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Photo: Paul Rucker
When Obama went to Marc Maron’s garage to record a WTF episode, he was in a sober frame of mind. He was frank about our situation right now with gun control. After Sandy Hook, he said, his administration tried everything they could to change laws but the legislation was fought by the usual NRA suspects. The legislation was watered down and achieved little.
Astutely, Obama didn’t pin the blame solely on the NRA and the kowtowing politicians but also on us. Yes, us, we, you and me. Sweeping political changes will follow sweeping social pressure. But in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, in Obama’s estimation, there was lots of talk but ultimately not enough public will to ring in the massive changes we need.
This is a teachable moment of sorts. Here, POTUS is telling us that organising works; he is saying that politicians listen if the swell of opinion is unavoidable and undeniable. The wave of gun opposition wasn’t sustained or powerful enough it seems. Well, yes and no. Yes, in that political change didn’t result. But, no, in that the passions and intelligence of the gun law reformers shouldn’t be dismissed, or pegged as total failure. It is my belief that in gun reform, in prison reform, in education reform — in any movement that demands wide-scale change — the efforts of the activists must compensate for the inertia and fear of the politicians they wish to influence.
Even when it makes moral, social and economic sense to enact positive change, we have seen that politicians find it hard to filter out the sound of the waft of of checkbooks and the loud and persistent lobbyist’s din.
We have to work harder to see gun laws change. We have to work harder to reduce hate and homegrown terror acts.
Paul Rucker is one of the hardest working artists I know. He’s always stationed politics at the center of his practice but in recent years he has ventured fearlessly into America’s racial histories, current psyche and shortcomings. I curated Paul’s work in Prison Obscura. This morning, Paul sent out the following message to those on his email list. I think it is eloquent. It is from a point of knowledge. And I hope Paul doesn’t mind me sharing it.
I’ve been in South Carolina this week visiting my mother. The flags are at half staff at the library. The deeply ambivalent feelings I have for home are more real than ever. Growing up, I remember seeing Confederate flags on cars and bumper stickers stating “I should have picked my own damn cotton!” These were just part of the culture. An even deeper and unacknowledged part of the culture are the souls that built this state and this country. In 1860, there were more slaves living in South Carolina than free citizens. Cotton sales were worth $200 million then, the equivalent of $5 billion today. As we argue/discuss the flag, we must also add to our conversation the true and complete history of the South and America. Cotton was shipped all over the country and the world. The role of slave labor in the economic success of our country must be acknowledged, along with the cost of that success in millions of lives not deemed human. If we remove the flag, let us replace it with knowledge, and so honor the souls that brought us here to the prosperous land that we have today.
My condolences to the families of the nine people murdered a week ago. My heart goes out to them and their loved ones.
With a heavy heart,
Also well said.
Everyday, there’s rollerbooters doing their circuits and dances on the smooth asphalt at JFK Drive and 6th in Golden Gate Park.
I love them.
Sunday is the real party. They bring tables and snacks. Pensioners jive with 4-year-olds, ex-cons swing with folks who’ve shed the suit for an afternoon. The posse has its favourite tracks to which they dance and kick their boots in lined formation. Between the routines that function as the glue for the group, they’ll float around in anti-clockwise circles. From sunrise to sunset thousands of people pass by — some throw down blankets and watch for hours, others stop a moment and take a snap. All smile.
I was riding my bike through the park a few weeks ago and wondering why no-one had ever made a feature documentary about this group of typically atypical San Franciscoids. Then, last week, I spotted this.
Totally Free is a film-short made by Daniel Soares (Instagram). And it is beautiful. I sent it to a friend who moved to New Orleans a couple of years ago. He doesn’t have speakers on his computer but watched all 300 seconds of it in silence. He said the footage was hypnotising.
The whole rollerbooting community is hypnotising. I love them. They’re in their bliss. They’re taking it easy for all us sinners out there.
Golden Gate Park was once the crucible for the counter culture movement. Hippie Hill still has its moments, but really the realest community I know that survives is gliding around that most precious and historic 30 x 100ft oval.
— The Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) April 29, 2015
Last week, shareholders in the private prison firm GEO group attended the evil corporation’s AGM. The swarm of conniving, money-grabbing devil sperms were shocked to be joined by some protestors. Shareholders thought they’d encounter only other children of satan at the annual horn-sharpening ceremony.
Across the Boca Resort in Florida, the venue for the GEO AGM, the hell-obsessed portfolio-owners struggled repeatedly to engage with the protestors who appeared to have colorful irises and not the green dollar signs to which they were accustomed. Instead of a glassy stare, the protestors could hold lasting eye-contact and emote.
Some shareholders referred to the protestors as shape-shifters who employed behaviour that suggested confidence, faith, principle, civic duty, anger and nuanced reasoning — all emotions and motives that belonged to a long-lost group known as humanity, but alien to beelzebub’s GEO breed.
If the appearance of the protestors was confusing, it wasn’t a patch on the foreign language they used.
“Opportunities for Black and Brown communities have been intentionally thwarted through intergenerationally maintained oppression. What drives this? The same institution that has fueled this country since its birth—slavery,” says civil rights group Dream Defenders. “Through the proliferation of prisons for profit, the United States is a slaveholder, and private prisons are the cruel overseers who go through extreme means, including documented physical and sexual abuse, lobbying for increased mandatory minimums and fraudulent reporting, to maximize profit.”
Irene, a proud third generation GEO stock holder, mistook some of the protesters in red shirts as valets, at first.
“Then I realized they were trouble makers and just wanted to hurt others with signs. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Something about disadvantaged classes being heard and having a seat at a political forum not manipulated by big money. I dunno, I wasn’t paying attention,” said Irene as she rushed off to make a 4:15 tee-off time.
Okay, seriously now, it didn’t quite go down like that in Florida, last week. It was a 4:25 tee-off! No, no, really seriously. It wasn’t like that; above is just the story I wanted to write. Nothing like that. GEO shareholders are not the kin of lucifer. GEO shareholders are, each, lucifer incarnate. Let’s not dilute responsibility here.
Okay, okay, really, seriously, now.
We live in a society that allows the haves to make cash from the exploitation, hardships and warehousing of the haven-nots. What is wrong with us?
— The Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) April 29, 2015
THE NEED FOR PROTEST
The protest organized by Dream Defenders, Prison Legal News, Grassroots Leadership, SEIU Florida and other groups adopted the slogan to “Expose the Slaveholders” for the protest.
GEO Group is the country’s second-largest for-profit prison operator, reports Nadia Prupis. GEO owns Karnes County Detention Center in Texas, which holds immigrant families and is the site of an ongoing hunger strike by detained mothers, as well as Reeves County Detention Center, currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.
Concerning Karnes, a Prison Legal News press release said:
Human Rights Defense Center associate director Alex Friedmann, an activist shareholder who owns a small number of shares of GEO Group stock, attended the meeting. When he asked about recent reports of hunger strikes by immigrant women held at the GEO Group-operated Karnes County Family Detention Center in Texas, he was informed by a GEO executive that there was no hunger strike; rather, it was a “boycott of dining facilities” at the detention facility.
As state budgets dried up, the private prison industry moved its attentions to Homeland Security $$$ and fought to win new build and operate ICE facilities. Which is weird because I don’t think it was a bevy of Latina mothers who flew those planes into the World Trade Center. GEO currently receives 42% of its revenue from contracts with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Prisons. In 2013, 67% of all federal criminal convictions were for immigration-related crime.
What’s confusing to me is why the arguments for prison reform have been decoupled from those for fewer immigration prisons. Maybe it’s built into the DNA of the United States that the free folks can only fight for the rights of an oppressed group, if there’s another group in line to abused and brutalized? Why have we got bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform, but nothing close to such consensus about immigration reform? Why are politicians making efforts to reduce the number of people in the broken, expensive, abusive state and county prisons, but we don’t apply that same enlightenment to people who don’t carry a bit of U.S.A. paper?
Kudos to these protestors who are going after the private prison firms. Private prisons are where all the worst shit happens and the protestors know it. Private prisons are where the architecture and economic logic of cages is perfected. GEO and their equally sadist competitor CCA account for less than 10% of prisons in the U.S. but they are the growth sector.
“We know that GEO Group and other private prison companies thrive when they are able to obscure the truth about their business practices and what happens inside of their facilities,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles, Grassroots Leadership’s Director of Criminal Justice Programs.
Politicians have decoupled zealous policing and mass incarceration from ever more draconian treatment of migrants. The ICE archipelago of dentition facilities are the latest additions to the Prison Industrial Complex. Politicians hope we won’t notice. Politicians are congratulating themselves for having a civil discussion about criminal justice but they do so, now, because it is safe ground. Where were they for the past 35 years?
While state legislators tweak corrections budgets, the private prison industry will be throwing migrants into boxes at will.
Don’t think that politicians are going to lead on the private prison issue. They won’t. Look to the activists, with boots on the ground, who know what is happening. Hillary Clinton has hopped on the criminal justice reform bandwagon tapping the issue du jour for her presidential run. That other guy with designs on the White House, the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, loves GEO Group
“While Rubio was leading the House, GEO was awarded a state government contract for a $110 million prison soon after Rubio hired an economic consultant who had been a trustee for a GEO real estate trust,” writes Michael Cohen in The Washington Post. “Over his career, Rubio has received nearly $40,000 in campaign donations from GEO, making him the Senate’s top career recipient of contributions from the company.”
Short story: GEO and CCA are evil. Stakeholders have evil in their blood. Politicians are mostly clueless. Activists are without career or money ties to the issue and will speak truth to power.
All images: Courtesy of Grassroots Leadership.
10, 11, 12, 13 & 14. © Steve Davis.
TRY YOUTH AS YOUTH
Currently on show at David Weinberg Photography in Chicago is Try Youth As Youth (Feb 13th — May 9th), an exhibition of photographs and video that bear witness to children locked in American prisons. As the title would suggest, the exhibition has a stated political position — that no person under the aged of 18 should be tried as an adult in a U.S. court of law.
In the summer of 2014, selling works ceased to be David Weinberg Photography’s primary function. The gallery formally changed its mission and committed to shedding light on social justice.
Try Youth As Youth, curated by Meg Noe, was conceived of and put together in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Here’s art in a gallery not only reflecting society back at itself, but trying to shift its debate.
The issue is urgent. In the catalogue essay Using Science and Art to Reclaim Childhood in the Justice System, Diane Geraghty Professor of Law at Loyola University, Chicago notes:
Every state continues to permit youth under the age of 18 to be transferred to adult court for trial and sentencing. As a result, approximately 200,000 children annually are legally stripped of their childhood and assumed to be fully functional adults in the criminal justice system.
This has not always been the case in the U.S. It is only changes to law in the past few decades that have resulted in children facing abnormally long custodial sentences, Life Without Parole sentences and even (in some states) the death penalty. In the face of such dark forces, what else is art doing if it is not speaking truth to power and challenging systems that undermine democracy and our social contract?
Noe invited me to write some words for the Try Youth As Youth catalogue. Given Weinberg’s enlightened modus operandi, I was eager to contribute. Here, republished in full is that essay. It’s populated with installation shots, photographs by Steve Davis, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, and video-stills by Tirtza Even.
Scroll down for essay.
Image: Steve Liss. A young boy held and handcuffed in a juvenile detention facility, Laredo, Texas.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Image: Steve Liss. Paperwork for one boy awaiting a court appearance. How many of our young “criminals” are really children in distress? Three-quarters of children detained in the United States are being held for nonviolent offenses. And for many young people today, family relationships that once nurtured a smooth process of socialization are frequently tenuous and sometimes non-existent.
Try Youth As Youth Catalogue Essay
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Isolated in a cell, a child might wonder, “What am I doing here?” It is an immediate, obvious and crucial question and, yet, satisfactory answers are hard to come by. The causes of America’s perverse addiction to incarceration are complex. Let’s just say, for now, that the inequities, poverty, fears and class divisions that give rise to America’s thirst for imprisonment have existed in society longer than any child has. And, let’s just say, for now, that the complex web of factors contributing to a child’s imprisonment are larger than most children could be expected to understand on a first go around.
As understandable as it might be children in crisis to ask “What am I doing here?” it should not be expected. Instead, it is we, as adults, who should be expected to face the question. We should rephrase it and ask it of ourselves, and of society. What are WE doing here? What are we doing as voters in a society that locks up an estimated 65,000 children on any given night? In the face of decades of gross criminal justice policy and practice, what are we doing here, within these gallery walls, looking at pictures?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility, Albany, Oregon, by Richard Ross. “I’m from Portland. I’ve only been here 17 days. I’m in isolation. I’ve been in ICU for four days. I get out in one more day. During the day you’re not allowed to lay down. If they see you laying down, they take away your mattress. I’m in isolation ‘cause I got in a fight. I hit the staff while they were trying to break it up. They think I’m intimidating. I can’t go out into the day room; I have to stay in the cell. They release me for a shower. I’ve been here three times. I have a daughter, so I’m stressed. She’s six months old. At 12 I was caught stealing at Wal-Mart with my brother and sister. My sister ran away from home with a white dude. She was smoking weed, alcohol. When my sister left I was sort of alone…then my mother left with a new boyfriend, so my aunt had custody. She’s 34. My aunt smoked weed, snorts powder, does pills, lots of prescription stuff. I got sexual with a five-year-older boy, so I started running away. So I was basically grown when I was about 14. But I wasn’t doing meth. Then I stopped going to school and dropped out after 8th grade. Then I was in a parenting program for young mothers…then I left that, so they said I was endangering my baby. The people in the program were scared of me. I don’t know what to think. I was selling meth, crack, and powder when I was 15. I was Measure 11. I was with some other girls — they blamed the crime on me, and I took the charges because I was the youngest. They beat up this girl and stole from her, but I didn’t do it. But they charged me with assault and robbery too. This was my first heavy charge.” — K.Y., age 19.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
I have spent a good portion of the past six-and-a-half years trying to figure out just what it is that images of prisons and prisoners actually do. Who is their audience and what are their effects? If I thought answers were always to be couched in the language of social justice I was soon put right by Steve Davis during an interview in the autumn of 2008.
“People respond to these portraits for their own reasons,” said Davis. “A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prisons or justice. Some people like pictures of handsome young boys — they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.”
My interview with Davis was the first ever for the ongoing Prison Photography project. It blew my mind too, but in many ways it also prepared me for the contested visual territory within which sites of incarceration exist and into which I had embarked. Davis’ honesty prepared me to face uncomfortable truths and perversions of truth. It readied me for the skeevy power imbalances I’d observe time and time again in our criminal justice system.
The children in Try Youth As Youth may be, for the most part, invisible to society but they are not far away. “I was just acknowledging that this juvenile prison is 20 miles from my home,” says Davis of his earliest motivations. If you reside in an urban area, it is likely you live as near to a juvenile prison, too. Or closer.
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Prisoners, and surely child prisoners, make up one of society’s most vulnerable groups. Isn’t it strange then that rarely are they presented as such? Often depictions of prisoners serve to condemn them, but not here, in Try Youth As Youth.
As we celebrate the committed works of Steve Davis, Tirtza Even, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, we should bear in mind that other types of prison imagery are less sympathetic and that other viewers’ motives are not wed to the politics of social justice. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it’s a different thousand for everyone. We must be willing to fight and press the issue and advocate for child prisoners. Our mainstream media dominated by cliche, our news-cycles dominated by mugshots and the politics of fear, and our gallery-systems with a mandate to make profits will not always serve us. They may even do damage.
Image: Steve Davis. A girl incarcerated in Remann Hall, near Tacoma, Washington State.
Given that the works of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross circulate in a free-world that most of their subjects do not, it is all our responsibility to handle, contextualize and talk about these photographs and films in a way that serves the child subjects most. It is our responsibility to talk about economic inequality and about the have and have-nots.
“No child asks to be born into a neighborhood where you can get a gun as easily as a popsicle at the convenience store or giving up drugs means losing every one of your friends,” said Steve Liss “They were there [in jail] because there was no love, there was no nourishing, there was anger in startling doses, and there was poverty. Tremendous poverty.”
Image: Steve Liss. Alone and lonely, ten-year-old Christian, accused of ‘family violence’ as a result of a fight with an abusive older brother, sits in his cell.Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Davis, Even, Liss and Ross understand the burden is upon us as a society to explain our widespread use of sophisticated and brutal prisons more than it is for any individual child to explain him or herself. The image of an incarcerated child is an image not of their failings, but of ours. We must do better — by providing quality pre and post-natal care for mothers and babies, nutritious food, livable wages for parents, and support and safety in the home and on the streets. Most often, it is a series of failures in the provision of these most basic needs that leads a child to prison.
“Poverty would be solved in two generations. It would require an enormous change in our priorities. Look at how we elevate the role of a stockbroker and denigrate the role of a school teacher or a parent, those who are responsible for raising the next generation of Americans,” says Liss.
(Top to Bottom) Installation shot; video still; and drawings from Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez’s Natural Life, 2014.
Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez. Natural Life, 2014. Cast concrete (segment of installation). A cast of five sets of the standard issue bedding (a pillow, a bedroll) given to prisoners upon their arrival to the facility, are arranged on raw-steel pedestals in the area leading to the video projection. The sets, scaled down to kid size and made of a stack of crumbling and thin sheets of material resembling deposits of rock, are cast in concrete. Individually marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of each of the five prisoners featured in the documentary, they thus delineate the brief time the inmates spent in the free world.
Each of the artists in Try Youth As Youth have seen incredible deprivations inside facilities that do not — cannot — serve the needs of all the children they house. Ross speaks of a child who has never had a bedtime. A social worker once told Davis of one child in the system who had never seen or held a printed photograph.
Documenting these sites is not easy and brings with it huge responsibility. Tirtza Even has grappled with the weight of her work “and how much is expected from them is a little heavy.” In some cases, these artists are the outside voice for children. Liss acknowledges that expectations more often than not outweigh the actual effects their work can have.
“People ask how do you get close to kids in a facility like that. That isn’t the problem. The problem is how do you set up enough artificial barriers so you don’t get too close. So you’re not just one more adult walking out on them in the final analysis,” he says. “I, at least, convinced myself into thinking it was therapeutic for the kids. At least someone was listening to them.”
So far, the efforts of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross have been recognized by those in power. Liss’ work has been used to lobby for psych care and an adolescent treatment unit in Laredo, Texas. Ross’ work was used in a Senate subcommittee meeting that legislated at the federal level against detained pre-adjudicated juveniles with youth convicted of committed hard crimes.
“That’s a great thing for me to know that my work is being used for advocacy rather than the masturbatory art world that I grew up in,” says Ross.
Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, Wichita, Kansas, by Richard Ross. “Nobody comes to visit me here. Nobody. I have been here for eight months. My mom is being charged with aggravated prostitution. She had me have sex for money and give her the money. The money was for drugs and men. I was always trying to prove something to her…prove that I was worth something. Mom left me when I was four weeks old — abandoned me. There are no charges against me. I’m here because I am a material witness and I ran away a lot. There is a case against my pimp. He was my care worker when I was in a group home. They are scared I am going to run away and they need me for court. I love my mom more than anybody in the world. I was raised to believe you don’t walk away from a person so I try to fix her. When I was 12 my mom was charged with child endangerment. I’ve been in and out of foster homes. They put me in there when they went to my house and found no running water, no electricity. I ran away so much that they moved me from temporary to permanent JJA custody. I’m refusing all my visits because I am tired of being lied to.” — B.B., age 17.
Richard Ross’ works in the Try Youth As Youth exhibition at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
The walls of David Weinberg are not the end point of these works’ journey. An exhibition is not a triumph it is a call to action. The work begins now.
Programming during the exhibition — phone-ins to prison, discussions with ACLU lawyers and experts in the field, conversations with formerly incarcerated youth — will all direct us the right way. The gallery space works best when it sutures artists’ creative processes into a larger process that we can shape as socially informed citizens. Our process of building healthy society.
“Kids need us,” says Liss. “They need our time, they need our involvement, and they need our investment. If you own an automotive shop, open it up to kids and the community. It does take a community.”
There are a host of wonderful arts communities doing work, here in Chicago, around criminal justice reform and social equity — Project NIA, 96 Acres, AREA, Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, Lucky Pierre and Temporary Services to name a few.
The arts can trail-blaze the conversation we need to be having. Photography and film are the ammunition with which we arm our reform arguments. First we see, then we do. If art is not speaking truth to power, then really, what are we doing here?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
David Weinberg Photography is at 300 W. Superior Street, Suite 203, Chicago, IL 60654. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Telephone: 312 529 5090.
Try Youth As Youth is on show until May 9th, 2015.
Text © Pete Brook / David Weinberg Photography.
Images: Courtesy of artists / David Weinberg Photography.
Inside the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution, Nakamura photographed the Blue Room, a space in which prisoners watch videos of nature. Nakamura’s photographs and Denson’s words is the first news reporting on this fringe behavioural management method.
Firstly, why does the Blue Room exist? Prisoners in solitary are completely deprived of nature. In the IMU at Snake River, they are locked in their cell for 23 hours and 20 minutes every day. Prisoners’ only time outside of their windowless cell is 40 minutes in a concrete pen with high walls and a metal grate between they and the sky. IMU, the hole, SHU, the cooler, the box, solitary, call it what you like, extreme isolation makes men mad. Solitary is psychological torture. Neuroscience proves as much. Solitary is deprivation made physical.
The working hypothesis of the Blue Room is that exposure to video recorded scenes of nature will calm prisoners. It began operation in April 2013.
Let’s just pause right there and consider what is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged. The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.
There are many employees of the state — such as Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU at Snake River — who acknowledge that solitary destroys one’s sense of self. In his article, Denson quotes Gilbertson:
“I’ve seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they’ll almost appear to be completely normal,” Gilbertson said. “After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them.”
Nearly two-thirds of the 200+ men in Snake River’s IMU suffer moderate to severe mental illness. Solitary makes them more prone to violence.
In the past 25 years, states across the U.S. have built, staffed and populated Supermax prisons that specialise in abuse. Once in operation, even well-meaning employees and mental health care-givers can’t change the structure therein; their primary function is to limit the damage of the rigid, brutalising environment.
If we really wanted to provide prisoners with some nature, we could open a gate and let them go sit out in the yard for the afternoon! Put a window in their cell?! Give them exercise options beyond the standard “dog-pen.” But no. From within a carceral logic that says controlled bodies stay within the walls, ludicrous makeshift responses such as the Blue Room emerge.
When I first learned of the Blue Room’s existence, I immediately thought to the scene from the film A Clockwork Orange in which the character Alex has his eyes pinned open and is forced to view “scenes of ultra-violence.” The notion that psychological ills can be rectified by the sights and sounds of projected montages, for me, is the domain of fiction. What would Stanley Kubrick make of this private screening room? Or Anthony Burgess, for that matter? Would they conclude that Snake River prison is as dystopic as the near-future-Britain they created in novel and cinema?
Film still, from A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick.
My first question about the Blue Room is not does it work? Rather, I have to wonder, why does it need to exist? What conditions of social order and disciplinary regime give rise to its “need” and justification?
The Blue Room is a pilot program drawing upon lesser-tested theories in eco-psychology. Denson explains that it came into being through a series of conversations.
In a 2010 TED talk, biologist Nalini Nadkarni talked generally about how nature can be used to rehabilitate and prisoners with jobs skills. At the time, I thought Nadkarni’s implementation of programs to identify moss species and raise endangered frogs as part of the Prison Sustainability Project was fantastic. I still do. Laudable initiatives. (I’ve talked about Nadkarni-started projects here and here on the blog before).
During her TED talk, Nadkarni mentioned she was thinking about installing large-scale murals of nature in the Supermax facilities of Washington. The Washington DOC was supportive but the correctional officers were opposed and the idea was shelved. Then, in late 2012, a Snake River corrections officer named Kevin Karpati watched the TED talk. Karpati emailed the link to Mark Nooth, the prison’s superintendent. Nooth, in turn, emailed the link to Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU. Gilbertson contacted Nadkarni and asked if it could work.
This is where I wish to acknowledge that the people involved in instituting the Blue Room are making — from within a very restrictive law enforcement environment — efforts to improve the lot of prisoners. They have initiated the Blue Room as a response to severe deficiencies in the system. They cannot change the penal codes and administrative laws, but they can change the available practices within the walls. The Blue Room is an attempt to restore positive sensory input within a facility that routinely denies such inputs.
Nadkarni said she hoped it would work but had no evidence. All agreed that the only way to know was to test the hypothesis. An interior exercise room was converted to a screening room with projector and two chairs.
Nadkarni, along with National Gepgraphic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.
[Previously, I’ve written about bibliotherapy (the calculated use of reading lists to spur prisoners’ self-directed correction of “deviance”) in San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. The videotherapy at play in the Blue Room could be interpreted as a modern day equivalent. Words replaced by images?]
Denson reports that early anecdotes and observations suggest that the Blue Room can have a calming effect. “Lance Schnacker, a researcher for the Oregon Youth Authority, studied the disciplinary records of Snake River’s IMU inmates in the year before, and the year after, the Blue Room opened,” writes Denson. “He calculated that those who didn’t get the unique therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a slight dip. Schnacker cautioned that these data were preliminary, but promising.”
Should we be surprised? Give prisoners any small amount of added agency and the opportunity to take-in stimulus that breaks the norm and the monotony then, I’d argue, we would observe a change in behaviour. And most likely, toward the positive. Again, I am left to wonder why prison administrations are initiating small-scale projects such as the Blue Room, instead of taking a step back and recognising that the institutional logic which returns to solitary time-and-time again is the more fundamental issue to address.
Nadkarni, Thys, Schnacker and eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach are set work with Snake River staffers to observe prisoners, conduct surveys and correlate results to existing mental health files. They hope to be able to determine to what degree exactly the Blue Room calms prisoners.
However, determining whether the Blue Room does or does not reduce suicidal or violent tendencies is a red herring. The study misses the point. Whether prisoners see 20-minute long reels of guppy fish and seaweed, or not, doesn’t alter the fact that solitary confinement makes people lose their minds. Why are we interested in mitigating the effects of a barbarous facility when we should be dismantling the walls of the facility altogether?
All images: Beth Nakamura
© Ruddy Roye
PDX Design Week wrapped up last weekend. Before I moved out of the city, I was asked to do a guest post for the PDXDW blog. I don’t know much about design, so I wrote about photographers that are making good use of emerging technologies or commenting on our brave new world dominated by emerging and automated technologies.
Thanks to Taryn Cowart for her assistance getting it published.
With some line-editing, I crosspost the listicle below.
Good photography is good vibes. Often, even bad photography is good vibes. The world needs Seflies, SnapChat cheekiness, cat GIFs, and Doge bombs. However, sometimes, we have to search out the good stuff. We need to look around and ask what’s at stake. Frankly, there’s not a lot resting on your cellphone pictures — they’re not changing the world. When the technologies and file formats with which they were made are obsolete, no-one will care if your phone snaps are lost forever. Least of all you?
When we talk about art, journalism and photography we should be able to single projects out and to define worth. Some creative endeavors are world-changing. I want to give a nod to photographers and artists working with images who inform us about the world and some of its urgent issues. As users and consumers, I want to believe we can leverage rapid publishing and sharing for political and social improvement.
BEST USE OF INSTAGRAM
Ruddy Roye was the first photographer to really stake his style on the meaningful caption. He ditched the hashtags and asked real people some real questions. Based in New York most of his portraits are of people in his neighborhood and jollies around the Big Apple. His feed drips with humanity and reveals stories you couldn’t imagine. This is the REAL Humans OF New York! Also, I like to credit Roye for landing the fatal blow to the snarky #TLDR hashtag.
SECOND BEST USE OF INSTAGRAM
Peter DiCampo and fellow journalist Austin Merrill (both white American) set up the Everyday Africa after years of reporting from the continent and witnessing nothing but sensational and scary images of war, tragedy and the like. What about the normal everyday stuff? In an attempt to make the most of boring daily things, DiCampo and a wide cadre of collaborator quickly put together a simple, illuminating, sometimes colorful, and intimate Instagram feed. It’s political but not difficult. Okay, so it’s a free-for-all that promotes aesthetically ordinary pictures, but I’ll take neoliberal relativism over neocolonialist manipulation every day of the week.
EverydayAfrica spurned dozens of loose collective of photographers who set up EverydayMiddleEast, EverydayAsia, EverydayIran and even EverydayBronx. Instagram sponsored an Everyday “Summit” at the 2014 Photoville Festival and ponied up cash to fly in contributors from all corners of the globe. These guys are much better IG-movement than the creepy Christians making VSCO lifestyle shots to pair with their #blessed affirmations and bible quotes.
Watch out though: EverydayUSA has some of the best photojournalists under it’s belt. Photo-industry-folk reckon EverydayUSA will soon eclipse all the other accounts, at which point the whole Everyday movement may have announced its death. Get on this young movement while it’s still fresh and focused on countries other than the one you live in.
© Mishka Henner
BEST USE OF GOOGLE EARTH
If there’s a controversial topic Mishka Henner hasn’t produced a body of work on, he’s probably in his studio, right now, making it. From censorship, to prostitution in the Mediterranean, from military bases to big-ag food production, from war to big oil, Henner doesn’t shy away from tough topics. His skill is to do so without really leaving his studio. Henner is one of the cleverest, canniest and hardest working artists dealing with Google and the machine age of image-making.
He winds people up with his methods that are anathema to photo-purists but what else is there to do with available imagery if not to capture, ‘shop and frame it in political terms. Google is the all seeing eye that doesn’t care.
© Tomas Van Houtryve
BEST USE OF PERSONAL DRONES
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates American operated drones have killed between 2,296 and 3,718 people, as many as 957 of them civilians. That’s a whole lot of killing.
The program of U.S. airstrikes which began in 2002, but was only publicly acknowledged in 2012 is a remote war driven by a remote technology. Belgian photographer Tomas Van Houtryve decided the best way to grab Americans’ attention to the issue was to show them how drone attacks would appear in America.
There’s no shortage of projects about drones to get us thinking about the issue. John Vigg has his Google surveilled drone research labs and airports; Jamie Bridle traced a drone shadow in Washington D.C. last year and launched Dronestagram to populate social media sites with satellite views of drone strike sites; Trevor Paglen has photographed drones at distance; and Raphaella Dallaporta took a drone to Afghanistan under the guise of an archaeological survey.
Most recently Not A Bug Splat made a splash. Cheeky and powerful the project installed massive portraits of children in regions subject to U.S. drone strikes, with the intent of pricking the conscience of remote U.S. drone operators stationed in Nevada about to bring the hammer of destruction down on that Waziristan village.
Screenshot of Josh Begley’s Prison Map
BEST USE OF SURVEILLANCE IMAGERY AGAINST THE SYSTEM
Data artist Josh Begley specializing in scraping images from publicly available sources. He then creates App and websites to publish the info and produce push notifications you can’t avoid.
For his project Prison Map, Begley took the GPS coordinates of every prison, jail and immigration detention center in America and fed them into a Google Maps API code he had modified. He ran the script and it spat out more than 5,300 satellite images — one for every locked facility in the U.S. The prison population in this country has grown 500% in the past 30 years. One in every one hundred adults is behind bars and most of them are poor people. The recurrent patterns of brutally functional architecture within Prison Map are staggering. We’ve been building prisons in high desert and rural backwaters. Begley makes the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) visible once more.
Likewise, for his project Profiling Is, Begley snagged the NYPD’s surveillance shots of business and residences in the NY boroughs which were under monitoring.
He doesn’t stop there. Begley’s App MetaData alerts users to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This didn’t happen until the conclusion of a merrigoround of negotiation with the “apolitical” Apple. Begley finally got his drone strike App approved when he removed all mention the word drone! Now, you can get next-day updates of Obama’s largely-ignored drone war on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen straight to your smartphone.
© Mari Bastashevski
BEST USE OF PHOTOGRAPHY, MUCK-RAKING AND INVESTIGATIVE NOUS
Mari Bastashevski skirts a fine line between journalist, artist, researcher, photographer and tourist to dig up the personalities and money makers in the international arms trade. Here’s the feature I did for WIRED a while back. Her ongoing project State Business is devastating inasmuch it reveals how pervasive and complicit most nations are in making billions on the slaughter of humans.The US, the UK, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Georgia; Bastashevski’s following of the money takes us all over the place … sometimes even to the carport on the Facebook pages of international arms dealers.
BEST MAKING SENSE OF SURVEILLANCE
If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. In 2002, after Hasan Elahi was mistaken for someone on the terror watch list and detained for hours at Detroit airport, he decided he’d save the authorities the bother and monitor himself. Caustic, direct, creepy and amusing, Elahi photographed everything he did, ate, shit, saw and worked on. He also GPS tracked his every move on a live web map. The project is titled Tracking Transcience. One of the by-products of the self-monitoring is the creation of a typology of toilets. Taking sousveillance to another level and entertaining thousands while he does it. Brill.
© MigraZoom. A migrant on a cargo train traveling from Arriaga, Chiapas to Ixtepec, Oaxaca. After crossing the Mexican-Guatemalan border and traveling to Arriaga, migrants hitch a ride on top of cargo trains to Ixtepec. This trip takes about 12 hours. In addition to the risk of falling off the train (amputations and death are common), gangs frequently extort migrants, charging them $100 to ride. They face threats of being thrown off the train, kidnapped, raped or trafficked if they do not pay.
REALEST VIEWS OF IMMIGRATION
There’s some great fine art projects out there about the U.S./Mexican border. Probably, the stand out is David Taylor’s Working The Line, which documents the militarization of the border. But it can be criticised for being to distant and tends to rest on the creaking aesthetic mores of American landscape photography. If we want to see what is really going on during the tough journey’s into North America, we should pay attention to MigraZoom, a project by Spanish-born photographer Encarni Pindado which puts disposable cameras in the hands of economic migrants during their perilous treks northward.
© David Taylor
Another beautifully shot and more unexpected treatment of new arrivals is Gabriele Stabile’s Refugee Hotel which documents approved asylum seekers’ first nights in America at four hotels adjacent to four hub airports through which new refugee migrants arrive. Respectful documentation that is pregnant with uncertainty.
Taylor’s work is currently on show at the amazing ‘Covert Operations’ at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
BEST USE OF INTERNET FOR DISCUSSION
Photographer Hank Willis Thomas is a prolific force. One of his most recent projects Question Bridge is a platform for black males to ask other black males questions about black identity. Participants do so through video and provide answers similarly. Access is easy, involvement free, connections priceless and it works well in exhibition format too. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson is the latest incident to demonstrate to the entire nation our shared need to face racial inequality int he country. Willis Thomas is doing his bit.
© Lindsay Lochman and Barbara Ciurej
BEST COMMENTARY ON MECHANICAL AGE FOOD PRODUCTION
With Ag Gag laws becoming ever more common, clever responses to imaging industrial food production must be inventive. Lindsay Lochman & Barbara Ciurej rip on the much-mythologized West and specifically on the hero-worship of Carleton Watkins by constructing sugar-coated and corn-fed diorama reconstruction of Watkins’ landscapes with shitty foodstuffs.
Will Potter ain’t a photographer but he’s putting imagery to good ends. Potter, a TED Fellow, has been reporting on the crack down on environmental activists under homeland security legislation that was designed to tackle terrorist. Instead of chasing bombchuckers, our law enforcement is going after tree huggers. The title of Potter’s book, Green Is The New Red, say its all. Routinely, it has been eco-activists who’ve brought us the shocking footage from inside factory farms. Potter, continuing the tradition of expose, wants to fly drones over feedlots and take advantage of laws being slow to be written. Again, we seeing the convergence of technologies and activist peel back the layers of obscurity purposefully put over our shady business practices in years past.
© Donna Ferrato
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
The greatest photography work being done to reveal the entrapped, terrorized lives of those victim to domestic violence, is done — perhaps not unsurprisingly by female photographers. Donna Ferrato has trained a lens on the topic for decades. Recently, young gun Sara Naomi Lewkowicz captured similar images to Ferrato as an intimate witness to partner abuse. The parallels were saddening proving that this is a strand of violent psychology we just are not dealing with effectively. To be frank, the issue isn’t being imaged enough; intimate partner abuse remains hidden behind closed doors.
Paula Bronstein was one of the earliest and most direct photographers to document the survivors of acid attacks in Asia. If we’re to mention women’s rights abroad we have to look at the work of Stephanie Sinclair, whose multiyear project Too Young To Wed is pitch perfect. Quiet, weighty, tragic and polychrome portraits of child brides throughout the world. Sinclair’s had help from all the major distributors and grant makers to cast the net of her survey far and wide. The transmedia project is about as good as it gets in terms of audience engagement tactics too.
© Jim Goldberg
BEST COMMENTS ON WEALTH INEQUALITY
It’s difficult to name a stand out photographer who has taken on the wealth gap in a resonant way. It sounds strange to say but maybe cash is difficult to shoot? This apparent lack is consistent with other art forms though. If Occupy taught us one thing, some issues are designed for public performance, demonstration, walking and protest signs. Think of music, for comparison. In the sixties musicians such as Joe Strummer and Nina Simone emerged with brilliant anger toward social injustice. Despite public disgust made visible in anti-Iraq-war protests and Occupy, there’s not a protest song from the 21st century of note. Perhaps music isn’t the format for anger or the wealth gap either?
Don’t worry, I’m not being a pessimist here. Violent dismay certainly exists. I’m just not convinced art is the realm where we see the most direct political action. Gone are the days of the great labor photographers such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. Inequality was laid bare in the photojournalism of the civil rights era (Ernest Cole, Charles Moore, Danny Lyon) and while those reportages were about money and opportunity they weren’t primarily about the markets. Check out the work of Gregory Halpern for your modern day Milton Rogovin.
The most indelible and forthright description of wealth inequality is Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor, which remains the high point and the tone at which aspiring photographers should aim.
Dang, that’s been a lot of men’s names. I think it right to end with LaToya Ruby Frazier’s name then. She, better than anyone currently making work, ties together class, race, income, post-industrial America, public health, personal health, family and environmental hazard with her generational survey of the women in her family and her home town of Braddock, PA, in The Notion OF Family.
© La Toya Ruby Frazier
Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #11, 2012 © Arne Svenson, Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York
A greater cynic than I might argue that Arne Svenson was working for the state when making photographs of his neighbors. One might suggest this not because there is any inherent value, lest any valuable information about the individuals within the snooping shots, but rather, because the brouhaha that erupted around the exhibition of The Neighbors at the Julie Saul Gallery was a distorting and damaging version of the ongoing conversation about privacy in our society.
I go on to explain how the protestations of Svenson’s (very affluent) neighbours, lawsuits and public outcry derailed us from actually seeing the more pernicious and invasive layers of surveillance we are subject to daily … and especially in New York city.
Read the 1,200 words here.
THE HILLMAN PHOTOGRAPHY INITIATIVE (HPI)
The inaugural HPI at CMOA “investigates the lifecycle of images: their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence. Technology accelerates the pace of this cycle, and often alters or redirects the trajectory of an image in unexpected, powerful ways.”
Transition and consumption: Love that. I’m proud to be associated with CMOA’s broader consideration of images within society. HPI is getting inside the bloodstreams of the media and changing the discussion.