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Crowdfunding, eh? What to make of it. I feel like the jury is still out, but then again I have had my head somewhat in the sands of late. I have benefited in the past from a Kickstarter campaign and in the immediate aftermath tried to give my feedback on the dos and don’ts.
Where the successful intersections between cultural production and social justice lie is, for me, a constant internal debate, so I hope this post serves two purposes.
Firstly, to clarify my thinking and to highlight the type of crowd funding campaign that I think encapsulates best practice.
Secondly, to bring a half-dozen endeavors (5 prison-related and 1 purely photo-based) that I think deserve your attention and, perhaps, your dollars.
On the first purpose, I’ve identified common traits among these projects that are indicative of a good practice:
- Track record. These fund seekers appearing out of the blue; they’ve done work in the specific area and have chops and connections.
- Direct action. These projects will directly engage with subject and, consequently audience on urgent politic issues
- Community partners. These funders have existing relationships with organizations or programs that will provide support, direction, accountability and extended networks
- Diversity. Of both product and outcomes. Projects that meld digital output/campaigns and boots-on-the-ground activism get my attention. Creators, in these instances, realize that they must leverage every feasible avenue to get out the political message.
- Matching funds. In cases where matching funds exist, I am reassured. It shows that the creator is forging networks and infers that they are inventive and outward looking when it comes fundraising. It infers that we’re all in it together; it might just give us those necessary warm fuzzy feelings when handing over cash on the internet.
On the second purpose, I’ll let you decide.
Let’s start with a campaign to help OUTREACH, a program offered by Toronto’s Gallery 44 that breaks down barriers to the arts by offering black & white photography workshops to 50 young people each year.
OUTREACH’s darkroom is the last publicly accessible wet darkroom in Toronto. Gallery 44 has offered accessible facilities to artists since 1979.
Donations go to workshops costs: photographic paper, film, processing, chemistry, snacks and transit tokens.
OUTREACH has several existing community partners including the Nia Centre for the Arts, Eva’s Phoenix, Toronto Council Fire Native Community Centre, PEACH and UrbanArts.
“I went from being a student to a mentor,” says one participant. “I recently had my work exhibited in the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.”
2. DYING FOR SUNLIGHT
In the summer of 2013, prisoners in California conducted the largest prison hunger strike in U.S. history. 30,000 men refused food in protest against the use of indefinite solitary confinement. Some prisoners refused food for 60 consecutive days. Dying For Sunlight will tell the story.
Across racial lines, from within the belly of the beast (Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit) California prisoners mounted a reasoned and politically robust defense of their basic human rights that garnered nationwide attention. Their families joined them in solidarity. This was a true grassroots movement built by those on the front lines of state violence
“We prisoners of all races have united to force these changes for future generations,” Arturo Castellanos wrote from the Pelican Bay SHU.
Filmmakers Lucas Guilkey and Nazly Siadate have spent the past year building relationships, and covering the California prisoner hunger strikes. They are joined by journalist Salima Hamirani and community organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, and California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement in their effort to tell this story.
“In a world of sound bytes, Dying For Sunlight feature length documentary will allow us the time to more fully delve into the questions this movement has raised,” says Guilkey. “Why and how is solitary confinement used in California prisons? What does the movement against it look like? And how did we get to the point where we’ve normalized a system of torture in our own backyards?”
Dying For Sunlight takes the premise that, in order to understand our society with “increasing inequality, militarization, incarceration, surveillance, deportation, and the criminalization of dissent, we must listen to the voices of those who have endured the most repressive form of social control–the solitary confinement unit.”
The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez ruled that solitary for anything more than 15 days is psychological torture, yet California and other states throw people in the hole for decades.
The film is in pre-production and all the fancy-schmancy gear is bought. Donations will go directly to costs associated with travel, expenses and editing related to interviews made up and down the state with family members, formerly incarcerated people, solitary experts, prison officials. They’ll attend rallies and vigils too. They hope to have a rough cut by December.
3. CHANGE THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS (AIA) CODE OF ETHICS TO OUTLAW DESIGN OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT UNITS
Raphael Sperry continues his battle to rewrite an AIA ethics code which predates the widespread use of solitary confinement in the U.S.
An architect himself, but on hiatus to concentrate on this political and ethical fight, Sperry points out, “even though only 3 to 4% of prisoners are in solitary confinement, half of all prison suicides occur among prisoners who are in solitary confinement.
The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession.
“The AIA has disciplinary authority over its members. In the current code of ethics, they have language that says that members should uphold human rights in all of their professional endeavors. So it’s pretty clear that members shouldn’t design a Supermax prison or an execution chamber,” explains Sperry. “[But] the language about upholding human rights is unenforceable in the AIA code of ethics. So all we’re asking them to do is draft an enforceable rule associated with it that says that members should not design [a project that commits] a specific human rights violation.”
Sperry’s tactics go to the heart of his profession and tackle this issue that stains our collective moral conscience. It’s strategic and laudable. He’s won institutional support before.
Donations go toward ongoing conversations, writing, speaking, research and pressure on the top brass.
4. A LIVING CHANCE
A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole is made in collaboration with females serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California. The word “collaboration” is the important detail. It is made with incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison. CCWP rightly identifies incarcerated women as the experts on the issue of prisons.
Audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs will constitute a website and a publication about LWOP which is considered the “lesser” alternative sentence to the Death Penalty.
People sentenced to LWOP have no chance of release from prison and very slim opportunity for appeals or clemency. There are approximately 190 people sentenced to die in prison by LWOP in California’s women’s prisons. The majority of whom are survivors of childhood and/or intimate partner abuse. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trial.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC) and prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. CCWP began in 1995 when people inside the women’s prisons filed a lawsuit against then-governor Pete Wilson rightfully claiming that the healthcare inside prison was so terrible it violated their 8th amendment rights.
A Living Chance was chosen as a recipient of a matching funds award up to the value of $6,000. Already, $2,000 has been raised in individual donations, so the crowdfunding target is $4,000 of a $12,000 total
Donations go creation of the storytelling website and publication, stipends for participants, travel costs to the prisons, and building future effective campaigns.
5. THE PRISON PROBLEM, SHANE BAUER’S YEAR OF JOURNALISM
“We spend over $80 billion a year on our corrections system and the cost is growing. At the same time, the number of privately run prisons is on the rise, and the for-profit prison model is spreading globally. In the US, the percentage of prisoners held in private facilities increased 37 percent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these are immigrants, a large number of which remain in pretrial detention for years,” says Bauer. “I’ll show you how U.S. prison practices are being exported to the rest of the world and dissect the systems that lead so many to be locked up in this country.”
For The Prison Problem, Bauer is basically asking for everything he needs to live on in order to create deep investigative journalism: funds to travel, interview, conduct research, and sometimes sue government bodies refusing access to information.
Bauer reporting in Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, Crescent City, California, 2013.
Bauer promises at least three or four major feature stories, each is the equivalent of a magazine cover story. He’s got the reporting chops necessary — No Way Out for Mother Jones about solitary in California (video, too) is widely acclaimed.
6. HELPING KIDS OUT OF JAIL AND BACK INTO SCHOOL
Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY) provides educational rights counseling and assistance to young people in Montgomery County, PA who are reentering the community after being incarcerated. It’s asking for a little help. Montgomery County, PA has been identified as having a disproportionate amount of minority youth being involved in the juvenile system, and suffers from a lack of agencies focused on supporting youth reentering the community.
PALY recruits law student, as volunteers, to work one-on-one with reentering youth crafting individually-designed educational plans.
The average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for a year is about $88k per year; educating that same student is one eighth that cost.
The ask of only $10,000 is small by comparison, but the effect could be huge. Donations will cover PALY’s first year of programming costs: training mentors, youth educational programs, and a ‘Know Your Rights’ campaigns for the community.
Alexandra Diracles,”Be The Witness” installation view, Houston Street, NYC
Photographic artists who collaborate closely — and as equivalents — with communities to amplify voices and forward political movement are at the forefront of my thoughts right now. As you might now, last month I took part in a discussion about socially-engaged photography practice, at Aperture Gallery, NYC. It would, therefore, be unforgivable for me not to share with you my experience visiting Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration an innovative exhibition curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in Midtown Manhattan. It is the best exhibition with this specific focus I have seen to date.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is teeming with powerful and important works. So many, in fact it makes this review quite a lengthy post. Please bear with me, and if nothing else, use the links herein to dig further into the projects.
The exhibition includes portraiture, documentary photography, audio-visual installations, personal narratives and community initiatives. The first thing that should be said is that the space is not ideal for contemplation. Works are hung throughout the openish-plan offices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That said, if you email ahead, you’ll be met out the elevator on the 14th floor by a welcoming staff member. Ultimately, the show will move to NYU in the autumn, so you can take your pick of visitor experience.
Immediately to one’s right upon entry are two small rooms dedicated to desktop presentations of Be The Witness a campaign organized by NYU grads that records the voices of wrongfully convicted exonerees; and Hank Willis Thomas’ Question Bridge an interactive’s trans-media initiative promoting dialogue between black males of all backgrounds in order to redefine black male identity in America. The WiFi was kapput but I was familiar with both these projects previously and know I, we, can experience them from our own home computers. I moved on without asking anyone to reset the router.
Next up was #SANDY, a collection of 12×12 iPhone photos prints captured by photographers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Organised by Wyatt Gallery and the Foley Gallery #SANDY raised $21,000 for rebuilding efforts in New York City. It was an immediate and effective response, but the engagement here seems to be more with technology, buyers and exceptional trauma rather than with the quieter, ongoing struggles of systemically disadvantaged communities. Laudable but hardly aesthetically or methodologically groundbreaking.
Squished into a corridor were the works of four projects that operate completely embedded within communities.
First, the NY-based Laundromat Project which uses public art classes to reinforce community networks. Everyone should know about their empowering work within NYC. It is a model that needs to be repeated.
Secondly, Sonia Louise Davis ‘ impressive Across 116th Street. Throughout the Summer of 2013, in conjunction with the Laundromat Project’s Works in Progress Art Education Program, Davis gave free art workshops along 116th Str. and hosted sidewalk family portraits sessions with neighbors using her large format view camera.
© Sonia Louise Davis
116th Street runs the full width of Manhattan, from the Hudson River to the East River. Davis seeks to activate communities’ narratives and histories. She provided all participants enlarged prints. In addition, Davis has asked residents to submit their own images of 116th street to a community-authored “ar(t)chive”.
Third, Lorie Novak‘s photographs. Novak has been working in Mexico for over a decade. She uses art and photography to catalyse communities on a wide-range of issues such as anti-violence against women and anti-GMO food crops. The few prints presented were documentation mainly and didn’t provide a deep or coherent summary of Novak’s very good projects — but that is precisely a tension of socially engaged work when the interaction and not an object-end-product is the main focus. With such projects, if posterity and education is to be served, (photographic) documentation is paramount.
Fourth, was a brief overview of Russell Frederick‘s mentorship of inner-city teenage boys. Frederick is well known for his luscious B&W reverent studies of residents of BedStuy, but here he’s encouraging youngsters to use photography for their own ends and means … with the hope of guiding them away from violence. Frederick has worked with the JustArts Photography program in NYC.
JustArts Photography students explore professional equipment with Russell Frederick
Off the corridor, in a side room, on a TV screen is Hong-An Truong‘s video Rehearsal For Education. Inspired by Gramsci, Truong recorded quotes texts and passages with high-school kids. These are the soundtrack to a conceptual montage of images. The effect is mantra like, but I couldn’t access the atmosphere of the piece nor figure out its extended use. The worth, I hope, is in the transformative nature of performance and theatre enjoyed by schoolchildren during the making.
On a massive wall at the end of the office space is Jamila Mohamad Hooker‘s Foreign Postcards, a crowdsourced visual rally against xenophobia and Islamophobia. People from around the world have exchanged and posed with the project’s postcards to normalise the sight of the Arabic language. The words? Their own name written in Arabic.
While the presentation of tiled selfies filling an entire long wall is impressive, the emotional connect was much stronger in the first instance among friends and family than I was with me, a detached tertiary audience member. That is why I just submitted a request for a postcard with my own name on it! You can too.
The concept is simple. We are all one humanity. A cute, repeatable and adaptable project.
Examples from Jamila Mohamad Hooker’s Foreign Postcards
If my reactions don’t seem gushing enough quite yet, don’t worry the best is yet to come. Again, placed down the length of a single corridor (taking us back to the front of the exhibition space) are a number of phenomenal projects, many of which I was not previously familiar.
Noelle Theard‘s Sunset Park Rent Strike Photography Initiative, which can be seen at the Galeria Del Barrio website is an audio and photographic collaboration advocating for improvements in living conditions of three Brooklyn residences. Landlords were trying to raise rents on long term tenants and Theard joined their resistance and provided images of the struggle and encouraged communities to do the same.
Over the years, Lonnie Graham has worked in U.S. African American communities and in Sub-Saharan African communities, and in each case on issues of nourishment, subsistence and prejudice. Graham’s political consciousness is global but the effects of his work are definitively local. Before “food desert” was even a term, his Gardens Project was empowering people to grow their own healthy foods bringing with it all the associated benefits. Less obesity, connection with the land, increased attention among children, reduced obesity. The right to food os the right to dignity.
Harry in the garden, 2003. © Lonnie Graham
(A poor) installation shot of Lonnie Graham’s Garden Project. © Pete Brook!
Similarly, Ayasha Guerin project Brownstone Bushwick celebrates the consolidating power of nature in the face of urban blight and/or gentrification. Guerin joined up with the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden to document their activities. Her photographs were accompanied by extended captions from the subjects. Guerin is an academic and a researcher and uses photography within a broader ethnological approach. She celebrates the triumphs of Bushwick’s Afro-Caribbean community in beautifying their neighborhood.
Lara Stein Pardo‘s Mobile Public Studio encourages people to have their portrait taken spontaneously in a public space. I cannot think that the positioning of the surveillance camera floating above the heads of the portrait sitters (standers) was accidental. Pardo is exercising her right to photograph publicly, making the briefest of connections. She’s photographing on the street, but she is not a street photographer as her interactions are longer, not fleeting, involve conversation and mutual understanding.
© Lara Stein Pardo
Christine Wong Yap‘s Make Things (Happen) is one of the few non-photo-based projects included in the show. Make Things (Happen) begins with a wall loaded with free worksheets. Each encourage the public to participate in an artistic endeavor. Pick them up, take them home, do the exercises, share your results with #mkthngshppn on social media.
At first, I was skeptical toward the invite, but soon realised that most of us need a prompt to think about actually making something. An unfortunate number of adults need prompt in order to fire their imagination. This project is never-ending, loose-ended. Something might come of it, something might not, but with the array of genuinely fun and simple actions proposed, the results are on us, not the artist.
People suffering from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia face a huge stigma. Eric Gottesman ‘s repeated and long term projects works alongside youth in Ethiopia to make photographs and videos to raise awareness about the epidemic.
Sudden Flowers is a collective of young people in the Shiromeda/Sidist Kilo neighborhood of Addis Ababa. In cahoots, Gottesman and the youngster install their works in their neighborhoods and throughout the city. They’ve been doing this since 1999. Always getting the voices of the kids out into the communities that will either support or ignore them. These pop-up shows aim to make it the former, not the latter.
“Each of our projects is like a ‘lyric’ in larger poetic structure,” says Gottesman who continues the work still.
Installation shot of Eric Gottesman’s Sudden Flowers
Citizens of Babile, Ethiopia attend “Abul Thona Baraka,” a mobile photographic installation comprised of photographs and texts produced by children of the Shiromeda neighborhood of Addis Ababa in collaboration with artist Eric Gottesman. The work addressed themes of stigma, disease, and grief as well as dialogue and participation. The installation, in the form of a traditional coffee ceremony, travelled to various Ethiopian cities and town in 2006.
The last space to experience is the boardroom in the centre of the offices (the two corridors described above have run either side of it and you’ve circled it). This is a large open space and rightfully it is dedicated to some of the larger and more arty prints.
Kristina Knipe powerful series of portraits and object studies engaged me deeply with the personal struggles of people who have engaged in self-harm. Knipe’s work is mysterious and — while always being respectful — skirts the edges of the issue. It’s as if she is operating from within a deep understanding of her subjects prior victimhood and hard earned relief in recovery. There’s anonymity sometimes and things inferred. There’s no shame involved, of course, but there is the acknowledgement that in unideal circumstances thing unsaid is sometimes just how it is.
There’s a visceral and coherent atmosphere to the series, which is not something I can usually say wholeheartedly about the flat photographic reproductions; the medium rarely allows it. A triumph.
Leannet’s Arm Healed © Kristina Knipe
Finally, we encounter Paul T. Owen‘s Todos Somos Ellas (We Are All Them) photographs that bring attention to the violence against women in Mexico. Owen asks his subjects to pose, seemingly defenselessly before the camera, so as to anonymise them and to bring them and us into solidarity with victims of femicide.
“These are not portraits of individuals,” explains Owen, “but symbols who represent the thousands who have died violent deaths because of their gender.”
After a shocking number of news stories of rape in India, after the kidnap of 200+ schoolgirls in Nigeria, after the UC Santa Barbara shooting and the #YesAllWomen campaign, Owen’s work is as timely as ever. But let’s be frank, grave violence inflicted upon women throughout most societies can only be responsibly described as ‘routine’. As Rebecca Solnit so wisely said, recently, violence may not have a race, it may not have a class, but it certainly does have a gender. In the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) have been victim to rape. I don’t believe that enough reliable, caring and suitably responsive infrastructures and attitudes exist to reduce this figure, yet. This is unacceptable. Owen’s portraits reflect the desperate and trapped circumstances many women find themselves in.
All women? All people. All of our problem and shame upon which to work collectively.
© Paul Owen
From the inferred silent violence implicit in Owen’s work, we move to photographs that display the best of our awkward and necessary shared being.
The show closes out with 5 or 6 portraits from Richard Renaldi‘s Touching Strangers which has enjoyed widespread acclaim recently. It’s responsible work. Renaldi provides a growing experience for photographer, subject and viewer alike. It gently and endearingly pricks our consciousness by asking us if we’re doing enough to actively see and empathise with the people around us. Touching Strangers is optimistic and it deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is hosted jointly by the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the The Nathan Cummings Foundation.
It is currently on show at the The Nathan Cummings Foundation, 475 10th Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10019, through October 2, 2014. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing email@example.com. After October, the exhibition will be on show at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Lorenzo Triburgo is creating some of the most enagaging photography coming out of Portland. He is best known for his series Transportraits, portraits of post-transition transgendered individuals, pictured in front of backdrops (that Triburgo himself painted). This is a little strange given that Triburgo doesn’t really like the portrait genre, nor has he any formal painting training. But in the execution of an idea, Triburgo will go the extra mile.
Currently, Triburgo is working on a body of work about correctional officers in Oregon, but I didn’t really want to wait until its completion before we sat down and chatted — there’s too much to talk about! Here we talk about identities, gender, teaching, selfies, jails, rural police budgets, how to make portraits respectfully, and Bob Ross.
EYE ON PDX
Scroll down for the Q&A. Enjoy!
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Transportraits is an old project now, but it was the first body of your work I came across. It was well received. In it, I noticed exciting novel facets. Can you tell us about it?
Lorenzo Triburgo (LT): It is a few years old now and it did get seen relatively widely, but for me, the best thing to come out of letters and messages from trans-guys all over the country — and some internationally too — just say thanks. I did not expect that. I’ve done the thing that I wanted to do; I put positive representations out there.
PP: You showed me one of those correspondences, and I’d like to share it with the readers.
LT: Mostly, the guys are happy to share their lives and thoughts.
PP: Here it is:
I’m generally a person of few words. I certainly am not one to write letters. However, I felt that in this case, I needed to express appreciation to you, Mr. Triburgo.
I have identified as transgender for as long as I have known that such a word existed. For years, I lived in fear of myself and of losing my family to my particular “problem”. I have a husband who has always supported me and my gender identity and encouraged me to take the steps towards transitioning but it wasn’t until seeing your portfolio (via HuffPost) that I actually was inspired to do so.
The men you photographed were so themselves and so proud looking that I realized that I could no longer hide in the shadows of my own self-loathing and let myself be crippled by what my intolerant family thought. I saw the future in those photos and it gave me the strength to take the necessary steps to begin my journey.
So, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your portraits and your vision. They were the final push I needed to live my life.
PP: “I saw the future in those photos…” Wow!
LT: Gives me chills. Just really, really happy about that.
PP: Transportraits is finished now?
LT: Yes. Well, actually, I just had a man who is 65 and just transitioned. He asked, “Are you still shooting because I really want to be a part of this?” I wasn’t / am not really still shooting but heck, why not?
PP: He’s 65! You had to.
LT: Exactly. He’s in Washington State and doesn’t have a community of trans guys really to hang out with. He met some people online who were in Washington but not really close. We all got together and had a luncheon at his house and these guys came from 4 hours away just to hang out. Looking at my photos, there’s such a ragtag criss-cross of people — a Seattleite who transitioned in the 1970s, so and he was 70-years-old; guys in their mid-40s from rural Washington, and Dane (pictured below) who has just now transitioned at 65.
Dane and his husband have been married 40 years. His husband is in his eighties and he said, “Dane will do what he wants and that’s cool with me. My friends told me, ‘Oh man, everyone’s gonna think you’re gay,’ and I thought, well, so be it.” It is incredible! So and I did shoot those guys and I am going to add them into the project.
Dane and husband.
PP: Did you have your backdrops with you?!
LT: Yes. I took them up.
PP: You painted all those backdrops?
LT: I used Bob Ross’s instruction book. Just sheets of plywood. I accidentally got better at painting as Transportraits project went on.
PP: Why the backdrops?
LT: I started the project doing my own transition. Right before that time, I had a phase in which I thought I would never photograph people again.
But Transportraits was about gender identity and masculinity. I knew I didn’t want to create a documentary type project or a really a personal narrative, I wanted it to be more about my ideas on gender and the ideas I was wrestling with during my own transition.
I considered fabricated nature as the backdrop, basically to suggest nature as a construct. I experimented with projections and scans and collage but concluded painting made the most sense. And if it was about masculinity, then I figured using an American icon such as Bob Ross would help keep it about American masculinity.
PP: You’ve recently started teaching at Oregon State University. Your courses are about gender. Can you give us a primer on gender representation in photography?
LT: Photography has had this misconception attached to it throughout its history of presenting a truth, and I think that can be used to both uphold normative ideas of gender. It can also be played with to undermine those ideas. Photography is like a mirror so — in terms of identity based work — I feel like its the perfect medium because it’s a way of representing oneself and the way we construct identities.
PP: Which practitioners’ work inspires you?
LT: In the late 90s, when I was at college, Claude Cahun was just resurfacing in curricula. All of a sudden, learning about Cahun had such a huge impact on my work and my life. Surrealist photographers in the 1920s were thinking about identity and multiple selves and using photography to look at — and deconstruct — the self as one unit, and one unified self. Excitement ever since. Man Ray too, of course. One of my favorite books is Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. It’s accompaniment to Jennifer Blessing’s exhibition about gender performance in photography from its invention through until the 90s.
PP: And since the 1990s?
LT: Well, identity-based work really went out of vogue.
LT: I don’t think people really wanted to talk about it. But I think identity as a photography subject is really important.
LT: Let’s talk about politics in art. I think of the 90s as a time of resurgence for women in music, in the visual arts, and identity-based politics, right? We were coming off of — and still are — creating work around peer culture in the AIDS crisis. And there was Riot Grrrl, a third wave feminist presence and I think there was a backlash against that.
As identity-based work became commercially less viable it didn’t have the focus it would need in the art world. What do you think?
PP: In both Britain and in America, under Clinton and the Democrats, Blair and New Labour (before Blair went into an illegal war with Bush), the 1990s were a time of peace, a time of economic growth, a time of optimism in many ways. Now we’re all cynics and in reality or perception, under the kosh of wider state controls. Our governments didn’t listen when we refused post 9/11 policies that have torn the world apart.
We are looking inward trying to figure out our place. A lot of identity politics are self made, about the self, but specifically about the anxieties of self. There were no iPhones in the 1990s. We’re in the age of directed advertising. Everything is slick — even, the same — including our own individual forms of production
LT: But this play might lead us to new discoveries? Perhaps identity politics are just getting amplified, again? To me, it’s really interesting now! It’s out-of-control, you know!? The selfie is here.
LT: The selfie is just so interesting. Photography has imbedded itself in this immediate way in how we present ourselves.
PP: Selfies have been dismissed, by many, as the narcissism of the generation of millennials. They’re not just that; there’s more but I don’t yet know what selfies ‘do.’
I have to presume that there’s nothing inherently bad or damaging about being able to represent the self more readily. But, I am not seeing people use selfies in a way that has the same impact as artists’ self-portraits of the past did. Think of Nan Goldin’s portrait of her black eye after domestic abuse.
People are using the selfie to promote; a selfies is akin to brand identify. We’re like infants just working out what we are doing. I want to see something more “real.”
LT: It could go another way where it just gets less and less real. People might put up more and more facade, but if it goes that way then we’ll there’s a potential for us to lose that “reality” and that gravity.
Still, with the selfie, we are revisiting the very immediate past … immediately. How are we relating to ourselves differently? Who are we when we are in a state of constant reflection of our selves? As that speeds up, it will be interesting as the self and the reflection of the self happen simultaneously.
PP: And what that mean for portrait photographers. What does a portrait provide a population in which everyone has a camera in their pocket? Can you imagine doing a portrait series in like 2020?
LT: In my studio practice, my subjects are there, knowingly, as representations of my ideas.
PP: So, in some ways, you’re portraits maintain a distance?
LT: It would be different if I went to these people’s houses and was photographing them there.
PP: What photographic works dealing with gender and identity has impressed you?
LT: Cass Bird for the way she’s interested in various genders; Lyle Ashton Harris was a great influence on me when I was younger — I love the staged elements of it, and that he was fabulous and aggressive at the same time.
Nikki S. Lee for her during the 90s for which she dressed as various identities and immersed herself in different subcultures. Perhaps a bit problematic work but fascinating all the same. Carrie Mae Weems, of course. Adrain Chesser, for the way he shares such intimate moments.
As I’m American and I’m of this [younger] generation, I can’t get away from Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston — their work is part of the patriarchy, right but I can’t help it. I am super influenced by their use of color and humor they employed and underlies their social commentary.
LT: Eight years ago, before I did Transportraits I wanted to do something working with prison system. I drafted letters. The warden at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) was interested, but I was talking about doing a portraits of the prisoners and their family, but he told me there is actually something of a photo program at OSP that is prisoner-run. It wouldn’t really help to replicate that project. I thought about my proposal some more. While I’m waiting to get prison access and a project brief, I created Transportraits.
PP: A very successful project.
LT: It took over! But now Transportraits is complete, it’s time to re-address this prison issue.
PP: How are you doing that?
LT: Again I put out some letters and a couple of facilities [jails] responded — in Clackamas County and Josephine County.
PP: Both in Oregon.
LT: I’ve coordinated some meeting and toured the facilities. In Josephine County in particular, I had some eye-opening conversations about their funding crisis and the additional stress that is put on their staff and the officers consequently.
My partner works in industrial psychology and conversations she and I had were about current psychological research on law enforcement officers, particularly correctional officers, and the stress and the PTSD they suffer. I realized that these serious workplace health concerns often go overlooked by society.
PP: In photography certainly.
LT: At the same time that I was thinking about that I was also thinking about privacy issues for prisoners.
PP: They relate?
LT: Absolutely, inasmuch they dictate who and what I am comfortable photographing. Within photography there are issues with privacy … and with power relationships between photographer and subject. Who controls what is seen? Who makes that call? Who’s point of view is being shown?
I felt like photographing prisoners would become problematic. My thinking was solidified during my first tour of a jail — seeing the complete lack of privacy for a prisoner was astounding. Twice every hour, an officer goes down the tier and looks in everyone’s windows to check upon them. To see them being watched in that direct way had an impact on me.
PP: You couldn’t be another person staring down, separated?
LT: It was a danger.
PP: And so instead?
LT: The stresses on officers, and how those stresses are overlooked, hasn’t really been discussed in popular press or art/photography projects. In-depth. In a way that deals specifically with the officers.
PP: I can only think of two or three photographers who have imaged staff sympathetically. Fiona Tan’s Correction is probably the best example, but even that wasn’t solely officers.
PP: How do you introduce yourself and the work? Are correctional officers open to it?
LT: I talk about the negative stereotypes of officers that are portrayed in popular media. Likewise, the assumption among many that police forces are corrupt. I suggest that my project is potentially something to boost morale. They agree. They’re enthusiastic particularly in Josephine County where they’ve had their budget go to the ballot and be rejected. The taxpayers in Josephine County don’t want to fund the Sheriff’s deputies in or out of the jail.
PP: It’s been national news.
LT: People know they’re not going to get arrested for petty crime because there’s not enough staff at the jail to even process you. The Sheriff is interested in bringing that to light.
There’s another part to it. These officers have the most contact with the prisoners, right? My presumption is that the better they feel about their work and their position — the more they feel valued and respected — in the same ways anyone else would, then positive benefits develop. Consequently, we’d see more respectful interactions between deputies and prisoners in their custody.
It’s still early stages, this is “industrial organizational psychology-light” because I haven’t done near enough research.
PP: How does this fit in with your personal feelings about criminal justice and incarceration in America?
LT: I am challenging myself to approach this and to be open. What is a correctional officer? What makes them? Why are they here in our society to begin with? What are the ways in which these they’re contributing? What are the ways in which maybe they are not? Are there ways in which they try to help prisoner? I’m not interested in taking sides or forcibly portraying correctional officers as either victims or heroes.
PP: You want to get beyond the badge and uniform it sounds like?
LT: It’s about looking at the system as a whole. Officers are part of a system. Right now, I don’t personally know the answer to those questions and so I must ask. I’ll be using audio as part of the project. Officers and their attitudes are an integral piece of the criminal justice puzzle; they’re the people who, at the end of the day, are locking the doors.
Essentially, how do correctional officers uphold the system and in what ways does the system screw them over?
PP: I’ve always said jails and prisons are toxic spaces and they negatively effect everyone in them, staff included. An honest investigation of jails’ and prisons’ labour-force is long overdue. Best of luck and keep us posted. Thanks, Lorenzo.
LT: Thank you, Pete.
Lorenzo Triburgo’s photographs have been exhibited internationally. He holds Bachelor of Arts from New York University in Photography and Gender Studies and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has work in the permanent collection at the Portland Art Museum. He is recipient of Aaron Siskind Grant and most recently a project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to complete his forthcoming project working with correctional officers.
Gas Chamber With Two Chairs, Missouri State Penitentiary, #5 (2012)
Fine art photographer Lee Saloutos makes images of abandoned structures. One of his projects looks at mid-century mining structures, another project is photographs made in abandoned prisons. In terms of his aesthetic approach the two are related. Generally, I am not interested in photographs of defunct prisons, but in Saloutos’ artist statement there is an an acknowledged discord between the look of prisons (beautiful decay) and the history of prisons (brutality).
“These prisons often have a long and frightening history. The design and function of these places of confinement and punishment can be jarring, utilitarian, and brutal,” says Saloutos in his artist statement.
Saloutos has photographed in Wyoming, New Mexico, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Alcatraz. He’s got his sights on a prison in Tennessee.
His statement continues, “It is easy to see and feel the anger, resignation, detachment, and reaching for meaning that many of the prisoners must have felt while confined. But the light inside can be open and subtle and inviting. When empty the interiors are full of eerie and beautiful light and quiet. The contrast between these two elements is fascinating and difficult. It is possible to feel deeply unsettled and serene at almost the same moment. My goal is to convey this contrast and perhaps attract and repel the viewer at the same time.”
That’s a big ask for images alone.
I thought perhaps Saloutos and I could wrestle with this tension between punishment of the past and the punishment of today. I always want to scrutinize images to see how they can inform us in urgent conversations about current conditions, laws and power in prisons.
Scroll down for our conversation.
Cells, Housing Unit 1, Missouri State Penitentiary, #4 (AA Mural) (2012)
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Your images, stand alone, are objects of beauty. They’re fine art prints. You aesthetisize decay but judging by your statement you are aware of the dangers of over simplifying things. Robert Adams said that if a photographs needs a caption it has failed. I don’t agree. Images are manufactured and distributed because of power and interests. Context is very important. Captions are part of that.
Lee Saloutos (LS): I disagree with Adams as well. Words build on images and the image gives words deeper meaning. Let me work on an initial explanation for the images.
First, as context, the mines project. It is all about the very large mills and associated structures that can be found in remote locations in the Great Basin. There are many abandoned mines in Nevada, but they are disappearing for many reasons, including natural decay, private reclamation, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reclamation, and bootleg scrappers who show up at a remote site with whatever equipment they feel they need, tear down the structures, and haul them off for scrap.
The mines project is mostly about the consumption and abandonment of the West, a topic that others have explored as well. My visual interest in both mines and prisons is the same — the light in these spaces can be sublime. The silence, the scale and the sense of aloneness of the interiors is remarkable. These spaces are often not seen.
The prisons project is more complex. It has taken a long while for me to begin to figure out my attraction. I enjoy the process of finding, exploring and accessing the old prisons. I’m attracted by their contradictions — their frightening, complex histories as compared to their current silence and beauty. Many times I have sat in a quiet common space in a prison, just watching the light move across the room. And then I’m jolted out of this by the sudden realization that I am in a prison.
No one wanted to be here. It was not beautiful or serene when it was in operation. It was probably a horrific place full of physical and psychological violence. I want viewers to see and to feel this contradiction.
PP: Is there a political edge in your work?
LS: I don’t have a political agenda that I am trying to advance. But are the pictures political? I think they are, but it is subtle. I want the viewer to be drawn in by the light and color and then have the same realization I do.
PP: Would you say that your images work better as art than they do an entry point to political debate?
LS: They work better as fine art documentary than they do as an entry point for political debate, although I know from experience showing them that they do both. I definitely don’t want to be making “ruin porn”, although I don’t know exactly how to define the term and I dislike the it for reasons I can’t really grab onto.
Sun Room, Wyoming Frontier Prison (2007)
Psychiatric Ward, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #3 (2009)
PP: Over what time span have you shot in prisons?
LS: Since 2005.
PP: Which prisons have you visited?
LS: The first one I shot was the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins. Later, the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe; the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City; Mansfield Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio; West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, West Virginia; and Alcatraz. I am working on Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, and I am working on plans to shoot inside Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee.
There are many others I am considering or working on. I usually want to be in these places for 2-3 days, so scheduling that kind of time can be difficult. I was in the Penitentiary of New Mexico for 5-6 hours for 5 straight days.
PP: Any surprises?
LS: A gas chamber in Missouri with two seats. Rooms piled to the ceiling with abandoned psychological records. Axe marks on the concrete floor of the New Mexico Penitentiary.
PP: I wonder if those axe marks were from the 1980 riot?
LS: Yes, they are, and they are very visible. There are also torch marks on the floor in one place where an prisoner or guard (I don’t remember) was killed with a cutting torch. Horrific. New Mexico Penitentiary was really raw. The state still owned it but was basically doing nothing but keeping the rain out and the chain link fence locked.
Alcatraz was a disappointment; I knew it would be, but I went anyway. The National Park Service (NPS) has completely tamed the site. I’ve been to many places that have been turned into tourist attractions, and they are a complete turnoff to me. I want to be worried about lead based paint dust and asbestos and terrible stairs and tons of pigeon shit.
Isolation Block, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #11 (2011)
PP: How do you find the abandoned prisons?
LS: Google can work. Search “abandoned prison” and “closed prison.” But, you eventually run into the same sites over and over. I look at states’ Department of Corrections websites, and see if I can tell what is operating and what is not. This is time consuming but yields interesting results.
I go to state film commission websites, and talk to their people on the phone. Quite often unused prisons and jails are available to rent as locations.
I also look at other photographer’s work, at other photography websites, urban exploration websites. Once I make contact with a site I’ll ask them what else they know about.
Cells, Housing Unit 3, Missouri State Penitentiary, #8 (2012)
PP: How do you get access?
LS: Cities and states like to hide prisons, literally and figuratively. They don’t advertise them when open, and they don’t talk about them when closed. In today’s world, there can be exceptions – the prison industrial complex is a big source of jobs in rural communities, and sometimes closed prisons become tourist attractions. They often seem to be both a source of pride and at the same time almost embarrassing to a host community. It can be strange.
Getting permission to enter and photograph is another matter. Sometimes there is a caretaker. Sometimes part of the facility is open for tours. Sometimes you simply have to find the right person in the city or state that can give you permission. I hear “No” a lot! One of the more interesting places that has turned me down is Brushy Mountain, Tennessee. They have said no, but I will keep at it. Things change, policies change, people come and go.
PP: Why does Brushy Mountain interest you?
LS: It’s another “inaccessible” location. No public tours. Because it is “inaccessible” that means it is in whatever shut down condition the state left it in — it has not been sanitized in any way for even limited public consumption.
Gas Chamber, Wyoming Frontier Prison, #2 (2007)
PP: You photograph old death penalty chambers. What do you say about those?
LS: I am not trying to say anything explicitly about the death penalty. I’ll show you the places where we have managed and executed the condemned, but I don’t feel I have to explicitly form an argument against the process. My personal belief is that the death penalty is both immoral and impractical.
PP: Why immoral and impractical?
LS: Because of the “false positive” problem. Unless there is some way of executing only those that are guilty of heinous crimes there will be executions of the innocent. This is intolerable. To me the execution of one single innocent man or woman invalidates the entire process. You can’t get them back. If you wrongly convict someone and send them away for life you can at least free them and attempt to make amends somehow.
I don’t think any prosecutor could honestly ever say, “I guarantee that we have never wrongly convicted someone.” They’d have to be either dishonest or ignorant. All processes have a statistical nature to them. Errors occur. In the criminal justice system there are dozens or hundreds of people involved in every case. Not all of them have pure motives. Some of them have very impure motives.
The problem with arguing against the death penalty with statistics and the false positive argument is always anecdotes on the other side. “Charles Manson deserves to die.” That will resonate with far more people than “One in a 100 executions of some ‘nobody’ in Texas is in error.”
Americans are not fluent with statistics and they are fed a steady diet of horrific crime by television featuring very scary criminals.
It’s immoral simply because I believe the state should not be taking lives, no matter. Life imprisonment.
It’s impractical because almost everywhere (except Texas, it seems) carrying out the death penalty is a drawn out, expensive, and degrading (for all) process. But I don’t like making this argument because it implies that if things were sped up the death penalty would be a better idea. It wouldn’t, and it isn’t.
Death Row Cell Block, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #2 (2009)
PP: Do you think your audiences and buyers know about the disaster that is mass incarceration in the U.S.? Does it effect peoples response to your photography?
LS: I don’t think so, although that may be changing. I don’t think many people know the statistics of incarceration, and even if they do most will think “they deserve it.” We’ve been propagandized by the free enterprise and anti-government zealots to believe that privatizing anything is an unconditional good. Few realize that creating a profit motive for having bodies behind bars creates a special interest that is going to want a continuous and even increasing supply of “raw material”.
The stock of any company rises because the market anticipates growth. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) can grow by taking over more and more of the prison system, but then when it has taken over the entire system, the only way to get growth is to make more and more things illegal so you can have more people incarcerated. Creating a profit incentive in the prison world is morally wrong. If the state wants to make something illegal, the state should deal with the entire problem and not bid out prison contracts.
Hiding all of these prisons in out-of-the-way rural places is a good strategy for the PIC. They can bring jobs to depressed rural areas but more importantly they allow the agencies that are imprisoning all these people to hide them away from the rest of the citizenry.
The level of knowledge people have about the PIC is a good question. I guess that knowledge is limited. Crime is bad; privatization is good. So the PIC must be really good! This is an oversimplification, but there is some truth to it.
TB Ward, Mansfield State Reformatory, Mansfield, OH, #4 (2011)
PP: Do you think anyone would hang one of your prints next to a print of a modern prison’s interior occupied by men or women?
LS: I have not given it consideration. This body of work is pretty “inaccessible” as they say in the art world, meaning that people might enjoy being confronted with it in a gallery or museum, but they probably won’t take it home and put it in their living room or bedroom.
Maybe there are a few people that would hang the two types of images together. If those people exist I would love to talk to them!
Modern prisons have an entirely different aesthetic to them – they are designed with two goals in mind only, highest possible security and lowest possible cost. So you get stark, minimalist buildings that could be high schools, or shopping malls, or office space, but with razor wire and guard towers and no windows.
PP: Thanks, Lee.
LS: Thank you, Pete.
Mattresses in Cell Block, Penitentiary New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM, #5 (2009)
Coinciding with San Francisco’s annual Pride events and the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, Anthony Friedkin’s seminal body of work The Gay Essay goes on show this month at the De Young Museum, in San Francisco.
The Gay Essay chronicles the gay communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco between 1969 a 1973 — an era of great strides for political activism in the gay communities in California and nationwide.
Friedkin (b.1949) has always been committed to documenting cultures in his home state of California. The Gay Essay was one of his earliest efforts; he embarked on it as a 19-year-old. Self-assigned, Friedkin went poolside, to the city streets, and into motels, bars and discos in an attempt to create the first extensive record of gay life in the Golden State.
“Friedkin found his place in an approach that retained the outward-looking spirit of reportage combined with individual discovery. As an extrovert with an avid curiosity, he developed close relationships with his subjects that enabled him to create portraits that are devoid of judgment,” says the de Young press release. “He did not aim to document gay life in Los Angeles and San Francisco slavishly, but rather to show men and women who were trying to live openly, expressing their individualities and sexualities on their own terms, and improvising ways to challenge the dominant culture.”
In 1973, the San Francisco Art Week wrote, “The Gay Essay is comparable in magnitude to Robert Frank’s The Americans. The exhibit in its entirety is amazingly strong. And for the most part the photographs are singularly beautiful in execution.”
And yet, The Gay Essay has remained known, since, primarily only to photo-boffins. Consequently, I am personally eager to see this work. It’s “footprint” is not as large as its social significance warrants. Indeed, at the time of writing, a search “Anthony Friedkin” on Google has as the first result a speculative piece I posted on Prison Photography nearly five years ago. (Who knows, perhaps Google’s search metrics might shift a little once Friedkin and The Gay Essay enjoy new press interest for this big De Young show?)
The paucity of images and information on the internet is indicative of a wider photo culture that just hasn’t had Friedkin on the radar. This dearth has been reflected in the real world too. While selections from The Gay Essay have been on public display in museums and galleries in the past, the entire scope of the series — 75 vintage prints — has never been exhibited before in one venue.
“The Gay Essay accords with our goal of bringing to light important, and sometimes neglected or overlooked, bodies of work that enrich the history and study of photography, a medium that is central to art and society today,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
If you’re in the Bay Area at any point in the next six months, I recommend catching this exhibition.
The Gay Essay runs June 14, 2014 – January 11, 2015, at the DeYoung Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118.
Accompanying the original full-frame black-and-white prints will be contact prints, documents and other materials from the photographer’s archive and loans from the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society that provide valuable historical context and insight into the conception and execution of the work.
Exhibition catalogue: 144 pages, Yale University Press. Hardcover $45.
All images: © Anthony Friedkin
Anthony Friedkin started out as a photojournalist working as a stringer for Magnum photos in Los Angeles. Friedkin’s photographs are included in major Museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco MoMA and The J. Paul Getty Museum. His work has been published internationally including in Rolling Stone, Newsweek and others. He lives in Santa Monica, California.
With only 3000 inhabitants, Vilobi d Onyar is defined its periphery. Large infrastructure projects such as the Costa Brava Airport, L’Eix Transversal, Mediterráneo Highway and the AVE train line surround the settlement. Townsfolk, seemingly, fall in line and fall in between the cracks; everyone living in temporary and interstitial space.
“Vilobi d Onyar’s ‘No man’s land’ condition turns it into a dismembered territory. Tunnels, retaining walls, bridges and fences form a landscape that has influenced inhabitants’ adaptation to the environment,” writes Blanch.
Colonel Matcegor Ivan Gregorevitch
Throughout the ongoing events in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Russia, we’ve seen many images. Some good, some bad, but most briefly (tomorrow’s chip-wrap, and all that). Has photography adequately described the unfolding turmoil? For me, the jury is still out, but I’m in a combative mood this evening.
Of the news photography coverage I was impressed with those by Brendan Hoffman and Sergei Ponomarev (who’s been shooting in the region for years) and as a scene setter, I liked Maxim Dondyuk’s old work from a Russian kids military training camp. Of the amateurs, Dima Tolkachov showed us just how ripe for image-making Maidan Square was.
Knowing that armchair critics such as myself would be decrying the fact that photojournalism was doing exactly as it was supposed to do — capture wrought images of struggle with smoke, barricades and actions — a few photographers aimed to make series that were descriptive of the people and the struggle, but forged new typologies. Stationary typologies of weapons and fighters from within the front lines. Anastasia Taylor Lind and the duo Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni both made portraits and (sometimes within arms reach) Tom Jamieson and Donald Weber made studies of DIY weapons and molotov cocktails respectively. Of Jamieson and Weber’s work I’m ambivalent, even if critics I respect are all for it.
If I am being imprecise here, it is because I feel I can afford to be. I mention these photographers’ works as context for Julie David de Lossy‘s work which was made long before events erupted in Kiev. De Lossy’s series Black Sea Fleet Cadets and Black Sea Fleet Veterans are not reactive as the above-mentioned bodies of work are. Maybe, as a consumer of images, I am just more comfortable seeing formal portraits made in times of peace as opposed to times of shells and bullets falling all around?
Kolia, 20, Cadet at Nakhimova Institute
The Black Sea Fleet was an aging institution that was under threat of closure for decades. Somewhat ironically, the 2010 election of the now-ousted pro-Russian Yanukovitch as Ukraine president brought with it a new extended lease of the Black Sea Fleet facilities beyond 2042 (presumably now defunct). The Russians provided discounts on natural gas in exchange. Quite why the facilities to this old military group were part of negotiations between the Russians and Ukrainians is not entirely clear, yet de Lossy explains that it recruited both Russian and Ukrainian cadets and that both Russians and Ukrainians honoured the veterans. De Lossy adds that in Sevastopol — where the Black Sea Fleet was based — is considered by the locals as a Russian territory.
It is within the experience of the ranks young and old that we might begin to discover the historic and complex ties between Russia and Ukraine. De Lossy’s work requires us to do more than identify the good guy and the bad guy from afar; indeed it instructs us that as history collides with current affairs our labels may shift. Whereas the work of many photographers is literally made on one side of the barricades or the other, and whereas such work has buy-in from one side or the other, archive work such as de Lossy’s takes us back to a time before people were forced to stand one side of the line or the other. It takes us to a time that explains the now.
Images of violence are images of loss; loss of stability, loss of choice (to a degree) and loss of self. In mainstream (news) images of ongoing revolution and violence, loss is an abstraction — the parameters and extent of loss are still being determined. Made in times of non-violence, de Lossy’s photographs depict the absence of violence. Her quiet portraits of cadets and veterans are a requiem for times not shaped by nationalism and conflict.
Quietness replaced by conflict is a grave loss. For all. However they identify.
JULIE DAVID DE LOSSY
Julie David de Lossy studied political sciences and international relations. She worked for two years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, before receiving a Masters degree in Conflict, Security and Development from King’s College London. For many years, she has photographed in Central Asia, working on the security and environmental issues in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. She has an ongoing project called ’20 Years After: Soviet Legacy in Central Asia.’ She lives in Brussels.
It is, unfortunately, rare that we see photography about mental illness in which the protagonist is also the creator. Christina Riley’s Back To Me bucks the trend.
Back To Me is a visual dip into a disorienting episode Riley experienced when she briefly absconded from her medication routine. She was without anchor and the photographs trace her imperiled, but thankfully not fatal, journey before returning to a mental state she could claim as her own; before she found a way back to herself.
Simultaneously, Riley experienced euphoria and suicidal thoughts. Freewheeling brain chemistry forced her into an escape and explore mode, but the exhilaration was not something she could control. She describes being outside of herself and of living another person’s experience.
The facts of the episode are not immediately apparent from the grainy images alone. There’s a looming threat but as the images vacillate between self-portraits and landscapes of unidentified places, it’s difficult to figure out the source of the threat. Perhaps the two are one and the same?
Clearly something is not right, but it is only a brief text on the book’s penultimate page that contextualises Riley’s solitary portraits amid the dark, between the light snow and at the side of unknown roads.
I remember driving down Highway 1 south feeling almost certain I wouldn’t return. The bottle of wine I planned to drink before jumping was sitting in the cup-holder alongside a bottle of Ativan and my camera. I cried the whole way to the bridge feeling guilt already for what I hadn’t yet done. I stepped out of my car to a cold, foggy blowing sky. But through all that, stars. I stood there in the darkness and they spoke to me. They were just for me and their message was clear.
It would kill him.
Riley somehow in the swirl of illogic and depression Riley saw the effect her suicide would have on a loved one. She didn’t jump, she turned back. What part did photographs play in the decision? Any at all? Are these photographs saving therapy? Or are they mere documentation? That this remains unclear is one of the strengths of this unique book.
Tony Fouhse, publisher at Straylight Press, says, “One way she grounded herself during this period of madness was by taking photos of herself and the strange world of mania and depression, euphoria and delusion, she found herself in.”
So, Back To Me is part memoir, part self-warning but mostly self-love. Riley came through it and a significant part of understanding and healing has been the sequencing and production of the book. She has found use — a secondary audience, if you will — for images and moments that at the time of making were only for her.
I wanted to ask Riley about that time and the times since, so I emailed a few questions.
Scroll down for the Q&A
Prison Photography (PP): Describe your life and thoughts leading up to this episode of instability.
Christina Riley (CR): Throughout my life I have struggled with a mood disorder. At ten-years-old I started behaving extremely unpredictably. It came out of nowhere. My parents had no idea what was going on, until after attempting suicide twice, I was hospitalized for a year. I walked out of there at age 14 with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Leading up to the most recent episode shown in Back To Me I was feeling pretty level (so I thought). It lead me to believe I was misdiagnosed, so I took it upon myself to go off of my medication. I remember my mind racing with ideas. I had endless energy. The world revolved around me. My self-confidence and sexuality was inflated. Things couldn’t get better. Then suddenly I was convinced I was in love with someone else. Then there was no stopping me. I thought my behavior was coming from a genuine place. I didn’t know I was sick.
I was launched into the world you see in Back To Me.
PP: Between which dates do you identify the episode? And between which dates were you making photographs.
CR: It’s all such a haze but I think the episode began in November 2011 and got very serious pretty quick. It feels like it was an eternity and somehow a dream. Time did not exist. I would say that the entire episode — including the slow transition into my “normal” self — lasted a year-and-a-half or something.
I began taking the pictures around December 2011 as things were becoming more intense and I was losing control. I really had an overwhelming feeling that it had to be photographed, like it felt somehow crucial to my existence. I would be in those moments of living in that other world, and there was no question. I stopped photographing it pretty much when I came around to seeing that I was better – that things were better. I could see it in the pictures and knew it was done.
PP: How, with what, and/or why did you come out the other side of the episode?
CR: It took a lot of will power, medication, therapy and support from family and friends to get here. Everything comes to an end, so it was inevitable one way or another. I’m just happy I didn’t kill myself. I came out of this a better, more secure person.
PP: You’ve said it was like someone else taking photographs.
CR: It’s so hard to explain. It was kind of a compulsion, so I guess it sort of feels like the illness took the pictures. But at the same time, looking back, I know it was part of me too, which makes sense considering the illness will always be a part of me, healthy or not. I just wasn’t with it enough to know what was really happening or to make logical decisions which makes me feel like it was completely out of my control.
PP: Do words (in this interview) or images (in the book) manage to reflect the emotion and psychology of the time?
CR: I don’t think it would be possible for me to convey what it felt like any better than with the photographs in the book.
The photographs in Back To Me are a true moment captured in an unreal time. I’ve never expressed myself or the illness in such a pure way. Even though there was stuff you don’t see happening in the time surrounding the pictures, I believe that each one encompasses how it felt as a whole.
PP: You say you’re grateful for the episode. It seems like it was a learning experience. Is this a fair characterization? Are the photographs key to that? In other words, are the photographs a valuable product from a less than ideal time? Would your view of that time be different if you had made no photographs and you had no book?
CR: Photographing this time in my life helped me more than anything else. I can’t imagine living through that without visual proof of it. It all felt so unreal that I wouldn’t know what to believe without them. I would feel so lost. It’s hard sometimes for me to look at the book because I can feel everything again. But it’s good for me. I know I don’t want to go there again because of it. I’m thankful because in the end, the pictures really have brought me to a better, more stable and aware place.
The book Back To Me is one of the most important things I have ever done. It is proof that I have an illness that I have to take care of. It is proof that I can get through it. It is a definite end to a crazy chapter in my life.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
CR: Many people think mental illness is a relentless hard slog against challenges that are unrewarding. But to the contrary, I feel that bipolar disorder has brought more positivity to my life than negativity. It has been hard, but it has made me a stronger, more accepting and maybe a more interesting person.
PP: Thanks Christina.
CR: Thank you, Pete.
Colin Pantall says, “Straylight, a publisher which makes direct books with direct themes. Straylight is kind of rough and ready but it hits the spot and is much more than a decorative publisher. It makes books about things that matter. And it publishes people who don’t get published elsewhere.”
Timothy Archibald says, “A quiet story, told in your ear. Not sad, not tragic at first glance. No high drama. It feels like introspection. Just the data, shared by the storyteller as if it happened to someone else. Rich with color, rich with grain, warm and tangible- not like you are drugged, but just like you are very tired, but your senses are working overtime.”