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‘Claudia. 4 years’ © Julia Schönstädt
Statement of Being by Julia Schönstädt is a series of portraits and interviews with prisoners in Germany. According to Fotografia Magazine — which is running a series of six portraits currently — Schönstädt’s aim is “to dispel the stigma of the criminal and simply make the subject human.”
Schönstädt has worked with subjects of different age, gender, race and criminal prosecution. Some are sympathetic characters, others less so. Three women in their fifties are addicted to drugs; two see it as a problem, the other not. Harry is only 23 and doesn’t really seem to care if he goes back to prison or not. Then there’s the older guys who seem to be reforming themselves or aging out the game.
Most of the statements are insightful and honest. For example, when asked if prison helps people, Claudia (above) weighs her owns needs against those of others. There was positives for Claudia in the mere fact she was forced to come off drugs, but she accepts without that small mercy, prison is roundly a tough, tough place for most:
I know that I was in a personal situation where prison gave me space to breathe at first. If I would be torn out of my normal life now, and that can happen to anyone, that they get falsely accused, I would probably find that very traumatic. You are very helpless. You have very few possibilities to influence or shape things. You are completely dependent on the good will and concession of the officers. And part of it is also always luck, depending on what kind of people you will be put together with, and the groups that form. I think for a person who isn’t in an emergency situation as I was in, this is very dark.”
In every case, Schönstädt does a good job of revealing the interviewee. I suspect the excerpts are taken from longer conversations allowing Schönstädt to focus on the meat of the message. It’s a well-made project. But I am not without criticisms.
Schönstädt asks “Are You Ready To Listen?” but the query “Are You Ready To Look?” seems as appropriate.
Within in her presentation of both text and image, Schönstädt’s question seems to sideline the importance of the image . (This is not to say that we cannot conceive of a metaphor of “listening” to images, but for the purposes of my argument, I think it’s useful if think of listening as something related to written, read and spoken words.)
The question elevates the words of her subjects. Great. I’m all for portrait sitters having a platform to speak in their own voice. But I get the sense that here photography is used as filler and that the B&W portraits behave as illustration to the words, and as supplement. This is, of course, sad. We know photography can do many things and, I believe, it can be an activating agent in a project. In a purported photography project such as Statement of Being it absolutely must be activating.
But are we ready to look? When I do and inspect Schönstädt’s portraits I’m left wanting. They’re flat.
‘Volkert, 13 years’ © Julia Schönstädt
Now, we all know how difficult it is to make a good portrait, but these are so tightly cropped and made monochrome, I feel like I’m looking at a really earnest effort by an artist to depict someone, as opposed to looking at that someone. Schönstädt’s politics are aligned with mine and her use of multiple media is praiseworthy, but I don’t feel she has managed to do what great photography does, which is to get out the way of itself. Proximity doesn’t always mean intimacy.
I wonder if Schönstädt made the decision to get close so that she could remove evidence of the prison environment from her pictures? To give her subjects best chance at presenting as a person first and not as a criminal as default? I understand the urge but it’s not necessarily a solution. Nor is it necessarily a problem. For example, Robert Gumpert has used B&W imagery but drawn back and made the most of sterile pods in the San Francisco jail system to make compelling portraits. In short, I’d like to see more variation in Schönstädt’s portraiture.
‘Oliver, Life Sentence’ © Julia Schönstädt
I’m currently writing an essay “How To Photographs Prisoners Without Shaming Them.’ Most of the essay focuses on pairing photography with other media. In some bodies of prison portraiture it is either stated or obvious that the photographer collaborated with the subject over the composition and presentation. Given that Schönstädt’s portraits are identical in direction, I wonder if this was the case?
I am not saying Schönstädt doesn’t respect her subjects the opposite is clearly the case, but photography is more about the viewer than the practitioner and we must always be aware of existing stereotypes and prejudices when making photographs. The audiences’ reaction trumps the author’s intent. The audience’s reception is what defines a work ultimately.
Take the above image of Oliver as an example. Some might read his face as mischievous. Others, no doubt, will read it as menacing and devilish. I don’t think the appearance of a sinister looking male helps win sympathy. This is tragic for a project which is wholly sympathetic to the prison population.
Oliver speaks frankly and sensibly:
I became violent very early on. First there were money-related crimes starting at 7 or 8 years old. Violence came a bit later, but when I was 7 or 8 years old I stole and so on. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was 22 that I was held responsible for the first time.
It really struck me that something wasn’t right with me or with my story when a great deal of my family passed away – my grandfather, grandmother, and father [after being imprisoned]. I was married then and my wife divorced me. She stayed with me for 5 years but then she got to a point where she couldn’t take it anymore. And all that lead me to think something isn’t quite right here. Then I went to see a psychiatrist and got even more reasons to think about everything.
I had relatively little empathy for people, that’s just the way I grew up. I was raised in a violent environment. But that doesn’t mean that I was consciously punished by being beaten, more in a way you would also train a pitbull. […] I didn’t feel like that was something that wasn’t okay. I experienced my childhood as something really nice. Only through a person from the outside, I realised that it wasn’t all that normal, the way I grew up. And through realising that, I was able to reflect much better.
Oliver is in full grasp of his antisocial behaviour and has made steps in therapy to address it. He’s locked down for life but trying to improve himself. He is not devilish. How do I know this? Again because of Schönstädt’s keen efforts. Listen to Oliver speak in the video below and ask if the mood and personality of his still portrait tallies with that of the video portrait. Are we ready to look?
Crowdfunding, eh? What to make of it. I feel like the jury is still out, but then again I have had my head somewhat in the sands of late. I have benefited in the past from a Kickstarter campaign and in the immediate aftermath tried to give my feedback on the dos and don’ts.
Where the successful intersections between cultural production and social justice lie is, for me, a constant internal debate, so I hope this post serves two purposes.
Firstly, to clarify my thinking and to highlight the type of crowd funding campaign that I think encapsulates best practice.
Secondly, to bring a half-dozen endeavors (5 prison-related and 1 purely photo-based) that I think deserve your attention and, perhaps, your dollars.
On the first purpose, I’ve identified common traits among these projects that are indicative of a good practice:
- Track record. These fund seekers appearing out of the blue; they’ve done work in the specific area and have chops and connections.
– Direct action. These projects will directly engage with subject and, consequently audience on urgent politic issues
– Community partners. These funders have existing relationships with organizations or programs that will provide support, direction, accountability and extended networks
– Diversity. Of both product and outcomes. Projects that meld digital output/campaigns and boots-on-the-ground activism get my attention. Creators, in these instances, realize that they must leverage every feasible avenue to get out the political message.
– Matching funds. In cases where matching funds exist, I am reassured. It shows that the creator is forging networks and infers that they are inventive and outward looking when it comes fundraising. It infers that we’re all in it together; it might just give us those necessary warm fuzzy feelings when handing over cash on the internet.
On the second purpose, I’ll let you decide.
Let’s start with a campaign to help OUTREACH, a program offered by Toronto’s Gallery 44 that breaks down barriers to the arts by offering black & white photography workshops to 50 young people each year.
OUTREACH’s darkroom is the last publicly accessible wet darkroom in Toronto. Gallery 44 has offered accessible facilities to artists since 1979.
Donations go to workshops costs: photographic paper, film, processing, chemistry, snacks and transit tokens.
OUTREACH has several existing community partners including the Nia Centre for the Arts, Eva’s Phoenix, Toronto Council Fire Native Community Centre, PEACH and UrbanArts.
“I went from being a student to a mentor,” says one participant. “I recently had my work exhibited in the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.”
2. DYING FOR SUNLIGHT
In the summer of 2013, prisoners in California conducted the largest prison hunger strike in U.S. history. 30,000 men refused food in protest against the use of indefinite solitary confinement. Some prisoners refused food for 60 consecutive days. Dying For Sunlight will tell the story.
Across racial lines, from within the belly of the beast (Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit) California prisoners mounted a reasoned and politically robust defense of their basic human rights that garnered nationwide attention. Their families joined them in solidarity. This was a true grassroots movement built by those on the front lines of state violence
“We prisoners of all races have united to force these changes for future generations,” Arturo Castellanos wrote from the Pelican Bay SHU.
Filmmakers Lucas Guilkey and Nazly Siadate have spent the past year building relationships, and covering the California prisoner hunger strikes. They are joined by journalist Salima Hamirani and community organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Critical Resistance, All of Us or None, and California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement in their effort to tell this story.
“In a world of sound bytes, Dying For Sunlight feature length documentary will allow us the time to more fully delve into the questions this movement has raised,” says Guilkey. “Why and how is solitary confinement used in California prisons? What does the movement against it look like? And how did we get to the point where we’ve normalized a system of torture in our own backyards?”
Dying For Sunlight takes the premise that, in order to understand our society with “increasing inequality, militarization, incarceration, surveillance, deportation, and the criminalization of dissent, we must listen to the voices of those who have endured the most repressive form of social control–the solitary confinement unit.”
The U.N. Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez ruled that solitary for anything more than 15 days is psychological torture, yet California and other states throw people in the hole for decades.
The film is in pre-production and all the fancy-schmancy gear is bought. Donations will go directly to costs associated with travel, expenses and editing related to interviews made up and down the state with family members, formerly incarcerated people, solitary experts, prison officials. They’ll attend rallies and vigils too. They hope to have a rough cut by December.
3. CHANGE THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS (AIA) CODE OF ETHICS TO OUTLAW DESIGN OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT UNITS
Raphael Sperry continues his battle to rewrite an AIA ethics code which predates the widespread use of solitary confinement in the U.S.
An architect himself, but on hiatus to concentrate on this political and ethical fight, Sperry points out, “even though only 3 to 4% of prisoners are in solitary confinement, half of all prison suicides occur among prisoners who are in solitary confinement.
The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession.
“The AIA has disciplinary authority over its members. In the current code of ethics, they have language that says that members should uphold human rights in all of their professional endeavors. So it’s pretty clear that members shouldn’t design a Supermax prison or an execution chamber,” explains Sperry. “[But] the language about upholding human rights is unenforceable in the AIA code of ethics. So all we’re asking them to do is draft an enforceable rule associated with it that says that members should not design [a project that commits] a specific human rights violation.”
Sperry’s tactics go to the heart of his profession and tackle this issue that stains our collective moral conscience. It’s strategic and laudable. He’s won institutional support before.
Donations go toward ongoing conversations, writing, speaking, research and pressure on the top brass.
4. A LIVING CHANCE
A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole is made in collaboration with females serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in California. The word “collaboration” is the important detail. It is made with incarcerated members of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a grassroots social justice organization with members inside and outside of prison. CCWP rightly identifies incarcerated women as the experts on the issue of prisons.
Audio recordings, interviews, letters, and photographs will constitute a website and a publication about LWOP which is considered the “lesser” alternative sentence to the Death Penalty.
People sentenced to LWOP have no chance of release from prison and very slim opportunity for appeals or clemency. There are approximately 190 people sentenced to die in prison by LWOP in California’s women’s prisons. The majority of whom are survivors of childhood and/or intimate partner abuse. In most cases, evidence of their abuse was not presented at their trial.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC) and prioritizes the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. CCWP began in 1995 when people inside the women’s prisons filed a lawsuit against then-governor Pete Wilson rightfully claiming that the healthcare inside prison was so terrible it violated their 8th amendment rights.
A Living Chance was chosen as a recipient of a matching funds award up to the value of $6,000. Already, $2,000 has been raised in individual donations, so the crowdfunding target is $4,000 of a $12,000 total
Donations go creation of the storytelling website and publication, stipends for participants, travel costs to the prisons, and building future effective campaigns.
5. THE PRISON PROBLEM, SHANE BAUER’S YEAR OF JOURNALISM
“We spend over $80 billion a year on our corrections system and the cost is growing. At the same time, the number of privately run prisons is on the rise, and the for-profit prison model is spreading globally. In the US, the percentage of prisoners held in private facilities increased 37 percent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these are immigrants, a large number of which remain in pretrial detention for years,” says Bauer. “I’ll show you how U.S. prison practices are being exported to the rest of the world and dissect the systems that lead so many to be locked up in this country.”
For The Prison Problem, Bauer is basically asking for everything he needs to live on in order to create deep investigative journalism: funds to travel, interview, conduct research, and sometimes sue government bodies refusing access to information.
Bauer reporting in Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, Crescent City, California, 2013.
Bauer promises at least three or four major feature stories, each is the equivalent of a magazine cover story. He’s got the reporting chops necessary — No Way Out for Mother Jones about solitary in California (video, too) is widely acclaimed.
6. HELPING KIDS OUT OF JAIL AND BACK INTO SCHOOL
Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY) provides educational rights counseling and assistance to young people in Montgomery County, PA who are reentering the community after being incarcerated. It’s asking for a little help. Montgomery County, PA has been identified as having a disproportionate amount of minority youth being involved in the juvenile system, and suffers from a lack of agencies focused on supporting youth reentering the community.
PALY recruits law student, as volunteers, to work one-on-one with reentering youth crafting individually-designed educational plans.
The average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for a year is about $88k per year; educating that same student is one eighth that cost.
The ask of only $10,000 is small by comparison, but the effect could be huge. Donations will cover PALY’s first year of programming costs: training mentors, youth educational programs, and a ‘Know Your Rights’ campaigns for the community.
Alexandra Diracles,”Be The Witness” installation view, Houston Street, NYC
Photographic artists who collaborate closely — and as equivalents — with communities to amplify voices and forward political movement are at the forefront of my thoughts right now. As you might now, last month I took part in a discussion about socially-engaged photography practice, at Aperture Gallery, NYC. It would, therefore, be unforgivable for me not to share with you my experience visiting Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration an innovative exhibition curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in Midtown Manhattan. It is the best exhibition with this specific focus I have seen to date.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is teeming with powerful and important works. So many, in fact it makes this review quite a lengthy post. Please bear with me, and if nothing else, use the links herein to dig further into the projects.
The exhibition includes portraiture, documentary photography, audio-visual installations, personal narratives and community initiatives. The first thing that should be said is that the space is not ideal for contemplation. Works are hung throughout the openish-plan offices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That said, if you email ahead, you’ll be met out the elevator on the 14th floor by a welcoming staff member. Ultimately, the show will move to NYU in the autumn, so you can take your pick of visitor experience.
Immediately to one’s right upon entry are two small rooms dedicated to desktop presentations of Be The Witness a campaign organized by NYU grads that records the voices of wrongfully convicted exonerees; and Hank Willis Thomas’ Question Bridge an interactive’s trans-media initiative promoting dialogue between black males of all backgrounds in order to redefine black male identity in America. The WiFi was kapput but I was familiar with both these projects previously and know I, we, can experience them from our own home computers. I moved on without asking anyone to reset the router.
Next up was #SANDY, a collection of 12×12 iPhone photos prints captured by photographers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Organised by Wyatt Gallery and the Foley Gallery #SANDY raised $21,000 for rebuilding efforts in New York City. It was an immediate and effective response, but the engagement here seems to be more with technology, buyers and exceptional trauma rather than with the quieter, ongoing struggles of systemically disadvantaged communities. Laudable but hardly aesthetically or methodologically groundbreaking.
Squished into a corridor were the works of four projects that operate completely embedded within communities.
First, the NY-based Laundromat Project which uses public art classes to reinforce community networks. Everyone should know about their empowering work within NYC. It is a model that needs to be repeated.
Secondly, Sonia Louise Davis ‘ impressive Across 116th Street. Throughout the Summer of 2013, in conjunction with the Laundromat Project’s Works in Progress Art Education Program, Davis gave free art workshops along 116th Str. and hosted sidewalk family portraits sessions with neighbors using her large format view camera.
© Sonia Louise Davis
116th Street runs the full width of Manhattan, from the Hudson River to the East River. Davis seeks to activate communities’ narratives and histories. She provided all participants enlarged prints. In addition, Davis has asked residents to submit their own images of 116th street to a community-authored “ar(t)chive”.
Third, Lorie Novak‘s photographs. Novak has been working in Mexico for over a decade. She uses art and photography to catalyse communities on a wide-range of issues such as anti-violence against women and anti-GMO food crops. The few prints presented were documentation mainly and didn’t provide a deep or coherent summary of Novak’s very good projects — but that is precisely a tension of socially engaged work when the interaction and not an object-end-product is the main focus. With such projects, if posterity and education is to be served, (photographic) documentation is paramount.
Fourth, was a brief overview of Russell Frederick‘s mentorship of inner-city teenage boys. Frederick is well known for his luscious B&W reverent studies of residents of BedStuy, but here he’s encouraging youngsters to use photography for their own ends and means … with the hope of guiding them away from violence. Frederick has worked with the JustArts Photography program in NYC.
JustArts Photography students explore professional equipment with Russell Frederick
Off the corridor, in a side room, on a TV screen is Hong-An Truong‘s video Rehearsal For Education. Inspired by Gramsci, Truong recorded quotes texts and passages with high-school kids. These are the soundtrack to a conceptual montage of images. The effect is mantra like, but I couldn’t access the atmosphere of the piece nor figure out its extended use. The worth, I hope, is in the transformative nature of performance and theatre enjoyed by schoolchildren during the making.
On a massive wall at the end of the office space is Jamila Mohamad Hooker‘s Foreign Postcards, a crowdsourced visual rally against xenophobia and Islamophobia. People from around the world have exchanged and posed with the project’s postcards to normalise the sight of the Arabic language. The words? Their own name written in Arabic.
While the presentation of tiled selfies filling an entire long wall is impressive, the emotional connect was much stronger in the first instance among friends and family than I was with me, a detached tertiary audience member. That is why I just submitted a request for a postcard with my own name on it! You can too.
The concept is simple. We are all one humanity. A cute, repeatable and adaptable project.
Examples from Jamila Mohamad Hooker’s Foreign Postcards
If my reactions don’t seem gushing enough quite yet, don’t worry the best is yet to come. Again, placed down the length of a single corridor (taking us back to the front of the exhibition space) are a number of phenomenal projects, many of which I was not previously familiar.
Noelle Theard‘s Sunset Park Rent Strike Photography Initiative, which can be seen at the Galeria Del Barrio website is an audio and photographic collaboration advocating for improvements in living conditions of three Brooklyn residences. Landlords were trying to raise rents on long term tenants and Theard joined their resistance and provided images of the struggle and encouraged communities to do the same.
Over the years, Lonnie Graham has worked in U.S. African American communities and in Sub-Saharan African communities, and in each case on issues of nourishment, subsistence and prejudice. Graham’s political consciousness is global but the effects of his work are definitively local. Before “food desert” was even a term, his Gardens Project was empowering people to grow their own healthy foods bringing with it all the associated benefits. Less obesity, connection with the land, increased attention among children, reduced obesity. The right to food os the right to dignity.
Harry in the garden, 2003. © Lonnie Graham
(A poor) installation shot of Lonnie Graham’s Garden Project. © Pete Brook!
Similarly, Ayasha Guerin project Brownstone Bushwick celebrates the consolidating power of nature in the face of urban blight and/or gentrification. Guerin joined up with the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden to document their activities. Her photographs were accompanied by extended captions from the subjects. Guerin is an academic and a researcher and uses photography within a broader ethnological approach. She celebrates the triumphs of Bushwick’s Afro-Caribbean community in beautifying their neighborhood.
Lara Stein Pardo‘s Mobile Public Studio encourages people to have their portrait taken spontaneously in a public space. I cannot think that the positioning of the surveillance camera floating above the heads of the portrait sitters (standers) was accidental. Pardo is exercising her right to photograph publicly, making the briefest of connections. She’s photographing on the street, but she is not a street photographer as her interactions are longer, not fleeting, involve conversation and mutual understanding.
© Lara Stein Pardo
Christine Wong Yap‘s Make Things (Happen) is one of the few non-photo-based projects included in the show. Make Things (Happen) begins with a wall loaded with free worksheets. Each encourage the public to participate in an artistic endeavor. Pick them up, take them home, do the exercises, share your results with #mkthngshppn on social media.
At first, I was skeptical toward the invite, but soon realised that most of us need a prompt to think about actually making something. An unfortunate number of adults need prompt in order to fire their imagination. This project is never-ending, loose-ended. Something might come of it, something might not, but with the array of genuinely fun and simple actions proposed, the results are on us, not the artist.
People suffering from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia face a huge stigma. Eric Gottesman ‘s repeated and long term projects works alongside youth in Ethiopia to make photographs and videos to raise awareness about the epidemic.
Sudden Flowers is a collective of young people in the Shiromeda/Sidist Kilo neighborhood of Addis Ababa. In cahoots, Gottesman and the youngster install their works in their neighborhoods and throughout the city. They’ve been doing this since 1999. Always getting the voices of the kids out into the communities that will either support or ignore them. These pop-up shows aim to make it the former, not the latter.
“Each of our projects is like a ‘lyric’ in larger poetic structure,” says Gottesman who continues the work still.
Installation shot of Eric Gottesman’s Sudden Flowers
Citizens of Babile, Ethiopia attend “Abul Thona Baraka,” a mobile photographic installation comprised of photographs and texts produced by children of the Shiromeda neighborhood of Addis Ababa in collaboration with artist Eric Gottesman. The work addressed themes of stigma, disease, and grief as well as dialogue and participation. The installation, in the form of a traditional coffee ceremony, travelled to various Ethiopian cities and town in 2006.
The last space to experience is the boardroom in the centre of the offices (the two corridors described above have run either side of it and you’ve circled it). This is a large open space and rightfully it is dedicated to some of the larger and more arty prints.
Kristina Knipe powerful series of portraits and object studies engaged me deeply with the personal struggles of people who have engaged in self-harm. Knipe’s work is mysterious and — while always being respectful — skirts the edges of the issue. It’s as if she is operating from within a deep understanding of her subjects prior victimhood and hard earned relief in recovery. There’s anonymity sometimes and things inferred. There’s no shame involved, of course, but there is the acknowledgement that in unideal circumstances thing unsaid is sometimes just how it is.
There’s a visceral and coherent atmosphere to the series, which is not something I can usually say wholeheartedly about the flat photographic reproductions; the medium rarely allows it. A triumph.
Leannet’s Arm Healed © Kristina Knipe
Finally, we encounter Paul T. Owen‘s Todos Somos Ellas (We Are All Them) photographs that bring attention to the violence against women in Mexico. Owen asks his subjects to pose, seemingly defenselessly before the camera, so as to anonymise them and to bring them and us into solidarity with victims of femicide.
“These are not portraits of individuals,” explains Owen, “but symbols who represent the thousands who have died violent deaths because of their gender.”
After a shocking number of news stories of rape in India, after the kidnap of 200+ schoolgirls in Nigeria, after the UC Santa Barbara shooting and the #YesAllWomen campaign, Owen’s work is as timely as ever. But let’s be frank, grave violence inflicted upon women throughout most societies can only be responsibly described as ‘routine’. As Rebecca Solnit so wisely said, recently, violence may not have a race, it may not have a class, but it certainly does have a gender. In the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) have been victim to rape. I don’t believe that enough reliable, caring and suitably responsive infrastructures and attitudes exist to reduce this figure, yet. This is unacceptable. Owen’s portraits reflect the desperate and trapped circumstances many women find themselves in.
All women? All people. All of our problem and shame upon which to work collectively.
© Paul Owen
From the inferred silent violence implicit in Owen’s work, we move to photographs that display the best of our awkward and necessary shared being.
The show closes out with 5 or 6 portraits from Richard Renaldi‘s Touching Strangers which has enjoyed widespread acclaim recently. It’s responsible work. Renaldi provides a growing experience for photographer, subject and viewer alike. It gently and endearingly pricks our consciousness by asking us if we’re doing enough to actively see and empathise with the people around us. Touching Strangers is optimistic and it deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is hosted jointly by the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the The Nathan Cummings Foundation.
It is currently on show at the The Nathan Cummings Foundation, 475 10th Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10019, through October 2, 2014. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. After October, the exhibition will be on show at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
It is, unfortunately, rare that we see photography about mental illness in which the protagonist is also the creator. Christina Riley’s Back To Me bucks the trend.
Back To Me is a visual dip into a disorienting episode Riley experienced when she briefly absconded from her medication routine. She was without anchor and the photographs trace her imperiled, but thankfully not fatal, journey before returning to a mental state she could claim as her own; before she found a way back to herself.
Simultaneously, Riley experienced euphoria and suicidal thoughts. Freewheeling brain chemistry forced her into an escape and explore mode, but the exhilaration was not something she could control. She describes being outside of herself and of living another person’s experience.
The facts of the episode are not immediately apparent from the grainy images alone. There’s a looming threat but as the images vacillate between self-portraits and landscapes of unidentified places, it’s difficult to figure out the source of the threat. Perhaps the two are one and the same?
Clearly something is not right, but it is only a brief text on the book’s penultimate page that contextualises Riley’s solitary portraits amid the dark, between the light snow and at the side of unknown roads.
I remember driving down Highway 1 south feeling almost certain I wouldn’t return. The bottle of wine I planned to drink before jumping was sitting in the cup-holder alongside a bottle of Ativan and my camera. I cried the whole way to the bridge feeling guilt already for what I hadn’t yet done. I stepped out of my car to a cold, foggy blowing sky. But through all that, stars. I stood there in the darkness and they spoke to me. They were just for me and their message was clear.
It would kill him.
Riley somehow in the swirl of illogic and depression Riley saw the effect her suicide would have on a loved one. She didn’t jump, she turned back. What part did photographs play in the decision? Any at all? Are these photographs saving therapy? Or are they mere documentation? That this remains unclear is one of the strengths of this unique book.
Tony Fouhse, publisher at Straylight Press, says, “One way she grounded herself during this period of madness was by taking photos of herself and the strange world of mania and depression, euphoria and delusion, she found herself in.”
So, Back To Me is part memoir, part self-warning but mostly self-love. Riley came through it and a significant part of understanding and healing has been the sequencing and production of the book. She has found use — a secondary audience, if you will — for images and moments that at the time of making were only for her.
I wanted to ask Riley about that time and the times since, so I emailed a few questions.
Scroll down for the Q&A
Prison Photography (PP): Describe your life and thoughts leading up to this episode of instability.
Christina Riley (CR): Throughout my life I have struggled with a mood disorder. At ten-years-old I started behaving extremely unpredictably. It came out of nowhere. My parents had no idea what was going on, until after attempting suicide twice, I was hospitalized for a year. I walked out of there at age 14 with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Leading up to the most recent episode shown in Back To Me I was feeling pretty level (so I thought). It lead me to believe I was misdiagnosed, so I took it upon myself to go off of my medication. I remember my mind racing with ideas. I had endless energy. The world revolved around me. My self-confidence and sexuality was inflated. Things couldn’t get better. Then suddenly I was convinced I was in love with someone else. Then there was no stopping me. I thought my behavior was coming from a genuine place. I didn’t know I was sick.
I was launched into the world you see in Back To Me.
PP: Between which dates do you identify the episode? And between which dates were you making photographs.
CR: It’s all such a haze but I think the episode began in November 2011 and got very serious pretty quick. It feels like it was an eternity and somehow a dream. Time did not exist. I would say that the entire episode — including the slow transition into my “normal” self — lasted a year-and-a-half or something.
I began taking the pictures around December 2011 as things were becoming more intense and I was losing control. I really had an overwhelming feeling that it had to be photographed, like it felt somehow crucial to my existence. I would be in those moments of living in that other world, and there was no question. I stopped photographing it pretty much when I came around to seeing that I was better – that things were better. I could see it in the pictures and knew it was done.
PP: How, with what, and/or why did you come out the other side of the episode?
CR: It took a lot of will power, medication, therapy and support from family and friends to get here. Everything comes to an end, so it was inevitable one way or another. I’m just happy I didn’t kill myself. I came out of this a better, more secure person.
PP: You’ve said it was like someone else taking photographs.
CR: It’s so hard to explain. It was kind of a compulsion, so I guess it sort of feels like the illness took the pictures. But at the same time, looking back, I know it was part of me too, which makes sense considering the illness will always be a part of me, healthy or not. I just wasn’t with it enough to know what was really happening or to make logical decisions which makes me feel like it was completely out of my control.
PP: Do words (in this interview) or images (in the book) manage to reflect the emotion and psychology of the time?
CR: I don’t think it would be possible for me to convey what it felt like any better than with the photographs in the book.
The photographs in Back To Me are a true moment captured in an unreal time. I’ve never expressed myself or the illness in such a pure way. Even though there was stuff you don’t see happening in the time surrounding the pictures, I believe that each one encompasses how it felt as a whole.
PP: You say you’re grateful for the episode. It seems like it was a learning experience. Is this a fair characterization? Are the photographs key to that? In other words, are the photographs a valuable product from a less than ideal time? Would your view of that time be different if you had made no photographs and you had no book?
CR: Photographing this time in my life helped me more than anything else. I can’t imagine living through that without visual proof of it. It all felt so unreal that I wouldn’t know what to believe without them. I would feel so lost. It’s hard sometimes for me to look at the book because I can feel everything again. But it’s good for me. I know I don’t want to go there again because of it. I’m thankful because in the end, the pictures really have brought me to a better, more stable and aware place.
The book Back To Me is one of the most important things I have ever done. It is proof that I have an illness that I have to take care of. It is proof that I can get through it. It is a definite end to a crazy chapter in my life.
PP: Anything else you’d like to add?
CR: Many people think mental illness is a relentless hard slog against challenges that are unrewarding. But to the contrary, I feel that bipolar disorder has brought more positivity to my life than negativity. It has been hard, but it has made me a stronger, more accepting and maybe a more interesting person.
PP: Thanks Christina.
CR: Thank you, Pete.
Colin Pantall says, “Straylight, a publisher which makes direct books with direct themes. Straylight is kind of rough and ready but it hits the spot and is much more than a decorative publisher. It makes books about things that matter. And it publishes people who don’t get published elsewhere.”
Timothy Archibald says, “A quiet story, told in your ear. Not sad, not tragic at first glance. No high drama. It feels like introspection. Just the data, shared by the storyteller as if it happened to someone else. Rich with color, rich with grain, warm and tangible- not like you are drugged, but just like you are very tired, but your senses are working overtime.”
W. simply asked for a picture of his daughter playing near her mother’s house. “I used to take a lot of pictures of her myself.”
When Dutch photographer, Desiree Van Hoek visited Leuven Prison in Belgium, her intention was to photograph the pictures on prisoners’ cell walls. To look at prisoners’ use of — and values placed within — photographs would have been an anthropological study of sorts. Alas, as with many a proposed prison photography project, the administration would not allow it. Her plans for a camera workshop were also nixed. Undeterred, Van Hoek conceived of another way to use photography to connect with the prisoners.
“I was visiting a very outdated prison, and noticed that there were only very small windows. There was nothing to see for the prisoners but a wall, some mud and an old goat,” explains Van Hoek. “This seemed very depressing to me, so I asked the prisoners if there was an image they would like me to photograph for them. Something that would make them feel better.”
The resulting series, titled Leuven Centraal, is essentially a pen-pal project, but making use of pictures not words to forge connection. After successfully getting approval for the project at Leuven, Van Hoek repeated the formula at Turnhout and Hoogstraten prisons, also in Belgium.
The methodology of Van Hoek’s project is akin to Mark Strandquist’s Some Other Places We Have Missed and the Tamms Year Ten project Photo Requests From Solitary. Both these projects I’ve applauded in the past (here and here). In the same spirit, I wanted to ask Van Hoek about the outcomes and motives for her project.
Scroll down for Q&A
D. gave me a blue piece of paper ripped out of a magazine. He wanted a picture of a blue sky with soft white clouds. “Sun and a light breeze keep depression away.”
Prison Photography (PP): Describe the types of requests.
Desiree Van Hoek (DVH): It could be anything, as long as it wasn’t related to their crimes. The men came up with all kinds of ideas: family members, cars, dogs, their favorite soccer team, sunsets, etc. I also asked them to write down why they wanted these particular images.
PP: How did you come up with the idea?
DVH: I wanted to do a photography project and a workshop with prisoners. During an earlier project in the streets of Los Angeles, I had met several ex-prisoners who got their life back together thanks to (among other things) painting and photography. This had inspired me, and I had an appointment in the Leuven prison to see what was possible. The office of the person I was visiting was right in the middle of the prison.
PP: What was your initial interest?
DVH: I’ve always been interested in the way people live under different circumstances, and what they do with their homes. My work always has a social component.
K. spent 13 years breeding and training Dobermans. Prison management wouldn’t allow a picture of a big dog, so he chose a puppy. “Dobermans are sweet dogs, although most people think they are not.”
PP: What is the state of criminal justice in Belgium right now?
DVH: From a Dutch perspective, many Belgian prisons are old and outdated. There are often uprisings. Prisoners with psychological problems are mixed with other prisoners. Many prisoners told me they would rather be in a Dutch prison. They had heard good stories about the living conditions and the food (french fries once a week).
PP: How are prisoners perceived in Belgium?
DVH: That is hard for me to say. But I think the Belgians in general don’t perceive them as victims of society, but really as criminals who should be put away. In Holland, this used to be different, but nowadays more and more people seem to have the same view.
PP: Did any of the requests surprise or touch you?
DVH: What I found touching was that they were all very polite. Only one guy asked for a picture of a sexy girl, which was okay with me, but the prison wouldn’t allow it. Also touching: one guy asked for picture of me (this wasn’t allowed either).
What I found surprising and painful was that they didn’t ask for more people. I expected them to ask pictures of their family, but most of them asked for nature, animals or objects. This was because, they said, they had no one.
L. asked for a picture of the latest model BMW, Audi or Mercedes, taken in a showroom. “I’ve always loved beautiful cars.”
PP: What were the reactions of prisoners?
DVH: Very positive. The staff later sent me letters with their reactions. One prisoner who hadn’t participated said he regretted it seeing the results. A father who had asked for a picture of his daughter started to cry in front of all the other men, and everybody was touched by this.
PP: What were the reactions of staff?
DVH: Also very positive. I financed the projects in Leuven and Hoogstraten myself, and then got an offer to do another one in Turnhout for which I got paid. Staff was very cooperative, and one of the directors sent me a thank you letter to say he was grateful.
PP: Would you like to do any more work with prisoners or in prisons?
DVH: I would really like to repeat the project with female prisoners. But I’m back in Holland now, and it’s much harder here to get into prisons.
S. wanted a picture of Muntplein, the only legal graffiti spot in Antwerp. ‘This is where I would hang out with my friends.”
I’ll be partaking in the student-organised prison reform SPEAR Conference this weekend. If you’re in or near New Jersey think about stopping by. Some very knowledgable thinkers, doers, journalists and activists will be convening. Below is the program.
1:00pm. Opening Address: Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project.
2:15pm. Panel 1: Academic Research on Incarceration. Brings together academics from a range of disciplines to discuss their research on mass incarceration.
Kiminori Nakamura, Asst. Professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland; Jill Witmer Sinha, Asst. Professor, Rutgers School of Social Work. Moderator: Imani Perry, Professor, Princeton University Center for African American Studies.
4:30pm – 6 pm. Panel 2: Alternative Approaches to Prison Reform. Exploring alternative approaches to prisoner education and reentry programs through arts, entrepreneurship, job training, and urban farming.
9:30am – 10:50am. Panel 3: Prison Education. Brings together various perspectives on prison education, ranging from participant, to teacher, to policymaker.
11:00-12:00pm. Workshop A: Getting Involved. How to implement and improve educational programs between your university and local correctional facilities.
Workshops B and C: In the Classroom. How to tutor effectively in prisons, with current/former students and volunteers.
Terrell Blount, Mountainview Program ; David Hammer, Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program; Sara Blair Matthews, Bucknell University ; Danielle Rousseau, Director, Boston University Prison Education Program; Jim Matesanz, Field Coordinator, Boston University Prison Education Program.
Workshop D: Reentry Programs. Discussing entrepreneurship programs and other reentry projects.
1:30-2:50pm. Panel 4: Prison Advocacy
After learning about academic approaches and educational programs, what political steps can we take to make our voices heard and affect policy-makers’ decisions?
3:00-4:00pm. Workshops E + F: Affecting Policy Change
How to campaign, lobby state and federal representatives, etc. Jeremy Haile, Federal Advocacy Council, The Sentencing Project; Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project, ACLU; Alan Rosenthal, Leadership at the Center for Community Alternatives; Scott Welfel, Staff Attorney and Skadden Fellow, New Jersey Institute of Social Justice
Workshop G: How to Make Your Voice Heard
How to use various forms of media and journalism in order to begin engaging and effective conversations.
Liliana Segura, The Intercept, First Look Media; Pete Brook, Prison Photography.
5:30 – 7:00pm. Closing Address: Jim McGreevey, Executive Director, Jersey City Employment and Training Program Jobs Former Governor of New Jersey