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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
Giles Clarke is a photographer with the bit between his teeth. Last summer, he wandered into a story about squalid cages being used by El Salvadorian police to hold men accused of gang-related crimes. The pictures — published in the August 2013 issue of VICE — caused some outrage, a lot of gawking and general throwing of hands in the air.
(Click on an image to see it larger.)
It was an unplanned chain of events that led Clarke to the stinking cages. It began on a Saturday night in February of last year when Clarke’s fixer, a local breakdancer who works with youth to divert them from crime, took him to the police station in Quezaltepeque, a town 15 outside of San Salvador.
”I told the police I wanted to ride along and went straight out into Barrio-18 territory,” says Clarke “Bare in mind these gangs are armed to the teeth and control huge swathes of the towns. Armed police units are joined by the military.”
“We responded to a shoot-out at a traffic junction. The shooter had fled and not hit anyone but units swarmed the area. I was told to lie down behind one cop till all clear given. It turned out drunk driver had got in the face of a friend and the friend had popped off a few shots to shut him up. Then we spent another couple of hours searching, pulling kids and gangers over.”
The next day, Clarke returned to the station. A new female officer responsible for caring for victims of domestic abuse asked her captain, “Have you shown him the cages, yet?” The captain of 17 years – who was a bit more enlightened than his rank and file (and also a surfer and guitar enthusiast) — liked to talk about his work and saw value in showing a foreign journalist the cages.
“The captain was very aware of what he was doing [by letting me photograph the cages]. He has a big heart for the issues he is facing,” says Clarke. “The El Salvador legal system is a disaster — with the explosion of gang violence in the last 15 years, the lack of new prisons along with the huge rise in US deportation rates — the justice system can’t handle it so these cages are springing up everywhere. 35 men in each one.”
There were three cages at Quezaltepeque police station — one for Barrio 18, one for MS-13 and one for “common criminals.”
“I took the photo (top) that ended up being the VICE cover shot within 10 seconds of seeing it. I knew it was important. That visual hit me first, then came the smell,” says Clarke. “They shit in the back of the cages. It’s fucking disgusting. Stinking hot. It must have been 95 degrees in there.”
The police officers didn’t want Clarke there and were getting nervous, so he worked quickly and started gleaning as much information as he could from the prisoners.
“One kid (below) had been there 17 months. He was there the longest. Waiting for sluggish El Salvador system. Some of the prisoners have not been charged,” says Clarke.
Another prisoner, in the common criminals cage, was a army veteran with one leg who’d been locked up for protesting the loss of his veterans’ benefits. Most locals don’t know about the cages (CLarke’s fixer didn’t) but some must as the police do not feed the prisoners. Families and friends must bring in food for them. The prisoners spend their time shredding clothes and hand-weaving hammocks to maximize used space and make sleeping on top of one another a fraction less harrowing.
“Every Thursday, they are shackled, brought out the cages, searched, and sprayed down. The police find drugs. They get in there. You can assume guards are paid off.”
Clarke learnt that most of the gang members had been deported from Los Angeles. Many had fled civil wars, or their families had, and they’d lived in East Los Angeles, Long Beach or other parts of L.A.
El Salvadorian gangs are an American product. After serving time in California prisons. many gang members were deported back to El Salvador along with their social tensions, survival modes and high violence. There’s no doubting that Barrio 18 and MS-13 have committed heinous crimes. So far down the rabbit hole, only truces, the reduction of poverty and societal buy-in provides a way out for many of these men. The situation is confounding.
“They all read the bible, just like reading the newspaper,” says Clarke. “I was very surprised. That mixture of high crime and fervent religion is confusing.”
The issues are complex and transborder. Clarke shows us the worst of El Salvador but before we condemn the authorities abroad and dismiss this as someone else’s problem, it might be worth bearing in mind that America has its own cages.
FORTHCOMING GILES CLARKE SERIES ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
Having lived in the U.S. since the mid-nineties, British-born Clarke has always been aware of the abuse in, and uncontrolled expansion of, American prisons but this story in El Salvador ignited an interest in cages at home. Since this story, Clarke has been photographing in prisons here and abroad.
This is the first of a series of posts featuring Clarke’s work. Prison Photography will bring publishing original images and b-roll from Clarke’s other prison stories, always alongside his biting commentary.
Giles Clarke is a social documentary photographer based in New York City. He is a featured photographer represented by Reportage by Getty and aWHITELABELproduct. A wandering photojournalist and frequent contributor to VICE, his travels in 2014 have taken him from Guatemala to the Netherlands; from Chiapas to Columbia; and from old frontlines in Sarajevo to new frontlines in Ukraine.
All images: Giles Clarke/Getty images
In recent months, there’s been a number of interesting — and in some cases, urgent — photo stories coming out of prisons worldwide, that I’d like to draw you attention to.
Anthony Alvarez, left, 82, eats breakfast with Phillip Burdick, a fellow prisoner and member of the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony prison in December. Mr. Alvarez said he has been incarcerated for 42 years for a series of burglaries, possession of illegal firearms and escapes from county jail. He eventually got a life sentence due to three-strikes laws. Shown is Mr. Alvarez’s first day being assisted by the Gold Coats; he largely needs help with mobility. Mr. Alvarez tries to work out for a few minutes every other day. Mr. Burdick, 62, has been volunteering with the Gold Coats for more than 18 years and is the longest-serving member of the program. Mr. Burdick has served 37 years on a 7-years-to-life sentence for first-degree murder.
Andrew Burton‘s photographs of aging prisoners for the Wall Street Journal have been well-received. With one of the largest state prison populations, a history of long sentencing laws and inadequate healthcare, the old men and women have the odds stacked against them for a comfortable day-to-day living.
The percentage of prisoners 55 or older in the U.S. increased by more than 500% between 1990 and 2009.
Burton’s photos focus on the Gold Coats program at California Men’s Colony, in San Luis Obispo, which pairs younger, willing prisoners with older prisoners suffering dementia and terminal illness. In 1991, California Medical Facility created the first prison hospice program in the nation to deal with the AIDS crisis, and the hospice is now used for elderly prisoners who are terminally ill.
Great photos. Burton is realistic about the situation but seems clearly impressed with efforts there.
However, here’s some context. Ever since California’s medical prison system was deemed cruel and unusual and it was brought under federal receivership, the state has been making efforts to deliver specific facilities for health care. The largest was to open the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, CA. It is the largest medical prison in the world. At a cost of $840M it was supposed to solve many issues and provide care for 1,800 prisoners. Nothing is so straightforward. Since opening in July, 2013, it has been beset by waste, mismanagement and miscommunication between the prison and medical staffs.
Watch this space. Hopefully vast, vast improvements will ensue.
[Todd Heisler has photographed at the California Men's Colony too.]
Erika Roberts, 26, of Hartford is a factory worker, a dancer, a teaching artist, a worshiper, a mother of three, and a felon.
Photographer Andrea Wise soon realised that when lives are intertwined with the criminal justice system nothing is straightforward. From the millions of effected formerly-incarcerated millions, Wise’s Freedom Bound manages to tell the story of Erika Roberts on very humanising terms. And with touching photographs.
“Her story is both a simpler one – a quiet story of a young family just trying to do the best they can – and a more complex and nuanced story about life in poor urban communities where people grow up in and around trauma, where criminal activity and incarceration are commonplace, and where Erika’s story isn’t all that uncommon,” says Wise.
Freedom Bound explores Erika’s quiet determination and struggle to break the cycle of incarceration.
“Erika strives for more from life, for her children, and for her community,” writes Wise.
In 2012, Anibal Martel photographed inside Lurigancho Prison, the largest and most overcrowded prison in Peru.
“According to the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (January 2012) Lurigancho has a capacity limit of 3,204 prisoners but it actually holds 6,713 with a ratio of one police ofﬁcer to 100 inmates,” says Martel.
“With corruption, tuberculosis and drug dependency together with its appalling management by the state, the prison gained a reputation as one of the most dangerous prisons in the world,” Martel continues. “Today, Lurigancho is fighting to survive thanks to the internal organization of some prisoners and their work. These prisoners have managed to create a small, internal infrastructure that allows them to feed themselves and live a more dignified life.”
French photographer Eric Gourlan voluntarily spent a month inside Kyrgyrzstan’s prison and documented life in two men’s prisons, one women’s jail, and a juvenile detention centre — all in the capital Bishkek.
Gourlan has published on Flickr photographs from the juvenile facility in Bishkek, Kyrgryzstan.
There’s a great interview with Gourlan on the Institute for War and Peace Reporting website. Gourlan explains that he gained access through valuable partnerships with State Service for Execution of Punishment (GSIN), the United States Agency for International Development, Freedom House, the OSCE Center in Bishkek, the GSIN Public Oversight Council and the Kyrgyz NGO Egel — a long list which gives us an idea of the importance of partners for this type of work.
“I would really like to commend the openness of [prison] officials in Kyrgyzstan – I could go almost everywhere I wanted,” says Gourlan. “The only thing was that in the first two days, I was accompanied by guards until everyone got used to me. But then I was given more freedom and practically could move around on my own. On some occasions, I ate with prisoners.”
Gourlan met some hardened criminals but also met people who’ve been victims of overly-punitive sentences.
“One woman told me that she had been in a very difficult financial situation and somebody asked her to transport 30 grams of heroin from point A to point B for 100 [US] dollars. She was caught and given 12 years in prison. She had never used drugs before, never sold them, and never got her 100 dollars, but she has been locked up for 12 years,” explains Gourlan. “Obviously I do not know if those stories I was told were true or not. But that was not why I embarked on this project.”
Eric Gourlan’s project was backed by Freedom House, the OSCE Centre in Bishkek, a local NGO called Egl, and the prison service in Kyrgyzstan.
Isabelle Serouart‘s rare photographs from within a prison in Madagascar were published by SoPhot. The images are small and embedded, but I also found this footage Serouart made of female prisoners singing.
“In a very confidential way record of women song in a jail in Madagascar,” says Serouart. “To sing is a way for her to survive together.”
“The program allows inmates to learn job and life skills while providing kennel and grooming services to clients from the surrounding community,” says Ryder. “In addition, unruly dogs from other programs (who might otherwise be put to sleep) are able to have a second chance by entering the prison’s training program.”
This is a win-win for the women, the dogs, the prison administrators and the media. Despite prisons being a continual source of distress and latent abuse, the press always needs new angles — depressing stories don’t have the readership coming back. A human interest story about (wo)man’s best friend and redemption plays well, and we’ve seen them before. Here’s a couple more similar project in Florida and Colorado.
Another thing that makes me slightly uncomfortable with the story is that simultaneously, just over an hour south, detained immigrants were on hunger strike for their confinement in solitary and slow progress of their cases. Now I know, the state prison system and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement are different authorities, but if we’re to look at lock-up in Washington State, I’d suggest we factor in ALL types of prisons and prisoners. ICE facilities remain the most inviisble.
The full WSJ story, to accompany Ryder’s video, by Joel Millman and with photos by Stuart Isett, you can see here (behind a paywall).
As an aside, the most interesting photography project on prison dog’s programs remains Jeff Barnett-Winsby’s Mark West & Molly Rose. After Barnett-Winsby had photographed the prisoner (Manard) and the program administrator absconded from the Safe Harbor Program and escaped from Lansing Prison, KS and went on the lam for 11 days. A weird tale of fact and fiction, manipulation and unsaid knowns. The investigating police acquired Barnett-Winsby’s photos because he had made the most recent images of Manard’s tattoos. Yet Manard had drawn false tattoos for the shoot predicting their use later following his escape. Twists and turns. No photographer can ever plan or predict such a bizarre story, or implication in it.
A child plays with his mother at the cafeteria inside The Community Prisoner Mother Program in Pomona, California. Mothers and their children live in open barracks shared with two other mother-child family pairs.
Pregnant in Prison offers a look at a select group of minimum security prisoners who may live with their young children until the child turns seven years old. Mothers live with their children in rooms shared with other prisoners. During the day, children are enrolled in the on-site preschool and Kindergarten and mothers take rehabilitation and other classes.
In 2011 and 2012, 233 female prisoners gave birth while serving time in the California prison system. So, this program applies to only a tiny fraction of women suffering California’s prison system. It is a welcome, forward-thinking program. Psychological studies are unanimous that close bonds between mother and baby, from the earliest hours, are vital in sparking healthy cognitive and social behaviours. Why wouldn’t we allow incarcerated mothers the ability to raise their own children?
In terms of such residential programs, most (and there are only a handful) allow mothers and babies to be together until the baby is 2 or 3 years of age. Pomona is exceptional.
Let me be clear though, I don’t want to see more prisons with this type of program; I want to see less prisons with lesser need for these types of programs. I want to see community supervision instead of incarceration and if prisons must be used, then for them to be bursting with positive programs designed around the women’s needs. That said, the Community Prisoner Mother Program has many elements to inform better care.
ANONYMOUS GREEK PRISONER
An expose by a Greek Prisoner registered on American news consumers’ radar when Medium published the piece Greece’s Biggest Prison Is Boiling by Yiannis Baboulias. The photographs accompanying the piece were taken by a prisoner and were then published repeatedly through the Twitter account @kolastirio.
He also got his footage out:
The expose caused outrage.
Baboulias writes, “People suffering from HIV, tuberculosis, psoriasis, cancer and other serious diseases, are discarded like trash in common rooms where hygiene is an unknown term. Spaces designed to hold 60 people, now hold more than 200. Reports say that some of these diseases have already started spreading amongst the inmates, making the prison a threat to public health in the general area. As inmates report, when the staff realises someone is close to death, he is quickly transported to a hospital, so his death won’t be recorded in the prison’s logs.”
Given that the infrastructure of Greece is collapsing in the wake of it economic meltdown, how surprising is this neglect? Hospitals are having budgets cut by 25% so what chance have the prisons and prisoners in the grapple for resources?
In an update, Baboulias says that the prisoner that leaked the photos and video has been prosecuted and faced trial.
“It was clear to me that would have required a great time commitment when I realized that permissions to photograph in the prison were going to take months to obtain,” says Bispuri. “In a few cases I’ve had to wait for years.”
Women’s prisons are rarely any better.
“There certainly is anger in female prisons as well, which sometimes turns into violent attacks. Moreover, in most prisons, female inmates are denied the “intimate visit”, that is the possibility to have sexual intercourse with their husband or partner, which is instead granted to those male inmates who behave properly,” explains Bispuri.
The work has had some effect. Following an exhibition of Bispuri’s photographs, in Buenos Aires in 2009, in collaboration with Amnesty International and the Argentine Government, Mendoza Prison’s Pavilion N5 was closed down.
“Life conditions there were tragic,” says Bispuri.
Bispuri’s series Encerrados describes how hellish many of the facilities. He has had a knife held to his neck and infected fluids thrown at him as protest to being photographed. Still, Bispuri is sympathetic to the resolve of many prisoners.
Amy Elkins recently won the Aperture Portfolio Prize for her projects Parting Words and Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night. Congratulations to her. I’ve written and thought extensively about both projects (for Huffington Post and for Daylight Digital, respectively) and in the wider context of Elkins’ approach.
Hope you appreciate these works and find something you like. Sorry this post is effectively an illustrated barrage of links, but we should be grateful there’s so much work being published! Let me know what you think of it all.
“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
— Albert Camus.
Photographer Tomas Van Houtryve puts the above quote top and center of his most recent artist statement. He believes that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy.
Researching my latest WIRED piece Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like about Van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days, I was shocked by the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
“The Obama administration doesn’t release a lot of details, so firm figures are hard to come by. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates unmanned aerial vehicles have killed between 2,296 and 3,718 people, as many as 957 of them civilians,” I wrote.
President Obama’s Drone War is not widely discussed. Drones operate remotely and forge the very distance that prevents a critical look at their continued use. Drones dismantle empathy.
If a technology with extremely powerful spying and killing capabilities is shielded from public scrutiny there is bound to be abuse,” says Van Houtryve.
WHAT’S IN OUR WORLD?
Art can foster empathy. At least, that’s an aim of political art, no? There are many worthy projects that have co-opted and subverted drone visuals:
Jamie Bridle traces drone shadows in the streets and launched Dronestagram to populate social media with satellite views of drone strike sites; John Vigg surveilled drone research labs and airports; Trevor Paglen photographed drones at distance; Josh Begley’s App MetaData alerts users to drone strikes; and Raphaella Dallaporte took a drone to Afghanistan to do some archaeological surveying.
Most recently, a JR-inspired Inside Out project named Not A Bug Splat is tweaking the consciences of drone “pilots” by laying massive pictures of children in strike zones. However, the novelty (still) of these projects suggests we are not well-versed in drone operations.
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
Furthermore, I worry about how the definition of the word “drone” is shifting. When we hear “drone” do we think about military-grade killer robots or about newer domestic-use quadcopters?
The photo and video world has embraced smaller, non-lethal drones — we oohed and aahed at this aerial surf video and we protested when the police forced down a drone flown over a traffic accident by an off-duty photojournalist.
Soon, a small drone will be a part of every photographers kit.
Also, new legislation is being written to catch up with the technology and the proliferation of public drone ownership and operation. The FAA had self-appointed itself as the authority on drone use and looked disapprovingly at Joe Public sending lil’ aircraft up in the air. So, the FAA started sending out cease and desist letters and $10,000 fine threats.
The recipients — commercial photographers — weren’t threatening homeland security; they were mostly using camera-mounted drones to map agriculture, oil fields and the like. One commercial drone user, Raphael Pirker, challenged his fine in court. He won and nullified the FAA’s authority over him or any other drone operator.
“Pirker’s attorney maintained that the FAA could not simply declare a regulation without having a public notice-and-comment period. His argument went like this: Congress has delegated to its bureaucracy the authority to make rules, but when new regulations have a substantial impact on the general public, the government must have hearings and take comments,” wrote David Kravets for WIRED.
Until those hearings, it is a free-for-all. We must just hope that creepy idiots who want to spy through windows are the exception.
There’s a third player in the mix though. Between the everyday citizen and the military industrial complex are corporations. Who would bet against Amazon actually delivering your slippers by drone? Or Facebook delivering WiFi via drones to the entire globe in the next decade?
Overall, we hope that citizens retain access to the use of drones just as corporations and the state do. We hope citizens’ drone use is protected by laws similar to those allowing street photography on public thoroughfares.
NEW WORDS IN OUR WORLD
‘Drone’ is a new word in photography. ‘Selfie’ is a new word in photography too. In fact, the emergence of the two words was almost parallel.
The earliest usage of the word selfie can be traced to an ABC Online Australian internet forum, on 13 September 2002. Just seven weeks later, on November 3rd 2002, the first ever lethal U.S. drone strike hit Yemen, killing six.
At the turn of the millennium neither the words drone or selfie, as we know understand them, were in our lexicon. I’d argue the definition of both terms is ongoing apace, but for different reasons. Drone visuals and facts are obscured; we must search them out. Selfie visuals, on the other hand, are impossible to avoid.
At some level, the selfie provides the everyday citizen a type of agency and incorporates our foibles, connectedness, and our awkward relationships with social media. Selfies may not be inherently humanizing but they are individually created and do reflect human idiosyncrasy.
By comparison, drone scopes reduce humans to video-mediated targets. Drone visuals eradicate individuality and of course, very literally snuff out human life. The selfie is, spoken of at least, as a completely controllable form, whereas the drone is an apparatus of control. It’s bottom-up liberation vs. top-down oppression.
The drone and the selfie inhabit different ends of an image spectrum. Both in terms of production and consumption, the selfie is all us and the drone is all them. We know us well. We don’t know them at all.
That these are two of the main new words we are processing together as a culture is intriguing to me.
These are just thoughts out loud and may or may not lead to more fleshed out criticism, but the near-simultaneous emergence and widespread use of the words “drone” and “selfie” alongside their contrasting correlation to human consciousness in our remotely-networked globe might provide fodder for further investigation.
Usually when we hear of a photographer in jail we fear the worst. A foreign correspondent imprisoned; a street photographer detained in violation of civil liberties; a protest photographer swept up in riot police mass arrests.
Belgian photographer Sebastien Van Malleghem went to prison of his own free will. In fact, he was invited. Early this year, the authorities were preparing to open Beveren Prison, a new facility in the north of the country designed for 312 prisoners. Prior to the opening, the authority invited members of the press and criminal justice professionals to experience life inside. Joining Sebastien Van Malleghem in the temporary prison population were reporters, a TV crew, lawyers, a judge and even some prison guards. Collectively, they were guinea pigs to ensure the smooth running of the new state-of-the-art systems … which were not always smooth.
“We underestimated the influence of technology on the daily scheme of the prison,” said Beveren Prison spokesperson Els Van Herck. “Yesterday, it started already with the discharging of a visitor, a prison cell that wouldn’t open, and a lock that we had to drill out, as well as intercom systems that didn’t work thoroughly.”
Van Malleghem was locked up for three days. We talked. He recounted his “weird feelings.”
Prison Photography (PP): You were on assignment?
Sebastien Van Malleghem (SVM): Yes, for De Standaard, a Flemish newspaper. I made 45 photographs and they published 10.
PP: You’ve photographed in prisons before.
PP: How did Beveren compare?
SVM: There are many fences. Many doors. You can’t have clear vision, you can’t see any landscape. Vision is limited to, maybe, 15 meters. It is not going to be especially better for the minds of the prisoners. So I’m ambivalent about it.
SVM: I took the option to do something really cold, clear and disturbing. To get at people’s emotion. In the beginning [my fellow prisoners] were smiling and I watched them to see how they would be after five hours being in a cell of 8-meters square. Obviously they were looking a bit stressed and tired.
My point of view was a tiny bit different from the others guest-prisoners because I had press authorization, so the door of my cell was a open a bit more to let me shoot some pictures.
PP: What was your goal?
SVM: I was thinking about the prison riot. And why. The punishment of prison is to deny freedom. The punishment is not to give no freedom to your mind or to let you live inside these cold buildings without anything. Why not let prisoners have something more comfortable? They’re already outside of society.
You’re already inside of a prison with a full range of walls and a huge perimeter boundary with razor wired and electric fences. So, why not put inside something more human? That’s exactly what I’m fighting for.
PP: Better conditions?
SVM: There is no emotion. You go into a closed square, and then another one, and then another one. Squares and squares and squares. I’m not sure that prisoners will see more psychologists or people like that to help them [at Beveren].
PP: It’s a tightly controlled, sterile, modern prison. Small, clean boxes.
SVM: Why must we — in the 21st century — have jails like those in the middle ages. So small. When you need to eat and get your plate you just don’t have space to move your arm, space to turn around. You cannot open the window. There is a security system. You turn a button to get fresh air from outside but you can’t open the window. Suddenly, you just feel like you don’t even have space to fall forward.
While I was sleeping, the guards would come by every two hours. There is no agenda; they just come and check, open the little hatch in the door. You have no privacy.
PP: How many people from the media went inside the prison?
SVM: I was with a writer, there was another photographer/writer team, two teams from a TV channel. Maybe, ten media persons.
It was training for the guards, to see what was wrong inside the prison. A journalist wrote that there were real problems.
PP: What is Prison Cloud?
SVM: There is a flat screen in each cell. In this new prison they wanted to try new “modern” things. Prison Cloud is a basically a kind of internet designed for prisoners. Keyboard, flatscreen, and the mouse. Prisoners can order a tiny bit more food or cigarettes and pay. Stuff is a bit more expensive but it’s easier for the prisoners to order through the computer. Also they have very restricted access to internet — only a few pages that they can go to such as the employment office, government websites. They can also order and pay for movies to watch.
When men enter inside the prison, they are fingerprinted and given a USB key where all their personal information is recorded. They need to put the USB key in the computer to gain access. The prison checks everything they’re doing on there.
PP: It sounds oppressive, but we’d expect that, no?
SVM: I deeply believe that a cell of 8-meters square makes you nervous and/or lazy. When you’re locked up, your thoughts turn quickly: “What’s my option in here?” You can struggle to stay in shape doing some exercise, reading books and keep your mind busy with some crazy plans that only your brain can imagine or just lose it all and spend your time laying on your bed.
From your cell, you can hear what’s happening in the wing, but you can’t see it and so you start to play stories in your head. The sounds of the voices and the steps of the guards are like an echo in your head. Always a background noise that could be compared to the type of headache that you catch when you’re tired.
PP: Your overall thoughts from the experience?
SVM: In this prison, it is as if the point of punishment is not only to separate a prisoner from freedom, but to box the prisoner in the smallest and the most claustrophobic space possible.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Srey Neth and Lia move into the STAR House, a secondary transition home designed to help victims of sex trafficking to learn the skills to reintegrate into society without falling back to sex work. The teenagers are residents of Transitions Global and have experienced horrific physical and mental abuse largely at the hands of their fellow Cambodians. Photo: Tim Matsui, 2012 Women’s Initiative Grant Winner
The Alexia Foundation has opened its call for entries for the 2014 Women’s Initiative Grant.
There’s a lot of grants out there but the Alexia Foundation Women’s Initiative Grant is one of the best. Why? Firstly, it’s a large amount of money: $25,000. That’s the type of money needed to get at an issue in any depth. Secondly, the expectations are high. The winner has six months to produce the work and then is encouraged to plug in the product (and the lessons within) to a host of diverse media outlets. Thirdly, it is about women and their needs. When U.S. females earn 77 cents for every dollar a male earns; when women are trafficked worldwide; when women are bearing the brunt of holding together families and communities in the face of the prison industrial complex; when women face issues such as these and others which are part of routine gender violence, the Alexia Foundation is making it’s contribution to bring these issues to the table.
I am also a big fan of journalist Tim Matsui who was awarded the 2012 Women’s Initiative Grant. His project Leaving the Life is about domestic juvenile sex trafficking. Latest update here. A trailer for a film ‘The Long Night’ which accompanies the project and produced by MediaStorm can be viewed here.
Photojournalists worldwide are encouraged to apply to the Women’s Initiative Grant. Deadline: June 30, 2014.
From the press release:
Unlike the first Women’s Initiative grant, which specifically focused on abuse of women in the United States, this call for entries is intended to permit the photographer to propose a serious documentary photographic or multimedia project encompassing any issue involving women anywhere in the world.
While considering the idea of women’s issues, several themes have been suggested, including femininity and the culture of abuse; women making a difference, leading, changing things for the better; gender inequality; the direct connection to women and education, and the impact on birth rates, health of children and the productivity of the women; gender discrimination, women in leadership, women in the military, mental health issues. They are by no means intended to influence proposals, but they may help photographers start thinking about this topic.
The Alexia Foundation’s main purpose is to encourage and help photojournalists create stories that drive change. While our traditional grant guidelines put no limits on the subject matter for grant proposals, a number of proposals about women’s rights in the last few years have been so powerful that we have been compelled to create a grant specifically on issues relating to women.
Winner announced Sept. 1, 2014.
Winner has six months to complete project, by March 1, 2015.
Contact Eileen Mignoni at email@example.com with any inquiries.
Yesterday, I listened to Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, describe the “living nightmare” on Mississippi’s death row in 2002. Her words were visceral and painted an image, but of course no images exist.
On that death row, cells had no power. Men languished in “perpetual twilight without enough light to read.” Radios were silent. Summer temperatures soared to a life-threatening 120 degrees fahrenheit. Year-round, mosquitos from the surrounding swamps filled the cell-tiers at dawn and dusk. No toilets worked. The stench was unbearable. Every sense was under constant assault. Prisoners’ shrieks, sobs and babbling filled the air. Suicides and self-harm were routine and the prison officers maintained order with the deployment of pepper spray. The majority of the prisoners had severe mental illness, and of those that arrived in the unit sane, few were lucky to have the strength of mind to remain so.
If an individual treats an animal this way, they’re punished by law and yet in America our law sends people to wallow in such conditions and worse.
Attorney Winter explained that court-orders often provide legal professionals access into prisons that the media has been denied access for years, even decades. Class action litigation alongside advocacy and responsible reporting all contribute to a reliable view of prisons for the tax-paying public. That such deplorable conditions could exist in America in the 21st century surely makes the case for robust and independent monitoring of America’s prisons.
Winter and ACLU only became aware of the abuse after they received letters from dozens of men on death row. As I listened to Winter’s account, I thought back to a day earlier when I’d asked the same audience to consider not only what images they see of prisons, but also the images they do not see.
Right now, Oklahoma is making a case-study of itself. Under the orders of new Dept. of Corrections Director Robert Patton, Oklahoma prisons now allow journalists to enter only with pen and paper. Apparently, the OK DOC has been “slammed” by over a dozen media requests. Slammed!?!? How low is the bar? No cameras or audio recording devices inside Oklahoma prisons.
Unsurprisingly, Patton cites security reasons. Who are we to argue? What do we, the uninformed public know about security? The tone is patronising. A healthy relationship between the press which serves the public and the administrations in control of our tax funded institutions would make me feel safer. This stinks.
The Tulsa World reports that Patton believes that the requirement to search the camera equipment diverts staff resources and time. He also fears images of sensitive security equipment wouldn’t end up in photos or videos.
“It is very staff intensive to process this type of equipment in and out of a facility. More importantly, we need to ensure that any security function not be recorded or filmed in a way that may jeopardize the safety of our facilities,” says DOC spokesman Jerry Massie.
All of this smacks of an institution stretched, stressed and flailing. And indeed it is. The Oklahoma prison system is overcrowded. To add to the pressure, OK has the lowest levels of staffing of any state. Moral is low and pay is lower. Oklahoma has created a tumorous prison machine that does not rehabilitate but just churns up prisoners and staff and spits them out the other side.
No one is doubting Patton’s job is tough, but making adversaries of the press is not any type of solution. If anything he should be using the press more to expose the fractured department and broken lives he’s having to manage.
Unfortunately, some panicked lawmakers in Oklahoma think more private prison contracts are the solution. Private prisons use under-qualified staff, warehouse prisoners for longer, cut corners, and treat humans as commodity. They are based on efficiency models. Trying to make prisons more efficient IS the problem. Patton and Oklahoma’s only solution is to rely on incarceration less. Patton must establish community supervision programs for those prosecuted by law — they are cheaper and more effective.
I urge Patton not to listen to calls for extended privatisation and to put human needs ahead of budget needs. If he doesn’t, he’ll exacerbate the problem and fail the people of Oklahoma to whom he is (theoretically, at least) in service. By banning cameras and story-telling equipment, Patton will only succeed in alienating Oklahomans further.
This Tulsa World editorial hits the nail on the head: “This is no way to treat taxpayers who pony up a half-billion dollars annually to keep their prisons operating.”
FIRST HAND ACCOUNT
If I cannot convince you, perhaps a concerned Oklahoman might? I recently received this email from the loved one of a man imprisoned in Oklahoma.
“I’m aware that a camera inside, in the hands of a loved one, a visitor, is never going to happen. But journalism? Journalism is a must. I recently sent my loved one an article in print. It was about a prizewinning author who is incarcerated for life. The prison mail-guard and the contraband review board withheld that piece. Destroyed it. When I pressed, the reason given was that it contained a photographic image of a prisoner!
Photography is powerful. I imagine what my partner would capture if I could give him a camera — the haunted and defeated look in the eyes, the conditions inside the giant quonset hut housing 66 men in 33 bunk-beds.
Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and one of the highest uses of for-profit prisons. And now no one can take a photo inside? Dangerous stuff.”
This source asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her partner from any punitive response by the DOC.
Image: Seniors Walking Across America.
For 12 years every spring, women incarcerated at Estrella Jail in Maricopa County, Phoenix, AZ, have convened to create, prepare and perform a theatre production. The six-week program — that culminates in a public show — is called Journey Home.
Photographer Aaron Lavinsky, now based in Grays Harbor, WA, was in attendance for the finale 2012 performance and photographed it for The State Press — the Arizona State University (ASU) student paper. Not satisfied with only a single afternoon’s access, Lavinsky decided to return in 2013 to document rehearsals and to dig into the personal stories of two participants. It is Lavinsky’s photos from Feb/Mar 2013 presented here.
The Journey Home program adopts a different theme each year, but in every case attempts to “enable women to discover a personal sense of constructive identity through movement, visual arts, creative writing and storytelling.” Journey Home is made possible through efforts of committed instructors (in 2013 by storyteller Fatimah Halim; movement specialist Teniqua Broughton; psychotherapist Imani O. Muhammad; and others) and supported by sponsorship from the ASU Herberger Institute for Design ant the Arts.
Estrella Jail, under the administration of controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio presents itself as a case-study of contradiction for us if we are to be responsible consumers of images. Lavinsky’s pictures are hopeful but the carceral backdrop to them less so.
Arpaio has been pursued by the Federal authorities for unconstitutional jail conditions and racial profiling. Arpaio’s use of striped uniforms and pink underwear serves to both manipulate visual readings within the public sphere and to humiliate prisoners. If you need anymore convincing that Arpaio is a special case, look no further than his questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate (although it could just as easily be a calculated publicity stunt).
I’ve written before about how Arpaio’s jails may be the most photographed of any jails or prisons in the nation. His facilities are a media circus often.
Before we get into the Q&A with Lavinsky, I think it is worth us bearing in mind two things — 1. Journey Home is a laudable, but not necessarily typical program. I mean, what happens the other 46 weeks of the year for these women? And 2. All of these women are wearing uniforms branded UNSENTENCED. This means each woman is awaiting trial; in the eyes of the law, they are not guilty. It might also mean they are kept incarcerated because they can’t meet bail. Everyday, tens of thousands of people wallow behind bars because they are too poor to afford bail. I don’t know what proportion of Maricopa County prisoners are in such a penury situation as bail differs county to state; and judge to courtroom.
Instead of spending too much thought on Arpaio as overlord-to-one-of-America’s-most-shameful-systems-of-detention, I think it’s more responsible meditate on the successes of the women when viewing Lavinsky’s images. And, of course, to hear Lavinsky’s first hand observations.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Why this story?
Aaron Lavinsky (AL): Journey Home presented enormous potential, but I wanted to go beyond the one-hour performance performed for the public. In 2013, I was interning for the Arizona Republic and looking for a story that could push my abilities as a visual journalist. I decided to cover Journey Home again, but with extended access. I visited back and forth for a month during classroom sessions, the performance, and then follow-ups with two women around whom the story was centered.
PP: Do theatre and dance workshops such as this occur regularly at Estrella jail?
AL: Not to my knowledge. Journey Home is an annual workshop and while there are other classes, they are more geared toward substance abuse counseling. I’m sure there are elements of creative expression but not on the same level as Journey Home.
PP: As this is a county jail, I anticipate these women were serving relatively shorter sentences. What sort of transgressions were these women locked up for?
AL: Most of the prisoners in the program were there for substance abuse related crimes, which is the case with most prisoners at Estrella. Some of them were serving short sentences while others were waiting for or in the midst of trials that could send them to prison. Both the prisoners I focused on, Renata F. and Robina S. were facing prison sentences of 1-3 years if convicted. Because of their pending trials, I was unable to publish their full names which was one of the stipulations of covering the program.
PP: I’m gripped by the wide smiles in your photos. The women seem to be in the midst of huge enjoyment and heartfelt emotion. Such animation is rare in prisons and jails and rarer still in photographs of prisoners.
AL: I think photographers, for most prison and jail stories, try to illustrate how rough incarceration can be for those inside. I’ve had to make “prisoner behind bars” type photos before for other assignments and they kind of all feel the same looking back. Journey Home is unique in that there is a genuine sense of happiness and camaraderie among the women. I imagine that jail is extremely stressful and Journey Home gave these women an opportunity to let their guard down and be people, not just prisoners.
PP: Did you meet Sheriff Joe Arpaio?
AL: I’ve met and photographed Sheriff Joe a number of times. There is definitely a cult of personality surrounding him in Phoenix and beyond. You see it right when you walk in to Estrella with a portrait of him hanging high on the wall — just out of reach to those hoping to deface it.
Last summer, I photographed Tent City’s 20th anniversary and the entire thing was a bit of a set up. As Arpaio spoke to the media, there were about 30 or 40 prisoners lined up behind him smiling and gesturing to the camera. He served prisoners cake, coffee, candy cigarettes as well as home living magazines with false Playboy and Hustler covers on them. He kind of just let photographers and videographers walk around and shoot whatever we wanted. Arpaio, however controversial he may be, is a smart guy and he knows that we’re on a 24-7 news cycle and if he invites us, we’ll probably show up.
I definitely knew exactly what I was going into whenever I stepped foot in the jails in Phoenix. That being said, certain programs like Journey Home and ALPHA, a drug prevention and counseling program, are genuinely there to help prisoners and aren’t just for the cameras.
PP: What were the women’s thoughts on the jail? How was it serving their rehabilitation, thinking, emotions, family life etc.?
AL: Jail is a rough experience for just about everyone there — prisoners and guards. Nobody I spoke with had particularly nice things to say about their experiences at Estrella. It separated them from their family, homes and freedom. I spoke with one woman in 2012 who was thankful for her incarceration, since she was on a downward spiral with alcoholism, but I got a sense that she was appreciative more of her forced separation from alcohol than with the jail’s rehabilitative resources.
The prisoners really did love the workers who came in to lead workshops like Journey Home. Fatimah, Teniqua and Imani were the leaders of the program and I have no doubt that they made positive, lasting influences in the lives of some of the women who were more engaged in the program.
PP: Was the Estrella Jail Rehabilitation through the Arts program successful?
AL: I think any program, which seeks to positively influence the lives of prisoners instead of simply punishing them, is on some level successful. Something isn’t working since there are more people in the system today then ever before. Any attempt to decrease the odds of people ending up back in jail or prison is a step in the right direction. One of the complaints I received though is that the program was only 6-weeks long. If it’s going on its 12th year, they must know that it’s successful. So why not extend the program for women who are showing positive signs? Or create other programs like it for the vast majority of prisoners who didn’t have the opportunity to take part?
PP: What were the women’s reactions to you and your camera?
AL: At first, there was a ton of camera awareness. Most people aren’t used to having their picture taken by a photojournalist so their first reaction is to smile for the camera. Some of the girls were a little flirty when I pointed the camera in their direction too. By the second day there, I was a complete fly on the wall and was able to move in close without getting stares and smiles in every photo. They seemed thankful that I was there telling their story and covering the program.
PP: What was the staff’s reaction to you and your camera?
AL: Highly professional. I had very good experiences with the staff at Estrella and they didn’t seem to mind me taking their photos one bit. The jail staff were barely interacting with the women when I was there working other than to transport them to and from the classroom we were all in. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do and respected my right to be there taking photos.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
AL: Having the opportunity to photograph and observe Journey Home was an eye opening experience. I’m thankful that I was able to document one of the positive initiatives that our penal system is pursuing toward helping prisoners so they don’t make the same mistakes again. I just wish that there were more programs like it and more options for prisoners other then being locked up for a pre-determined period of time, especially for drug offenses. I’ve had enough experience dealing with people with substance abuse issues to know it’s a disease, and should be treated like one to a reasonable degree. I don’t think anyone in there really wants to be addicted to meth or pills or alcohol. I wish the government did more to help people with drug problems instead of just locking them up. It’s not working.
PP: Thanks Aaron.
AL: Thank you, Pete.
Aaron Lavinsky is an visual journalist based in Grays Harbor, Washington. He is currently a staff photographer at The Daily World in Aberdeen and produces daily and long form photo and multimedia stories. Lavinsky’s work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The New York Times, National Geographic, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Denver Post, The Miami Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle and others. Find him on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter.