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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 13thMay 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.

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Image: Steve Liss. A young boy held and handcuffed in a juvenile detention facility, Laredo, Texas.

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Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.

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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?

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Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.

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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 girlsthey 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.

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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 boysthey 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.

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Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’

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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.

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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.”

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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 betterby 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.

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(Top to Bottom) Installation shot; video still; and drawings from Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez’s Natural Life, 2014.

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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 notcannotserve 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.

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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 oldabandoned 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.

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Richard Ross’ works in the Try Youth As Youth exhibition at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.

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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 exhibitionphone-ins to prison, discussions with ACLU lawyers and experts in the field, conversations with formerly incarcerated youthwill 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 equityProject 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?

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Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.

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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.

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Text © Pete Brook / David Weinberg Photography.

Images: Courtesy of artists / David Weinberg Photography.

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Pursuant to my recent conversation with Beth Nakamura, I feel it necessary to focus on particular aspect of Oregon’s prison system on which she and Bryan Denson reported. The Blue Room.

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?

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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?]

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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?

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All images: Beth Nakamura

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© 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.

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PHOTOGRAPHY’S BEST

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.

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© EverydayAfrica

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.

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© 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.

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© 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.

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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.

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© 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.

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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.

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© 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.

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© 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.

LOCKWOOD-01

© 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.

DonnaFerrato

© 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

© 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.

LaToyaRubyFrazier

© La Toya Ruby Frazier

 

Svenson_Neighbors_11

Arne Svenson, The Neighbors #11, 2012 © Arne Svenson, Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York

The Prying Eye Of The Public Lens, a response piece I wrote for the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hillman Photography Initiative was published earlier today.

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.

OPBcoffeeBlue_orlcrj

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.

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