Front view of cell D1-119. Todd Ashker has been in a Security Housing Unit (SHU) for more than 25 years, since August 1986, and in the Pelican Bay SHU nearly 22 years, since May 2, 1990. “The locked tray slot is where I get my food trays, mail.” (Source)
A typical special housing unit (SHU) cell for two prisoners, in use at Upstate Correctional Facility and SHU 20.0.s in New York. Photo: Unknown. (Source)
Bunk in Secure Housing Unit cell, Pelican Bay, California © Rina Palta/KALW. (Source)
Solitary Confinement at the Carter Youth Facility. Since the arrival of the girls’ program at Carter, the administration has created a new seclusion cell. This cell contains no pillow, sheet, pillow case or blanket. In fact, there is nothing in the cell other than a mattress, which was added after numerous requests from the monitor. Girls are routinely placed in this room for “time out.” Photo: Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit. (Source)
© Rina Palta, KALW. “More than 3,000 prisoners in California endure inhuman conditions in solitary confinement.” This photo, taken in August 2011 of a corridor inside the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, illustrated Amnesty’s report. (Source)
© National Geographic. In Colorado State Penitentiary 756 inmates are held in “administrative segregation” alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. 5 times a week they are allowed into the rec room where they can exercise and breath fresh air through a grated window. (Source)
Eddie Griffin, prisoner in s Supermax prison in Marion, IL writes about “Breaking Men’s Minds” [PDF.]
Boxed In NYCLU campaign and report with resources and video against use of solitary confinement. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Gray Box, an investigative journalism series and film about solitary across the U.S., by Susan Greene. (Dart Society) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
ACLU – Stop Solitary Confinement - Resources - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
ACLU _ State specific reports on solitary confinement
Andrew Cohen’s three part series on “The American Gulag” (Atlantic)
Atul Gawande’s take on the psychological impacts of solitary confinement (New Yorker)
Sharon Shalev, author of Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, here writes about conditions. (New Humanist)
The shocking abuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (Amnesty)
SOLITARY ELSEWHERE ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
Interview with Isaac Ontiveros, Director of Communications with Critical Resistance, about Pelican Bay solitary and community activism.
The invention of solitary confinement.
RIGO 23, Michelle Vignes, the Black Panthers and Leonard Peltier
Chilean Miners, Russian Cosmonauts and 20,000 American Prisoners
Robert King, of the Angola 3, writes for the Guardian