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Inside the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution, Nakamura photographed the Blue Room, a space in which prisoners watch videos of nature. Nakamura’s photographs and Denson’s words is the first news reporting on this fringe behavioural management method.
Firstly, why does the Blue Room exist? Prisoners in solitary are completely deprived of nature. In the IMU at Snake River, they are locked in their cell for 23 hours and 20 minutes every day. Prisoners’ only time outside of their windowless cell is 40 minutes in a concrete pen with high walls and a metal grate between they and the sky. IMU, the hole, SHU, the cooler, the box, solitary, call it what you like, extreme isolation makes men mad. Solitary is psychological torture. Neuroscience proves as much. Solitary is deprivation made physical.
The working hypothesis of the Blue Room is that exposure to video recorded scenes of nature will calm prisoners. It began operation in April 2013.
Let’s just pause right there and consider what is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged. The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.
There are many employees of the state — such as Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU at Snake River — who acknowledge that solitary destroys one’s sense of self. In his article, Denson quotes Gilbertson:
“I’ve seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they’ll almost appear to be completely normal,” Gilbertson said. “After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them.”
Nearly two-thirds of the 200+ men in Snake River’s IMU suffer moderate to severe mental illness. Solitary makes them more prone to violence.
In the past 25 years, states across the U.S. have built, staffed and populated Supermax prisons that specialise in abuse. Once in operation, even well-meaning employees and mental health care-givers can’t change the structure therein; their primary function is to limit the damage of the rigid, brutalising environment.
If we really wanted to provide prisoners with some nature, we could open a gate and let them go sit out in the yard for the afternoon! Put a window in their cell?! Give them exercise options beyond the standard “dog-pen.” But no. From within a carceral logic that says controlled bodies stay within the walls, ludicrous makeshift responses such as the Blue Room emerge.
When I first learned of the Blue Room’s existence, I immediately thought to the scene from the film A Clockwork Orange in which the character Alex has his eyes pinned open and is forced to view “scenes of ultra-violence.” The notion that psychological ills can be rectified by the sights and sounds of projected montages, for me, is the domain of fiction. What would Stanley Kubrick make of this private screening room? Or Anthony Burgess, for that matter? Would they conclude that Snake River prison is as dystopic as the near-future-Britain they created in novel and cinema?
Film still, from A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick.
My first question about the Blue Room is not does it work? Rather, I have to wonder, why does it need to exist? What conditions of social order and disciplinary regime give rise to its “need” and justification?
The Blue Room is a pilot program drawing upon lesser-tested theories in eco-psychology. Denson explains that it came into being through a series of conversations.
In a 2010 TED talk, biologist Nalini Nadkarni talked generally about how nature can be used to rehabilitate and prisoners with jobs skills. At the time, I thought Nadkarni’s implementation of programs to identify moss species and raise endangered frogs as part of the Prison Sustainability Project was fantastic. I still do. Laudable initiatives. (I’ve talked about Nadkarni-started projects here and here on the blog before).
During her TED talk, Nadkarni mentioned she was thinking about installing large-scale murals of nature in the Supermax facilities of Washington. The Washington DOC was supportive but the correctional officers were opposed and the idea was shelved. Then, in late 2012, a Snake River corrections officer named Kevin Karpati watched the TED talk. Karpati emailed the link to Mark Nooth, the prison’s superintendent. Nooth, in turn, emailed the link to Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU. Gilbertson contacted Nadkarni and asked if it could work.
This is where I wish to acknowledge that the people involved in instituting the Blue Room are making — from within a very restrictive law enforcement environment — efforts to improve the lot of prisoners. They have initiated the Blue Room as a response to severe deficiencies in the system. They cannot change the penal codes and administrative laws, but they can change the available practices within the walls. The Blue Room is an attempt to restore positive sensory input within a facility that routinely denies such inputs.
Nadkarni said she hoped it would work but had no evidence. All agreed that the only way to know was to test the hypothesis. An interior exercise room was converted to a screening room with projector and two chairs.
Nadkarni, along with National Gepgraphic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.
[Previously, I've written about bibliotherapy (the calculated use of reading lists to spur prisoners' self-directed correction of "deviance") in San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. The videotherapy at play in the Blue Room could be interpreted as a modern day equivalent. Words replaced by images?]
Denson reports that early anecdotes and observations suggest that the Blue Room can have a calming effect. “Lance Schnacker, a researcher for the Oregon Youth Authority, studied the disciplinary records of Snake River’s IMU inmates in the year before, and the year after, the Blue Room opened,” writes Denson. “He calculated that those who didn’t get the unique therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a slight dip. Schnacker cautioned that these data were preliminary, but promising.”
Should we be surprised? Give prisoners any small amount of added agency and the opportunity to take-in stimulus that breaks the norm and the monotony then, I’d argue, we would observe a change in behaviour. And most likely, toward the positive. Again, I am left to wonder why prison administrations are initiating small-scale projects such as the Blue Room, instead of taking a step back and recognising that the institutional logic which returns to solitary time-and-time again is the more fundamental issue to address.
Nadkarni, Thys, Schnacker and eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach are set work with Snake River staffers to observe prisoners, conduct surveys and correlate results to existing mental health files. They hope to be able to determine to what degree exactly the Blue Room calms prisoners.
However, determining whether the Blue Room does or does not reduce suicidal or violent tendencies is a red herring. The study misses the point. Whether prisoners see 20-minute long reels of guppy fish and seaweed, or not, doesn’t alter the fact that solitary confinement makes people lose their minds. Why are we interested in mitigating the effects of a barbarous facility when we should be dismantling the walls of the facility altogether?
All images: Beth Nakamura
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.
Photo: Bob Schutz. Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people.
Last week marked the 43rd anniversary of the historic Attica Rebellion. In conjunction with the anniversary, Critical Resistance New York City (CRNYC) has launched the Attica Interview Project, to support prison closure organizing in New York. CRNYC is looking for people with personal archives stories and will collect and facilitate oral history, video and audio recordings, and still images.
CRNYC’s documentation is grounded in a philosophy of self-representation.
“People who participate determine how and when they are photographed and recorded,” says a CRNYC statement. “We strive to represent interview participants not as victims, but as agents of social change struggling individually and collectively to improve their lives and conditions.”
ATTICA INTERVIEW PROJECT
Bryan Welton, a member with Critical Resistance New York City wrote:
At the time of the rebellion, the US prison population was less than 200,000. On the fourth day of the prisoner-led takeover of Attica, September 13th, 1971, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller deployed New York State Troopers to set murderous siege on the prison. A campaign of sustained terror and repression to restore the power of guards and administrators at Attica followed. The systematic attack against the gains won by struggles inside and outside prison walls, which nourished the spirit of revolt in Attica and the broader prisoner movement of the period, parallels the rise of the prison industrial complex to where we stand today. Few people then imagined that the imprisoned population in the US would explode to 2.4 million.
The Attica Rebellion developed not only in response to conditions of dehumanizing racism and violence in the prison, but was strengthened by the confluence of imprisoned revolutionaries from Black liberation, Native and Puerto Rican anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements. The demands articulated by the Attica Liberation Faction unleashed an abolitionist imagination that continues to propel prisoner-led struggles up to today. Through oral history, the project seeks to document the legacy of repression, survival and resistance at Attica, while using material to shape a broader narrative about the PIC and abolition and fuel ongoing demands to close Attica.
Supported by sentencing reforms won through organized opposition to the Rockefeller Drug Laws and fights over deadly conditions in New York prisons and jails, prison populations in New York have decreased by 15,000 people since 2000. This decrease combined with the costs of maintaining staffing and infrastructure for empty prisons moved Governor Andrew Cuomo to close nine prisons in four years, with four more closures projected within the year. Although dispersed across the state and including both men’s and women’s prisons, what is common among these closure targets is their classification as minimum or medium security prisons holding people convicted of low-level drug offenses and “nonviolent crimes.” As we seize on any and all opportunities for prison closures, we understand the threat of cementing the “worst of the worst” classification for people held in maximum security, supermax and solitary confinement units and how the deepening of that logic enables the disappearance, dehumanization, torture and death of people in prisons everywhere. This criminalization is being amplified as prison-dependent economies, from the political representatives of prison towns to the 26,000 member guards’ unions (NYSCOPBA), desperately mobilize against decarceration and prison closures.
The stories of resistance, resilience, and struggle coming from the survivors of Attica and prisons across the country can offer not only a reminder of the history in which our movement is rooted, but a signal fire of which direction we should head. In the words of Attica Brother, LD Barkley, “The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those that are oppressed.”
To get involved contact:
Critical Resistance New York City
PO Box 2282
New York NY 10163
Photo: AP. Prisoners of Attica state prison, right, negotiate with state prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald, lower left, at the facility in Attica, N.Y., where prisoners had taken control of the maximum-security prison in rural western New York. Sept. 10, 1971.
Such a careful approach and revisiting of Attica’s history is timely and essential. An accurate version — and not the official state version — must be established. Following Attica, there were a number of inquiries (for example, Cornell Capa’s photographic survey of the facility here and here), however, not all inquiries met or served public need. Suspicions of a cover up of excessive violence and extrajudicial murder during the retaking of the prison have been constant.
The second and third parts of the Meyer Report (1975), an investigation of a commission headed by New York State Supreme Court JusticeBernard Meyer, were sealed and never released to the public.
The Democrat & Chronicle reports:
The focused on claims of a cover-up of crimes committed by police who seized control of the prison with a deadly fusillade of gunfire. Those allegations came from Assistant Attorney General Malcolm Bell, who had been part of an investigation into fatal shootings and other possible crimes committed during the retaking.
Wikipedia, quoted civil rights documentary Eyes On The Prize, triangulates the claims:
Elliot L.D. Barkley, was a strong force during the negotiations, speaking with great articulation to the inmates, the camera crews, and outsiders at home. Barkley was killed during the recapturing of the prison. Assemblyman Arthur Eve testified that Barkley was alive after the prisoners had surrendered and the state regained control; another inmate stated that the officers searched him out, yelling for Barkley, and shot him in the back.
It is believed parts two and three of the Meyer Report detail grand jury testimony given during an investigation into the riot and retaking. Late last year, a New York judge ruled the documents could be opened. It came at a request of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The majority of people are in support of the move, understandably given the length of time since the murders. The state troopers are opposed.
It’s high time the people had access to the same information the state has had for nearly four decades. Only then can we confirm or dismiss a state cover-up and the protection of law enforcement individuals and those from whom they took orders, namely then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Photo: Goran Hugo Olsson. Source.
Bobby Seale, 11 Sept 1971. Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther movement, was brought in at one point during the rebellion to help with negotiations.
A prisoners’ make-shift hospital during the rebellion.
Law enforcement, civilians and press cover their nostrils from the airborne teargas following the state’s storming of Attica Prison, Sept. 13th, 1971.
Photo: John Shearer. Law enforcement escort a prisoner out of Attica following the storming of the facility. (Source)
This gruesome photo is one of several of murdered corpses included on this webpage. The images are uncredited, so I cannot verify there veracity. I’ve not seen them elsewhere. The boots, railings and sunken yard look consistent with Attica.
Prisoners are regimented following the state’s retaking of control of Attica Prison. (I have no idea when the trench was dug, by whom or for what purpose).
An injured prisoner is assisted out of D-Yard, following the state’s teargassing and assault upon the prisoners.
There’s so much out there online for you to dig into, so I humbly recommend these starting points:
Attica Uprising 101, is the best brief description of the events those 5 days in September 1971.
Forgotten Survivors of Attica, a group of guards and prisoners’ families alike who are in search of transparency and believe there was a state cover up.
Project Attica, a recent project with school children to teach them about racial politics, oral histories and Black America using Attica as a prism through which to do so.
Here is one of the better collection of images online in a single place.
Finally, I’d like to know if these photographs of prisoners’ corpses can be verified as being from Attica on the 13th, September, 1971. They are presented as images of those killed as a result of the state assault on the prison.
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers has got America in a tizzy. It’s entertaining but it’s no classic. Korine is the master of non-linear narrative, or to put it another way at bunching weird stuff together that could go in any order and ends up making a movie. Spring Breakers, his first – and hopefully only – “mainstream” offering follows a straight forward and straight plot; the spiraling of four young girls’ lives into a world of hyper-violence and sexuality.
As many have commented, Spring Breakers isn’t about spring break, but more about capitalism, survival, hedonism and a crime-chic version of the American Dream. A tried and tested cinema recipe if there ever was one. It’s just that in Spring Breakers the gunmen are gunwomen and they’re wearing glow in the dark bikinis.
The perfect reality check is the story of Sheriff Frank McKeithen’s beachfront jail in the city of Panama Beach, Florida (the spring break capital of the world.) Bay County Sheriff McKeithen has been doing the press rounds, this week explaining his temporary and mobile jail. He calls it his “welcome center.”
It’s a practical solution. The county jail is an hours round-trip from downtown Panama Beach. When you have college kids exploding with excitement, booze and idiocy, it’s good not to have your officers’ in a squad car stuck in traffic.
The mobile unit and holding-pens serve the same functions as the regular jail – booking, fingerprinting and photographing.
McKeithen says spring break in his county can be “chaos.” It cannot be as lawless as Korine’s shoot-em-up version, but if you’re in any doubt as to the bacchanalia, perhaps (in photography at least) Emiliano Granado’s Beach Party shows this youngsters’ holiday tradition in the harshest and most honest light.
I prefer McKeithen’s version to Korine’s. The sheriff knows trouble is coming and makes preparations. Korine’s presentation – requiring unbelievably large and frequent suspensions of disbelief – is impractical.
What McKeithen, Korine, Granado and anyone else who takes a look at spring break, have in common is that the Florida resorts are bubbles in which people shed normative behaviours as quickly as they shed clothes.
It’s a bubble in which bad behaviour might be met with one of McKeithen’s open air cells, or just as easily it might be something one gets away with. Spoiler alert: all four of Korine’s femme fatales walk away scott-free from the bubble.
With repeated reference to escape; some place different; “creating ones own worlds” (James Franco’s character says he comes from out of space); paradise, Spring Breakers almost ad nauseum drives home the point that the bubble remains apart from the real world. Duh! Richard Brody for The New Yorker notes:
“The four young women are closed units whose sole connection to the wider world is in their deceptive phone calls to family members, a sweetened vision of kids socializing in a constructive way that’s as fake as the values of the parents or grandparents who fall for it.”
So, we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t profess to know what’s going on in the pools and hotels rooms. Sure, and with his anti-heroines walking away unscathed, Korine lets us play along with the fantastic unreality he has so cleverly exaggerated.
Okay, we can walk away now? Despite the sex (there’s lots of boobs) and the self-consciously ludicrous gun fetishism (Franco gives two pistols a blow-job), Spring Breakers is a walk into a harmless silver-screen fantasy-land, right? No. There’s one crucial element of the film that Korine fudges. Big time. Race.
“The director’s ultimate spring-break fantasy is a vision of murder camp—and of “black camp”—and he doesn’t make any effort to distinguish the two. The very mainspring of the movie is his stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence.”
Once again, depictions of race are skewed. Clumsy at best, irresponsible at worst.
Brody’s observation that the UV light darkens the bikini-clad skin in the crucial climatic scenes of murder and mayhem might be over thinking it, but doesn’t detract from his overall point that while directing is a game, it’s a game poorly played when stuck on “old stories, old images, old stereotypes.”
The film was quite deifferent to that I had expected from the trailer. A success. Not enough thumping Skrillex dubstep, but some surprisingly good inclusion of Britney Spears (during the most celebratory of the violence montages).
All images: WMBB
General Abul Waleed, Head of Command for the Wolf Brigade, and Col. James Steele, Samarra, Iraq. Gilles Peress/Magnum, for The New York Times.
Remember at the height of the Iraq War, when sectarian fighting raged and bodies were being dumped in the streets daily? Well, the U.S. military was directly funding many of the killers’ activities. U.S. Colonel James Steele, decorated by Rumsfeld, was the man in collusion with the murderers.
Gilles Peress‘ made the above-photo during a 2005 New York Times assignment on Iraqi counterterrorism commando units. (You can find 27 of Peress’ images by searching “Peress Iraq 2005” on the Magnum website.) On the right is Colonel James Steele, head of General David Petraeus’ counterterrorism operations.
I included the same photo in a blog-post nearly two-and-a-half years ago alerting readers to The Guardian‘s investigation into United States’ funding of Iraqi police commandoes.
Today, and in continuation of its investigation, The Guardian published details of a massive network of torture centers operated by the Iraqi police commandos.
See the full length 51-minute documentary about Steele and read the article of horrendous details accompanied with a 5-minute edited version of the film. to the crimes covering all the essential details of U.S. Military
“The United States funded a sectarian police commando force that set up a network of torture centers to fight the insurgency. It was a decision that helped fuel a sectarian war. At it’s height it was claiming 3,000 deaths per month,” says the narrator.
Until now, the media hasn’t been certain if these commando units were part or all of the feared ‘Death Squads’ that kidnapped, disappeared and killed people, usually following night-time raids.
Both Peress and his fellow journalist Peter Maass offer statement in the Guardian video. Peress speaks of the inexplicable amounts of blood he saw in a room of the building. During the visit incredibly loud screams of pain could be heard throughout the building. According to Maass, Steele left the room, the screams fell silent, Steele returned and Maass continued his interview with a Saudi prisoner.
General David Petraeus – and Col. Steele of course – continually denied the Iraqi police commando force had been infiltrated by Shia militias looking for revenge against the Sunni’s who had benefitted under Saddam Hussein’s reign. Iraqi’s say this is preposterous as everyone knew the police were corrupt, and that sectarian and murderous groups such as the Badr Brigade had in regions completely taken over commando operations.
Absolute scandal. What else do we not know? What else have we not seen?
Prisoner reads a book to pass the time during head count, California.
Unlikely Friends is Leslie Neale‘s third feature length film about prisons, so she knows a thing to two. I have spoken before about the difficulty in photographing the two distinguishing features of prison, namely violence and boredom. The former is rare and the latter endemic. Neale observed the same.
“The subjects of my photos aren’t in Unlikely Friends – they are just photos I managed to click off between directing the crew and interviewing people,” says Neale. “Whenever I go into prisons, I am always struck by the culture created by so many living so close together. Even though the threat of violence is a constant presence, there is a calm peace and the mundanity is palpable.”
These photographs were made in prisons in California and Florida. They’re not the best images, but I don’t think Neale claims them as such. They simply show moments. These are not stolen moments as the rigamarole and boredom of prison is persistent.
Before scrolling down through the images, I encourage you to pay the Unlikely Friends website a visit and view the trailer. Neale has hit upon a theme that is often discredited in the discussion of prisons – that of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is at a premium in the criminal justice system – not because people are incapable, but rather because the system doesn’t facilitate it. The system keeps victims and offenders at great distances. Those distances often have good reason, but in the event that victim and offender wish to embark upon a restorative process, it can be an uphill battle. This difficulty is something that cropped up in my PPOTR discussion with Gail Brown. Advocates such as Brown do not want to see blind forgiveness for perpetrators of serious crimes but they want to see feasible routes for prisoners to take to make as best amends as is possible and also to come to full accountability for their actions. Forgiveness is wrapped up in hearing the effects of ones crime and learning from victims the often life-changing and deeply saddening repercussions crime can have. I applaud Neale for taking on this unlikely and complex aspect of humanity within an inhuman system.
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As a side note, I first heard of Neale’s filmmaking when I interviewed photographer Ara Oshagan. He shot B-roll on set in Californian juvenile lock-ups during the production of Neale’s documentary Juvies.
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You can also see a few more images by Neale here.
Prisoners read in a dorm room of Moore Haven State Prison, Florida.
Correctional officers at San Quentin State Prison.
Two prisoners outside their cells on a tier in San Quentin State Prison, California.
Prisoners play chess in San Quentin State Prison.
Prisoner working in his cell at a makeshift desk, San Quentin State Prison, California.
Boots hang outside a cell in San Quentin State Prison, California.
Prisoners in San Quentin State Prison use the phones.
Recreation time for prisoners on the yard of a Florida State Prison.
An old man sits on his bunk in a California State Prison.
“Life lived in dorm housing in a California State Prison.”
The grind and hustle of daily news photojournalism is no joke. Some people can be a bit sniffy about news photographers. Screw them.
As much as possible I try to ignore the haters and the artificial boundaries they construct in the photoworld. True, my interests primarily lie in documentary, participatory, vernacular and some fine art photography, but in every interaction with photographers I want to explore and understand the contexts in which they make work. Therefore, it was a pleasure – for the latest Eye On PDX feature – to chat with Thomas Boyd.
The lifestyle and work-style of news photographers has always intrigued me. Unfortunately, often my discussions of news photography begins with iconic or controversial images, images’ subtexts and imagery’s distribution in our larger ad-fed visual culture; rarely do I get to ask nuts-and-bolts questions to the individuals who create the widely-circulated images we see daily.
An avowed Oregonian, Boyd is a news shooter through-and-through. He is a staffer with The Oregonian, the state’s biggest paper and as such has important insights into journalism (past, present and future). Here, Boyd talks frankly about his experience with the paper; what makes a good image; the peers he admires; and the rise of the amateur.
Scroll down for our Q&A.
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Prison Photography (PP): How long have you been in Portland? How long have you been with the Oregonian? What’s the deal with this town?
Thomas Boyd (TB): I came up from Eugene five years ago, but before that I lived in the Portland area for about 10-years. I grew up in North Bend on the Oregon Coast and Portland has always been a special place for me. I find it endlessly fascinating.
PP: Day to day, what do you shoot?
TB: I shoot assignments! I shoot between one and three assignments a day and I never know what they’re going to be until the night before or even an hour before. Yesterday, I shot a basketball game in Eugene, today, I shot a portrait of a documentary filmmaker and an overweight police horse. Tomorrow, I’ll shoot a cat show. That’s a typical random week. I also shoot a lot of Duck football, Portland Timbers and track and field.
PP: I understand the photo staff has shrunk at The Oregonian in recent years? Tell us about the changes at the the newspaper.
TB: Like all newspapers, the business is eroding. With that came layoffs three years ago and buyouts before that. We now have three less photo editors and the staff is down to 10 with two part timers from 19 full timers five years ago. They hire very few freelancers. However, in a recent meeting the we heard the paper met it’s financial goals for 2012 and merit pay raises may be possible. The paper is making money.
But, even with these changes, the way I work really hasn’t changed. I pitch story ideas and I shoot assignments.
I actually see more change with the organizations I cover. I’m seeing them keeping us out of situations so they can document it themselves and drive traffic to their own websites. I’m seeing this with all types of organizations from non-profits to professional/college sports teams. We are essentially competing with the organizations we cover.
Reporters are also being asked to do more with photos, video and social media. I’ve found myself competing with them on stories as well. It’s really awkward for the people we cover. They don’t readily understand what our roles are.
The amount of bloggers covering events is big change too. If you look at the amount of journalists just covering the Timbers, you’ll see that newspapers and television stations are drastically outnumbered. It’s really strange to me. As far as I can tell, none of them are making any real money. If there are two dozen photographers on the field, maybe only four of us are actually getting paid. They do it because they are fans and have day jobs. It’s a head-scratcher for me.
PP: Do you make images outside of work?
TB: I shoot outside of work quite a bit. I take as much commercial and editorial freelance as I can, shoot a few weddings here and there, and pick away at my personal projects.
PP: Do you have time to follow the news, blogs, discussions online, or are you too busy being a producer and filing stories?
TB: I wouldn’t say I’m too busy because I somehow find the time…but I don’t follow all that stuff as much as I used to. I probably spend as much time online reading about motorcycles and home remodeling as I spend reading about photography. I also write for a blog called ApertureExpert.com.
PP: Does a lot of the gas-bagging (I’m being self-referential there) online affect the daily life and work of photojournalists? If so, how?
TB: Good question. I suppose photojournalists are influenced by influential work. We see a trend and try to emulate that or be inspired by it to some degree. I’m probably more influenced and more interested in talk about the photography business than actual shooting. As far as my daily work, I’ve become pretty good at sticking to my approach and not preconceiving a situation. It took me a long time to get to that point. When I first started I was all over the map stylistically and how I approached a story. I’m much more methodical and disciplined now, but I do still like to try new things and experiment.
PP: How do you define a successful day/shoot/assignment/image? What brings the smiles at the end of a day?
TB: The only thing that makes me happy at the end of the day is walking away with a photo I like. And, that is a rare thing. Starting out I was more into the experience of making the photo. The results were not as important to me, probably because I couldn’t differentiate between an above average image and a great one.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy great experiences on assignment and that happens all the time, but making a great image is where it’s at. I will forget all the suffering I experienced, if I end up with something worth looking at.
I really love the rare times when I’m in the creative zone and everything falls into place. I have an idea, the circumstances are ideal, and I get lucky. The thing about photojournalism is, you never really know if what you are doing will work until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s all about anticipating what will happen instead executing a plan. If what you are striving to create is spontaneous, real and in the moment, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. It’s all about putting your self in a situation to that favors luck. I’d compare it to hitting a home run or a hole in one. The more you do it, the luckier you get.
PP: Are photo editors important?
TB: Good photo editors are important in that they can take great work and make it better. Mediocre photo editors get in the way of good work.
I rarely sit with an editor and have them go through my work. I mostly work remotely. I’ll send in my top picks and they take it from there.
I seek out advice on projects, but I believe photo editing is as important and creative as shooting. For that reason, I like to do it myself. I like the idea that I have more authorship in the final product. We make online photo galleries for the web and that’s really what I’m shooting for these days.
PP: How do you characterize the photo scene in Portland?
TB: By my estimation, there are way too many of us. Worse yet, there are too many mediocre photographers that manage to get work by under-cutting better ones. I suspect they won’t last much longer than their trust fund, but that can’t be too soon. That sounds harsh, but I’ve stood in the rental line at Pro Photo and watched a Craigslist wedding photographer rent $400 worth of gear to shoot a $800 wedding. That’s happening in all sectors of photography on different scales.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some great, highly accomplished Portland photographers that deserve everything they get. Dan Root, Lars Topelmann, Steve Bloch, Sol Neelman, Chris Hornbecker, Bruce Ely, Jamie Francis, Brian Lee, Leah Nash, Chris Onstott, Thomas Patterson, Jonathan Ferrey, Ray Gordon, Anthony Georgis, Craig Mitchelldyer, Andy Batt, and many more that inspire me with solid, professional work.
PP: What lies in the future for you?
TB: If I could have my way, I’d retire at The Oregonian doing what I’m doing now. I’m a newspaper shooter and have been since I started stringing for the AP and The Oregonian while I was still in college at Portland State in the late eighties. I’m a home grown Oregonian and I don’t want to live anywhere else. I’m hardwired to shoot newspaper assignments and I love it.
The future probably won’t turn out the way I want. If it doesn’t, I see myself launching a successful freelance career, starting a business and riding motorcycles.
PP: Anything else you like to add?
TB: For the first time in my career, I’m worried for the future of the photography business. There are just so many forces out there driving down the value of photography and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom. At the same time, there are so many people wanting to do it and schools are cranking out more and more photographers. I’ve always believed that with desire, hard work, a bit of talent, and a little help, a person could make a go of it. I’m not so sure anymore. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it now.
The internet has created a huge demand for photography, but it hasn’t translated into more work and money for photographers.
The challenge is to avoid thinking about all the negative stuff, and keeping my level of creative energy up. At the end of day, I’m really grateful that I’ve been able to do it this long.
PP: Thanks Thomas.
TB: Thank you, Pete.
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All images: Thomas Boyd.
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