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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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Prisons are but one step in the criminal justice machine. After the division and disciplining brought by a society of economic inequality, the next most abrupt interaction for U.S. citizens with state structures is likely to be that with police and other law enforcement officials. In 2012, just shy of 12,200,000 arrests were made nationwide.
That’s one arrest every 2 seconds. Arrests for marijuana-related offenses alone occurred at a rate of one every 42 seconds.
These figures does not include traffic citations.
At any given time, there are nearly 7 million American’s under correctional supervision — roughly about 2.3 million in prisons or jails and 4.6 million on probation or parole. In any given year 13 million individuals will be locked up for a given period.
Given that police are the sharp end of many of these fractious interactions, it makes sense for us to look at a body of work that focuses deeply on a single city’s police force.
Between 2003 and 2011, Matt Gunther was — on and off — effectively embedded with the Newark Police Department in New Jersey. Gunther’s resulting book Probable Cause (Schilt Publishing, 2014) is one of the most rounded, smartly edited bodies of work on police work I’ve encountered. It is, remarkably, sympathetic to all involved. The police and citizens (particularly those photographed in the precinct) are dealt an equal hand. Within its pages, the drudgery of employment meets the complex issues of social order.
You can see a 15 page preview of Probable Cause here.
Matthew Gunther and I chat about fear, persistence, allegiances, the inside-view, where a book comes from, and boozing with cops before a vice squad bust. Scroll down for our conversation.
The following Q&A has been edited from a longer conversation.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): You worked in Newark a long time. Did you always intend it to be a book or did that emerge as you worked?
Matthew Gunther (MG): My issue as a person or as a photographer is that I would not go the whole-nine-yards on a project. I’d get very deep into any project and then it would peter out. This project on Newark was on the verge of petering out many times — it was such an endless pit of imagery and I just couldn’t let go. Until this day, I could still be shooting. Joshua Lutz told me to stop shooting, to edit my images and that I had a book.
So, I did not know it was to be a book. I just started this project. It was cathartic. My projects tackle my fears, or dive into my loves.
PP: Newark is known for it’s toughness and it’s poverty. How did you come to be working so intimately with the police force?
MG: I was taking an ex-girlfriend to Newark airport and we got lost. I’m a native New Yorker, and instantly fell in love with this city so close to my hometown.
I would take my 35mm camera and spend days walking through Newark and still it took me probably about six months to figure out. It’s a pretty tough city. New York is not that tough anymore. Newark feels like New York may have done in the eighties, perhaps. I wanted to do something that is constant in this metropolitan area: cops and liquor stores.
Each project that I’ve done before or since Newark was always to tackle my fears. I grew up in New York as sort of an art-jock with other jocks and street kids, skateboarders and graffiti artists. I had the artistic gift but I didn’t have the strength to show my artistic skills against these tough kids and I guess as soon as I became an adult I was always trying to go back to that place.
Access? I almost hate to say it. My mother was the Head of the Democratic Club of the West Side of New York and I called her up and asked how I’d get into access to the cops. She gave me the number of a retired police captain in Florida. My mom is a waddling, older Jewish woman who knows everyone on the street. My father as well. Born and raised here. The captain in Florida gave me the name of the captain over at the Newark Police Department. It was 8 months of getting denied and constantly sending repeated proposals.
Then, one day out of the blue, I got a phone call, “Matt, you are accepted. What do you want to do?”
PP: It seems like you almost become an artist in residence? The door had been open by this higher official.
MG: You could say that. In the beginning, I had to tell the NPD that I wasn’t going to sell pictures to a magazine. It was strictly an art project and if it became something else I had to tell them. I was happy to promise that as I had no idea where the project might go.
I just wanted to shoot. I didn’t go looking for funding money. I’m dyslexic and so it’s hard for me to write proposals. Even to write a simple proposal takes me a while, but put a camera in my hand and I’m okay. But I wrote a proposal for the project. They didn’t really care if it was an art or not. They just didn’t want me to sue them if I got killed. I was happy to sign away.
MG: Newark is a special place. It was truly like the wild west. Back then, it didn’t look like 2003; it looks like ’91 or ’89. It feels like there’s a gap of about 15 years between big brother New York and this, the biggest city [in the region] outside of New York which is only half-an-hour away. I was always a big Sidney Lumet fan. And films like Siegel’s The French Connection and Friedkin’s Dirty Harry. Newark brought back that sort of aesthetic sensibility.
By deciding to shoot with a large format 8×10 camera I decided I was okay to miss images. It was my way of slowing down and trying to control some of my reality. I constantly moved and I did shoot some images on a Fuji 6×9.
PP: What reactions did you get from the police officers?
MG: The older cops loved it. Once they knew I wasn’t a reporter and that I wasn’t out to exploit them, I became a fly on the wall. Even with the 8×10 camera! The older guys loved the big camera. They loved history and they ate it up. The younger cops couldn’t care less. They just wanted me to stay out of their way. I had freedom and rarely did I get bothered. Even the non-cops seemed not to worry.
PP: I suppose they had other things to worry about?
MG: Often. There were girls doing tricks in the back of a Portuguese restaurant. I spent time with them. Then when I came out with my camera, I turned it on a girl who was in a towncar for a good 45 minutes. Just waiting on her friend. She was scared to come out because she was scared that the cops would arrest her.
PP: When you were out on the street, were you traveling with police officers and then exiting the vehicle with your camera equipment to begin shooting? Did people on the street see you arrive with the officers?
MG: I was doing drive alongs. With my 8 x 10 I wanted to set up like old imaging and see what I could get. A lot of my enjoyment was in not taking the photograph. I’ve always enjoyed these types of projects as much as I do taking the photograph. But, I just would tell them what I want to do and if they said move along I’m moving along. Maybe with my 35mm I’d be a little more aggressive.
PP: But was there a reaction from people on the streets shaped by the fact you were with police officers?
MG: There were moments where I was definitely one of the cops … even though I didn’t look like it. I looked like a photographer.
There were times that I would take my camera into Newark gentlemen’s clubs and there were all these gang-members. The cops were vicious at some moments; it felt like Hollywood to them sometimes. And, there were moments on the street when kids wanted their pictures taken.
There were tense moments on the streets when civilians felt vulnerable but I felt I needed to get that image. I often felt really bad and grappled with those moments for many days. I was justified as an artist; I had to get these images.
MG: You know, I was a street kid and I got into many fights, but I also grew up white in Manhattan. The privileges I had. No matter how bad it was, if you come from a white educated family…
But, it’s not an even-playing field. I always had to deal with that. In Newark, cops are on one side and they took full advantage of it. Once the vice squad came out and busted these women doing tricks. Beforehand, the cops were drinking while we ate at a Portuguese restaurant right by the headquarters. We were drinking beers and doing shots and I remember saying, “Is this okay? That we’re going out there?”
“We’re doing whatever we want. I’m the captain of the vice squad,” was the attitude.
That wouldn’t have happened in the New York Police Department, there’s way too much bureaucracy there.
PP: Some of your night time group shots (below) look like Rembrandt paintings. Two or three sets of eyeballs looking at you as the photographer. The composition of the group. The lighting.
MG: When the cops do these weekend sweeps, you have this vice squad and you have a truckload of cops — about 6 cars full of cops. Every weekend. This is where the cat-and-mouse comes in between cops and perps. This caravan would come through all the neighborhoods that they knew had some issues or drugs problems; the same exact neighborhoods. This, basically, went on every Friday at 12 o’clock.
The kids at the school yard knew exactly what was coming, and you can just see they’re exhausted from it. If it happened to me as a kid, we’d have a politician at them, or someone would be getting into a fight with the cop with, ‘How dare you stop our night.’
The looks on especially the two kids sitting in their white T-shirts, that’s how I sort of felt shooting. Those are the moments when I truly grappled with what I was doing there, and where I almost had the same sense they had to the cops — that it’s just too much.
PP: Tell us mores about Joshua Lutz’s encouragement?
MG: When I first met Josh the project needed polishing. I’d have let it peter out. Even so, I would still constantly show friends and mentors the work. They all said I had something great and those comments just kept on pushing me back to work. Lutz said all I needed to do was fill in some holes.
I liked Josh’s sensibility. He was getting into publishing and we understood New Jersey. We knew the printer had to be right. Through Dutch publisher Schilt in Amsterdam, we found a printer in Germany and we let the German’s do what they do so well.
PP: When I saw the post-industrial landscapes in Probable Cause I immediately thought of Lutz’s Meadowlands.
MG: Originally, I wanted to document the sense of place in Newark. Later, I fell in love with the cops and how they looked. I started asking them to join me outside and then I developed toward shooting landscapes so it had so many different branches.
Maybe, the 4×5 and the 6×9 sort of helped me live on in this project longer. Does that make sense? How do all these wires connect? How does this urban existence work? Can you feel the hum of it all? Might it explode at any point?
PP: There’s a constant precariousness to the work. There’s homage to labor, but it’s not “pure.” The work is very deliberate but it’s also uncomfortable because of your obvious privilege to be in that space. This fact is underlined when we see a photograph of a cop with a camera taking a picture of an arrested individual.
On the inside covers, front and back, there are walls of Polaroids of suspects.
MG: Matthew Sharpe talks about them very well in his introductory essay. He asks, ‘Can you tell the difference between the cops and the suspects?’
PP: There’s a very honest presence of photography and it’s many uses — it’s both art and it’s also an apparatus of power and control and policing. I think this is one of the successes of the book.
MG: I had probably over 300 negatives of large format images. Josh and I edited to a hundred pages. It was difficult.
PP: I also wanted to ask about the cover picture. It is a very different picture to all of the photographs within.
MG: I kept coming back to the image on the front of one of the editions of Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. I could not get it out of my head that I needed a sky image. I needed clouds.
MG: I needed something that had some significance about the formation of society, or this world, or the wasteland that Newark is, or New Jersey. The cover is a shot of a beautiful sky above beautiful wetlands but it is also a site where the cops found a body.
Joel Sternfeld did Haunting Grounds, a book on hate and environmental crimes.
PP: A very powerful juxtaposition of seemingly innocuous scenes and horrifying back-stories.
MG: And that’s how I felt the book should be. At one point, it was just going to be Newark but then it became something more. The landscapes made it something more.
PP: Can you talk about the attitudes in Newark and New Jersey toward crime. What were the relationships between the police force and citizens like? What’s the background — learned from your photographing for almost a decade — that we should know?
MG: Newark is predominantly African American and there is a large portion of Portuguese. Then there’s Ironbound which can be a little more blue collar but it’s predominantly poor African Americans.
The Newark PD is one of the largest police forces, and in 2001, I think, it was 50% African American police. Now I think that it is 70% African-American. It’s a huge difference to go out with an all-white force compared to an all-black force — from the way people on the streets react which is, you know, it’s hard when you’re coming there with guns, badges and uniforms but it helps to be part of the same group. Things just get calmer. When you have a mix it tends to break down racial tensions. That’s where it has changed in a good way.
PP: Your work, as foolish as it sounds, runs counter to easy conclusions. There’s cops and suspects; there’s all races; there’s Muslim cops and female cops; there’s chiefs and beat cops too. Policing is made of all stripes.
MG: I didn’t want to lose that fairness to both cop and non-cop. I truly feel romance about the images. I wanted to show a fair balance. This is how cities work and the people among them. I’m not trying to sway public opinion.
In a narcissistic way, it has been a cathartic trip.
PP: Because it was about you entering an “alien” world?
MG: Everyone’s just trying to get their job done in this capitalist system in which it’s hard to get ahead. The cop and the perp are on the same track, but there’s a moment some go one way and others the other way. I felt for both parties. They’re stuck. At 17-years-old, the options are pretty much there for cop and for criminal. It’s about fear, overtime and getting in your years. The cop has his cycle, the robber theirs. They both have their routines. It’s the balance of urban play. Social infrastructure plays its part in shaping these groups’ lives.
In Newark, as a cop, it’s 25 years in a tough environment. It’s not easy. They’re working on a word processor in 2003!?
PP: Did you get over your fear?
MG: No. But I came a long way. I’m excited to do another project like it. In some ways, I hate that it is a book, because it suggests, it feels, like it’s over.
PP: If it is, it’s a significant and successful end. Truly, it is one of my favourite photobooks of recent years. Thanks, Matthew.
MG: Thank you, Pete.
Matt Gunther, a native new Yorker, is a film-maker and photographer who has been documenting a sense of place and moments of time throughout his career. His portraits endeavor to uncover and expose the vulnerability and compassion- the core of his subjects. Matt received his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from SUNY Purchase. Matt’s work has been featured in numerous international and national publications, Including The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, London Sunday Times and Gentlemen’s Quarterly. His work has been awarded and written about in American Photography, PDN, and Communication Arts among others. Matt’s work is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum and The Palais De Toyko in Paris. He is currently working on his first Monograph, Probable Cause, documenting daily life in Newark New Jersey, which will be published in the fall of 2012.
Cathedral Rocks – 2600 feet. Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, California. © Carleton Watkins
White Bread Monument. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Soft White Bimboo, Clear Value Round Top White Bread, Roundy’s White Enriched Bread, Roundy’s Sandwich White Enriched, Sarah Lee White Bread.
HISTORY, NATURE AND LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY
Today, June 30th, marks the 150th anniversary of The Yosemite Grant, signed by Abraham Lincoln, putting the protection of Yosemite Valley into the hands of the state of California with ‘the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation, for all of time. The grant was a precursor to land-use-law that later led to the establishment of the National Parks.
There can be no photographer better known for the early exploration of the American West as Carleton Watkins (1829-1916). Nor is there a mid-to-late 19th century photographer (Ansel Adams did his bit later!) who shaped public opinion about natural spaces as much as Watkins.
What would Watkins say about the RVs that roll into Yosemite and Yellowstone each year? What would Watkins say about the monoculture agribusiness that dominates large swathes of the United States’ land? What would Watkins make of the ubiquity of corn syrup in our diets?
“The series Processed Views interprets the frontier of industrial food production, the seductive and alarming intersection of nature and technology,” write Lindsay Lochman & Barbara Ciurej in their artist statement. As we move further away from the natural sources of our food, we head into uncharted territory replete with unintended consequences for the environment and for our health.”
Processed Views is a witty and painstakingly constructed project that gets at some serious issues. What were Lochman and Ciurej thinking? Exactly how did they piece together these distopic dioramas that drip with E-numbers? Scroll down for our Q&A to find out.
Agassiz Rock and the Yosemite Falls, from Union Point, No. 844, about 1878, Albumen silver print, 54.4 x 39.2 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2004.70. © Carleton Watkins.
Red Flamin’ Hot Monolith. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Jay’s Barbecue Potato Chips, Fritos Corn Chips, O-ke-doke Cheese Flavored Popcorn, Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Puffcorn, Funyuns Onion Flavored Rings (plain and Flamin’ Hot), Jay’ Hot Stuff Potato Chips, Cheetos Puffs and Flamin’ Hot CrunchyDoritos Nacho Cheese, Mission Party Chips, Krunchers Kettle Cooked Potato Chips, Mission Chicharrones (Pork Rinds).
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): You’re talking about industrial food production. Is this a concern to you specifically because you are Midwest based?
Lochman & Ciurej (L&C): We built these views to examine consumption, progress and the changing landscape.
As Midwesterners, we have seen the landscape transformed from family farming to agricultural industry. This is not exclusive to the heartland, however, Big Ag and food processing facilities cross the country. In Processed Views: Surveying the Industrial Landscape, we are thinking about trends in consumption, ideas of progress and the changing geography of our country.
We came to Processed Views from an earlier project which addressed the nature of nurturing. In those photographs, we were interested in picturing the emotional and physical energy that flows through the act of preparing and sharing food. We could not ignore, however, the flip-side of food consumption in America: a complex, impersonal system of industrial agriculture, food processing and marketing.
PP: Why use Watkin’s images as the conduit to these issues?
L&C: Watkins’ sublime views framed the American West as a land of endless possibilities and significantly influenced the creation of the first national parks.
However, many of Watkins’ photographs were commissioned by the corporate interests of the day; the Central Pacific Railroad, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company and other lumber and milling interests. His commissions served as both documentation of and advertisement for the American West. Watkins’ images upheld the popular 19th century view of Manifest Destiny – the inevitability of America’s bountiful land, justifiably utilized and consumed by its citizens.
Albion River, 1863. © Carleton Watkins.
Fruit Loops Landscape. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: General Mills Trix with Fruitalicious Swirls, Kellogg’s Froot Loops.
Marshmallow Chasm. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallows, Kraft Jet-Puffed Miniatures, Trust Classic Pure Mishri Sugar.
Nevada Falls, 700 Ft., Yosemite. © Carleton Watkins.
L&C: June 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, legislation that preserved the land for public use and set a precedent for America’s National Park System.
PP: Given the anniversary, Processed Views was good timing, no?
Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center presents an exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums (April 23–August 17, 2014) in celebration. Tyler Greene recently interviewed curators and scholars, Alexander Nemerov, Erik Steiner and Corey Keller, associated with the exhibition.
PP: You’re fans of Watkins?
L&C: We turn to history and mythology to clarify and anchor our research.
Looking back 150 years, Carleton Watkins iconic photographs honored unsullied nature and documented human behavior on the frontier. They were a revelation at that time. His images record a critical time in the ongoing relationship between industrial development and conservation. We are at another such a moment now and the current discourse is fractured. How can the state of our health, industrial agriculture, chemistry, biological modification of plants and livestock, water and land use, finite natural resources, demographic and geographical change be included in a single conversation?
Referencing Watkins’ sublime views and sites of nascent technological activity in California and Oregon, are an invitation to viewer to consider an alternate reality in which the trajectory of our agricultural production is taken to an extreme. We fast forward to seductive, garish and static monocultures.
We allude to Watkins’ far vista in our tabletop landscapes, hinting at vastness, yet stranding the viewer in a swale of familiar processed food products. The photographer’s 18″ x 22″ Mammoth Plate Views were extraordinarily large and detailed in their time, but are now considered small. We use this format to force the viewer into an intimate encounter with the average American diet. We have oversold our technological commitment to bend the forces of nature in order to fulfill fantasies of a yummy life and heroic expectations of feeding the world. Should we rethink our fun-food utopia?
The Town on the Hill, New Almaden. © Carleton Watkins.
Saturated Fat Foothills. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Full Side Pork Chicharrones, Proscuitto Ham.
Castle Rock, Columbia River, 1867. (Alternate Title: Pacific Coast views. No. 1243). © Carleton Watkins.
Deep Fried Bluffs. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: OreIda shoestrings, McCain Seasoned Crinkle Cut, Armour Lard, Oscar Meyer Bacon.
PP: Were Watkins’ landscapes pure?
L&C: An answer to this question is as vast and deep as Yosemite Valley!
Most recent thought regarding landscape is defined by scholars like Lucy Lippard in The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. Landscape is not just an aesthetic experience, it must be thought of in terms of community, land use, contemporary perceptions of nature, what is produced on the land and how it shapes the inhabitants through time. Rebecca Solnit’s writing projects Infinite City and Unfathomable City are exquisite examples of this approach.
Tyler Greene discusses Carleton Watkins’ photographs and the transformation of California agriculture a century-and-a-half later in a recent New York Times Lens blogpost.
In the book Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, Martha A. Sandweiss provides a great in-depth discussion of the motivation behind of 19th-century landscape photography.
Cola Sea. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Domino Pure Cane Granulated Sugar, Brer Rabbit Molasses, CocaCola, C&H Golden Brown Cane Sugar, C&H Pure Cane Powdered Sugar, Trust Classic Pure Mishri Sugar, Rock Candy.
Sugarloaf Islands at Fisherman’s Bay, Farallon Islands, about 1869, Albumen silver print, 41 x 54.3 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 85.XM.11.22. © Carleton Watkins.
Monoculture Plains. © Lochman & Ciurej. Ingredients: Corn Flakes, White and Yellow Corn Meal, Corn, Cobs and Husks.
Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon, negative, 1867; print by Isaiah West Taber, about 1881-83, Albumen silver print, 40.5 x 52.3 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 85.XM.11.2. © Carleton Watkins.
PP: What for you are the main concerns about industrial food production?
L&C: Processed Views reflects our concern with current trends in consumption, ideas of progress and the changing geography of our country. All indications are that we are headed into an uncharted, unbalanced, unnatural territory. This terrain is garnished with unintended consequences for our health and for the environment. Why must we thoughtlessly degrade the soil by our technological-agricultural experiments? We must re-evaluate our man-made “utopias”.
PP: Where can we read more on these issues?
L&C: There are striking stories daily, many of them contradictory. We record ideas in our food-based notebook (blog). Recent posts mention books, articles and websites addressing the American diet (Nina Teicholz, Michael Moss, NPR’s The Salt blog) and industrial agriculture: corn production and marketing, meat processing (Christopher Leonard, Maureen Ogle), photography and social history.
PP: Thank you both.
L&C: Thanks, Pete.
A tiled illustrated graphic of the various ingredients used to make Processed Views. © Lindsay Lochman & Barbara Ciurej.
Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman began collaborating when they met as students at the Institute of Design in Chicago+Illinois Institute of Technology. Through photographic projects they explore the confluence of history, myth and popular culture. Their photographs have been in numerous solo and group exhibits and are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Walker Art Center and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Parting Words was just featured on the Huffington Post, for which I wrote a few hundred words. That didn’t seem enough, so I asked Amy some questions about the project to gain a fuller picture.
Prison Photography (PP): You made Black is the Day, Black is the Night (BITDBITN). Now Parting Words. Both are about the harshest imprisonments and sentences in America. Do overlaps between the projects exist? Are the overlaps visible? If so, is the overlap in your personal politics, in the project, or in both?
Amy Elkins (AE): I started the two projects in 2009 and am still wrapping up final details with each. Black is the Day, Black is the Night came first. Through the execution of the first man I wrote with for that project, I stumbled into Parting Words.
Parting Words has taken me a few years to complete and, even now, it remains a work in progress — currently the project has 506 images but it is updated yearly, growing with each execution.
The research behind it all, especially while writing to men on death row (two of which were executed during our time of correspondence) made reading and pulling quotes from the roster of those who had been executed in the state of Texas a dark, taxing experience. Not only was I reading through all of their statements, but detouring into description after description of violent crimes that land one on death row. Honestly, it felt too heavy at times.
PP: What was the impulse then?
AE: I was intrigued that the state of Texas documented and kept such a tidy online archive for anyone to explore. As a photographer (like many, doubling as a voyeur) I already had my own connection to the subject matter through BITDBITN, and I suppose I allowed my obsessive side to surface in order to create a visual archive. It was an important story to tell.
PP: What are your thoughts on American prisons and the criminal justice system?
AE: Over several years of correspondence with five men serving death row sentences and two men serving life sentences who went in as juveniles, I have learned a great deal from the inside about what it is like to exist in the conditions of maximum security and death row units; what those units provide; and what they deny.
A system that uses long-term solitary confinement and capital punishment is broken. Housing someone in infinite isolation has been proven to be hugely damaging to one’s psychological and physical state. This type of isolation breeds behavioral and emotional imbalances that are bound to cause most to remain in a perpetual state of anxiety, depression and anger. Which means they are set up for failure. There is absolutely no way to rehabilitate in such conditions. But clearly rehabilitation isn’t what they have in mind.
I have written with one man in particular who has served 20 years in solitary confinement as part of a Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence for a non-murder related crime he committed aged 16. He has written about going years talking through concrete walls without ever seeing the men he holds daily conversations with. He spends nearly 23 hours a day in a small cell by himself and when he is let out, he is shackled and permitted to exercise in a slightly larger room by himself for an hour. How he’s gone 20 years in these conditions and not gone completely mad is mind blowing.
That said, most men that I wrote with serving death row sentences were in fairly similar conditions, some having served onward of 16 years in solitary confinement while waiting for their execution. Two of the men I have written with have been executed and through the experience of writing letters to them and in some cases reaching out to family members leading up to such events, I have seen how capital punishment seems to create a continuous cycle of violence, pain and loss within our society. It leaves not one open wound, but several. If there’s closure for anyone, it’s temporary. And unfortunately the loss that the victims family originally endured remains. But now there is a new set of mourners in the mix. The system seems so incredibly flawed and barbaric.
PP: Do archives for last words exist for those killed in other states?
AE: I have yet to come across an archive as in-depth and publicly accessible as the one compiled by the state of Texas.
PP: Are you afraid of death?
AE: I think I’m more afraid of the physical pain associated with dying.
PP: Where do we go when our time is up?
AE: Sounds cheesy, but I think we stick around and linger in some capacity with those who love us the most.
PP: Given the images “read” very differently if the viewer is close or far away, what’s the ideal size for these works?
AE: Ideally I would like to show these images on a smaller scale but include all of them. This forces an intimacy that I want, where the viewer has to get close to each image in order to experience the depth of the project.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AE: In both projects, I always remained neutral. I refrained from projecting my own feelings into whether I felt those I worked with or made work about were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. Making BITDBITN, I was more interested in hearing stories from those within prison systems in America, about the psychological state they might be in while in such conditions, while potentially facing their own death. I was interested in discussing with them what it was like to be removed from the world most of us take for granted, to lose memory by being removed from the source of memory, to not always have a strong sense of self-identity. I felt I hadn’t enough information to warrant my own judgment, and so, if I had projected any, neither project would have manifested.
PP: Thanks, Amy.
AE: Thank you, Pete.
In December 2013, Daylight Digital published a presentation of Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night with an accompanying essay by yours truly. The 1,500 words were built upon a conversation Elkins and I began in late 2011.
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.
A quick note to say that I have taken down the PPOTR audio files of interviews with photographers I met during Prison Photography On The Road from the designated Podbean page and mirrored iTunes account.
The extensive time required to audio-edit and publish the interviews is just not something I currently have. I did not want to pay for monthly hosting any longer in the knowledge I wouldn’t be publishing them at any point in the next six or seven months.
But, do not fear! As you know, the interviews are the key component of the upcoming Prison Photography photobook. I have the best intern in the world transcribing all the interviews and the publisher Silas Finch and I have plans for a digital edition of the book which will include all the interviews in full – both audio and transcripts. I also hope desperately, that in the future I’ll be able to host the PPOTR project in full on a dedicated website.
I thank all those who responded positively to the 16 interviews I published in the past year. I hope you understand and will be patient enough to wait for all 65 interviews to be given the full treatment. All in good time.
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.
Blake has posted the latest in our Eye On PDX series. He spoke (at length) with Jason Langer. The conversation swoops over the achievements of Langer’s career beginning with his apprenticeship with Michael Kenna. Much of the conversation is Langer passing on the wisdoms that Kenna passed on to him.
Langer says, “I wrote a postcard to Kenna every year with my photo on one side and when I was ready to graduate in 1989 he was ready to hire his first assistant. I jumped at the chance, moved down to the Bay Area and got paid $6/hr. to babysit, mop floors, wash dishes- anything he needed- and of course all the photo related things. Souping film, making contacts, drymounting and matting prints and getting them ready to ship.”
“Kenna told me was that it takes about 10 years to figure out what you want to photograph- what your subject is- and it takes that much time to get good at it- and in the meantime, don’t show your work, until it’s ready- keep the photos under your bed and keep working. There is no rush. That’s a lesson which shocking (to me) has gone out the window- people don’t take ANY time to let their images stew in the pot. It takes AT LEAST this to create a signature style and subject matter- or so I thought. Now – seemingly- it doesn’t matter.”
Read the full conversation: Q&A with Jason Langer
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