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He went back every year for four years. Between 2007-2010, photojournalist Louie Palu made six trips to Guantanamo. Not quite a compulsion, but more of a requirement, Palu had to go. He’d photographed in Afghanistan and it made sense that he’d take opportunities to document America’s chosen *homeland* site for its Global War On Terror (GWOT). Guantanamo is another piece in the puzzling puzzle of war against an expanding list of enemies. It is more contained and less flash-bang than any theater of war, but no less violent. Inside Gitmo, coercion and so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques do the damage, replacing mortars and EIDs.
Why did Palu go? We know Guantanamo is so controlled that a photographer’s work is compromised. And yet, he returned time and time again. Perhaps he though he’d be the one reporter who’d see the nugget, catch the frame and get out of there with the shot? Not so. After every visit, all photographers are required to hand over their DSLRs. A member of the Joint Task Force will look over all images and delete any that don’t meet military rules. The photographer is given forms with each digital file number listed individually. The procedure is called an “Operational Security Review.”
Palu’s latest publication GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is a 24-page conceptual newsprint publication. It combines his Gitmo images with scans of the official forms. It is available at Photoeye Books.
GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is abstract, elusive and slippery … which I think is the point. I asked Palu a few questions about it.
Scroll down for our Q&A
[Click any image to see it larger]
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you ever want to go to Guantanamo?
Louie Palu (LP): The detention center at Guantanamo Bay is one of the most infamous results of the “War on Terror” — the most internationally known detention facility of our time. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between history, political events and the human experience. Especially, I am engaged by events or issues that define our time politically.
9-11 and Guantanamo will forever be connected. I am also fascinated by the legal and morale paradox that Gitmo, as it is known, represents in the face of the U.S. Constitution with regards to detaining people indefinitely without trial.
PP: You went many times. Why stop?
LP: Relatively speaking the access went from good, to getting better, to very poor and finally I gave up. I follow Carole Rosenberg’s reporting in the Miami Herald, she is perhaps the best source of reporting on Gitmo there is.
LP: In a recent report she did, it seems the current military public affairs unit there has become exceptionally difficult to work with. I would like to go again, but it looks impossible to work there right now.
Normally each trip lasts four-days.
Day 1: Fly in and get settled. Day 2: Tour various parts of the detention center. At the end of each day everyone goes through what’s called an “Operational Security Review”, also known as an OPSEC Review. In my case as a photographer this involves the deleting of certain photographs right off my memory cards. Basically anything that reveals security features of the prison or direct frontal views of the detainees faces is deleted. Day 3: More touring the facility and more photography and one more OPSEC Review. Day 4. Fly home.
I did do two special photo tours years ago. Most tours have writers as part of the tour group and you can spend hours in areas of no interest to photographers. One of these special photo tours in particular was I think the best access ever for a civilian photojournalist. I think I hold the record for longest OPSEC Review ever, it was an all-nighter! I don’t think they’ll give a tour like that ever again and a number of areas in the prison are now closed and access to the detainees is very limited and basically everyone gets the same photographs now.
PP: You’re a wisened, experienced photojournalist. What did you expect from Gitmo? What did you get?
LP: I try not to expect anything from any assignment, subject or project except that I will do my best and that I am personally engaged in the subject matter. Beyond that, I hoped to make pictures that would last as documents to an important subject in our history.
I think that the manner in which we are forced to take pictures with extreme control should be a part of the history. The control on how I took pictures and the limited access made the images and approach unique. That is what my concept newspaper is partly about.
PP: We’ve stopped taking about Guantanamo ever since we realized Obama couldn’t/wouldn’t close it down. Why is that? Where does it leave your work?
LP: When you say “we” I would take that as mostly the general public, many journalists keep talking about Gitmo and it’s impact and implications. Though relatively speaking I agree people seem to have disengaged from the issue.
However, we have to understand that Guantanamo Bay is a recruiting poster for many extremists and terrorists and it will continue to be especially while it is open. Take for example the video ISIS (aka ISIL, IS) made of journalists they are executing in Iraq/Syria. The journalists are on their knees in orange jumpsuits. In my mind it’s a copy of the same imagery of the first images released by the U.S. government of detainees in Guantanamo in orange jumpsuits right after 9/11. The image the detention center at Guantanamo Bay paints of America goes against every value the United States stands for in my opinion. So long as the detention center at Guantanamo remains open and the detainees are not given a trial, the United States will have a hard time holding any moral high ground on human rights. It makes it a very serious issue to continue to try and find a solution to. If I interest only a handful of people to keep talking about it I did my job.
The reason I think that we stopped talking about Gitmo is also limited access to the detainees by journalists being one reason and right now there is no shortage wars and disasters of all kinds to deal with, plenty of “fog of war” to keep us off the issue that challenges one of the core value systems of the United States, which is the constitution.
The eyes of history will judge my work years from now. For now, I am satisfied to have published the work and kept the issue in the public’s eye, no matter how small a contribution I have made. From the point of view of a photojournalist the newspaper is a part of that.
PP: Briefly, tell us about your decision to go with a newspaper format to publish the work from Guantanamo.
LP: Well, I had a fellowship with a think tank in Washington DC called the New America Foundation, which involved covering the Mexican drug war. I created a concept newspaper called Mira Mexico. I created it so you could take it apart and re-edit the order of the pictures and also hang it as an exhibition. It was meant to directly engage the viewer to understand how our images are controlled by governments and the media. It’s about the manipulation and our perception of an issue. It’s explained in this video.
Creating an object as something that goes beyond the news cycle is important to continue to engage the public in on important issues. The newspaper format is important in challenging not only traditional formats of news, but also the manner in which we consume information and the platforms we see them in. You can also hang it as an exhibition as each spread is a poster and you can turn it into an educational lesson in editing or controlling pictures. GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review is the part two to my first concept newspaper on Mexico. I am also making a statement in making a newspaper in which the only content is Guantanamo Bay. No advertising or competing content. I edited out every other story.
PP: What do you hope people take away from GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review?
LP: Well the project has a two-fold purpose. One, obviously it is meant as an artist’s concept fused with journalism to continue to engage the public in a dialogue on the issue. Second, it is meant to challenge the modes in which we are delivered our content and who the gate-keepers are to our news. We need to always ask, who are the editors, curators and or censors we don’t see or ask enough about that shape the way we understand the world through photographs?
I am about to go on a workshop/lecture tour through universities in Canada and the U.S. just as I did with the Mira Mexico newspaper. I’ll be using GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review in classes teaching visual literacy to students. It will be a workshop format where students will each have a copy of the newspaper and re-edit and present to the class why they selected the images they did on Guantanamo. I think empowering young minds to understand how their opinions are manipulated by the use or misuse of photographs is critical to our future.
PP: How does GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review relate to your other bodies of work and areas of interest?
LP: I try to create multi-platform uses for my work and always engage a topic over a long period of time, and usually beyond any news-cycle. My average project lasts between 3-5 years. My first one lasted 15-years. But that won’t happen again!
PP: You must have looked at plenty of other photographer’s work on Gitmo. Who else has done it well?
LP: Actually, I haven’t! I have seen a handful of wire photos from there that are not my style of work, but gives a base of understanding of how news photographers have had to work there. I also have seen numerous art based documentary photographers do bodies of work there, in the end they have all taken many of the same photographs because of the strict control over access. I don’t think anyone has done it “well” including myself since the access is so controlled and photos are deleted. There are sections of the newspaper that deals directly with that issue — the *age of extreme image control* is one of the main layers of meaning in the newspaper. The newspaper is, an object and document that says my access and images were controlled on this issue.
I can’t show you how Guantanmo really is. However, with the newspaper maybe I can show you how it was for me. That is why I created it.
PP: Have you any thoughts (regarding visibility, perhaps?) about how Guantanamo relates to America’s extrajudicial prisons around the globe?
LP: Digital photography is a blessing and a curse. Media campaigns and disinformation operations are easier now than ever. The newspaper is also about photojournalism. You know photojournalists control what we see as well, editing can be seen as censorship by some media critics.
Let me explain, it’s about interpretation of what we are doing, right? If I take 1000 photographs on assignment and I edit only 15 for you to see, what do you call that editing or censorship? This newspaper questions photojournalism as a whole and everyone involved in it including me.
PP: How will Guantanamo end?
LP: I don’t know how Guantanamo will end. Even if it does end as a physical structure, it has become visually symbolic for extremists, they have turned government released visuals linked to the detention center into a disturbing propaganda tool. Events and places like the detention center at Gitmo are never looked at very kindly through the eyes of history.
PP: Thanks, Louie.
LP: Thank you, Pete.
The unrest has abated in Ferguson. The quest for justice has not.
As I watched events unfold last month, I did not at any point feel I had something to add to the news coverage or commentary. I am still not convinced I do. That said, when the very soul of America is at stake, when the life of a young man has been taken, when the police turn up in military get-up, and when all this is being played out in front of the world’s media, I was aware questions needed to be asked of media-makers.
I take this opportunity not to make statements but to ask questions.
Barrett Emke, a young photographer from Kansas, was kind enough to share his photographs from Ferguson with me. He allowed me to make an edit. I publish them here alongside a short Q&A.
These are questions I’m just putting down in digital ink now, but probably come from weeks of thinking in circles. I was not brave or knowledgeable enough to write anything about Ferguson or its people when events were most immediate and raw; when people protested peacefully and faced off with law enforcement.
I want to start finding out about what photography did for the people of Ferguson and what it might do for them in the future. What might it do, or not do, for other communities wracked by racial inequities?
Barrett was in Ferguson August 19-21, I am penning this mid-September, but we know that from the tragedy of Michael Brown’s murder and from the town’s outrage must come long-term positive leaps forward; must come an accelerated and enlightened path to justice for us all as one.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you go to Ferguson?
Barrett Emke (BE): I live in Kansas City, so the events in Ferguson definitely felt close to home. As a photographer and a person, I felt I had somewhat of a duty to go there and experience what was happening firsthand – this piece of history and injustice, and the community’s response.
I had to do something other than just watch what was happening on the news or read about it on the internet; maybe my photographs wouldn’t be seen by anyone or make any difference, but at least I would be there to document a piece of it.
PP: Did you know what you wanted to do beforehand?
BE: Not really. I just dove into the situation and worked intuitively, gauging the events as they came. From the first day I got there I had a rough idea that I wanted to make pictures of as many people as I could.
PP: What does it feel like to have tank in the street?
BE: It was a little overwhelming at first, but you acclimate quickly.
PP: On your website you’ve presented a wider edit with B&W images, pictures of law enforcement who are in action or stationary.
I’m not that interested in your distant (usually nighttime) images of cops. They seem to break up the warmth that maintains throughout the portraits of Ferguson residents. Does that make sense?
BE: I can see that. Obviously, the images of the militarized police, and the tear gassing, and all of that are everywhere now, and I knew that I wasn’t going to do that. But the images I did include I feel have their place in the sequence – I think of them more as portraits of the officers who were part of the situation as well.
PP: How did you feel when your were in Ferguson?
BE: Honestly, I felt human.
The people I interacted with and photographed were open, genuine, and earnest. Beyond the conflicts and the clashes between protestors and police, I definitely felt a strong sense of community and humanity present there, among those who lived in Ferguson and others who had traveled from elsewhere to be there.
PP: How do you think your feelings compare with residents?
BE: It’s hard to say. Many people who I spoke with and photographed were totally willing to engage with me – in times of crisis, that sort of social barrier kind of breaks down. At the same time, I definitely heard residents express their anger and a certain distrust toward the media, this sentiment that after the spectacle has ended, their lives in Ferguson go on.
PP: What was the behavior of the media like in Ferguson?
BE: I think the presence of the media was essential, to record and broadcast what was happening. At the same time, it became a little gross to the see the camera crews flocking to and descending upon every little scrap of conflict each night, trying to get the scoop. It definitely seemed vulture-like at certain moments, and there were instances in which I felt like the media’s presence was exacerbating the situation.
There were times when interactions between protestors, police, and the media became problematic, with the media fanning the flames a bit. I’m not sure what the alternative would have been; if the media hadn’t been there reporting, would the militarized aggression of the police have only escalated? Would Michael Brown’s story and its larger implications have been told?
PP: How did people react to you photographing?
BE: Generally, people were receptive to me photographing. I tried to be as respectful and sensitive to the situation and individuals as possible.
PP: What did Ferguson residents think generally about the media and/or photographers?
BE: There was a certain ambivalence about the media that I picked up on. As I mentioned previously, I heard the sentiment echoed that once the media circus had skipped town, the residents still had to go on about their lives and their realities. But at the same time, I heard many people express that the situation would be worse between protestors and the police if the media wasn’t there to report on what was happening, and to check that militarized aggression.
PP: What was the overall sentiment of the people you photographed?
BE: People were there on West Florissant in solidarity and were fed up with everything that had led to this point. Those I photographed were resolute in their anger and sought justice for Michael Brown, meaning the indictment of Darren Wilson and a major shift in policy, representation, and attitudes going forward. What I heard echoed again and again from people was that this situation wasn’t just about race, it was also a human thing. Beyond that, I perceived an overwhelming amount of positivity and hope from the individuals I met.
PP: Did this sentiment match that of the media generally?
BE: As in, did the media share the same drive for justice as the residents and protestors? I’m not sure, but I would say that they seemed to be there to do their job, which was reporting.
PP: Is America a racist country? I’m not being incendiary here; it actually seems like a fair question if we consider this excerpt from this New Yorker piece The Color of Justice:
Whites support tougher criminal laws at least partly because they overestimate black and Hispanic crime rates. Blacks and Hispanics do commit certain crimes more frequently, per capita, than whites, but not all. But whites consistently overestimate the difference, according to one study, by as much as twenty to thirty per cent. That perception affects attitudes toward offenders and sentencing. Studies show that the more whites attribute higher crime rates to blacks and Hispanics, the more likely they are to support harsh criminal laws. It is less that they are consciously seeking to subordinate racial minorities than that they fail to treat the negative consequences of high incarceration rates as their problem. As the report explains, “attributing crime to racial minorities limits empathy toward offenders and encourages retribution.”
This is a damning indictment. If anyone were to admit that they preferred the death penalty, life without parole, or harsh sentences because they believe the perpetrators of violent crimes are more likely to be black or Hispanic, we would immediately condemn them as the worst sort of racist. If a prosecutor, judge, or juror expressed such a sentiment, any resulting conviction or sentence would be swiftly overturned. No one admits that they feel this way, but the studies recounted by the Sentencing Project suggest that this is precisely what many white Americans feel.
BE: America is a racist country, with its long and complicated history of prejudice that it still cannot shake.
Racism in the United States is deeply entrenched and systemic, even today, as we’ve seen. As a white person, I have tried to be consistently aware of my privilege and the way racism can be internalized by someone who would never consider herself or himself “racist.” It is a process of learning and unlearning that I still grapple with. One can always do better, listen more. It is not enough to simply not be racist; one must be anti-racist.
When a person of color in America can’t be certain that she or he won’t be shot and killed during a routine encounter with police, or a total stranger, something is utterly, intrinsically wrong. I believe it is the duty of those who benefit from white privilege, male privilege, heteronormative privilege, to fight alongside those who are disenfranchised under the law and throughout society.
PP: What did photography achieve during August for the messages coming out of Ferguson?
BE: I’ve seen an abundance of profound, earth shattering photographs come out of the events of Ferguson. I believe these photographs have been successful in demonstrating to the world what was unfolding and to preserve these moments as historical documents.
PP: Do photographers need to stay in, or return to, Ferguson soon? And/or often?
BE: Speaking for myself, I don’t feel like my work was simply done when I returned home. A situation like this is ongoing. Nothing is solved. There is still more work to be done, and I would like to return to make more photographs.
PP: Do you think that’s going to happen?
BE: I believe that to be committed and thorough in a situation like this, it has to be longterm.
PP: Thanks Barrett.
BE: Thank you, Pete.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.
EYE ON PDX
I moved from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, California this past weekend.
Blake Andrews — everyone’s favourite photoblogger and Oregon resident — wanted answers.
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.