You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Photography: Non-Prison’ category.
Christopher Onstott is a freelance photojournalist, photo editor, and videographer working out of his native Portland, Oregon. Before he turned to image-making, he bounced around in various jobs — most of the sales. He was once high-interest loan officer, pizza delivery boy and used-car salesman. At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and signed up for a college photo program.
I may have left Portland, but I still have friends there and interviews in the can, so here is Christopher and I talking about PDX, rural Oregon, disaster kits, the grounding effect of portraiture, setting up a business, and specifically setting up a business with your love.
In summer of last year, Christopher went inside Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as part of the Oregon Project Dayshoot+30. Our discussion begins there. The two images (above and directly below) are from inside OSP. Other images included are from Christopher’s portfolio.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Tell us about your decision to shoot in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
CO: It was with Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 which was the 30 year anniversary of a day of photographing Oregon by 90 photographers back in 1983. I own the original book One Average Day and the images that stood out to me were the penitentiary photos. In between the usual ‘day in the life’ shots, vineyards, cattle and farmer photos were photographs of a guy in his cell smoking cigarettes.
PP: What was the intrigue?
CO: Prisoners are the under-represented group in Oregon. If you think of Oregonians, you don’t think of prisoners. But they’re residents here.
PP: There’s 14 or 15 thousand people in Oregon’s state prisons these days. Thousands more in county jails.
CO: The Oregon Project Dayshoot+30 was a good reason to get access to OSP which I wouldn’t usually get access to.
I contacted the public liaison office, told them about the project, sent them to the site, sent them a couple of photos of the book that I’d taken on my phone. “Here’s what they did 30 years ago, can I come and shoot?” essentially. They did a security background check and we set up a time. I had only an hour window to shoot. The rest of the day I photographed around Salem.
CO: When I got to the prison, the gentleman I’d been emailing with was not the man I met. The man I’d been in communication with was off work sick. So, immediately there was this disconnect between what I’d asked for and what was being presented to me.
It wasn’t a good experience.
PP: How so?
CO: I wanted to photograph the residents of OSP with a documentary approach, in the vein of the original project. But, my escort’s perception was I wanted take an updated version of the photo from 30-years-ago!
He asked, “So, you want to take this picture?” as he pointed at a print-off of a camera-phone picture of a image in a book! He walked me to a cell, there were two prisoners. He told me I could only photograph one and he gave me 3 minutes. [Laughs]
PP: You had your own art director!
CO: “The image your holding is an example,” I said. “But let’s look at the whole penitentiary.” He said we were not cleared for that, because all the prisoners were about to move for count. There was no flexibility. My escort was accountable to his boss and he didn’t know what had been said before.
PP: What did the subject think about you photographing?
CO: He was totally okay with it. He thought it was cool. I got the impression he knew he was going to be photographed. He was on LWOP (Life Without Parole). Pretty docile.
PP: You think he’s seen the photograph?
CO: I don’t know. I emailed the prison a copy of the photograph in a thank you email.
PP: when you were in OSP, did you cover your tattoos up?
CO: I wore short sleeves. I don’t really think of myself as being tattooed.
PP: Believe me, the prisoners and staff noticed! Do you think there was more to be seen at OSP?
CO: Definitely, just walking in we passed so many people. There was activity and work details everywhere. I was eyeing pictures everywhere but I couldn’t take them. It’s an entire town in there, right? A cultural complex. There’s a million photographs to be made. But I was only to capture a very slim sliver of life.
Still it’s important that there’s at least a representation of prisoners as residents of Oregon 30 years from now.
PP: Shifting gears. You grew up in Oregon.
CO: Grew up in Portland, spent a year in Texas, went to college in Washington State, spent a year in Texas, worked for 4 years at the Spectrum and Daily News in St George, Utah. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather sucks five months out of the year.
PP: There’s lots of buzz about Portland, right now.
CO: Oregon really is two different states of mind.
You’ve got the Willamette Valley and the city of Portland and then you’ve got the rest of the state. The one area that doesn’t get attention is Southeastern Oregon. Not a lot of roads, no freeways, hardly a population density. Very rural.
PP: How do you characterize the Portland photo scene?
CO: I think it’s really supportive. We’ve got ASMP Oregon and Newspace. Photographers will move work back and forth and offer one another help. But, on the otherhand, there’s a lot of photographers, so it can be competitive at the same time.
PP: Journalism, editorial?
CO: Magazines. There’s a lot of international attention on the city so we’ve people coming here asking for images. Those stories tend to lean the way of food, style travel; not hardcore news stories. There’s no tornadoes or hurricanes here!
PP: Maybe an earthquake?
CO: I’ve got my 72-hr disaster kit and spare film ready [laughs].
PP: Have you always been a photographer?
CO: No. I’ve been pizza delivery driver. Worked in my dad’s automotive shop. I was a used car sales man for four years. I’ve been a high interest loan officer. I was a bartender for two years. When my father passed away in 2001, I inherited his camera and I was left with “What do I do now?”
My father always told me to be a salesman. But I couldn’t stomach earning a living by getting one over on people. I’d never been to college, so after he died. I decided to go back to college. I was a freshman at 24-years-old! I did Photojournalism at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.
I took a picture of a girl’s basketball game and they ran it big in the paper and that was me hooked. [laughs]
PP: What’s easier to sell? Photographs or used cars?
CO: They’re both really hard!
PP: How do you feel about photography. Is it as bad as it’s often made out? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty thinker.
CO: I think the glass is awesome. The fact you can wake in the morning, pick up a camera and go make a living. I don’t care if your shooting fashion or street photography or using your iPhone, you just have to make pictures. We’re a society that is devouring images.
PP: But a photographer still has to package and shape stories. Can’t just churn them out!?
CO: You still gotta be good. My degree was in visual rhetoric; saying something with an image. Manage that and you’ve accomplished something as a photographer. If you’re a one trick pony, then you’re not gonna last.
PP: I recently met Randy Olson and Melissa Farlow recently.
CO: Randy was my mentor at Missouri Photo Workshop last year.
PP: They’re a couple. There’s a few photo couples out there.
PP: Two great photographers. Yourself and Leah Nash are a couple. Is there any element of professional competition between you two?
CO: The secret to being in a relationship with another photographer is to be open to criticism and not to take it personally. If you want to grow, take honest feedback from someone who knows you really well and how you operate.
Leah and I edit one another’s work and we don’t take it personally. There’s no relationship argument to be had over photographs.
We’ve agreed not be chasing the same jobs. We’ve formed a separate company, NashCO (Leah Nash & C. Onstott) outside of our own work stylistically that’s focused on corporate and commercial work.
PP: What you working on now?
CO: Street photography. I’m carrying my camera everyday capturing people in moments.
I’ve been working on a personal project of portraits for 5-years now. Using my Hasselblad. It’s slower. Because when I was at the newspaper I was running around photographing people but not really meeting them, you know? I was encountering into people who … I wouldn’t say were marginalized … but they were people who wouldn’t normally be paid attention to by the news. I wanted to slow down.
CO: In news you’re photographing people in the highest points of achievement in their life, or at the lowest points of their life. The big award, the win at the big race, or the battle with cancer. Most of the time, we’re overlooking the median, the mean of existence.
CO: I want to give those everyday people and experiences some attention. In Nevada, New York, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California. Any time I travel, I try to make portraits.
Pick out the person who is trying not to be photographed and ask their name and their story. Often they reply, “Why me?” and my response is “Because you’re interesting.”
I’ve been the only photographer at some of the newspapers I’ve worked at. I was shooting car accidents, house fires and high school sports. My way to decompress from that is to take pictures that I wasn’t taking on the job.
CO: Used to Instagram a lot. When I got my [digital] Leica I stopped posting on Instagram so much. I try to follow people who are making good pictures because I want to be inspired. I don’t want to see pictures of peoples kids.
PP: Where do you shoot?
CO: I’ve been shooting a lot around my neighborhood, the Alberta neighborhood, because it is a gentrified ghetto. There’s a lot of collision. Walk up Alberta or Killingsworth Streets and there’s a photograph every 10 metres. But here’s the hub of Portland’s gentrification.
PP: What else keeps your eye busy?
CO: Portland Squared. It’s a project that Leah started a couple of years ago. 50 photographers. one square mile divided up into fifty squares and you spend the day shooting a square and ASMP event. Last year, they did a bigger square. 2 x 2 miles and 70 photographers. for 24 hours.
PP: Whose work do you admire here in town?
PP: Anything else to add?
CO: Don’t move to Portland! There’s too many photographers here! [Laughs]
PP: Ha! Thanks, Christopher.
CO: Thank you, Pete.
EYE ON PDX
Today, the Philly Mag published a leaked document about the devastating decline in newspapers. It was created by Interstate General Media, owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It showed massive slumps nationwide but particular downturns in the fortunes of Philadelphia’s newspapers.
The slump has been rumbling on for over a decade now but the details in the leaked document make Will Steacy‘s project Deadline even more timely. Steacy is currently raising money to make a photobook and here’s why I think it deserves your support.
DEADLINE, by WILL STEACY
I was once Skyping with an artist on a residency in Europe. During the call, in the background, Will Steacy‘s head popped round the open door. Given the time difference, it was early morning for my friend, and for Steacy.
Pre-coffee, Steacy took the time to say hello. I noticed under Steacy’s arm a stack of the newspapers. Printed news from print newsrooms across the globe. Steacy told me it was his daily ritual to read, for hours, the news stories printed on actual paper. It shouldn’t have seemed so surprising, but in this era of digital information Steacy’s insistence on printed news was, in my mind, unusual. And comforting.
It makes sense that Steacy would not only notice — but also feel attachment — to the dying news daily in his once-hometown of Philadelphia. His photographs document an atrophying Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom. The number of staffers decrease, the presses go silent, the buzz of a breaking news scoop vibrates a little less.
I tweeted last week that Steacy was “photographer, labor guy and workaholic” and deserving of your support. He’s worked on the series for 5 years. His father was an editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer for over 20 years before he was laid off in a round of cutbacks in 2011, and his family has been in the news industry for generations. Steacy talks of the newspaper as a form and as a bastion of an institution holding politicians, corporations and the like accountable to society as a whole. Steacy also believes the decline of the newsroom is a labour issue and more than just profits should dictate the operations of free press outlets.
Under corporate ownership every Inquirer asset is on the table in the strategy to stay alive. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you the Philadelphia Inquirer ain’t what it used to be. The focus on local coverage to secure it’s regional readership hails a goodbye to the days when the Inquirer racked up Pulitzers for fun.
The Philadelphia Inquirer still lives but it’s downsized from 700 to 200 staff, sold and moved out of its iconic headquarters, The Inquirer Building. This move, as documented by Steacy, is arguably one of the best visuals we have to grasp the size of the changes occuring now in news publishing.
While Deadline is specific to the Inquirer, the story is all too common. Large papers such as the Rocky Mountain News have shuttered completely in recent years. This devastating shift in news publishing was reflected in Philly Inquirer’s Hard Years Are Microcosm of Newspapers’ Long Goodbye, an article by my Raw File WIRED colleague Jakob Schiller, last year.
Deadline combines great images, great research, local and national narratives and a personal connection. The Kickstarter rewards are imaginative too: newsroom pencils and pin badges, and a limited edition artwork printed on the same presses that rolled out the Inquirer for decades.
Kickstarter reward at the $25-level. Poster: “A MIRROR OF GREATNESS, BLURRED” (Edition of 50, hand numbered, signed by artist, 20″ x 24″)
Over the course of an evening I am watching his face. He smiles, he relaxes, he shows disgust quickly, then laughs. There are so many things to keep track of. The next day I attempt to recall and I did not, as I had wished, see amalgams but instead discreet moments. There appears to be no use for the amalgamated image in recall. Perhaps this is the reason I am making the amalgamated portrait. It is an image that does not exist for me internally.
— Notes taken by Kristan Horton during production.
Ever flailed your head back-and-forth in front of the camera to catch a blurry selfie? Of course you have. We’ve all captured head-shots of seemingly maddened selves. Kristan Horton’s self-portraits are high-end versions of the blurred selfie … peppered with existential inquiry.
For his series One For Yourself, Horton faces the troubled relationship time and photography head on. Horton says a single photo is too hard to trust, so his animalistic portraits are made by combining multiple images.
“The document is never enough,” says Horton who’s discontent borders paranoia. “I need multiple perspectives to lessen an inner feeling of distrust. I think that’s why I get involved with duration.”
How can a single frame suffice? What about everything outside of the frame? What about the moment just before? Or just after? Horton prints out hundreds of images and as he flicks through the stack, configurations and blobs catch his eye.
“I’m trying to find the parts that match up and I combine them producing a neocubist portrait,” says Horton. “It was important to arrive at a result that was definitive. I keep using the word ‘solid’ [to describe the portraits]. These are heavily worked over — there’s evidence of long hours of careful collage, and yet they appear as very spontaneous things.”
Photographs are often mistaken as some sort of mirror to truth. Yet, they are static and we’re interminably moving away from every photograph ever taken; photographs don’t come close to describing the physical reality of our world. Horton’s amalgamation of image files tears each photo from its single moment in time. He uses image files as indistinguishable part of a larger artistic statement that collapses, attacks and interrogates time.
If you think of the work as navel-gazing, it’s probably because it is informed in some way by Horton’s fascination with the immediate and the everyday.
“Since I’m usually living in the studio, it’s often the material of daily life,” says Horton. “Through these materials my observation and my preoccupations leak.”
The approach came undone, however, when Horton was an artist in residence in the remote west of Ireland.
“The studio was empty and at first this was disconcerting,” explains Horton. “Finally, I thought ‘If there’s nothing to work with then that’s the work.’ That’s when I grabbed the camera and took a shot of myself in this zero condition. In a sense, my reflexes kicked in and I designated myself as the raw material.”
From the solitary studio, Horton went on to make work on the subway in Berlin, in a backyard in Ireland, a kitchen in Canada. Wherever. Whenever. He makes portraits of others too.
The ease with which Horton fired off a hundred shots contrasts to the hard slog in post-production. The relationship of parts is not unlike cells used in drawn animation says Horton.
“A stack of clear sheets with parts of the character on each sheet,” he describes. “Looking at it from the top you just see the character together. I’m looking through the stack and trying to find where moments in time fit together.”
Fascinated by Kurt Vonnegut’s characters the Tralfamadorians who exist outside of time and by the early science fiction stories of Ray Cummings, Horton is wondering what it is to get beyond, outside of, or on top of time. He knows it’s a fruitless charge but the effort and discovery involved in pushing photography toward an impossible premise is reward enough.
“The combinations of images are without an end. To feel any kind of satisfaction under this condition I have to at least engage, and to engage until exhaustion.” he says. “Not exhausting the subject, but exhausting yourself; an exhaustive attempt to stay in step with the complexity.”
The tortured results bare resemblance to Francis Bacon paintings. A comparison Horton is quite happy with.
“Bacon once said, ‘Technique is always dissolving. The technique of recording has to all the time be remade. It’s like a continuous invention to record a fact.’ I feel the same way,” explains Horton. “I was just trying to satisfy thoughts about a state, and the result ended up looking like something out of Bacon’s oeuvre. It didn’t upset me to arrive at that.”
And the title, One For Yourself? How did he arrive at that. Sat at a Berlin Hotel Bar, Horton explained to a fellow drinker that he was working on a project that dealt with time and the self. The companion responded, ‘One for yourself, then.’
As a title, “it seemed sympathetic to the altered state of these portraits,” asserts Horton.
One For Yourself is about Horton, and of Horton, but the way it vies with the prevalence of single-shot selfies, it might just have technique for us to borrow in the description of our own time … and our own states.
Kristan Horton was born in Niagara Falls in 1971. He lives and works in Toronto. Horton uses a variety of media — including but not limited to photography — to elaborate on the ways in which movement is represented, and the ways in which things are generated and regenerated. Horton studied at Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Guelph, where he received his MFA in 2007. Preoccupations since the 1990s include the consumption of texts and mass media, the representation of simultaneous and rotated scenes, and the visualization of power generation. Horton is well known for his photographic series Dr. Strangelove Dr. Strangelove (2003–2006), for which he recreated scenes of a Kubrick film using items from his studio. Recent photography is in a neo-cubist vein; for his 2009 series Orbits, Horton presented photos that layered multiple, rotated views of scenes from his studio. In 2010, Horton won the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange Prize for contemporary photography and was included in the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Biennial.
Prisons are but one step in the criminal justice machine. After the division and disciplining brought by a society of economic inequality, the next most abrupt interaction for U.S. citizens with state structures is likely to be that with police and other law enforcement officials. In 2012, just shy of 12,200,000 arrests were made nationwide.
That’s one arrest every 2 seconds. Arrests for marijuana-related offenses alone occurred at a rate of one every 42 seconds.
These figures does not include traffic citations.
At any given time, there are nearly 7 million American’s under correctional supervision — roughly about 2.3 million in prisons or jails and 4.6 million on probation or parole. In any given year 13 million individuals will be locked up for a given period.
Given that police are the sharp end of many of these fractious interactions, it makes sense for us to look at a body of work that focuses deeply on a single city’s police force.
Between 2003 and 2011, Matt Gunther was — on and off — effectively embedded with the Newark Police Department in New Jersey. Gunther’s resulting book Probable Cause (Schilt Publishing, 2014) is one of the most rounded, smartly edited bodies of work on police work I’ve encountered. It is, remarkably, sympathetic to all involved. The police and citizens (particularly those photographed in the precinct) are dealt an equal hand. Within its pages, the drudgery of employment meets the complex issues of social order.
You can see a 15 page preview of Probable Cause here.
Matthew Gunther and I chat about fear, persistence, allegiances, the inside-view, where a book comes from, and boozing with cops before a vice squad bust. Scroll down for our conversation.
The following Q&A has been edited from a longer conversation.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): You worked in Newark a long time. Did you always intend it to be a book or did that emerge as you worked?
Matthew Gunther (MG): My issue as a person or as a photographer is that I would not go the whole-nine-yards on a project. I’d get very deep into any project and then it would peter out. This project on Newark was on the verge of petering out many times — it was such an endless pit of imagery and I just couldn’t let go. Until this day, I could still be shooting. Joshua Lutz told me to stop shooting, to edit my images and that I had a book.
So, I did not know it was to be a book. I just started this project. It was cathartic. My projects tackle my fears, or dive into my loves.
PP: Newark is known for it’s toughness and it’s poverty. How did you come to be working so intimately with the police force?
MG: I was taking an ex-girlfriend to Newark airport and we got lost. I’m a native New Yorker, and instantly fell in love with this city so close to my hometown.
I would take my 35mm camera and spend days walking through Newark and still it took me probably about six months to figure out. It’s a pretty tough city. New York is not that tough anymore. Newark feels like New York may have done in the eighties, perhaps. I wanted to do something that is constant in this metropolitan area: cops and liquor stores.
Each project that I’ve done before or since Newark was always to tackle my fears. I grew up in New York as sort of an art-jock with other jocks and street kids, skateboarders and graffiti artists. I had the artistic gift but I didn’t have the strength to show my artistic skills against these tough kids and I guess as soon as I became an adult I was always trying to go back to that place.
Access? I almost hate to say it. My mother was the Head of the Democratic Club of the West Side of New York and I called her up and asked how I’d get into access to the cops. She gave me the number of a retired police captain in Florida. My mom is a waddling, older Jewish woman who knows everyone on the street. My father as well. Born and raised here. The captain in Florida gave me the name of the captain over at the Newark Police Department. It was 8 months of getting denied and constantly sending repeated proposals.
Then, one day out of the blue, I got a phone call, “Matt, you are accepted. What do you want to do?”
PP: It seems like you almost become an artist in residence? The door had been open by this higher official.
MG: You could say that. In the beginning, I had to tell the NPD that I wasn’t going to sell pictures to a magazine. It was strictly an art project and if it became something else I had to tell them. I was happy to promise that as I had no idea where the project might go.
I just wanted to shoot. I didn’t go looking for funding money. I’m dyslexic and so it’s hard for me to write proposals. Even to write a simple proposal takes me a while, but put a camera in my hand and I’m okay. But I wrote a proposal for the project. They didn’t really care if it was an art or not. They just didn’t want me to sue them if I got killed. I was happy to sign away.
MG: Newark is a special place. It was truly like the wild west. Back then, it didn’t look like 2003; it looks like ’91 or ’89. It feels like there’s a gap of about 15 years between big brother New York and this, the biggest city [in the region] outside of New York which is only half-an-hour away. I was always a big Sidney Lumet fan. And films like Siegel’s The French Connection and Friedkin’s Dirty Harry. Newark brought back that sort of aesthetic sensibility.
By deciding to shoot with a large format 8×10 camera I decided I was okay to miss images. It was my way of slowing down and trying to control some of my reality. I constantly moved and I did shoot some images on a Fuji 6×9.
PP: What reactions did you get from the police officers?
MG: The older cops loved it. Once they knew I wasn’t a reporter and that I wasn’t out to exploit them, I became a fly on the wall. Even with the 8×10 camera! The older guys loved the big camera. They loved history and they ate it up. The younger cops couldn’t care less. They just wanted me to stay out of their way. I had freedom and rarely did I get bothered. Even the non-cops seemed not to worry.
PP: I suppose they had other things to worry about?
MG: Often. There were girls doing tricks in the back of a Portuguese restaurant. I spent time with them. Then when I came out with my camera, I turned it on a girl who was in a towncar for a good 45 minutes. Just waiting on her friend. She was scared to come out because she was scared that the cops would arrest her.
PP: When you were out on the street, were you traveling with police officers and then exiting the vehicle with your camera equipment to begin shooting? Did people on the street see you arrive with the officers?
MG: I was doing drive alongs. With my 8 x 10 I wanted to set up like old imaging and see what I could get. A lot of my enjoyment was in not taking the photograph. I’ve always enjoyed these types of projects as much as I do taking the photograph. But, I just would tell them what I want to do and if they said move along I’m moving along. Maybe with my 35mm I’d be a little more aggressive.
PP: But was there a reaction from people on the streets shaped by the fact you were with police officers?
MG: There were moments where I was definitely one of the cops … even though I didn’t look like it. I looked like a photographer.
There were times that I would take my camera into Newark gentlemen’s clubs and there were all these gang-members. The cops were vicious at some moments; it felt like Hollywood to them sometimes. And, there were moments on the street when kids wanted their pictures taken.
There were tense moments on the streets when civilians felt vulnerable but I felt I needed to get that image. I often felt really bad and grappled with those moments for many days. I was justified as an artist; I had to get these images.
MG: You know, I was a street kid and I got into many fights, but I also grew up white in Manhattan. The privileges I had. No matter how bad it was, if you come from a white educated family…
But, it’s not an even-playing field. I always had to deal with that. In Newark, cops are on one side and they took full advantage of it. Once the vice squad came out and busted these women doing tricks. Beforehand, the cops were drinking while we ate at a Portuguese restaurant right by the headquarters. We were drinking beers and doing shots and I remember saying, “Is this okay? That we’re going out there?”
“We’re doing whatever we want. I’m the captain of the vice squad,” was the attitude.
That wouldn’t have happened in the New York Police Department, there’s way too much bureaucracy there.
PP: Some of your night time group shots (below) look like Rembrandt paintings. Two or three sets of eyeballs looking at you as the photographer. The composition of the group. The lighting.
MG: When the cops do these weekend sweeps, you have this vice squad and you have a truckload of cops — about 6 cars full of cops. Every weekend. This is where the cat-and-mouse comes in between cops and perps. This caravan would come through all the neighborhoods that they knew had some issues or drugs problems; the same exact neighborhoods. This, basically, went on every Friday at 12 o’clock.
The kids at the school yard knew exactly what was coming, and you can just see they’re exhausted from it. If it happened to me as a kid, we’d have a politician at them, or someone would be getting into a fight with the cop with, ‘How dare you stop our night.’
The looks on especially the two kids sitting in their white T-shirts, that’s how I sort of felt shooting. Those are the moments when I truly grappled with what I was doing there, and where I almost had the same sense they had to the cops — that it’s just too much.
PP: Tell us mores about Joshua Lutz’s encouragement?
MG: When I first met Josh the project needed polishing. I’d have let it peter out. Even so, I would still constantly show friends and mentors the work. They all said I had something great and those comments just kept on pushing me back to work. Lutz said all I needed to do was fill in some holes.
I liked Josh’s sensibility. He was getting into publishing and we understood New Jersey. We knew the printer had to be right. Through Dutch publisher Schilt in Amsterdam, we found a printer in Germany and we let the German’s do what they do so well.
PP: When I saw the post-industrial landscapes in Probable Cause I immediately thought of Lutz’s Meadowlands.
MG: Originally, I wanted to document the sense of place in Newark. Later, I fell in love with the cops and how they looked. I started asking them to join me outside and then I developed toward shooting landscapes so it had so many different branches.
Maybe, the 4×5 and the 6×9 sort of helped me live on in this project longer. Does that make sense? How do all these wires connect? How does this urban existence work? Can you feel the hum of it all? Might it explode at any point?
PP: There’s a constant precariousness to the work. There’s homage to labor, but it’s not “pure.” The work is very deliberate but it’s also uncomfortable because of your obvious privilege to be in that space. This fact is underlined when we see a photograph of a cop with a camera taking a picture of an arrested individual.
On the inside covers, front and back, there are walls of Polaroids of suspects.
MG: Matthew Sharpe talks about them very well in his introductory essay. He asks, ‘Can you tell the difference between the cops and the suspects?’
PP: There’s a very honest presence of photography and it’s many uses — it’s both art and it’s also an apparatus of power and control and policing. I think this is one of the successes of the book.
MG: I had probably over 300 negatives of large format images. Josh and I edited to a hundred pages. It was difficult.
PP: I also wanted to ask about the cover picture. It is a very different picture to all of the photographs within.
MG: I kept coming back to the image on the front of one of the editions of Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. I could not get it out of my head that I needed a sky image. I needed clouds.
MG: I needed something that had some significance about the formation of society, or this world, or the wasteland that Newark is, or New Jersey. The cover is a shot of a beautiful sky above beautiful wetlands but it is also a site where the cops found a body.
Joel Sternfeld did Haunting Grounds, a book on hate and environmental crimes.
PP: A very powerful juxtaposition of seemingly innocuous scenes and horrifying back-stories.
MG: And that’s how I felt the book should be. At one point, it was just going to be Newark but then it became something more. The landscapes made it something more.
PP: Can you talk about the attitudes in Newark and New Jersey toward crime. What were the relationships between the police force and citizens like? What’s the background — learned from your photographing for almost a decade — that we should know?
MG: Newark is predominantly African American and there is a large portion of Portuguese. Then there’s Ironbound which can be a little more blue collar but it’s predominantly poor African Americans.
The Newark PD is one of the largest police forces, and in 2001, I think, it was 50% African American police. Now I think that it is 70% African-American. It’s a huge difference to go out with an all-white force compared to an all-black force — from the way people on the streets react which is, you know, it’s hard when you’re coming there with guns, badges and uniforms but it helps to be part of the same group. Things just get calmer. When you have a mix it tends to break down racial tensions. That’s where it has changed in a good way.
PP: Your work, as foolish as it sounds, runs counter to easy conclusions. There’s cops and suspects; there’s all races; there’s Muslim cops and female cops; there’s chiefs and beat cops too. Policing is made of all stripes.
MG: I didn’t want to lose that fairness to both cop and non-cop. I truly feel romance about the images. I wanted to show a fair balance. This is how cities work and the people among them. I’m not trying to sway public opinion.
In a narcissistic way, it has been a cathartic trip.
PP: Because it was about you entering an “alien” world?
MG: Everyone’s just trying to get their job done in this capitalist system in which it’s hard to get ahead. The cop and the perp are on the same track, but there’s a moment some go one way and others the other way. I felt for both parties. They’re stuck. At 17-years-old, the options are pretty much there for cop and for criminal. It’s about fear, overtime and getting in your years. The cop has his cycle, the robber theirs. They both have their routines. It’s the balance of urban play. Social infrastructure plays its part in shaping these groups’ lives.
In Newark, as a cop, it’s 25 years in a tough environment. It’s not easy. They’re working on a word processor in 2003!?
PP: Did you get over your fear?
MG: No. But I came a long way. I’m excited to do another project like it. In some ways, I hate that it is a book, because it suggests, it feels, like it’s over.
PP: If it is, it’s a significant and successful end. Truly, it is one of my favourite photobooks of recent years. Thanks, Matthew.
MG: Thank you, Pete.
Matt Gunther, a native new Yorker, is a film-maker and photographer who has been documenting a sense of place and moments of time throughout his career. His portraits endeavor to uncover and expose the vulnerability and compassion- the core of his subjects. Matt received his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from SUNY Purchase. Matt’s work has been featured in numerous international and national publications, Including The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, London Sunday Times and Gentlemen’s Quarterly. His work has been awarded and written about in American Photography, PDN, and Communication Arts among others. Matt’s work is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum and The Palais De Toyko in Paris. He is currently working on his first Monograph, Probable Cause, documenting daily life in Newark New Jersey, which will be published in the fall of 2012.
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.