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Image source: Insouciant Writing

THE WRITING ON THE WALL

If you’re in NYC between now and May 22nd go see The Writing on the Wall, an installation by Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger. It opened yesterday at the President’s Gallery at John Jay College.

The Writing on the Wall debuted in September 2014, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit (MoCAD) where it was part of the Peoples’ Biennial.

There’s an opening reception tomorrow night, Weds, April 22nd, from 5:30 to 7:30pm.

THE BLURB

The installation is made from essays, poems, letters, stories, diagrams and notes written by individuals in prison around the world, from America and Australia to Brazil, Norway and Uganda. The hand-written and typed pieces were accrued by Dr. Dreisinger during her years teaching in US and international prisons, in the context of both the Prison-to-College Pipeline program she founded at John Jay and her forthcoming book Incarceration Nations: Journeying to Justice in Prisons Around the World.

On a basic and literal level, The Writing on the Wall is about giving voice to the voiceless and humanizing a deeply de-humanized population. It represents a kind of modern-day hieroglyphics, projecting a hidden world into a very public space and allowing a people too often spoken of and for—by politicians and a punishment-hungry public—to speak for themselves, in the most intimate of ways. It is a tribute to the power of the pen, a deliberate verbal intrusion and an assertion that some words need very much to be seen in order to be heard. Indeed the writing is not just on the wall but on the floor, on every inch of the installation space, such that the viewer, unable to look away, is compelled to confront a crisis: global mass incarceration. The piece thus fittingly references the Biblical story in which the writing on the wall, as interpreted by the prophet Daniel, foreshadowed imminent doom and destruction.

Just as mass incarceration is a living, growing global phenomenon, The Writing on the Wall is an ever-evolving installation. With every iteration, it grows and assumes a new shape, because the documents comprising it—material written by those living behind bars—continue to land in Dr. Dreisinger’s hands and mailbox.

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THE BIOGRAPHIES

Hank Willis Thomas is a photo conceptual artist working with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture. He received his BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Thomas has acted as a visiting professor at CCA and in the MFA programs at Maryland Institute College of Art and ICP/Bard and has lectured at Yale University, Princeton University, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. His work has been featured in several publications including 25 under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers (CDS, 2003) and 30 Americans (RFC, 2008), as well as his monograph Pitch Blackness (Aperture, 2008). He received a new media fellowship through the Tribeca Film Institute and was an artist in residence at John Hopkins University as well as a 2011 fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University. He has exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the U.S. and abroad. Thomas’s work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. His collaborative projects have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival and installed publicly at the Oakland International Airport, the Oakland Museum of California, and the University of California, San Francisco. He is an Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, Columbia College Chicago Spring 2012 Fellow.

Baz Dreisinger is an Associate Professor in the English Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. She is the founder and Academic Director of the college’s Prison-to-College Pipeline Program (P2CP), which offers credit-bearing college courses and reentry planning to incarcerated men at Otisville Correctional Facility. She is also a reporter on popular culture, the Caribbean, world music, and race-related issues for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, among other outlets; she produces on-air segments for NPR and is the co-producer and co-writer of the documentaries Black & Blue: Legends of the Hip-Hop Cop, which investigates the New York Police Department’s monitoring of the hip-hop industry, and Rhyme & Punishment, about hip-hop and the prison industrial complex. The author of Near Black: White to Black Passing in American Culture (2008) and the forthcoming Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World (2015), Dreisinger earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University and has been a Whiting Fellow and a postdoctoral fellow in African-American studies at UCLA.

THE DETAILS

President’s Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
 899 10th Avenue, Haaren Hall, 6th Floor
, NY 10019.

Hours: 9am-5pm, Mon-Fri.

Contact: gallery@jjay.cuny.edu or 212.237.1439.

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American photographer Willow Paule has spent half her time, in recent years, in Indonesia. She recounts in PsychoCulturalCinema how she slowly learnt about the past incarcerations of her two friends. Their conversations together led to more questions. Paule writes:

Through my research and conversations with these former prisoners in Indonesia, I discovered that they had faced rampant corruption, extortion, and violence in prison. I found that people were often convicted without solid evidence, that they sometimes possessed only small amounts of narcotics or marijuana but were given long drug distribution sentences, while large time dealers got off with lighter sentences. The person with the fattest wallet got the best treatment.

I learned that mentally ill people often became police targets, and periodically drugs were planted on them in order for police to meet arrest quotas. Once they were locked up, they didn’t necessarily receive adequate care, and they sometimes created turmoil in the cramped cells they shared with the general population. Many people told me disheartening stories about human rights abuses in Indonesian prisons.

My focus is the U.S. prison system, but as I say, dryly and reductively, on my bio page, “problems exist in other countries too.” Paule knows this all too well. She recorded the art that her two friends created as a matter of survival and also their difficult reentry into society. There, as here, jobs are difficult to come by for former prisoners and the stigma of prison lingers long.

The extent to my knowledge on the Indonesian prison system spans the length of Paule’s article. The system sounds dire.

“Prison sentence lengths were decided depending on bribe amounts and prisoners had to pay for a cell or face daily beatings and electrocution in solitary confinement,” writes Paule.

Connecting Paule’s years-old inquiry to today, in the U.S., is Paule’s desire to repeat the methodology and record the stories of returning citizens in America.

There’s no shortage of people in this country with whom Paule could meaningfully connect and weave their history and story over a long period as she did in Indonesia. It takes more than just images though; I encourage Paule and all young photographers to use audio, family archives, collaborative processes and — as Paule did here — a focus on non-photo 2D artworks. Most of all, I encourage young photographers to empower not only individuals impacted by incarceration through the telling of their stories but also to empower small local communities by exhibiting and programming the work with those most closely implicated in the issue.

Simply put, a show at the local community centre is as important as one in the brand name gallery downtown. The former deals in hearts and minds, the latter in sales.

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TEACHING PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE

I’ve known about Vance Jacobs work in a Medellin Prison for as long as it has been in published form, but this recent post by StoryBench reminded me of the excellent and brief video reflection Jacobs gives about his time teaching prisoners to use cameras to document their own lives. Originally, Jacobs was going to be the only person photographing, but at the eleventh hour the sponsoring NGO for thre project changed the concept and he was asked to educate a dozen men in prison.

“You could tell it had been a long time since the prisoners in my class had received this much attention. But I also had high expectations and those expectations led to it being a very important experience. They started taking a tremendous amount of pride in their work and they started to understand that criticism could be a really important part of their work and theta they could grow from it,” says Jacobs.

This type of introspection and self-documentation is vital, in my opinion.

At the final exhibit inside the prison of 35 images, 5 went missing. “To have a photo stolen was a badge of honor,” says Jacobs. “It meant someone thought they were worth stealing.”

BIO

Vance Jacobs, a San Francisco-based photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Books and Esquire magazine. He talks about his creative process and behind the scenes details of his different shoots at his ‘Behind the Lens’ YouTube channel. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

See features on Jacobs’ work at GOOD, WonderfulMachine, Photographer on Photography and PDN Online.

The Big Graph (2014). Photo: Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Guidelines for Art Proposals, 2016

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia has announced some big grants for artists working to illuminate issues surrounding American mass incarceration.

READ! FULL INFO HERE

ESP is offering grants of $7,500 for a “Standard Project” and a grant of $15,000 for specialized “Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration Project.” In each case the chosen installations shall be in situ for one full tour season — typically May 1 – November 30 (2016).

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH

THE NEED

ESP has, in my opinion, the best programming of any historic prison site when it comes to addressing current prison issues. Last year, they installed The Big Graph (above) so that the monumental incarceration rates could tower over visitors. Now, ESP wants to explore the emotional aspects of those same huge figures.

Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration will serve as a counterpoint to The Big Graph,” says ESP. “Where The Big Graph addresses statistics and changing priorities over time, Prison in the Age will encourage reflection on the impact of recent changes to the American criminal justice system, and create a place for visitors to reflect on their personal experiences and share their thoughts with others.”

ESP says that art has “brought perspectives and approaches that would not have been possible in traditional historic site programming.” Hence, these big grant announcements And hence these big questions.

“Who goes to prison? Who gets away with it? Why? Have you gotten away with something illegal? How might your appearance, background, family connections or social status have affected your interaction with the criminal justice system? What are prisons for? Do prisons “work?” What would a successful criminal justice system look like? What are the biggest challenges facing the U.S criminal justice system today? How can visitors affect change in their communities? How can they influence evolving criminal justice policies?” asks ESP.

While no proposal must address any one or all of these questions specifically they delineate the political territory in which ESP is interested.

“If our definition of this program seems broad, it’s because we’re open to approaches that we haven’t yet imagined,” says ESP. “We want our visitors to be challenged with provocative questions, and we’re prepared to face some provocative questions ourselves. In short, we seek memorable, thought-provoking additions to our public programming, combined with true excellence in artistic practice.”

“We seek installations that will make connections between the complex history of this building and today’s criminal justice system and corrections policies,” continues ESP. “We want to humanize these difficult subjects with personal stories and distinct points of view. We want to hear new voices—voices that might emphasize the political, or humorous, or bluntly personal.”

GO TO AN ORIENTATION

ESP won’t automatically exclude you, but you seriously hamper your chances if you don’t attend one of the artist orientation tours.

They occur on March 15, April 8, April 10, April 12, May 1, May 9, May 15, June 6.

Also, be keen to read very carefully the huge document detailing the grants. It explains very well what ESP is looking for including eligibility, installation specifics, conditions on site, maintenance, breakdown of funding (ESP instructs you to take a livable artist fee!), and the language and tone of your proposal.

For example, how much more clear could ESP be?!

• Avoid interpretation of your work, and simply tell us what you plan to install.
• Avoid proposing materials that will not hold up in Eastern State’s environment. Work on paper or canvas, for example, generally cannot survive the harsh environment of Eastern State.
• Be careful not to romanticize the prison’s history, make unsupported assumptions about the lives of inmates or guards, or suggest sweeping generalizations. The prison’s history is complicated and broad. Simple statements often reduce its meaning.
• A proposal to work with prisoners or victims of violent crime by an artist who has never done so before, on the other hand, will raise likely concern.
• Do not suggest Eastern State solely as an architectural backdrop. Artist installations must deepen the experience of visitors who are touring this National Historic Landmark, addressing some aspect of the building’s significance.
• Many successful proposals, including Nick Cassway’s Portraits of Inmates in the Death Row Population Sentenced as Juveniles and Ilan Sandler’s Arrest, did not focus on Eastern State’s history at all. They did, however, address subjects central to the topic we hope our visitors will be contemplating during their visit.
• If you are going to include information about Eastern State’s history, please make sure you are accurate. Artists should be sensitive to the history of the space and only include historical information in the proposal if it is relevant to the work. Our staff is available to consult on historical accuracy.
• Overt political content can be good.
• The historic site staff has been focusing explicitly on the modern American phenomenon of mass incarceration, on questions of justice and effectiveness within the American prison system today, and on the effects of race and poverty on prison population demographics. We welcome proposals that can help engage our visitors with these complex subjects.
• When possible, the committee likes to see multiple viewpoints expressed among the artists who exhibit their work at Eastern State. Every year the committee reviews dozens of proposals for work that will express empathy for the men and women who served time at Eastern State. The committee has accepted many of these proposals, generally resulting in successful installations. These include Michael Grothusen’s midway of another day, Dayton Castleman’s The End of the Tunnel, and Judith Taylor’s My Glass House. The committee rarely sees proposals, however, that explore the impact of violence on families and society in general, or the perspective of victims of crime. Exceptions have been Ilan Sandler’s Arrest (2000 to 2003) and Sharyn O’Mara’s Victim Impact Statement (2010). We hope to see more installations on those themes in the future.

PAST GRANTEES

Check out the previous successful proposals and call ESP! Its staff are available to discuss the logistics of the proposal process and the history and significance of Eastern State Penitentiary.

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH, 2015

ALL INFORMATIONS

Additional Resources

Sample Proposals
Past Installations

For more information contact Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Public Programming, at sk@easternstate.org or telephone on (215) 236-5111, with extension #13.

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Prison Obscura is currently at the mid-point of its New York showing at Parsons The New School of Design. At this moment, I wanted to share with you a few installation shots made by Marc Tatti for Parsons.

I also took the opportunity to re-issue the Prison Obscura catalogue essay (originally published by Haverford College) on Medium. Read Can Photographs of Prisons Improve the Lives of Prisoners?

I have hi-res images of all artworks and installation shots. Should you need any, drop me a line.

Enjoy the weekend!

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All images: Marc Tatti.

UPDATE: WEDS., 25TH FEB, 2:50PM. I JUST HEARD FROM PARSONS THAT THE WORKSHOP IS FULL. THAT IS GOOD NEWS FOR MARK AND THE PARTICIPANTS. LESS GOOD FOR THOSE WHO MAY HAVE GOT THEIR HOPES UP BECAUSE OF THIS POST.

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SPACES ARE STILL AVAILABLE FOR MARK STRANDQUIST’S TALK These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice AT THE SJDC ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 27TH AT 6PM.

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Description from prisoner at Richmond County Jail, Virginia, from a workshop by Mark Strandquist.

WINDOWS FROM PRISON

Mark Strandquist will be coordinating a participatory workshop this Saturday, February 28, in New York City. Over the course of the day, artists, activists, lawyers, students, journalists, photographers, corrections officers, formerly incarcerated individuals and others will work together through dialogue to create photographs requested by prisoners in New York state.

Mark and his collaborators who include the Correctional Association of New York, the Young New Yorkers, Exalt Youth and the New York Writers Coalition have already sourced written responses from prisoners to the question:

“If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”

The workshop is at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, at the Parsons School of Design. Those who gather at SJDC on Saturday will travel in groups to the various locations to make images, which will be sent back to the prisoners.

The workshop is part of the programming for Prison Obscura, a show of prison photography I have curated. Prison Obscura includes Strandquist’s series Some Other Places We Have Missed which was the earliest iteration of his workshops conducted in Richmond Jail, Virginia. Since then, Strandquist has partnered with local reform groups and stakeholders in the prison issue to custom-designed workshops in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.

The ongoing program of workshops Windows from Prison is designed to open up conversation about the impacts of mass incarceration by using the medium of photography.

Images made during the workshop will be exhibited in the atrium space of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center adjacent to the Prison Obscura exhibit.

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Prison Obscura is made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

 

G-LAW

Fight Hate With Love, a documentary film about Philadelphia-based artists and activist Michael Tabon (a.k.a. G-Law a.k.a. OG-Law) has been shortlisted for the Tim Hetherington Trust‘s inaugural Visionary Award.

The film made by Andrew Michael Ellis, director of photography at Mediastorm is about “one man’s journey to change the world and still be the guide his family needs him to be.”

The film looks inspiring, but as with any narrative arc, the protagonist faces challenges. It seems the stresses of Tabon’s art and activism upon his family is the emotive hook, Ellis is molding.

I met Tabon and his wife Gwen this time last year as he was embarking on his third self-imposed lock up in a self-built cell on the cold February streets of Philly. They did not display the tension as they do in Ellis’ trailer. Tabon was putting his un-prison cell together and Gwen was helping with supplies, PR, food & drink, and vocal support. It was clear they rely on one another to make work and to meet the silent, unending need for Tabon’s love-filled message.

Tabon’s manipulation of visual tropes is cunning and effective. He has reclaimed the cell, the orange jumpsuit and the shackles. He has jogged 10 miles a day for seven days around Philadelphia with a 40-foot banner reading FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE. He has walked with a ball-and-chain from Selma to Montgomery.

“Tabon has been caught in the revolving door of the prison system since he was sixteen years old. Incarceration became a way of life, seen as an inherited destiny for America’s young Black poor, until he had a revelation – that he could break the cycle of the womb-to-prison pipeline gripping marginalized communities across the country,” says Mediastorm.

It’s wonderful to see Tabon on the Mediastorm platform and Hetherington Trust’s radar. His unorthodox but unmissable approach to social change needs to go national.

Youtube trailer here. Follow Tabon on Twitter and on the web.

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http://cargocollective.com/growingupthroughpictures/About

Image source: Growing Up Through Pictures (an unrelated program to Anathema Arts)

Prison arts organisation Anathema Arts is petitioning for a photo day program in the state of Illinois. Anathema Arts will provide the supplies necessary — the printer, photo paper, and digital camera. Anathema is at pains to state the program will not cost the taxpayers of Illinois.

“A photo can heal, promote positive thinking, maintain bonds, and enhance memories,” say Anathema Arts. “Photos of loved ones have long been used in psychology to reduce grief and pain, but just as they can provide comfort, the lack of current photos can cause negative consequences for both the incarcerated and their loved ones.”

As the majority of prisoners will be released back in to society it is in all of our interests to enact simple steps that maintain self-esteem among the incarcerated class. More importantly, the one factor that determines most a prisoner’s successful reentry into society is close family relationships during imprisonment. Photographs play their part in aiding those bonds.

“Friends and families of incarcerated people often do not have current pictures, and do not get to see how their son, daughter, friend, brother, or sister looks as their sentence passes over the years,” says Anathema Arts. “For those family members that can visit … portraits provide a positive focus during visits, and remind loved ones and prisoners of happier times.”

As I see it, the biggest potential problem with Anathema Arts’ proposition is how it is perceived. Might prison administrations be reluctant to accommodate the (sensible) suggestions of an arts organisation with stated sympathies for incarcerated peoples? Maybe, I’m problematising? Or maybe, I am not? After all, many members of the citizenry consider anything beyond punishment as being unwarranted or not needed in our prisons. Short version: prisons don’t want to appear soft and a photo portraiture program may be seen as fluffy and coddling.

But, surely, there can be no harm in allowing prisoners and families ready access to a recent photo portrait?!

A knee-jerk reaction would be to reject the FAMILY PHOTO -> BOND STRENGTHENED -> REDUCED ALIENATION -> SAFER SOCIETY theory of causation. I understand why some might think it a stretch but, let’s be honest, photography is often wrapped up in unexamined theory. So, why would we dismiss this well-meaning program specifically? Instead, let us consider the fact that prisoners are probably the demographic in America with least access to self-representation — they do not have the standing, nor the tools to create, share and replace images at will.

I’ve signed the petition because I think it’s not only a useful pilot program (that could be repeated in other prisons and other states) it is also a test to see what the Illinois Department of Corrections can accommodate. Is it flexible enough to host a volunteer-run photo program? It absolutely must be, for if it is not then what else can it not — will not — provide for those in its custody?

Go on. Sign up if you dare to imagine the possibilities.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

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