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I’m making my debut on public radio, today. The realm of tote bags, fund drives, coffee mugs and responsible public-interest reporting just got a little more real.

I’ll be one of the guests on Think Out Loud, a stalwart of the Oregon Public Broadcasting schedule. I have no idea what I’ll be asked, but I can guarantee I’ll be speaking fast, squeezing in the urgent info, and encouraging people to see the abusive prison industrial complex within our midst.

Midday, August 12th, 2014. Tune in! 

Kilgore

There’s an ugly scene unfolding in Illinois right now. The local paper in Champaign-Urbana, The News Gazette, published three attack pieces on James Kilgore, each one calling into question his character and the wisdom of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana (UICU) to hire Kilgore as a lecturer.

Kilgore is a respected researcher, writer, educator and criminal justice activist. He is also a former political insurgent who took up arms against federal authorities.

In the early seventies, Kilgore was part of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) (of Patty Hearst infamy). He has been open about having felony convictions resulting from his political activities. Kilgore was on the run from 1975, living in Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa until his arrest in 2002 in Cape Town. He saved the Feds the troublesome extradition process by voluntarily returning to the U.S., making a plea bargain, and pleading guilty to charges pertaining to the possession of explosives (in 1975) and passport fraud. Kilgore served 6 years in a California prison and upon his release in 2009 moved to Illinois to be with his wife, who is on the faculty of UICU. Since 2010, Kilgore has been a temporary faculty member at UIUC, teaching classes in Global Studies, Urban Planning and the College of Fine and Applied Arts.

These are the facts of the case. Jim Dey writing for The News Gazette in a Feb 9th OpEd piece In Plain Sight covers these facts. Dey’s tone is one of passive wonderment as to what UI might be thinking. The opinion piece is peppered with accounts of SLA violence from before Kilgore’s involvement. In Dey’s estimation, all the ideological mistakes of the fringe (and, yes, very damaging) SLA movement are all Kilgore. If only Dey had spent the same amount of time looking into Kilgore’s contributions in the interim four decades. It’s as if Dey and The News Gazette do not believe in change or maturation. If this is the case, then I call into question the commitment of author and outlet to the complexity of reporting and to journalism neutrality.

Kilgore is much more than his past indiscretions. As an aside, I know a person who used to be on the FBI most wanted list. This person’s charges were trumped up and when this person came out of living underground for 13 years faced no prison time. This person is one of the most politically aware, active and socially critical individuals I know.

There’s much more to Kilgore’s story than the character assassination as laid out by Dey. I believe it is motivated by a will to limit Kilgore’s very effective activism against a proposed new jail in Champaign-Urbana. Kilgore has proven himself a very adept strategist and activist leader in the town. Kilgore was instrumental in the fight. He has shared the successful tactics of the campaign with anti-prison groups across the nation.

News Gazette publisher John Foreman clearly has Kilgore in his sights. In the second OpEd piece (Feb 16th), Foreman perhaps a little miffed that Dey’s piece hadn’t wildly inflamed opinion enough) threw a hissy fit about the silence of Kilgore and UICU. What did Foreman expect? Answering to bully-boy tactics is not what Kilgore needed to do here. After all, The News Gazette had seemingly made up its mind about Kilgore a long time ago.

In his attempt to discredit UICU and question its priorities, Foreman opens his opinion piece by brushing aside a case of gross racism and sexism launched by a small (and troubled) group of students upon UICU Chancellor Phyllis Wise. Foreman mocks UICU’s attempts to deal with sexism and racism proving he’s more interested in cranking his newspaper’s controversy-du-jour than he is in taking a balanced view at all issues effecting his hometown community.

One week later, on the 23rd February, Foreman gave a platform to Dennis A. Kimme, the president of Kimme & Associates Inc., the firm that was trying to win the bid to build Champaign-Urbana’s new jail. Kimme is bitter about Kilgore’s attitude and expresses dismay that Kilgore would question the ability of Kimme’s company to assess the need for prison beds while trying to win a multimillion dollar contract to build those same beds! Of course, Kilgore and those opposed to a new jail would question motives.

Kimme’s contract bid failed on its own merits.

As if The News Gazette hadn’t already staked out its patently political position in text, it sent Jim Dey onto a talk show with it’s affiliate radio station to “discuss” the matter. Don’t bother listening to it. Host Jim Turpin is in cahoots with Dey as they proudly salute one another for their moral outrage.

I find it interesting that the UICU student newspaper has responded to this *controversy* with the statement: “The Daily Illini chose not to report on Kilgore’s status as a former felon because we did not believe that his status was news. Kilgore’s status as an instructor was no different than any other instructor.”

On April 9, the University Provost, in a private meeting, informed Kilgore that UICU would not approve any future contracts to employ him and declined to give him any explanation whatsoever as to why, how and by whom this decision had been made.

Fortunately, there is a community in Champaign-Urbana that sees the issue as more nuanced and is willing to look at the Kilgore of 2014 as well as the Kilgore of the early 1970’s.

A petition to UICU Chancellor Phyllis Wise has been circulated and already received the goal of 1,000 signatures. It reads:

We the undersigned scholars, legal professionals, activists and concerned individuals believe that the University of Illinois gave in to political pressure and refused to approve future employment contracts for James Kilgore on the basis of his background and sensationalist media coverage, rather than on his job performance.

Kilgore does not shy away from his past. He has answered to the full extent of the law his past acts and he has served time for them.

The SLA was committed to the overthrow of the federal government with planned attacks on police and federal buildings. They were of an era; one in which the violence of insurgency paled in insignificance compared to the violence waged in Vietnam. The SLA funded themselves largely through bank heists. SLA tactics were extreme, there is no doubt. The SLA cause achieved little. The SLA made grave mistakes. The SLA wasn’t the only homegrown group devoted to insurgency within U.S. borders.

Of all these activities, Kilgore was involved in one that led to a fatality. On April 28, 1975, SLA members including Kilgore robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer was shot add killed during the robbery. Kilgore’s comrade fired the shot. Kilgore, it is reported, was furious that a gun was discharged. There’s talk of a light trigger, but still, take a gun into a bank and you should only predict unpredictability.

In a March 22 Chicago Sun-Times article, the university responded to UICU’s unceremonious dumping of Kilgore with a supportive statement from Associate Provost Robin Kaler:

He does a great job. He’s very well-respected among students. He served his time in prison. He is very remorseful. He didn’t do the shooting. He is a good example of someone who has been rehabilitated, if you believe in second chances and redemption, he’s someone who helps prove that’s the human thing to do. A child of the victim said he has served his time and should be allowed to go on with his life.

The American Association of University Professors echoed Kaler’s thoughts in their own official statement on the matter.

The News Gazette‘s OpEd series misses the point. It’s none-to-subtle rightwing attack against the classic bogeyman, against the non-patriot, argues that academia provides a profitable hiding ground for those that enacted political direct actions many decades ago. Think of the kids!?

What is at stake here is academic freedom.

More-so, we must ask do we want to believe in the ability for individuals, ANY INDIVIDUAL, to change, to improve, to educate and give back? The wording of the petition in support of Kilgore frames this perfectly:

Refusing to approve Kilgore’s employment contracts has serious implications for the 15 million Americans who have felony convictions and face a constant battle to access employment.

 Get angry. Sign the petition. Follow James’ valuable work. Don’t let the boo-boys scare you.

Image: PM Press

drone

“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”

— Albert Camus.

Photographer Tomas Van Houtryve puts the above quote top and center of his most recent artist statement. He believes that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy.

Researching my latest WIRED piece Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like about Van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days, I was shocked by the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

“The Obama administration doesn’t release a lot of details, so firm figures are hard to come by. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates unmanned aerial vehicles have killed between 2,296 and 3,718 people, as many as 957 of them civilians,” I wrote.

President Obama’s Drone War is not widely discussed. Drones operate remotely and forge the very distance that prevents a critical look at their continued use. Drones dismantle empathy.

If a technology with extremely powerful spying and killing capabilities is shielded from public scrutiny there is bound to be abuse,” says Van Houtryve.

WHAT’S IN OUR WORLD?

Art can foster empathy. At least, that’s an aim of political art, no? There are many worthy projects that have co-opted and subverted drone visuals:

Jamie Bridle traces drone shadows in the streets and launched Dronestagram to populate social media with satellite views of drone strike sites; John Vigg surveilled drone research labs and airports; Trevor Paglen photographed drones at distance; Josh Begley’s App MetaData alerts users to drone strikes; and Raphaella Dallaporte took a drone to Afghanistan to do some archaeological surveying.

Most recently, a JR-inspired Inside Out project named Not A Bug Splat is tweaking the consciences of drone “pilots” by laying massive pictures of children in strike zones. However, the novelty (still) of these projects suggests we are not well-versed in drone operations.

WHAT’S IN A WORD?

Furthermore, I worry about how the definition of the word “drone” is shifting. When we hear “drone” do we think about military-grade killer robots or about newer domestic-use quadcopters?

The photo and video world has embraced smaller, non-lethal drones — we oohed and aahed at this aerial surf video and we protested when the police forced down a drone flown over a traffic accident by an off-duty photojournalist.

Soon, a small drone will be a part of every photographers kit.

Also, new legislation is being written to catch up with the technology and the proliferation of public drone ownership and operation. The FAA had self-appointed itself as the authority on drone use and looked disapprovingly at Joe Public sending lil’ aircraft up in the air. So, the FAA started sending out cease and desist letters and $10,000 fine threats.

The recipients — commercial photographers — weren’t threatening homeland security; they were mostly using camera-mounted drones to map agriculture, oil fields and the like. One commercial drone user, Raphael Pirker, challenged his fine in court. He won and nullified the FAA’s authority over him or any other drone operator.

“Pirker’s attorney maintained that the FAA could not simply declare a regulation without having a public notice-and-comment period. His argument went like this: Congress has delegated to its bureaucracy the authority to make rules, but when new regulations have a substantial impact on the general public, the government must have hearings and take comments,” wrote David Kravets for WIRED.

Until those hearings, it is a free-for-all. We must just hope that creepy idiots who want to spy through windows are the exception.

There’s a third player in the mix though. Between the everyday citizen and the military industrial complex are corporations. Who would bet against Amazon actually delivering your slippers by drone? Or Facebook delivering WiFi via drones to the entire globe in the next decade?

Overall, we hope that citizens retain access to the use of drones just as corporations and the state do. We hope citizens’ drone use is protected by laws similar to those allowing street photography on public thoroughfares.

NEW WORDS IN OUR WORLD

‘Drone’ is a new word in photography. ‘Selfie’ is a new word in photography too. In fact, the emergence of the two words was almost parallel.

The earliest usage of the word selfie can be traced to an ABC Online Australian internet forum, on 13 September 2002. Just seven weeks later, on November 3rd 2002, the first ever lethal U.S. drone strike hit Yemen, killing six.

At the turn of the millennium neither the words drone or selfie, as we know understand them, were in our lexicon. I’d argue the definition of both terms is ongoing apace, but for different reasons. Drone visuals and facts are obscured; we must search them out. Selfie visuals, on the other hand, are impossible to avoid.

At some level, the selfie provides the everyday citizen a type of agency and incorporates our foibles, connectedness, and our awkward relationships with social media. Selfies may not be inherently humanizing but they are individually created and do reflect human idiosyncrasy.

By comparison, drone scopes reduce humans to video-mediated targets. Drone visuals eradicate individuality and of course, very literally snuff out human life. The selfie is, spoken of at least, as a completely controllable form, whereas the drone is an apparatus of control. It’s bottom-up liberation vs. top-down oppression.

The drone and the selfie inhabit different ends of an image spectrum. Both in terms of production and consumption, the selfie is all us and the drone is all them. We know us well. We don’t know them at all.

That these are two of the main new words we are processing together as a culture is intriguing to me.

These are just thoughts out loud and may or may not lead to more fleshed out criticism, but the near-simultaneous emergence and widespread use of the words “drone” and “selfie” alongside their contrasting correlation to human consciousness in our remotely-networked globe might provide fodder for further investigation.

erikaschultz

Sisters Faisa Farole, 33, left, and Jamila Farole, 28, are among women trying to preserve female-only swim times at the Tukwila Pool. Photo: Erika Schultz / Seattle Times

I’m a week late on sharing this. But it is important. Fox News made unauthorised use of Erika Schultz‘s Seattle Times double portrait. Fox News did so to push a disgusting Islamophobic story about “the rise” of Sharia Law in America. Schultz made her image in the suburbs of Seattle. Fox were commenting on events in Minnesota.

On the Seattle Times website, Schultz made this classy response:

Using my photo to illustrate a story on a swimming program in Minnesota, under the title “Sharia Law: Swim Class for Somali Muslim Girls,” is unfair to the young women in the photo and misleads viewers.

For years, photographers on our staff have worked to develop contacts, trust and story ideas within this region’s many communities—including the East African community. Photographs can be extremely sensitive, but I’ve seen access increase over the years due to positive response to our stories and photo projects.

An incident like this has the power to intrude into those relationships and our future coverage. People may not want to work with media outlets for fear of being portrayed inaccurately.

This out-of-context and misleading use of this image reaffirms the importance of ethical, contextual journalism.

I appreciate the Farole sisters for the courage to stand up for their beliefs, and their willingness to share their story with the larger community to which they belong.

Erika is one of the most responsible journalists I know (we’ve worked together here, herehere and here). Erika works, with sensitivity, on her relationships with subjects over long periods. Fox News is an arrogant and racist idiot-giant that crushes anything that is nuanced or beautiful.

This is a sad turn of events for any photojournalist and for his or her subjects, but it’s particularly frustrating for a professional as diligent as Erika.

luvera006

From ‘Assisted Self-Portraits’ (2002-2005) by Anthony Luvera.

PHOTOGRAPHY’S NOT JUST DEPICTION!

There’s a fascinating discussion to be had at Aperture Gallery this Saturday December 7th. Collaboration – Revisiting the History of Photography curated by Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, and Susan Meiselas is an effort to draft the first ever timeline of collaborative photographic projects. Items on the timeline have been submitted either by members of the public or uncovered during research by Azoulay, Ewald, Meiselas and grad students from Brown University and RISD.

“The timeline includes close to 100 projects assembled in different clusters,” says the press release. “Each of these projects address a different aspect of collaboration: 1. the intimate “face to face” encounter between photographer and photographed person; 2. collaborations recognized over time; 3. collaboration as the production of alternative and common histories; 4. as a means of creating new potentialities in given political regimes of violence; 5. as a framework for collecting, preserving and studying existing images as a basis for establishing civil archives for unrecognized, endangered or oppressed communities; 6. as a vantage point to reflect on relations of co-laboring that are hidden, denied, compelled, imagined or fake.

Within the gallery space, Ewald and co. will discuss the projects and move images, quotes and archival documents belonging to the projects about the wall “as a large modular desktop.”

The day will create the first iteration of the timeline which will continue to be added to.

“In this project we seek to reconstruct the material, practical and political conditions of collaboration through photography — and of photography — through collaboration,” continues the press release. “We seek ways to foreground – and create – the tension between the collaborative process and the photographic product by reconstructing the participation of others, usually the more *silent* participants. We try to do this through the presentation of a large repertoire of types of collaborations, those which take place at the moment when a photograph is taken, or others that are understood as collaboration only later, when a photograph is reproduced and disseminated, juxtaposed to another, read by others, investigated, explored, preserved, and accumulated in an archive to create a new database.”

I applaud this revisioning of photo-practice; I only wish I was in NYC to join the discussion.

As you know, I celebrate photographers and activists who involve prisoners in the design and production of work. And I’m generally interested in photographers who have long-form discussions with their subjects … to the extent that they are no longer subjects but collaborators instead.

Photographic artists Mark Menjivar, Eliza GregoryGemma-Rose Turnbull and Mark Strandquist are just a few socially engaged practitioners/artists who are keen on making connections with people through image-making. They’ve also included me in their recent discussions about community engagement across the medium. I feel there’s a lot of thought currently going into finding practical responses to the old (and boring) dismissals of detached documentary photography, and into finding new methodologies for creating images.

At this point, this post is not much more than a “watch-this-space-post” so just to say, over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see the first results from the lab. If you’re free Saturday, and in New York, this is a schedule you should pay attention to:

1:00-2:00 – Visit the open-lab + short presentations by Azoulay, Ewald and Meiselas.
2:00-2:45 – Discussion groups, one on each cluster with the participation of one of the research assistant.
2:45-4:00 – Groups’ presenting their thoughts on each grouping.
4:00-4:30 – Coffee!
4:30-6:00 – Open discussion.
6:00 – Reception.

If any of you make it down there and have the chance, please let me know what you think and thought of the day.

Cage

Screengrab: FeelingCagey.com . Via WIRED.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Selfies recently. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about what useful things I might have to say.

I wrote an extended comment to Marvin Heiferman’s blog post about Selfies. It’s as certain as I can be right now about a form of portraiture that is changing faster than my thinking.

“I cannot accept that Selfies should be dismissed out of hand as a lazy mode of photographic production, as to do so would be a refusal to engage with the way hundreds of millions (of predominantly young) people choose to image the world and their place in it. The Selfie form doesn’t make sense to an adult world as the dominant imperatives of social responsibility and/or artistic merit tied to past discourse about photographic production seem absent. But why should kids step sideways to meet old priorities of the medium when adults could as easily step sideways to meet them where they are?”

I cover a lot more in the (long) comment including: the Selfie as empowerment; the gender disparities in how we judgement and consume Selfies; the best written analysis on Selfies; and why artistic responses to the Selfie might be the most valuable departure points for discussion on the form.

Check out Marvin’s post and have your say about Selfies.

begley

Screengrab of Josh Begley’s Prison Map

If you happen to be in Seattle this weekend, I will too! I’ll be speaking to the throbbing masses at the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) Northwest 2013 Conference.

Now, I’m not a photographer or an educator (formally speaking), but the theme of the conference Connecting Through Photography could not be more up my alley.

My plan is to rip through a full-bleed Powerpoint giving an overview of the history of photography in American prisons; to draw out the dominant aesthetics; to ask if what we’ve seen adequately describes the realities of prisons; and wonder about what we haven’t seen. To close, I will lay out what I feel are the most relevant and effective ways to think about, and to use, photography in our attempts to connect with America’s incarcerated class (which at 2.3 million men, women and children, is a significant portion of society to connect to, listen to, and understand.

I’m excited; it’ll be a live presentation of many ideas I’ve been quietly stewing over recently.

I’ll be pacing the stage in Room 632 at the Art Institute Seattle, on the morning of Friday, November 08th, 11:00am – 12:00pm.

Come say hello!

Also at SPENW are my buds and photowizards Eirik Johnson, Holly Andres and Erika Schultz. Check out John Keatley too. And definitely the folks at Youth In Focus speaking about their important work.

Full schedule.

Tickets.

9147394760_aa456bb213_z

Marie Levin holds a photo of her brother, Ronnie Dewberry, taken at San Quentin State Prison in 1988. Until recently, it was the last photograph he’d had taken. Photo credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/The Center for Investigative Reporting

STARVED OF THEIR OWN IMAGE

We are now into the second week of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. It is difficult to get firm figures on the number of participating prisoners. The Los Angeles Times reports 30,000; CNN reports 12,000 and Yahoo reports 7,000+.

I’m inclined to trust the figures sourced by Solitary Watch:

The hunger strike began on July 8th with participation of approximately 30,000 people in two-thirds of California’s prisons, as well as several out-of-state facilities holding California prisoners. In the first days of the hunger strike, approximately 3,200 others also refused to attend work or education classes as a form of protest in support of the hunger strike. As of Sunday, there are an estimated 4,487 still on hunger strike.

Still, formidable numbers.

INVISIBLE AND UNPHOTOGRAPHED PEOPLE

Last week, in conjunction with the initiation of the mass peaceful protect, Michael Montgomery for the Center for Investigative Reporting published an excellent article California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities about the ban on portrait photographs of prisoners held in solitary confinement.

Accompanying the article is the interactive Solitary Lives feature and a Flickr gallery.

The ban resulted from a tension between what a photograph meant or could mean.

For families, a photograph is a tangible connection to their loved one behind bars, but for staff of the four maximum security prisons that upheld the ban, photographs were potential calling cards — circulated by prison gang leaders — both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.

The ban was lifted in 2011, following the last California prison hunger strike. Montgomery quotes Sean Kernan, the former Under-Secretary of the CDCR

“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?” Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.

The ban in the four Californian prisons was extraordinary.

“I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

As I have stated frequently on Prison Photography, prison (visiting-room) portraiture is one of the most prevalent types of American vernacular photography.

Until artists such as Alyse Emdur and David Adler began to draw focus to this disparate, decentralised, emotion-laden, and high-stake vernacular sub-genre, prison portraits were kept in wallets, on mantles and in side tables. There’s tens of millions of them out there.

And yet, for over 20 years, thousands of men in California were not allowed images of themselves. The additional ban of mirrors in solitary units meant that many men often did not see images of themselves for years on end. Again, to quote Montgomery’s article:

“I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ And he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’ ” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.

THE PHOTOGRAPH AS AN OBJECT OF DEPLOYMENT

In the free world, photographs are ubiquitous, easily created, shared and possessed. The fact that these seemingly innocuous objects were caught in the tussle of control between prison authorities and prisoners is astonishing, and speaks to the power struggle (real and imagined) between the kept and the keepers.

Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said easing the restrictions on prisoner photographs raised no major security concerns, so long as inmates had to earn them. “It’s not as if there’s been an epidemic of inmate photos on the street,” he said.

I am not sure how Rushford would measure this, or even it would significantly alter the lives of prisoners, specifically now during the hunger strike, and especially now when proven or alleged gang affiliations have been put aside by prisoners in solidarity for improved conditions for all.

In light of recent art market fetishism, it would seem the primary reason anyone would want to gather prison portraits would be to repeat Harper’s Books’ $45,000 hustle and cash in on the images?

As for the families (following the ban lift) the value of newly acquired images is not in any doubt:

Seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.

CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING LINKS

Michael Montgomery’s California Prisons’ Photo Ban Leaves Legacy of Blurred Identities

Interactive Solitary Lives feature.

A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT THE SOLITARY WATCH WEBSITE

I cannot emphasize enough how important the website Solitary Watch is as a resource. Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and their team of reporters produce high quality journalism — not only for their website but for other news outlets including The Guardian, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation.

Solitary Watch is an independent media and advocacy project, funded by grants and donations. It is a project of the Community Futures Collective, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You can support the project here.

I don’t hesitate to say that Solitary Watch has driven much of the critical and visible public discourse about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.

As Solitary Watch describes, “Solitary confinement is one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues — and also one of the most invisible,” which is why I have a vested interest in their work; we’re each interested in making solitary and other egregious aspects of the U.S. prison system more visible.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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