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A RIOT TO REMEMBER
Prison riot, prison rebellion, prison uprising — whatever they’re called, they hit the news, grip public nation and stay long in the memory. In the U.S., Attica is synonymous with prison rebellion. In Britain, it is Strangeways.
On 1st April, 1990, prisoners took charge of Strangeways’ chapel. Within hours they were in control of an entire wing and entrances. They made their way to the roof and began 25 days of public appearances. Britain had never seen anything like it. The nation could not turn away. At first, most were disgusted both by the prisoners’ wanton destruction and their brazenness out in the unusually warm spring sun. These first impressions, though, were founded on unfamiliarity with the system. As a hardcore of protestors remained on the roof into a second, a third and a fourth week, the nation started to think that perhaps there was something fighting for. There was. Better prison conditions.
The Strangeways Riot was the catalyst for the consequent government’s Wolff Report which scrutinised prison conditions across the nation. It was a watershed moment in the history of Britain’s prisons, setting out 12 major recommendations and identifying knackered, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions as the underlying causes of trouble at Strangeways and tensions elsewhere.
A RIOT FOR THE CAMERAS
It only seems like yesterday I was commenting on the 20th anniversary. Nevertheless, on this historical anniversary I’d like to share some of the most iconic images. They’re all sourced from this Manchester Evening News gallery. The gallery itself is tired and poorly put together (duplicates, cursory or no captions, few image credits, mix of colour and B&W) but there are some gems in there.
Many of these photographs were made from a disused warehouse across the street from Strangeways in which press photographers posted up. Ged Murray probably has the best available archive. I know Don McPhee was there too (his work is probably in the Guardian archive). Meanwhile, there’s work by Stephanie De Leng out there somewhere, and Chris Steele Perkins photographed Strangeways during the 80s.
What impresses me most about the protest is that the prisoners knew they had a message to deliver and they dominated the narrative as best they could from a besieged position. Most notably, were the regulars appearances of Alan Lord (top), a convicted murderer, who quoted from official prison logs to establish their contempt for the system. He used the words of the authority against the authority. Writ large on chalkboards. All for the world’s media.
“Media Contact, Now”
The prisoners made requests for media contacts as mediators and guarantors. While the authorities slowly cut off food, water and limited them to the roof, and while protestors were picked off in ambushes, the prisoners still managed to dictate a public show on their terms.
Alan Lord got out in 2012. He now runs a gym in Greater Manchester. He was one of the key figures during the protest and negotiated with the authorities during the siege. When he was ambushed by a snatch squad, it was the beginning of the end for the protest. There’s a feature about Lord in the Manchester Evening News (MEN).
“It’s a tragedy that prisoners had to take that stance. But the warning signs had been there for decades. There were clear warnings within the prison system,” Lord told MEN. “It was an explosion waiting to happen. It could have happened in any prison but unfortunately it was Strangeways.”
He’s now writing a book Life in Strangeways: From Riots to Redemption about his 32 years inside.
Unfortunately, it seems the small gains made in the wake of the Wolff Report have evaporated. Lord Wolff said recently that conditions in Britain’s prisons are the same as 25 years ago.
“For a time after the riot, things were much better and numbers were going down. Unfortunately, prisoners are again being kept in conditions that we should not tolerate, they’re a long way from home and their families can’t keep in touch with them – a whole gamut of things that need to be done and that’s why I would welcome a thorough re-look at the situation and above all trying to take prisons out of politics.”
In November 2014, the prison population in England and Wales stood at 85,925 – close to the record – and it had one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, at 149 per 100,000 people.
For the best account of prisons during the past disastrous 25 years, read Sir David Ramsbotham’s Prisongate. Ramsbotham was the independently-appointed Chief Inspectorate of UK prisons (1995-2000). His findings were shocking and surprised many who were deep in the British culture of corrections — even in the wake of Strangeways.
A cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee recently voiced “grave concern” over increases in assaults on staff and prisners, suicides, self-harm and indiscipline in prisons between 2012 and 2014.
Wolff is calling for a new investigation into the state of the country’s prisons.
“People’s re-offending behaviour has not been tackled,” says Wolff. “You have to look at the problem holistically and that’s what I don’t think we’re doing and not making the matter a political football. The main political parties want to show the public they’re tough on crime because they believe that’s what the public wants.”
“There are things that are better now than then but I fear we’ve allowed ourselves to go backwards and we’re back where we were at the time of Strangeways,” said Wolff.
Meanwhile, “enjoy” these photographs.
10, 11, 12, 13 & 14. © Steve Davis.
TRY YOUTH AS YOUTH
Currently on show at David Weinberg Photography in Chicago is Try Youth As Youth (Feb 13th — May 9th), an exhibition of photographs and video that bear witness to children locked in American prisons. As the title would suggest, the exhibition has a stated political position — that no person under the aged of 18 should be tried as an adult in a U.S. court of law.
In the summer of 2014, selling works ceased to be David Weinberg Photography’s primary function. The gallery formally changed its mission and committed to shedding light on social justice.
Try Youth As Youth, curated by Meg Noe, was conceived of and put together in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Here’s art in a gallery not only reflecting society back at itself, but trying to shift its debate.
The issue is urgent. In the catalogue essay Using Science and Art to Reclaim Childhood in the Justice System, Diane Geraghty Professor of Law at Loyola University, Chicago notes:
Every state continues to permit youth under the age of 18 to be transferred to adult court for trial and sentencing. As a result, approximately 200,000 children annually are legally stripped of their childhood and assumed to be fully functional adults in the criminal justice system.
This has not always been the case in the U.S. It is only changes to law in the past few decades that have resulted in children facing abnormally long custodial sentences, Life Without Parole sentences and even (in some states) the death penalty. In the face of such dark forces, what else is art doing if it is not speaking truth to power and challenging systems that undermine democracy and our social contract?
Noe invited me to write some words for the Try Youth As Youth catalogue. Given Weinberg’s enlightened modus operandi, I was eager to contribute. Here, republished in full is that essay. It’s populated with installation shots, photographs by Steve Davis, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, and video-stills by Tirtza Even.
Scroll down for essay.
Image: Steve Liss. A young boy held and handcuffed in a juvenile detention facility, Laredo, Texas.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Image: Steve Liss. Paperwork for one boy awaiting a court appearance. How many of our young “criminals” are really children in distress? Three-quarters of children detained in the United States are being held for nonviolent offenses. And for many young people today, family relationships that once nurtured a smooth process of socialization are frequently tenuous and sometimes non-existent.
Try Youth As Youth Catalogue Essay
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?
Isolated in a cell, a child might wonder, “What am I doing here?” It is an immediate, obvious and crucial question and, yet, satisfactory answers are hard to come by. The causes of America’s perverse addiction to incarceration are complex. Let’s just say, for now, that the inequities, poverty, fears and class divisions that give rise to America’s thirst for imprisonment have existed in society longer than any child has. And, let’s just say, for now, that the complex web of factors contributing to a child’s imprisonment are larger than most children could be expected to understand on a first go around.
As understandable as it might be children in crisis to ask “What am I doing here?” it should not be expected. Instead, it is we, as adults, who should be expected to face the question. We should rephrase it and ask it of ourselves, and of society. What are WE doing here? What are we doing as voters in a society that locks up an estimated 65,000 children on any given night? In the face of decades of gross criminal justice policy and practice, what are we doing here, within these gallery walls, looking at pictures?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility, Albany, Oregon, by Richard Ross. “I’m from Portland. I’ve only been here 17 days. I’m in isolation. I’ve been in ICU for four days. I get out in one more day. During the day you’re not allowed to lay down. If they see you laying down, they take away your mattress. I’m in isolation ‘cause I got in a fight. I hit the staff while they were trying to break it up. They think I’m intimidating. I can’t go out into the day room; I have to stay in the cell. They release me for a shower. I’ve been here three times. I have a daughter, so I’m stressed. She’s six months old. At 12 I was caught stealing at Wal-Mart with my brother and sister. My sister ran away from home with a white dude. She was smoking weed, alcohol. When my sister left I was sort of alone…then my mother left with a new boyfriend, so my aunt had custody. She’s 34. My aunt smoked weed, snorts powder, does pills, lots of prescription stuff. I got sexual with a five-year-older boy, so I started running away. So I was basically grown when I was about 14. But I wasn’t doing meth. Then I stopped going to school and dropped out after 8th grade. Then I was in a parenting program for young mothers…then I left that, so they said I was endangering my baby. The people in the program were scared of me. I don’t know what to think. I was selling meth, crack, and powder when I was 15. I was Measure 11. I was with some other girls — they blamed the crime on me, and I took the charges because I was the youngest. They beat up this girl and stole from her, but I didn’t do it. But they charged me with assault and robbery too. This was my first heavy charge.” — K.Y., age 19.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
I have spent a good portion of the past six-and-a-half years trying to figure out just what it is that images of prisons and prisoners actually do. Who is their audience and what are their effects? If I thought answers were always to be couched in the language of social justice I was soon put right by Steve Davis during an interview in the autumn of 2008.
“People respond to these portraits for their own reasons,” said Davis. “A lot of the reasons have nothing to do with prisons or justice. Some people like pictures of handsome young boys — they like to see beautiful people, or vulnerable people, whatever. That started to blow my mind after a while.”
My interview with Davis was the first ever for the ongoing Prison Photography project. It blew my mind too, but in many ways it also prepared me for the contested visual territory within which sites of incarceration exist and into which I had embarked. Davis’ honesty prepared me to face uncomfortable truths and perversions of truth. It readied me for the skeevy power imbalances I’d observe time and time again in our criminal justice system.
The children in Try Youth As Youth may be, for the most part, invisible to society but they are not far away. “I was just acknowledging that this juvenile prison is 20 miles from my home,” says Davis of his earliest motivations. If you reside in an urban area, it is likely you live as near to a juvenile prison, too. Or closer.
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Image by Steve Davis. From the series ‘Captured Youth’
Prisoners, and surely child prisoners, make up one of society’s most vulnerable groups. Isn’t it strange then that rarely are they presented as such? Often depictions of prisoners serve to condemn them, but not here, in Try Youth As Youth.
As we celebrate the committed works of Steve Davis, Tirtza Even, Steve Liss and Richard Ross, we should bear in mind that other types of prison imagery are less sympathetic and that other viewers’ motives are not wed to the politics of social justice. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it’s a different thousand for everyone. We must be willing to fight and press the issue and advocate for child prisoners. Our mainstream media dominated by cliche, our news-cycles dominated by mugshots and the politics of fear, and our gallery-systems with a mandate to make profits will not always serve us. They may even do damage.
Image: Steve Davis. A girl incarcerated in Remann Hall, near Tacoma, Washington State.
Given that the works of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross circulate in a free-world that most of their subjects do not, it is all our responsibility to handle, contextualize and talk about these photographs and films in a way that serves the child subjects most. It is our responsibility to talk about economic inequality and about the have and have-nots.
“No child asks to be born into a neighborhood where you can get a gun as easily as a popsicle at the convenience store or giving up drugs means losing every one of your friends,” said Steve Liss “They were there [in jail] because there was no love, there was no nourishing, there was anger in startling doses, and there was poverty. Tremendous poverty.”
Image: Steve Liss. Alone and lonely, ten-year-old Christian, accused of ‘family violence’ as a result of a fight with an abusive older brother, sits in his cell.Every day the inmates get smaller, and more confused about what brought them here. Psychiatrists say children do not react to punishment in the same way as adults. They learn more about becoming criminals than they do about becoming citizens. And one night of loneliness can be enough to prove their suspicion that nobody cares.
Davis, Even, Liss and Ross understand the burden is upon us as a society to explain our widespread use of sophisticated and brutal prisons more than it is for any individual child to explain him or herself. The image of an incarcerated child is an image not of their failings, but of ours. We must do better — by providing quality pre and post-natal care for mothers and babies, nutritious food, livable wages for parents, and support and safety in the home and on the streets. Most often, it is a series of failures in the provision of these most basic needs that leads a child to prison.
“Poverty would be solved in two generations. It would require an enormous change in our priorities. Look at how we elevate the role of a stockbroker and denigrate the role of a school teacher or a parent, those who are responsible for raising the next generation of Americans,” says Liss.
(Top to Bottom) Installation shot; video still; and drawings from Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez’s Natural Life, 2014.
Tirtza Even & Ivan Martinez. Natural Life, 2014. Cast concrete (segment of installation). A cast of five sets of the standard issue bedding (a pillow, a bedroll) given to prisoners upon their arrival to the facility, are arranged on raw-steel pedestals in the area leading to the video projection. The sets, scaled down to kid size and made of a stack of crumbling and thin sheets of material resembling deposits of rock, are cast in concrete. Individually marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of each of the five prisoners featured in the documentary, they thus delineate the brief time the inmates spent in the free world.
Each of the artists in Try Youth As Youth have seen incredible deprivations inside facilities that do not — cannot — serve the needs of all the children they house. Ross speaks of a child who has never had a bedtime. A social worker once told Davis of one child in the system who had never seen or held a printed photograph.
Documenting these sites is not easy and brings with it huge responsibility. Tirtza Even has grappled with the weight of her work “and how much is expected from them is a little heavy.” In some cases, these artists are the outside voice for children. Liss acknowledges that expectations more often than not outweigh the actual effects their work can have.
“People ask how do you get close to kids in a facility like that. That isn’t the problem. The problem is how do you set up enough artificial barriers so you don’t get too close. So you’re not just one more adult walking out on them in the final analysis,” he says. “I, at least, convinced myself into thinking it was therapeutic for the kids. At least someone was listening to them.”
So far, the efforts of Davis, Even, Liss and Ross have been recognized by those in power. Liss’ work has been used to lobby for psych care and an adolescent treatment unit in Laredo, Texas. Ross’ work was used in a Senate subcommittee meeting that legislated at the federal level against detained pre-adjudicated juveniles with youth convicted of committed hard crimes.
“That’s a great thing for me to know that my work is being used for advocacy rather than the masturbatory art world that I grew up in,” says Ross.
Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, Wichita, Kansas, by Richard Ross. “Nobody comes to visit me here. Nobody. I have been here for eight months. My mom is being charged with aggravated prostitution. She had me have sex for money and give her the money. The money was for drugs and men. I was always trying to prove something to her…prove that I was worth something. Mom left me when I was four weeks old — abandoned me. There are no charges against me. I’m here because I am a material witness and I ran away a lot. There is a case against my pimp. He was my care worker when I was in a group home. They are scared I am going to run away and they need me for court. I love my mom more than anybody in the world. I was raised to believe you don’t walk away from a person so I try to fix her. When I was 12 my mom was charged with child endangerment. I’ve been in and out of foster homes. They put me in there when they went to my house and found no running water, no electricity. I ran away so much that they moved me from temporary to permanent JJA custody. I’m refusing all my visits because I am tired of being lied to.” — B.B., age 17.
Richard Ross’ works in the Try Youth As Youth exhibition at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
The walls of David Weinberg are not the end point of these works’ journey. An exhibition is not a triumph it is a call to action. The work begins now.
Programming during the exhibition — phone-ins to prison, discussions with ACLU lawyers and experts in the field, conversations with formerly incarcerated youth — will all direct us the right way. The gallery space works best when it sutures artists’ creative processes into a larger process that we can shape as socially informed citizens. Our process of building healthy society.
“Kids need us,” says Liss. “They need our time, they need our involvement, and they need our investment. If you own an automotive shop, open it up to kids and the community. It does take a community.”
There are a host of wonderful arts communities doing work, here in Chicago, around criminal justice reform and social equity — Project NIA, 96 Acres, AREA, Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, Lucky Pierre and Temporary Services to name a few.
The arts can trail-blaze the conversation we need to be having. Photography and film are the ammunition with which we arm our reform arguments. First we see, then we do. If art is not speaking truth to power, then really, what are we doing here?
Installation shot of Try Youth As Youth at David Weinberg Photography, Chicago.
David Weinberg Photography is at 300 W. Superior Street, Suite 203, Chicago, IL 60654. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Telephone: 312 529 5090.
Try Youth As Youth is on show until May 9th, 2015.
Text © Pete Brook / David Weinberg Photography.
Images: Courtesy of artists / David Weinberg Photography.
After stints at Haverford College, PA; Scripps, CA; and Rutgers, NJ, my first solo-curated effort Prison Obscura is all grown up and headed to New York.
It’ll be showing at Parsons The New School of Design February 5th – April 17th:
On Thursday, February 5th at 5:45 p.m, I’ll be doing a curator’s talk. The opening reception follows 6:30–8:30 p.m. It’d be great to see you there.
Here’s the Parsons blurb:
The works in Prison Obscura vary from aerial views of prison complexes to intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals. Artist Josh Begley and musician Paul Rucker use imaging technology to depict the sheer size of the prison industrial complex, which houses 2.3 million Americans in more than 6000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of $70 billion per year; Steve Davis led workshops for incarcerated juvenile in Washington State to reveal their daily lives; Kristen S. Wilkins collaborates with female prisoners on portraits with the aim to compete against the mugshots used for both news and entertainment in mainstream media; Robert Gumpert presents a nine-year project pairing portraits and audio recordings of prisoners from San Francisco jails; Mark Strandquist uses imagery to provide a window into the histories, realities and desires of some incarcerated Americans; and Alyse Emdur illuminates moments of self-representations with collected portraits of prisoners and their families taken in prison visiting rooms as well as her own photographs of murals in situ on visiting room walls, and a mural by members of the Restorative Justice and Mural Arts Programs at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, PA. Also, included are images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown v. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that which went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was ruled that every prisoner in the California State prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare.
Parsons has scheduled a grip of programming while the show is on the walls:
Mid-day discussion with curator Pete Brook and Tim Raphael, Director, The Center for Migration and the Global City, Rutgers University-Newark.
Wednesday, February 4, 12:00–1:30 p.m.
Co-hosted with the Humanities Action Lab.
These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice.
Friday, February 27, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Mark Strandquist.
Windows from Prison
Saturday, February 28
A workshop led by Mark Strandquist. More information about participation will be available on the website.
Visualizing Carceral Space
Thursday, March 12, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Josh Begley.
Please spread the word. Here’s a bunch of images for your use.
At The New School, Prison Obscura connects to Humanities Action Lab (HAL) Global Dialogues on Incarceration, an interdisciplinary hub that brings together a range of university-wide, national, and global partnerships to foster public engagement on America’s prison system.
Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
Xavier Randolph dances with his father Frank Randolph during a Hope House summer camp program for youth with imprison fathers at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD.
RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.
Raymond Thompson Jr. is a photographer, video journalist, educator and father.
In his Justice Undone Project, Thompson Jr. documents the leaching and negative effects of mass incarceration. He shows us how the poor are criminalised by society and kept down. He’s trying to get past stereotypes of Black America and does so by photographing the families and the communities outside of prison. So far, chapters of Justice Undone include A Dream Denied and The Browns.
Prisons touch nearly everyone in America’s poorest communities. One person’s imprisonment effects many others’ lives. The knock-on effects are profound. Locked up, exiled parents can mean extended family members are the primary care givers. Young children can lack a mother or a father or both for long periods. A child’s emotional and social development can be hampered and the incarceration of a parent vastly increases a child’s chances of being locked up later in life. The cycle continues.
In film, print and photography, America has a history of demonising young black men. In response, Thompson Jr. works to image all generations and races from America’s lower classes in an attempt to build empathy in his audience. So far, Thompson Jr.’s work has focused on African American communities but soon he is to venture into poor white communities in the Midwest, and to demonstrate that our broken criminal justice policies impact the poor. Prisons are a class issue just as much as they are a race issue.
The closer you look at the prison industrial complex, the better you understand society. Thompson Jr. is holding up a mirror in which we are all reflected. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about his photography.
[Click on any image to view it larger]
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): It seems your work on issues surrounding community, the war on drugs and incarceration is an ongoing endeavour. Is this the case? If so, tell us what you’re up to and what you’re working on now.
Raymond Thompson Jr. (RTJ): My project Justice Undone started as my master thesis while I was in graduate school in Austin, Texas. I originally intended only to do a story about the long term effects of incarceration on families and communities in East Austin, which is a predominantly African American and Latino part of the city. After I received a grant from the Alexia Foundation to continue the project, I expanded the project to Washington D.C and New Orleans.
In the 18 months since then, my wife and I had our first child and I took a job working as a video producer for West Virginia University. So, most of the last 18 months have been consumed with adjusting to life as a parent. The sleep deprived nights are decreasing. So, I’m slowly moving into the next stage of this project.
Even though I have never been incarcerated and my immediate family has not been directly affected by mass incarceration, I still feel a deep connection to the issue. I saw myself in the faces of the men, women and children navigating the prison system. Now with the birth of my son, I feel it is even more important.
There are several story angles in my project that still need covering. I’m currently in the process of researching and planning local Justice Undone stories for trip this fall and a trip to the midwest in the early spring. I’m currently based in West Virginia, which offers a chance to approach this work from beyond the lens of race and move it more towards class.
A boy stares though a window during a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) car wash fundraiser in Southeast Washington, D.C. Friends and Family of Incarcerated People, a non-profit based in Washington D.C., offers a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents and other children whose parents are absent.
Members of ‘Mix Emotion’ go-go band pray before a performance at a community gardening event in the Lincoln Heights area of Northeast Washington D.C. Lincoln Heights is a crime plagued area and has a large number of low-income residents.
Several D.C. teenagers relax and socialize during the Friends and Families of Incarcerate People annual retreat in outside Charlottesville, VA. The goal of the retreat is to give youth a chance to experience life outside of their depressed D.C. neighborhoods.
A child looks at a car that had been broken into the night before a Friends and Family of Incarcerated People (FFOIP) summer camp in Southeast Washington, D.C.
PP: When and how did you move toward your current political conscience?
RTJ: In the 1990s, I was a teenager living in the suburbs of Virginia outside of Washington D.C. I watched the War on Drugs rage on my television screen. It was in these moments that I started to feel something was wrong. But I was not equipped with the knowledge or maturity to understand what I was seeing. On my television screen, I watched images of black men and boys dead or being led away in handcuffs. These visual images negatively affected how I felt about myself and other African Americans. Part of the reason for working on Justice Undone is to heal myself and to start to reclaim the visual history of African Americans in the United States.
My political awareness stemmed from my undergraduate studies. I was an American Studies major with a concentration in human rights. In my course work, which spans from American literature and history to sociology, I learned to recognize the complex weave of racial, economic, and political threads that form the social blanket of America. But, what really set me on this path was a senior seminar on the American Prison Industrial Complex. That class expanded my thinking on the subject, which later became my intellectual basis for the project.
PP: How did you decide on strategies to talk about these issues with your photography?
RTJ: There have been so many images about prisons and about the War on Drugs. A lot of the pictures work to reinforce stereotypes about minorities as “The Other.” In the first part of this project, I focused on children and families left behind in mass incarceration’s wake. I felt I had to avoid images of black men in the beginning because I did not want viewers from outside of these communities to immediately write the project off. I needed those viewers to move beyond the stereotypes and to have a empathetic reaction, without relying too heavily on people being portrayed as victims. In the next stages, I will focus more on the men, who are actually directly affected by prison.
Many of the great documentary photographers of the past three decades have produced work that is great but also problematic because they reinforce stereotypical images of urban black life. One of those photography books I have on my bookshelves in Eugene Richard’s Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True. It is an important work, but if you don’t dive into Richard’s words that were published along with the images you can come away with a skewed meaning. It is this decontextualization that worries me.
My strategy to combat this decontextualization is to create images of black life that focuses on the everyday. By searching for images that show African Americans in the mundane ritual of daily life, I hope that people not directly affected by mass incarceration will be able to see themselves in the pictures the way I do, as an antidote to years of self-hate and willful ignorance.
The Booker T. Washington Public Housing complex, in Austin, Texas, is plagued by a revolving door of single-parent households and incarceration.
Nicholas Brown, 19, speaks with his girlfriend before leaving. He has a stained relationship with his mother Vicky who has spent the majority of his childhood away in prison and drug treatment institutions.
Marquis, 18, BB and Leroy Brown hangout on the front porch of Beverly Brown’s house in Austin.
Tyler Pippillion works on a math puzzle during a skills class at the African American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation, a non-profit in Austin, TX that works with at-risk minority youth.
PP: What are the main points you want to communicate in your work?
RTJ: The first thing I hope my audience gain from this project is that U.S. laws have been unequally enforced in poor minority communities. Second, I wanted to make understood that the large numbers of men and women cycling in and out of prison has an immeasurably negative effect on their communities. Finally, I want the audience to realize that the impact of incarceration is falling on small geographic areas within cities, because a large portion of these men and women are being taken from identified communities.
PP: Can you explain the title ‘Justice Undone’?
RTJ: I think that justice and fairness are central to the American ideology. If you follow the rules you will be rewarded. If you break them then you will be punished. For African Americans, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, was “justice” for generations of discrimination and abuse. But, the gains of the 1960’s were essentially rolled back by the War on Drugs, the tough-on-crime movement, three strikes laws, and drug sentencing laws, which unfairly fell on the shoulders of African American communities.
So the title is meant to reflect the havoc of three decades of drug policies and the resulting explosion of the U.S. prison population that has played a big role on the agency and self esteem of African Americans in the United States.
I wanted the title to reflect critically on the U.S. justice system, which has failed to protect its most vulnerable members. While I was writing and reporting for my masters thesis, I was inspired by the hip-hop song Tip The Scale from the Roots’ album Undun.
Lot of niggas go to prison
How many come out Malcolm X?
I know I’m not
Shit, can’t even talk about the rest
Famous last words: “You under arrest”
Will I get popped tonight? It’s anybody’s guess
I guess a nigga need to stay cunning
I guess when the cops comin’ need to start runnin’
I won’t make the same mistakes from my last run in
You either done doing crime now or you done in
I got a brother on the run and one in
Wrote me a letter, he said when you comin’
Shit man, I thought the goal’s to stay out
Back against the wall, then shoot your way out
Gettin’ money’s a style that never plays out
‘Til you end up boxin’ your stash, money’s paid out
The scales of justice ain’t equally weighed out
Only two ways out, digging tunnels or digging graves out
Through the lyrics of this song, I felt the frustration of many black men who have limited choices, but still must navigate the challenges of being a black male in the United States.
A boys listen to instructions on keeping a proper boxing guard during a rally to protest the shooting death of Almeded Bradley by an Austin Police Officer.
Boys play a game of basketball in the Booker T. Washington public housing complex, Austin, Texas.
Teenage boys play basketball at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Chelsea Shorts set up a studio in a shed in the backyard of her east Austin home. She uses the space to make clothes, draw and paint. The shed is a refuge from the crowded house that she shares with her parents, grandparents, cousins and one sibling. Chelsea biological father was incarcerated for most of her life.
Beverly Brown covers her eyes as she rest in her living room. Members of three different generation of her family have been incarcerated or had problems with drug addiction.
PP: Is there an easy way to describe the massive effect harsher sentencing and imprisonment has had on communities you’ve documented. How, in other words, do we put it into words?
RTJ:There is no simple way to discuss the topic because it is so complex.
A lot has been put in words, but I don’t know if we have reached the same level of understanding in the visual. Part of my goal is to reimagine the image of African Americans in Americans’ visual memory. These days there is always public outcry at any sort of overt racial discrimination in words, written or verbal. There is a bit of a lag in the public’s response to visual stereotypes of minorities. Responding to these stereotypes and creating what bell hooks, calls the “oppositional black aesthetic,” is a way that image makers can help challenge mainstream biases.
PP: What can we do as audiences to photography and as citizens to improve the situation?
RTJ: The next time they see a newspaper article or a television news report about a drug arrest or a drug sentencing I hope they start a conversation with a friend of family member about what is happening in their name as taxpayers. I want people to see beyond the individual situation and start to see the overarching pattern of crime, punishment, drugs, and incarceration in America.
PP: How do you describe photography’s role in relation to social justice?
RTJ: I don’t know if social justice can happen in a visual vacuum.
Photography’s first purpose is to pass information about an issue to an audience. Its second purpose is to move the social conversation past exposition. There are details in the everyday that offer unique paths to understanding.
PP: And empathy.
RTJ: From the expression of someone’s eyes, to the color of a summer dress, to the chaos of a kitchen before serving Thanksgiving dinner. It is in those common areas that we as human beings find ways to related to each other. Photography as a quasi universal medium is perfectly suited for this task.
PP: Thanks, Raymond. And thank you for your work and conscience.
RTJ: Thank you, Pete.
Chelsea Shorts walks alone railroad tracks in Austin, Texas. Shorts father was incarcerated for most of her life.
Raymond Thompson Jr. is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer based in Morgantown, WV. He currently works as a Multimedia Producer at West Virginia University. He received his Masters degree from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA is American Studies. He has worked as a multimedia photojournalist for the Door County Advocate, the Times of Northwest Indiana, the Kane County Chronicle, Times Community Newspapers and the Washington Times.
Children’s graffiti covers the walls of a cell at the Youth Study Center juvenile detention center in New Orleans, LA. The center serves as the pre-trial detention for youths charge with committing a delinquent offense.
Angel Gonzalez wears a stuffed animal throughout his day as part of parenting classes he is enrolled in at the prison. The stuffed animal will eventually go to his children, one of whom is tattooed on his arm. Snake River Correctional Institution, Oregon.
Beth Nakamura is a staff photographer with The Oregonian. In recent months, she and writer Bryan Denson have toured numerous Oregon state prisons with part of “an occasional series” on the Beaver State’s correctional landscape. Thus far, they’ve visited on Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Snake River Correctional Institution in Malheur County, Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla County, and Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. They’ll visit many more.
Denson and Nakamura have uncovered some mismanagement such as a medical records debacle, but generally the reporting has been neutral and non-too-critical. Just gaining access was a massive victory in and of itself.
OREGON’S PRISONS AND EVERYTHING BEFORE
During her visits to Oregon’s prisons, Beth has been acutely aware of her privileged access and responsibility to report faithfully. Often the word and meaning of “faithfully” is confused with “objectively” which is often interpreted as “robotically” or “without personal response,” almost. It is, however, impossible for anyone to be totally objective. Journalists included. I suspect many journalists deny the extent to which their emotional and human response to stories they cover shape the eventual reporting. When Beth and I chatted it became clear we were speaking to this tension between the professional and personal self.
“I feel like I have a right to my own story,” she says.
This Q&A is a long time in production. Beth and I have jointly edited it from a longer conversation. It’s meandering and there are some loose ends. It exists within the wider context of a changing media landscape and the growing expectations of journalists to report and produce 24/7.
With regards timing, it is a thoughtful release. Beth continues to photograph in Oregon prisons and wants to place her professional responsibilities within the context of her life’s experience dealing with all sides of, and many people within, the criminal justice system.
We talk about Oregon’s death row, Beth’s first visit inside a prison, upbringing, family members’ run-ins with the law, prison administrations’ reactions to journalists and, to end, we reflect upon a heartbreaking jail scene that photography simply could not do justice.
I have selected the images that smatter this interview from Beth’s vast portfolio.
Scroll down for our Q&A
A prisoner in minimum security watches television from his bunk, Snake River Correctional Institution.
Stacks of tooth paste in cell block 800, Josephine County Jail, Oregon. Josephine County Sheriff’s Office released 39 prisoners in May, 2012 week from the jail after people voted against a law enforcement property tax levy in a May primary. The measure would have funded the sheriff’s office, district attorney and juvenile justice program. The jail once housed several of the released prisoners, is now being used as an intake area.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): Beth, thanks for chatting with me. I got in touch with you soon after your photographs of Oregon’s “new and improved” execution facility were published in the Oregonian. That was a media tour at Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem, right?
Beth Nakamura (BN): Yes. The tour was in advance of Gary Haugen’s scheduled execution, which Governor Kitzhaber intervened and stopped. Kitzhaber is a physician, so here’s a Hippocratic oath guy in office “presiding” over executions. I imagine there was some moral wrestling going on. The execution was indefinitely postponed — against Haugen’s wishes.
PP: Kitzhaber called the death penalty “morally wrong and unjustly administered.”
BN: Yes, but before that happened I toured the chamber. The tour was strangely performative and austere.
PP: The images seemed anemic. The space, flat and deadened.
BN: The warden sat media from around the state and from his podium in a little room *walked us through* exactly what was going to happen during the execution — everything leading up to it, during, and after.
Then we took the tour. “… then we place the bottles on the aluminum table … then we walk to the …” Every step was accounted for. It was one of the most riveting hours of my career. Everything that was described and presented was so ritualized. It had a sterilizing effect. But also consider they hadn’t executed anyone in 16 years. It felt to me like them saying “we got this” and being officious about it, but I have no idea, really.
PP: Sounds akin to the freaky re-reenactment that Werner Herzog specializes in? How many members of the press were there?
BN: Probably ten. Approximately.
PP: You’ve photographed a quilting workshop at Coffee Creek?
BN: The coordinators of the workshop asked me to photograph. Being a freelance photographer and not a journalist, in this instance, was a whole different experience. Much warmer. I was just with them. And once you take off the journalist hat, it’s disarming for the authorities.
PP: Are Oregon prison authorities suspicious of journalists?
BN: I’m not sure suspicious is the right word. I will say the Oregonian has a fine tooth-comb and they know how to use it. That would make anyone guarded, right? A lot of the DOC’s concerns have to do with security, and with pictures revealing too much. Like the concertina wire, stuff like that. It isn’t stuff we tend to consider as photographers. To them it’s a big deal.
PP: Coffee Creek was where the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2012. It’s my impression that the Coffee Creek administration has been doing it’s best to promote a much improved public presentation of itself. For example, a Kaiser sponsored program is funding an organic garden that went into the center of the yard. They tore up hundreds of square feet of concrete. Diabetes is down, violence is down.
BN: Great program.
PP: Have your attitudes toward jails and prisons remained the same over your career?
BN: I’m 51 years old now! With any luck I have a little bit of a wider worldview and insight into all the different layers that are a part of any system. In my career, I’ve had a lot of dealings with beat cops, sheriffs, lawyers — everyone that’s in all the legal layers as you move outward from the prison cell. I see that it’s complex … but it’s always been complex for me, though.
PP: Why is that?
BN: I grew up in a very gritty little town in New England where it was not uncommon that someone would end up in jail. Mostly, people didn’t get caught, but every once in a while someone would get caught and they would end up in jail.
Convicted killer Dana Ray Edmonds, 32, shown in prison with his lawyer the day before he was executed in Virginia. He was the first person in the state to be exectuted by lethal injection. Edmonds murdered a grocery store owner by smashing a brick into his head and thrusting a knife into his throat. He lost last-minute appeals to both the Virginia governor and the U.S. Supreme Court. His final words: “No one can take me from this earth, and I forgive everyone here.”
PP: Was it in your personal life or your professional life you first stepped inside a jail?
BN: Professional. It was a Massachusetts Correctional Institution. Maybe Shirley or Framingham? I was working for a tiny local paper. I don’t even remember the news story.
PP: Describe the experience.
BN: I remember the administration was heavy-handed. I’ll use the word indoctrination, because it really did feel like that. They delivered a weird, scared straight narration. I don’t know if the guard did it all the time or if he preached in order to protect us *little neophyte-media-types*! They’re presuming I’m some upstanding person. It’s like I crossed over.
PP: From your tough upbringing to respected professional? As it is perceived by society?
BN: Yes. I’m crossing over but when you do that you never quite fit in any world anymore.
PP: The position of many journalists, some might say?
BN: Maybe. But they’re saying, “Don’t look them in the eye, don’t do this, don’t do that.” The assumption is that I am somehow different from the people in the cells.
Anyway, we get into the prison area and the first thing that happens is someone calls out my name. “Beth.” I turn around and it was Patrick, an old friend.
“Patrick, what the hell are you doing here?” I asked.
Whatever wall the prison staff had tried to erect around me just completely collapsed in that instant. He was in there for a bunch of nothing — many little things. And that’s what a lot of them, in my experience, have done. Parole violations, driving with no license, petty theft.
I don’t remember so much about how I handled the establishment that day but I remember talking to Patrick distinctly. I was in the vortex of these worlds just swirling in me and around me. I looked at Patrick (and I was close) but he just completely went blurry. It was like I was in a dream. I couldn’t carry everything that was happening. I was just happy to see my old friend, Patrick Beaudette.
It was the late 80s. I recently looked him up. He died. What happened to Patrick happened to so many. He must have died in his forties.
Cafeteria and visiting area at Columbia River Correction Institution, which is minimum security, and tries to create a smooth transitions for prisoners before reentering the community.
Jayson Alderman, Ken Strand and Ralph Kautz participate in Moral Recognition Therapy while incarcerated at Columbia River Correctional Institution. The therapy attempts to teach cognitive restructuring habits, or a kind of rewiring of the mind, to the prisoners.
A large mural, painted entirely by inmates, lines a wall of offices at the entrance to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
PP: The 80s were the start of mass incarceration in America. What’s your position on prisons and incarceration, now?
BN: My brother was in in prison. He’d never looked better! He looked clean.
I know there are some really bad people who are better off in prison. I don’t have the instant liberal-Portland empathy for anyone who walks through those prison doors because I also know those people have probably crushed a lot of hearts while outside of that cell. So, I’m not all softy, but at the same time I think a lot of people are in prison for drug addiction and for mental health reasons. These individuals are in the midst of correctional systems that are, now, our de facto mental health institutions.
PP: Hospitals replaced by prisons.
BN: It’s a tragedy. That is an injustice. I don’t pretend to know how to fix it but that’s what they’ve become. A lot of times it starts with people (self) medicating over a diagnosis and creating problems for themselves, compounding problems. One thing leads to another and, however many problems later, they wind up incarcerated.
Some can’t get clean on their own so they are forcibly cleaned up. Sometimes that works. I don’t have a black and white opinion about people being incarcerated but I do feel prisons have become de facto mental health institutions and that’s wrong.
Most of the women I’ve met are locked up for drugs. A lot of the players are male and they’ve got younger girlfriends. You see that dynamic writ large and small all the time, and see how women are involved.
A housing unit inside Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland, Sept. 11, 2014.
Prisoners work as operators at a call center in Snake River Correctional Instituion. Perry Johnson Inc., a south Michigan based consulting firm has employed SRCI prisoners for over a decade. Little has been published online about the SRCI call center in recent years. Here’s a 2004 article about it.
Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, OR, is host to a jeans factory . The business is called Prison Blues.
PP: How does news photography play a role? If prisons are de facto mental health institutions and incapacitate a lot of addicts then maybe prisons aren’t the best place for those groups? Does news photography serve to inform citizens about that?
BN: Not anywhere near enough. I don’t think journalism is doing enough. Journalism can apply pressure in high places and accomplish all kinds of things. But, I see so much documentary photography. It would be much more interesting to me to hear stories from their own mouths and see stories made by prisoners’ own hands; stories not filtered by photojournalists. It’d be more powerful. What do you think?
PP: You’ve got me at a moment right now I’m harboring strategic reservations toward documentary. I’m consciously looking elsewhere so I’m sympathetic to your point. Maybe once I’ve interrogated those other genres or forms or methodologies, then I’ll swing back the other way? If a photographer is invited into a prison, it’s not like they’re doing an exposé. They’ve been invited so with that is a valid argument that they’re an extension of the prison’s power. Well then, for us, it’s incumbent to look elsewhere.
PP: I think it’s the case that photography is not the medium that prison programs use for prisoners to tell their own stories. They use art, painting, creative writing and in some cases they use voice and audio recordings. But photography causes all sorts of problems. A camera is a security threat.
PP: Why do you think journalism isn’t doing enough?
BN: One: It’s a resource thing. Two: These are complex issues that are harder to make a clear narrative out of.
When you look at any (crime) story in depth, often there’s no clear bad guy or clear good guy. There are complex histories, many characters. For journalists, those types of stories are doable and they’re more effective, but they require a lot more resources and higher skill.
What do people want from journalism? That question has got to play into this conversation. In the news, stories about the public school district, whether the streets are being fixed, will likely interest more people.
Inside Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
Vance Lee Moody, left, John William Belcher and William Harley Dugger participate in group programs held for inmates at Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland on Sept. 11, 2014.
A prisoner looks over a workbook during a group session on Sept. 11, 2014, at Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. Prisoners attend cognitive restructuring group programs while incarcerated at the facility.
BN: Stories about people locked up for crimes, whatever the reason and however complicated and however frayed the threads are that got them there, people may just be closed off or uninterested. We can be very emotional and very dogmatic, too. How do you break through the “lock them up and throw away the key” attitude?
PP: For me some of the most interesting photojournalist bodies of work have been when there’s been tension between the rank-and-file and the administration or between the administration and the politicians.
PP: When there is an internal power play and political battle staff of administrations can think, “If we bring press in here then we’ll stoke up some public opinion and force our position.”
BN: If journalists get that window and seize it, they can certainly get a little more done. I mean I’ve been in prisons where your every move is watched and it’s almost impossible.
I love documentary photography, but it doesn’t feel personal to me enough when I think of prisoners I’ve known. I think the narrative is too complex for the typical news photography frame. I don’t know if photography in that mode even hints at who those prisoners really are. I guess I have a preference for other forms or approaches sometimes. I say that with all due respect.
PP: I agree with you. A lot of the time news photography is an illustration (often a silhouette) of Patrick or any prisoner as that body out in the prison uniform, out in the yard. Perhaps with a receding chain link fence.
BN: Years ago when I worked with that same little Massachusetts paper there was news of a person from that area who was shot and killed in a drug-related shootout in Dallas, Texas and his name was Tommy Tito. I knew Tommy growing up. He ended up in Dallas. “He got out!” was my first reaction. But he got killed in a drug deal gone bad. It was terrible but it didn’t shock me. Reporters searched out Tommy in a yearbook. That’s what they reduced the visuals of his story to. I kissed him under the boardwalk and we held hands. Did I tell my colleagues? No. What I brought to Tommy’s story was as limited as what they were bringing.
PP: Facts not stories?
BN: Most of news is just quick and dirty. Experiencing things from the other side you see how narrow and incomplete news can be. A quick pass. Does that fulfill the function of the higher calling of journalism? Not even close. And I’m as guilty as anybody, or even more so.
BN: I cover people with way more issues than I ever had. I’m no sob story. I go into communities and bring it on a professional level. It’s entirely possible they feel something more coming from me, on a purely energetic level, but I don’t tell them my story. I am basically a bartender. I listen to them and I am witness to them.”
PP: Don’t presume you hover above society so you can frame it, you’re in it.
BN: I’m deep in it. My mother was a single mom, a waitress, and a high school dropout. So I go into situations where I probably have a little more understanding. It’s important to have people in journalism, in whatever form they practice, who get that and I worry that increasingly that will just not be the case. I mean if you can afford to practice journalism, if you have the right pedigree, if you code, which is largely a male pursuit, then you’re already separated by class. The days of the copy boy going up the ranks are long gone.
PP: When you accepted my invitation to talk you said out conversation might be “instructive.’ What did you mean?
BN: I guess it would be good for people in my life, in my work life and colleagues to know a little bit more about me, to close the gap a little. A lot of people ask how I get access or how I’m able to talk to people. The truth is, on some level, I guess I do show myself. But I’m not really comfortable with emerging like this; it feels really uncomfortable. But also it feels right.
PP: You don’t see the necessity for journalists to always don the objective cap.
BN: Well, I feel like I have a right to my own story. It’s mine and I own it. And I want to honor the people that loved me and deserve to be known. That’s what I try to do in the better journalism I make. I try to just see people, and by working in a mainstream publication I can somehow legitimize them or help them to feel heard. It’s a really important function of the media and I think maybe I’ve gone a little further to bring that to my subjects and to the readers.
Rose City Graphics, located inside Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland. Prisoners are able to learn photoshop and several other skills while incarcerated in the facility.
The recreation yard at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland.
PP: Can I ask how your brother’s doing?
BN: I’ve gone to visit my brother in jail not even knowing what he was in there for! If the average person in journalism encountered me in line waiting to see a sibling and I said,” I don’t know what he’s in for,” they’d think I was out of my mind. Red flag! But when you’re slogging in it and it’s just one thing after another, a million small things and there’s a lot of alcohol and drugs involved and, bottom line, what does it matter what he’s in for? Does he have a court date? Really I’m here for my mother, on and on.
We were out of touch for long periods. I found something online stating in 2008 he was arrested for attacking a person — someone over 60 years old — with a 3-foot metal pipe. He was held for bail and it was the little arrest notice in the paper I found.
He was an amazing guy in his earlier years — very handsome, very smart, an excellent football player — scouted by the New England Patriots, actually. He was heroic to me. He was my older brother. My mother had children from different situations. He was my oldest brother from a marriage my mother had before my father. He became a vicious alcoholic, which devolved into using whatever he could get his hands on. At this point though, he’s almost mythologized. It’s just tragic.
George Dee Moon, an inmate at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in North Portland, takes in the sunlight after getting his hair braided by fellow inmate Edward Martin in the recreation yard.
Snake River Correctional Institution houses a hospice program inside the infirmary, shown here. The concrete walls were painted over by inmates and feature scenic landscapes.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
BN: Yes, I just recalled a moment I witnessed recently, an incredible scene, pregnant with emotion, and it said a lot about our inability to communicate such unique experiences to readers. You, know, really crucial and telling moments that hit you hard and say everything so instantly, poignantly.
PP: Better than any words or pictures?
BN: I witnessed an intake of a young woman in Polk County. I was on a ride a long with the police and they delivered a suspect to the jail after a multi-vehicle car chase, so I was there at the jail with the officers when they took the guy to jail. A female sheriff’s deputy sits behind the counter. The young girl approaches the counter. She’s waif-like. 18 or 19 years old.
I’m in with the sheriff’s deputies behind the counter and the woman, the female sheriff’s deputy, is asking her the mandatory series of questions. The answers, the voices, the tap of the keyboard recording the information, which is incredibly personal, but it’s a routine deputies go through everyday and it quickly becomes like a drone, dulled.
“Do you have any illnesses?”
“Well I’m pregnant.”
“Are you on medication,” asked the deputy. To which the girl made no eye contact.
“Are you taking any medications?”
“No I do not. I’m on pre-natal vitamins.”
“Do you have any mental illness, any diagnoses we need to know about?”
“No, but, well, my mother just died so I’m sad about that.”
It was just this incredible encounter that was so alive and yet so dulled in that context. I’m looking at the girl as it’s unfolding before me and I feel a little bit like I’m violating her, you know? I’m behind that counter and she’s spilling. I turned around; it was the least I could do to give her some semblance of privacy where there is none.
But then! When I turn around there’s a screen tiled with nine smaller squares running images from cameras inside those cells.
The sensory experience becomes the voice of this fragile waif-like girl and her tragic details prompted by the drone of the female deputy. The visual is nine miniature feeds of male prisoners. One guy is pent up in his cell, pacing like a zoo animal. I think there was meth involved. Mental illness covered with meth, covered with some public act of something that landed him in there for something. Next to him on the screen is the guy they just threw in there who’s sitting on the toilet with two fingers up his asshole trying to get his drugs up out of there. The sheriff’s deputies could care less because they’ve got him; he’s gone for ten to fifteen. Let him flush his drugs.
It was a collage of the most dramatic acts playing to the audio of this young pregnant 19 year-old girl’s story. I’d have loved nothing more than to just press record on those screens and get that audio. That’s how I experienced it and it’s not a single picture. And words don’t come close to describing the experience as it unfolded.
There’s so much happening in the low hum of those little rooms. Below the surface, behind those walls, it’s so very dramatic. But photography remains at the surface.
PP: I wonder what happened to her?
BN: After the questions, she went for her booking photograph. Last I saw, she was posing for the picture, a faint smile on her face.
PP: Thanks Beth.
BN: Thank you, Pete
A prisoner sleeps during the day inside the minimum security section of Two Rivers Correctional Institution, June 1, 2014.
Old jail cells are no longer operable inside the 103-year-old Multnomah County Courthouse, which is in need of upgrades. Portland, Oregon, Oct 9, 2012
BIOGRAPHY AND SOCIAL MEDIAS
Beth Nakamura is an Emmy nominated visual journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been recognized by POYi, Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Photographers Association, National Black Journalists Association, and many others.
He went back every year for four years. Between 2007-2010, photojournalist Louie Palu made six trips to Guantanamo. Not quite a compulsion, but more of a requirement, Palu had to go. He’d photographed in Afghanistan and it made sense that he’d take opportunities to document America’s chosen *homeland* site for its Global War On Terror (GWOT). Guantanamo is another piece in the puzzling puzzle of war against an expanding list of enemies. It is more contained and less flash-bang than any theater of war, but no less violent. Inside Gitmo, coercion and so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques do the damage, replacing mortars and EIDs.
Why did Palu go? We know Guantanamo is so controlled that a photographer’s work is compromised. And yet, he returned time and time again. Perhaps he though he’d be the one reporter who’d see the nugget, catch the frame and get out of there with the shot? Not so. After every visit, all photographers are required to hand over their DSLRs. A member of the Joint Task Force will look over all images and delete any that don’t meet military rules. The photographer is given forms with each digital file number listed individually. The procedure is called an “Operational Security Review.”
Palu’s latest publication GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is a 24-page conceptual newsprint publication. It combines his Gitmo images with scans of the official forms. It is available at Photoeye Books.
GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is abstract, elusive and slippery … which I think is the point. I asked Palu a few questions about it.
Scroll down for our Q&A
[Click any image to see it larger]
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you ever want to go to Guantanamo?
Louie Palu (LP): The detention center at Guantanamo Bay is one of the most infamous results of the “War on Terror” — the most internationally known detention facility of our time. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between history, political events and the human experience. Especially, I am engaged by events or issues that define our time politically.
9-11 and Guantanamo will forever be connected. I am also fascinated by the legal and morale paradox that Gitmo, as it is known, represents in the face of the U.S. Constitution with regards to detaining people indefinitely without trial.
PP: You went many times. Why stop?
LP: Relatively speaking the access went from good, to getting better, to very poor and finally I gave up. I follow Carole Rosenberg’s reporting in the Miami Herald, she is perhaps the best source of reporting on Gitmo there is.
LP: In a recent report she did, it seems the current military public affairs unit there has become exceptionally difficult to work with. I would like to go again, but it looks impossible to work there right now.
Normally each trip lasts four-days.
Day 1: Fly in and get settled. Day 2: Tour various parts of the detention center. At the end of each day everyone goes through what’s called an “Operational Security Review”, also known as an OPSEC Review. In my case as a photographer this involves the deleting of certain photographs right off my memory cards. Basically anything that reveals security features of the prison or direct frontal views of the detainees faces is deleted. Day 3: More touring the facility and more photography and one more OPSEC Review. Day 4. Fly home.
I did do two special photo tours years ago. Most tours have writers as part of the tour group and you can spend hours in areas of no interest to photographers. One of these special photo tours in particular was I think the best access ever for a civilian photojournalist. I think I hold the record for longest OPSEC Review ever, it was an all-nighter! I don’t think they’ll give a tour like that ever again and a number of areas in the prison are now closed and access to the detainees is very limited and basically everyone gets the same photographs now.
PP: You’re a wisened, experienced photojournalist. What did you expect from Gitmo? What did you get?
LP: I try not to expect anything from any assignment, subject or project except that I will do my best and that I am personally engaged in the subject matter. Beyond that, I hoped to make pictures that would last as documents to an important subject in our history.
I think that the manner in which we are forced to take pictures with extreme control should be a part of the history. The control on how I took pictures and the limited access made the images and approach unique. That is what my concept newspaper is partly about.
PP: We’ve stopped taking about Guantanamo ever since we realized Obama couldn’t/wouldn’t close it down. Why is that? Where does it leave your work?
LP: When you say “we” I would take that as mostly the general public, many journalists keep talking about Gitmo and it’s impact and implications. Though relatively speaking I agree people seem to have disengaged from the issue.
However, we have to understand that Guantanamo Bay is a recruiting poster for many extremists and terrorists and it will continue to be especially while it is open. Take for example the video ISIS (aka ISIL, IS) made of journalists they are executing in Iraq/Syria. The journalists are on their knees in orange jumpsuits. In my mind it’s a copy of the same imagery of the first images released by the U.S. government of detainees in Guantanamo in orange jumpsuits right after 9/11. The image the detention center at Guantanamo Bay paints of America goes against every value the United States stands for in my opinion. So long as the detention center at Guantanamo remains open and the detainees are not given a trial, the United States will have a hard time holding any moral high ground on human rights. It makes it a very serious issue to continue to try and find a solution to. If I interest only a handful of people to keep talking about it I did my job.
The reason I think that we stopped talking about Gitmo is also limited access to the detainees by journalists being one reason and right now there is no shortage wars and disasters of all kinds to deal with, plenty of “fog of war” to keep us off the issue that challenges one of the core value systems of the United States, which is the constitution.
The eyes of history will judge my work years from now. For now, I am satisfied to have published the work and kept the issue in the public’s eye, no matter how small a contribution I have made. From the point of view of a photojournalist the newspaper is a part of that.
PP: Briefly, tell us about your decision to go with a newspaper format to publish the work from Guantanamo.
LP: Well, I had a fellowship with a think tank in Washington DC called the New America Foundation, which involved covering the Mexican drug war. I created a concept newspaper called Mira Mexico. I created it so you could take it apart and re-edit the order of the pictures and also hang it as an exhibition. It was meant to directly engage the viewer to understand how our images are controlled by governments and the media. It’s about the manipulation and our perception of an issue. It’s explained in this video.
Creating an object as something that goes beyond the news cycle is important to continue to engage the public in on important issues. The newspaper format is important in challenging not only traditional formats of news, but also the manner in which we consume information and the platforms we see them in. You can also hang it as an exhibition as each spread is a poster and you can turn it into an educational lesson in editing or controlling pictures. GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review is the part two to my first concept newspaper on Mexico. I am also making a statement in making a newspaper in which the only content is Guantanamo Bay. No advertising or competing content. I edited out every other story.
PP: What do you hope people take away from GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review?
LP: Well the project has a two-fold purpose. One, obviously it is meant as an artist’s concept fused with journalism to continue to engage the public in a dialogue on the issue. Second, it is meant to challenge the modes in which we are delivered our content and who the gate-keepers are to our news. We need to always ask, who are the editors, curators and or censors we don’t see or ask enough about that shape the way we understand the world through photographs?
I am about to go on a workshop/lecture tour through universities in Canada and the U.S. just as I did with the Mira Mexico newspaper. I’ll be using GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review in classes teaching visual literacy to students. It will be a workshop format where students will each have a copy of the newspaper and re-edit and present to the class why they selected the images they did on Guantanamo. I think empowering young minds to understand how their opinions are manipulated by the use or misuse of photographs is critical to our future.
PP: How does GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review relate to your other bodies of work and areas of interest?
LP: I try to create multi-platform uses for my work and always engage a topic over a long period of time, and usually beyond any news-cycle. My average project lasts between 3-5 years. My first one lasted 15-years. But that won’t happen again!
PP: You must have looked at plenty of other photographer’s work on Gitmo. Who else has done it well?
LP: Actually, I haven’t! I have seen a handful of wire photos from there that are not my style of work, but gives a base of understanding of how news photographers have had to work there. I also have seen numerous art based documentary photographers do bodies of work there, in the end they have all taken many of the same photographs because of the strict control over access. I don’t think anyone has done it “well” including myself since the access is so controlled and photos are deleted. There are sections of the newspaper that deals directly with that issue — the *age of extreme image control* is one of the main layers of meaning in the newspaper. The newspaper is, an object and document that says my access and images were controlled on this issue.
I can’t show you how Guantanmo really is. However, with the newspaper maybe I can show you how it was for me. That is why I created it.
PP: Have you any thoughts (regarding visibility, perhaps?) about how Guantanamo relates to America’s extrajudicial prisons around the globe?
LP: Digital photography is a blessing and a curse. Media campaigns and disinformation operations are easier now than ever. The newspaper is also about photojournalism. You know photojournalists control what we see as well, editing can be seen as censorship by some media critics.
Let me explain, it’s about interpretation of what we are doing, right? If I take 1000 photographs on assignment and I edit only 15 for you to see, what do you call that editing or censorship? This newspaper questions photojournalism as a whole and everyone involved in it including me.
PP: How will Guantanamo end?
LP: I don’t know how Guantanamo will end. Even if it does end as a physical structure, it has become visually symbolic for extremists, they have turned government released visuals linked to the detention center into a disturbing propaganda tool. Events and places like the detention center at Gitmo are never looked at very kindly through the eyes of history.
PP: Thanks, Louie.
LP: Thank you, Pete.
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