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“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.
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, here, here 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.
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 Gregory, Gemma-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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
Found photo of an unknown prison cell.
The DVAFOTO interview opens with my account of my arrest and 9 hours in jail in late 2011. The HBM podcast is about a workshop I delivered in Sing Sing State Prison, New York.
It may be ironic that I’d get locked-up during a research trip that is questioning incarceration, but it’s not funny and it’s no badge of honour. My actions were foolhardy and the police officer’s actions were over-zealous.
I’ve been thinking beyond what I think about the experience (It was stupid, bureaucratic and inconvenient), and more about how I think of the experience (What insight did I gain? What interactions did I have? Who did I meet?)
Inside the release-tank were about 15 men. They were there for different reasons. One young man faced a significant bail amount for a significant possession offense while another was brought in for cycling drunk in the wrong direction of the cycle path on a quiet road. Some men were in for DUI’s and in some cases not their first DUI. Two or three slept through the hours. Others were quiet and some told stories. The younger ones were more talkative and boastful. Several tried using the phone but only one succeeded. When they found out I was in for peeing on a tree and not answering questions they thought it was lame. Lame offense, lame arrest.
A tray of peanut butter sandwiches was brought in, but not enough. Some jumped on them, others weren’t interested. I think one person got two sandwiches.
Of the men with DUIs, I had little sympathy. They didn’t seem to acknowledge that their actions were potentially lethal. For a couple of them, cash-fines, points on their licenses and driving bans didn’t seem to be much deterrent.
A few men seemed contrite. Others seemed beaten down with either addiction or repeated arrogance.
I had huge sympathy for the drunk cyclist. Maybe in this fifties. Grey hair. He thought he was getting out until the administration realised he was a parolee. The bike-ride proved a violation and he was to be automatically rearrested and jailed for a fixed term. He had a job and children. Because of a night of excess, he was to lose those things again. Sure, his behaviour could have been better, but I think the authority’s response was of excess.
I didn’t ask what they did and they didn’t ask me. It was a small space. It was very dirty but not quite filthy. We only moved our place when others left and they did so in groups of 3 and 4 throughout the hours.
Part of me wishes I’d taken the opportunity to ask some questions, tap some opinions (I may have met a great conversationalist who’d improve my thinking as much as I hoped I might improve his). The other part of me knows only an intrusive nerd would be ask out-of-the-blue questions about personal circumstance and attitudes; especially in a temporarily-occupied cell at an unpredictable time.
Two weeks later: No court appearance. No charges brought.
Why is this relevant? The arrest and dismissal of charges — actually, the incomplete documentation of the arrest and dismissal – almost jeopardised my visit to Sing Sing to carry out a workshop with attentive, challenging, respectful and curious students of the education program there.
An arrest will always feature on a record, whether or not a conviction is brought, so-told me a law enforcement employee over the phone. New York Dept. Of Corrections which administers Sing Sing knew I’d been arrested but the information ceased there. I had to scramble for paperwork (that had not been given to me) to prove I had no criminal record. I wonder how much inefficiency and potential mistakes contribute to unfair and/or heightened levels of control. Frustration must be infinite in the prison industrial complex.
All in all, I’m glad I was able to teach and learn in Sing Sing and doubly happy that Jeff Emtman was able to craft a fine podcast splicing together audio of prisoners speaking, myself speaking, music and sound. Jeff conceived of the podcast titled The Other One Percent, to broadly challenge listeners to think about prisons and solutions.
The class, as a whole, discussed many images but specifically in the HBM audio, Robert Rose, Dennis Martinez, Deshawn Smalls and Jermaine Archer talk about these six images.
The first image mentioned is the one below by Brian Moss …
“Fear, I think people would think fear,” says Sing Sing prisoner, Robert Rose. “They can’t see what goes on in here, just as we can’t see much of what goes on out there.”
… then the three below by Alyse Emdur …
“Something needs to be said about the families who also do time. They are part of the narrative of mass incarceration, but they’re not talked about. They end up carrying the burden,” says Deshawn Smalls, Sing Sing prisoner.
… and finally, the two images below by Richard Ross of juvenile facilities.
Sing Sing prisoner, Jeremy says, “You may have a man who refused [to adhere to regulations] and this is him in this picture. You probably won’t see the man at first, but he is there.”
HERE BE MONSTERS (HBM) is a podcast audio series about fear and the unknown, by Jeff Emtman, a 2012 Soundcloud Community Fellow.
HBM has previously covered Juggalo culture; placenta medicine; train-hopping; the disillusion and resignation of a favored NPR correspondent; a children’s book about a hallucinogenic trip; and the mind-made images created by the human brain when the body and the eyes experience total darkness – a condition known as ‘Prisoners Cinema.’
I like what Jeff is doing. I’m happy to share my experiences with him.
If you’re still interested in what I’m up to, I cover my immediate plans in the DVAFOTO interview. We also talk about what bloggers can do and do do.
The Other One Percent (Here Be Monsters podcast)
Interview: Pete Brook On The Road (DVAFOTO)
Barack Obama is TIME’s Person Of The Year. The accolade is less interesting than Obama’s words in the TIME interview. The President of the United States talks about criminal justice and prison reform. Obama says,
“There’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal-justice system, that is involved in nonviolent crimes. I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also, there are millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process.”
Granted it takes until the fifth page (of five) until we get to criminal justice issues. But, still. I’m going to say ‘wow’.
In November, I half-wrote a blog post about the complete absence of talk about criminal justice policy during the presidential debates. It never published; the details were more depressing than the simple fact. These words by Obama in some way make up for that. Watch this space. Watch Obama’s team.
via Prison Policy Initiative.