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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
Cameras needn’t always be a security tool. And, in the hands of prisoners, they needn’t be a security hazard. I’m always encouraged to find photo-education-projects in prisons that nurture storytelling skills of prisoners. Therefore, the Inside View project in Guernsey, a Channel Island in Europe, is cause for interrogation.
I’ve written about the history of photography workshops in prisons, but let me offer a quick re-cap. Except for photo workshops in New York in the 1970s to Washington D.C. in the 1980s no other photography classes that I know of have existed in male adult prisoners in the U.S. None occur today.
Internationally, programs in Columbia, Romania and Switzerland prove the model exists. In U.S. juvenile facilities photo education has operated in Washington State and currently exists in New Mexico and Rhode Island. Generally, we can say that these isolated examples are the exception rather than the rule.
A SIGNIFICANT PROGRAM
Given the paucity of photo-workshops, current and ongoing programs such Inside View are noteworthy, and Inside View might even be a program from which we can learn. It could be replicated! Inside View is the brain child of Jean-Christophe Godet, who also happens to be the Director of the Guernsey Photography Festival.
“Designed to help the participants acquire new technical and social skills, a sense of responsibility, a better understanding of themselves and a greater awareness of the environment in which they live in,” reads the press release, the Inside View project gives prisoners access to equipment and teaches them technical skills.
Inside View started at the end of 2010 with workshops taking place each week over six months. To date, three workshops have taken place, always discussing the importance of objectivity and integrity in creating a documentary.
“The thing I can’t get my head round is that these teachers trust us,” says one prisoner-participant in the same press release. “They respect us and give us well expensive kit to hold and to use. The cameras belong to them and it feels good to be given the responsibility to be trusted with their precious cameras. I will always have the camera round my neck, I will teach my children to look after their things and to respect kit”
“I like it when this gives us a chance to show the outside that we don’t live in a 5* hotel,” reflect a another participant. “We are told when to eat, when to exercise, and we see doors but cant open them. I think that our pictures have captured the essence of what it is to lose your freedom. That’s why our photos are so good”
The assistance of the Governor and prison officers was essential for Inside View to play out, with Officers Dave White and Belinda Help at the sharp end of negotiating the exemplary project.
David Matthews, Guernsey Prisons Governor says, “It is important that prisoners can learn technical and life skills whilst in custody, these new skills can help in reducing offending behaviour and aid resettlement. There is a marked difference in behaviour and attitude when prisoners are exposed to these types of activities.”
Let’s be clear, the Channel Island of Guernsey is quite different to the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter. It is a province with a population of only 65,000. It has a single prison — The Guernsey Prison — with only 122 prisoners. For the sake of comparison, that’s 0.005% of the U.S. prison population which stands at 2.3 million.
If we wanted to imagine a similar program taking grip in the American prison industrial complex, we’d have to deal with massive issues of scale and the inconveniences they cause. Nevertheless, the point is made, photography can be a voice for prisoners — to facilitate that there only need be the resources, the will of any given administration, and systems of political and security that are less interested in covering their ass than they are in delivering rehabilitation.
To find out exactly how the program came about, I asked Inside View coordinator Jean-Christophe Godet a few questions.
Prison Photography (PP): Where did the idea to put cameras in the hands of prisoners come from?
JCG: Inside View was inspired by a similar project organised by a collective of photographers “FrameZero” at the Wandsworth Prison in London in the late 90’s. The project was run by Jason Shenaï.
PP: You worked with the Guernsey prison services. How did you negotiate that?
JCG: It took almost three very long years of negotiation. My first letters and emails were simply ignored. I finally met Wendy Meade by chance (she came to one of my photography courses) who told me that she was a prison visitor. I took the opportunity to talk to her about my project. She then introduced me to a Deputy Governor who gave me an opportunity to explain in details what I was trying to achieve.
PP: Who is Wendy Meade?
JCG: Wendy is part of The Panel of Prison Visitors comprised of six volunteers, at present appointed by the Policy Council. They are an independent body authorised by the 1998 Prison Administration (Guernsey) Ordinance to pay frequent visits to the prison at any time of day or night. At least two members are required to visit at least once a month.
PP: What were the prisoners’ reaction to the project?
JCG: I think they didn’t know what to expect first. They took the opportunity to join the group as they had nothing else to do..
Very quickly they started to get more and more involved. The course now is completely oversubscribed with a long waiting list. One of the first reactions that I always get is, “What do you want us to photograph? There is nothing interesting here.” I see my role as teaching them to see and look in a different way.
PP: What was the staff’s reaction to the project?
JCG: The course created lots of challenges for the staff as I didn’t want to stay inside the classroom. I needed to have access to every single corner of the prison. In this special environment having a group of prisoners walking around with cameras on hands is obviously a logistical nightmare. The administration finally came up with an idea of having a dedicated security officer who walks around with us everywhere.
I have a great respect for the staff. Their job is not easy and can be very stressful but their attitude has always supportive and helpful. There is nothing we can do without their help so it was important to gain a level of trust but also share some understanding.
PP: You made over 2,000 pictures for the third iteration of the project and edited those down to 40 for the exhibition. Can you tell me about the editing process?
JCG: We did a couple of sessions with the prisoners where we looked at the photos and decided which ones worked best and why. We didn’t have access to computer inside the prison so I processed all the photos in my studio and did the final editing.
My hope is to give prisoners a way to express themselves, building their self-esteem and reaching a sense of achievement and proud in what they managed to produce. I occasionally meet some of them whose been released. When they tell me that they are still taking photos or saving to buy a new camera, it makes my day.
PP: Thanks Jean-Christophe
JCG: Thank you, Pete.
Presented by the Guernsey Prison in collaboration with the Guernsey Photography Festival, Inside View was first exhibited in November 2013, at the Guernsey Prison Visitors Centre. Inside View is on show from 20th of March – 4th April 2014, at the Gatehouse Gallery, Elizabeth College, The Grange, St Peter Port, Guernsey GY1 2PY
Inside View was awarded the Koestler Trust’s William Archer Platinum Award for photography, which attracts more than 5,000 entries from offenders across the UK. The Trust promotes the arts in special institutions, encouraging creativity and the acquisition of new skills as a means to rehabilitation.
Artist Jesse Krimes stands in front of his 39-panel mural Apokaluptein:16389067 (federal prison bed sheets, transferred New York Times images, color pencil) installed, here, at the Olivet Church Artist Studios, Philadelphia. January, 2014.
The New York Times has a track record for high quality visual journalism. From experiments in multimedia, to its magazine’s double-truck features; from its backstage reportage at the swankiest fashion gigs, to their man in town Bill Cunningham. Big reputation.
NYT photographs are viewed and used in an myriad of ways. Even so, I doubt the editors ever thought their choices would be burnished from the news-pages onto prison bed-sheets with a plastic spoon. Nor that the transfer agent would be prison-issue hair gel.
In 2009, Jesse Krimes (yep, that’s his real surname) was sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary for cocaine possession and intent to distribute. He was caught with 140 grams. The charges brought were those of 50-150 kilos. Somewhere in the bargaining it was knocked down to 500 grams, and Krimes plead guilty to conspiracy. The judge recommended that Jesse be sent to a minimum security prison in New Jersey, close to support network of friends and family, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) opted to send him to a medium security facility in Butner, North Carolina — as far away as permitted under BOP regulations. That was the first punitive step of many in a system that Krimes says is meant first and foremost to dehumanise.
“Doing this was a way to fight back,” says Krimes who believes ardently that art humanises. “The system is designed to make you into a criminal and make you conform. I beat the system.”
Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing Krimes speak about his mammoth artwork Apokaluptein:16389067 during an evening hosted at the the Eastern State Penitentiary and Olivet Church Artist Studios in Philadelphia.
The mural took three years to make and it is a meditation on heaven, hell, sin, redemption, celebrity worship, deprivation and the nature of perceived reality. Krimes says his “entire experience” of prison is tied up in the artwork.
In the top-left is a transferred photo of a rehearsal of the Passion play at Angola Prison, Louisiana.
Through trial and error, Krimes discovered that he could transfer images from New York Times newspapers on to prison bedsheets. At first he used water, but the colours bled. Hair gel had the requisite viscosity. As a result, all imagery is reversed, upturned. Apokaluptein:16389067 is both destruction and creation.
“It’s a depiction of represented reality as it exists in its mediated form, within the fabric of the prison,” says Krimes. “It was my attempt to transfer [outside] reality into prison and then later became my escape when I sent a piece home with the hopes that it could be my voice on the outside in the event that anything bad ever happened and I never made it home.”
ART AS SURVIVAL
Krimes says this long term project kept him sane, focused and disciplined.
Each transfer took 30-minutes. Thousands make up the mural. Krimes only worked on one sheet at a time, each of them matching the size of the tabletop he worked on. A notch in the table marked the horizon line for the 13 panels making up the center horizontal. He shipped them home. Not until his release did he see them together.
The enterprise was not without its risks, but Krimes found favour being a man with artistic talent. He established art classes for fellow prisoners in an institution that was devoid of meaningful programs.
“Prisoners did all the work to set up the class,” says Krimes.
Once the class was in place, guards appreciated the initiative. It even changed for the better some of the relationships he had with staff.
“Some helped mail out sections,” he says of the bedsheets which were, strictly-speaking, contraband.
Krimes would cut sections from the New York Times and its supplements, sometimes paying other prisoners for the privilege.
“In prison, the only experience of the outside world is through the media.”
The horizon is made of images from the travel section. Beneath the horizon are transferred images of war, and man-made and natural disasters. Krimes noticed that often coverage of disasters and idealised travel destinations came from the same coasts and continents. Influenced by Dante’s Inferno and by Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, Krimes reinvigorates notions of the Trinity within modern politics and economics. The three tiers of the mural reflect, he says heaven, earth and hell, or intellect, mind and body.
One can identify the largest victories, struggles and crimes of the contemporary world. All in perverse reverse. All in washed out collage. There’s images of the passion play being rehearsed at Angola Prison from an NYT feature, of Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution, of children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School massacre, and of a submerged rollercoaster in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The women’s rights panel includes news images from reporting on the India bus rape and images of Aesha Mohammadzai who was the victim of a brutal attack by her then husband who cut off her nose. Krimes’ compression of images is vertiginous and disorienting. We’re reminded that the world as it appears through our newspapers sometimes is.
The large pictures are almost exclusively J.Crew adverts which often fill the entire rear page of the NYT. Jenna Lyons, the creative director at J.Crew is cast as a non-too-playful devil imp in the center-bottom panel.
Throughout, fairies transferred straight from ballerinas bodies as depicted in the Arts Section dance and weave. Depending on where they exist in relation to heaven and earth they are afforded heads or not — blank geometries replace faces as to comment on the treatment of women in mainstream media.
The title Apokaluptein:16389067 derives from the Greek root ‘apokalupsis.’ Apokaluptein means to uncover, or reveal. 16389067 was Krimes’ Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number.
“The origin [of the word] speaks to the material choice of the prison sheet as the skin of the prison, that is literally used to cover and hide the body of the prisoner. Apokaluptein:16389067 reverses the sheet’s use and opens up the ability to have a conversation about the sheet as a material which, here, serves to uncover and reveal the prison system,” says Krimes who also read into the word personal meaning.
“The contemporary translation speaks to a type of personal apocalypse – the process of incarceration and the dehumanizing deterioration of ones personal identity, [...] The number itself, representing the replacement of ones name.”
PRISON ECONOMICS: THE HAVES & HAVE NOTS
One of the most interesting things to hear about at Krimes’ presentation was the particular details about how he went about acquiring materials. In federal prison, just as on the outside, money rules. Except inside BOP facilities the currency is stamps not dollars (something we’ve heard before). A $7 book of stamps on the outside, sets a prisoner back $9.
Access to money makes a huge difference in how one experiences imprisonment.
“People who have money have a much easier time living in prison but that is usually rare except for the white collar guys or the large organized crime figures,” says Krimes.
“Prisoners who have money in prison gain automatic respect and power because you are able to have influence over anything really — most people without money will depend on those with cash to be the buyers of whatever products or services they need.”
Without cash to hand, a rare skill comes in handy. Krimes could make art. In prison artists are afforded much respect. Ironically, free society doesn’t treat artists with the same respect, but I guess we’ve already established that we’re dealing in reversals here?!
“We had to provide some kind of skill or service in order to receive money or books of stamps. Some people cook for others, do laundry, do legal work, or artwork.”
In FCI Butner, a high-quality photorealistic portrait would go for as much as $150. Or, 20 books of stamps. Krimes did portraits and tattoo designs, spending proceeds almost exclusively on hair gel and coloured pencils.
“The majority of portraits I did were for the guys who had money or else I did them for free, for friends or those going through hard times.”
The prison sheets came for free. Krimes smiles at the irony that these sheets are made by UNICOR, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ factory and industries arm. UNICOR makes everything from steel frame beds to bedsheets; from U.S. military boots and helmets to plastic utensils. In 2005, UNICOR generated $765 million in sales – 74% of revenues went toward the purchase of raw material and equipment; 20% toward staff salaries; and 6% went toward inmate salaries.
I’d liken Krimes’ acquisition of bed sheets to liberation more than to theft. His image transfers are appropriation more than homage. The scope of the project reflects the sheer size of American prison system. The ambition reflects that of the individual to survive, not the system to improve its wards.
That such a large statement came out of the prison sytem (in one piece!) is a feat in itself. That Apokaluptein:16389067 is so layered and so plugged into contemporary culture is an absolute marvel. That the photographs of international media are the vehicle for that statement should be no surprise at all.
All images: Sarah Kaufman
One of the cardboard boxes in which Krimes shipped out a completed panel. The boxes are made by the federal prison industries group UNICOR which employs prison labour. The box is marked with “ESCAPE PROOF GUARANTEED.”
Just a quick post to say …
It happened. Prison Obscura opened. With a fantastic turnout. Gallery was crammed for the curator’s talk and people said many nice things. I pulled my usual trick, clocking silly hours until the early hours most of last week during install. Matthew Seamus Callinan, the Associate Director of Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and Campus Exhibitions at Haverford College did the same. I cannot thank Matthew enough for his support throughout the creation of the show. Legend. More thanks to so many people.
I haven’t any pictures of the opening because my head was spinning. There’s some on Facebook. I’m sure others have some too (send ‘em over!) but I wanted to do a quick post with some installation shots. Taken at different points during the week during install and may not reflect exactly the final layout. (Buckets and hardware not part of the show).
Prison Obscura is up until March 7th at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia, PA. All you need to know about the exhibit is here.
I’m not the only one putting up a show (Prison Obscura) of imagery made in and about prisons. The Laband Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles opens its Voices Of Incarceration exhibition on Saturday 25th January.
It’s an interesting line up of artists that includes artists who are imprisoned and individuals on the outside who are making art about prisons. Laband says:
“Both groups bring to light the emotional costs and injustices of the Prison Industrial Complex. Voices of Incarceration also explores the rehabilitative arts programs in California prisons and the expression of the imprisoned artists’ strength and individuality through the creative process.”
KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR-affiliate has done a couple of programs recently about the small but important attempts to reintroudce arts education into California prisons:
If you’re in L.A., go check it out. It’s open until the 16th March. One last note — it’s great to see in the mix Prison Photography favourites Alyse Emdur, Richard Ross, Michal Chelbin and Sheila Pinkel.
It is with giddy, air-punching pride and mammoth-sized gratitude for those that helped me along the way that I announce the imminent opening of Prison Obscura.
This exhibition is my first solo-curating gig and reflects my thinking right now about images of and from American prisons. Prison Obscura includes works, approaches and genres that — after 5-years of looking at prison photographs — I consider most informative, responsible, challenging and useful.
Prison Obscura is on show at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery from January 24 through March 7. The CantorFitz built a remarkable Prison Obscura website to accompany the exhibition, at which you can find a lengthy 5,000-word essay as to why I have shied away from traditional documentary work and focused instead on surveillance, code, vernacular snaps, prisoner-made photographs and rarely-seen evidentiary images.
I posit that certain images can more accurately speak to political realities in America’s prison industrial complex. I also celebrate photographs that were made through processes of collaboration with prisoners and with intention to socially engage the subjects and educate audiences. I want you to wonder why you — a tax-paying, prison-funding citizen — rarely gets the chance to see inside prisons, and I want us to think about what roles existing pictures serve for those who live and work within the system.
Scroll down to learn more about the Prison Obscura artists.
Photographer Unknown. Clinical contact holding cage, Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU), C-Yard, Building 12, Mule Creek State Prison, California. August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Photographer Unknown. Group holding cages, C-Yard, Building 13, Administrative Segregation Unit, Mule Creek State Prison, August 1st, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
Suicide watch cell, Building 6A, Facility D, Wasco State Prison, California (August 1st, 2008). This photograph document was submitted as evidence in the Brown vs. Plata class action lawsuit (Supreme Court of the United States, May 2011). Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP.
Photographer Unknown. Reception Center Visiting / Clinician Office Space, North Kern State Prison, July, 2008. Used by law firms representing imprisoned plaintiffs in class action lawsuit against the State of California in the Plata/Coleman vs. Brown cases.
PRISON OBSCURA ARTISTS
Alyse Emdur’s collected letters and prison visiting room portraits as well as Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration.
Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs.
Prison Obscura will also feature work made in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Men from Graterford Prison who are affiliated with both its own Restorative Justice Program and Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Group are collaborating to create a mural for the exhibition.
The exhibit moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in works like Josh Begley’s manipulated Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated videos, which offer a “celestial” view of the growth of the prison system.
Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face to face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.
Scroll down for media, details and events.
Mark Strandquist. Pocahontas State Park, Picture of the Dam. One Hundred and Thirty Days (top); text describing the scene written by a Virginia prisoner (bottom). From the series Some Other Places We’ve Missed.
Josh Begley Facility 237. From the series Prison Map.
50 of the 5,393 facilities imaged by Prison Map, a data art project which automatically “photographs” every locked facility in the U.S. by gleaning files from Google Maps with use of code modified from the Google API code by artist Josh Begley.
Josh Begley Facility 492 From the series Prison Map.
Photographer unknown. Incarcerated girls at Remann Hall, Tacoma, Washington, reenact restraint techniques in a pinhole camera workshop, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
Photographer unknown: Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
Photographer unknown: Steve Davis Untitled, Green Hill School, Chehalis, WA. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Davis.
David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Courtesy of Alyse Emdur.
Alyse Emdur. Anonymous Backdrop Painted in Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York. From the series ‘Prison Landcapes’ (2005- 2011)
Robert Gumpert. Tameika Smith, 9 July 2012, San Francisco, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
Robert Gumpert. Michael Johnson, 15 August, 2009, San Francisco County Jail 5, San Bruno, CA. From the series ‘Take A Picture, Tell A Story.’
Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’
Kristen S. Wilkins. Supplication #17 (diptych). “It might be hard to find, but it’s called Trapper Peak near the Bitterroot Valley.” From the series ‘Supplication.’
I’ll be giving a curator’s talk in the gallery on Friday, January 24, 2014, 4:30-5:30pm, followed by the opening reception 5:30–7:30pm.
Additionally, poet C.D. Wright will be on campus for a Tri-College Mellon Creative Residency in conjunction with the exhibit, and on January 31, at 12 noon in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Wright and I will host a dialogue about Prison Obscura.
Prison Obscura is presented by Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities with support from the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
Part of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and located in Whitehead Campus Center, the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery is open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays until 8 p.m.
Haverford College is located at 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA, 19041.
SPREADING THE WORD
For more information, please contact myself or Matthew Callinan, associate director of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and campus exhibitions, at (610) 896-1287 or email@example.com
Poster showing the statistics and aesthetic of ‘Proliferation’ an animated video of prison construction in the United States (1776-2010). Image: Courtesy of Paul Rucker.
Graphic design for Prison Obscura by Ellen Gould.
Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night (BITDBITN) is a collection of images, texts, letters, objects, quotes and ephemeral queries borne of Amy’s correspondence with men on death row and in solitary confinement. It is a project I know well having interviewed Amy about it in 2011 and curated it into the exhibition Cruel and Unusual in 2012. I’ve keenly followed the development of BITDBITN. In some cases, Amy and I bounced ideas back-and-forth about it when we lived in the same town. Amy and I are close friends and she once invited me to guest curate at Women In Photography. When Daylight asked me to write an essay to accompany the images and audio it was a no-brainer.
BITDBITN is about execution, time on death row, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. It is also about the most invisible parts of America’s prison industrial complex. Amy grew up in California, the state that was first to operate a specialised solitary confinement facility at Pelican Bay State Prison. This past summer, as I was writing the piece, the California Prisoner Hunger Strike in protest of conditions in Pelican Bay and other SHU, IMU and solitary facilities was in full swing.
Amy’s work is our entry into this highly contested political territory; a territory that remains, for all intents and purposes, hidden. It is hidden because solitary makes people insane and is psychological torture.
Daylight Digital’s presentation includes the words of Freddy (spoken by Rafael Ramirez) who was sent to prison as a 13 year-old, has spent the last 20+ years of his life in solitary confinement, and with whom Elkins corresponded for four years.
I’m proud to have been invited to join this multimedia collaboration. See the images, listen to the testimony, read the words.