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This is funny, and could launch a thousand visual studies crit papers.

Remember Hugh Hefner and co. just sank $900,000 into saving and preserving this sign.

Found via i heart photograph


Stock vs. Fine Art; Standard view vs. Privileged view etc …

Worth contrasting Getty’s butchering with Emily Shur’s Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles, California. Featured on Shur’s blog.

Spread from Toppled

Toppled by Florian Göttke

Two weeks ago, Foto8’s Guy Lane reviewed Toppled by Florian Göttke. The review is what it is – a description of Göttke’s “(mainly) pictorial study of the destruction, desecration and mutation of many of Iraq’s plentiful statues of its former dictator.”

Lane’s conclusion points to the significance of Göttke’s study:

“Perhaps this might all appear somewhat peripheral, an iconographical diversion from the real business – invasion, subjugation, and expropriation – of Occupation. But from amongst Göttke’s collated written testimonies and reports, it is possible to sense something of the importance that was attached to the Coalition’s iconoclasm. For example, a BBC account of British activities in Basra concluded that ‘the statue of Saddam is in ruins. It is the key target of the whole raid.’ Meanwhile, in Baghdad a US army captain was ordered to delay destroying a statue until a Fox TV crew arrived. Most famously, the Firdous Square episode appears to have been – to a degree – choreographed for the benefit of the foreign media based in the overlooking Palestine Hotel. ‘American and British press officers were indeed actively looking for the opportunity to capture the symbolic action of toppling statues and have the media transmit these to the world,’ writes Göttke. As such, Toppled’s events and pictures correspond tellingly and damningly to the Retort group’s analysis of our ‘new age of war’.”

Would I buy the book? Probably not. The book is a concept. I understand the concept. And, the images are essentially props to the concept (illustrations of the new biographies of statues, of things).

Besides, I can get my fill elsewhere. The best (most ridiculous) image – James Gandolfini meets the Butcher of Baghdad – is on the accompanying Toppled website.


Göttke’s work leaves me wondering how Saddam’s personal photo-album fits in?

Similarly, these images were found and taken during the invasion of Iraq: “On the night of June 18, 2003, the soldiers in the 1-22 Infantry stormed a farm in Tikrit, Iraq, hoping to find a fugitive Saddam Hussein. They didn’t find their target, but they did find a consolation prize: Saddam’s family photo album [...] When he returned from Iraq, Lt. Col. Steve Russell, the commander of the 1-22 Infantry, donated the album to the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Ga.” (Source)

This is a reversal, no? Not the effigies of megalomania, but personal snapshots. Not public monstrosities but flimsy two-dimensional depictions. Would these have got pissed on and slapped with sandals? Would they have been torn up/burned up had Lt. Col. Steve Russell not slipped them into his luggage?

Also, to describe the collection (for media publication) as the dictator’s “personal album” is one thing, but to what extent were these Saddam’s photo-memories? Are these really the contents of an album he valued? Are we even glad that Saddam’s images still exist?

One final thought, how do we distinguish between the staging of Saddam’s images to the staging of the images in Göttke’s survey?


On a less-grander scale, Jamal Penjweny is attempting (with his Iraqi subjects) to make sense of the spectre of Saddam. The series is called Saddam is Here. It’s not great photography but I don’t think this type of playful exploration needs to be.

© Jamal Penjweny


In contrast to the harsh reality of the last post, I present the laughably unreal.

Whenever I find a photographic archive I, by reflex, punch in ‘prison’ into the search tool. I’ve started to do the same with stock agencies.


In the microstock world, image search results are disorienting. Instead of American Civil War jails, colonial prisons, prisoners of war, revolutionaries, genocide victims or political prisoners the return is staged portraiture, kitsch orange jumpsuit, bars, locks, handcuffs and silhouetted guard towers.

And, this is beyond the pale. WTF?

For simple graphic design purposes, I am sure even good intentioned advocates scout for imagery in stock databases of complete fiction in order to illustrate their message. Hmm.

A Teachable Moment: Avoiding Cliche

I have bemoaned before the cliche of cell-tier-perspective. I would encourage us all to really think about the relative contribution some prison photographs bring.

Even in photojournalism (a field not without its faults, but a mode I still firmly believe in) photographs of bars, keys and fences are common. So, to practitioners as to viewers, I urge the same rigour in critique.

Jenn Ackerman, Jane Evelyn Atwood, Lloyd Degrane, Jean Gaumy, Andrew Lichtenstein, Danny Lyon, Darcy Padilla, Lizzie Sadin and Taro Yamasaki are just some of the many photographers who’ve managed to describe prison life without overly-relying on the physical fabric of institutions. They spend enough privileged time with the inmates to tell the stories of the inmates.

I started Wednesday Words last week to throw out some brief and wise writings on prisons. I’ve got Winston Churchill, Charles Darrow and David Ramsbottom lying in wait. But they must all hold fire because I am taking the podium this week.

I have just unsubscribed from Getty’s Photoblog. Having it filter through my reader next to thoughtful and (in most cases) non-commercial blogs it became plainly obvious Getty are pandering to their audience. The result is a bland regurgitation of celebrity imagery. I guess this is what their audience wants. GettyBlog is watery gruel compared to the rest of the blogophotobiosphere.

My conclusion: Getty is effectively held captive by their audience.

Apparently, Getty Blog’s readership wants about 60 or 70% of Getty’s narrative to be about young, famous women and their clothing choices. Well, I don’t.

This minor alteration to my daily visual feed came a day after I read Confessions of a Former Online Producer, a candid piece by Jake Ellison;

During my last year at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in its last year as a newspaper, I published online thousands of pictures of half-starved, mostly naked women – celebrities and fashion models. I even became so deranged as to argue vehemently in the newsroom that those photos were necessary because we were a dying industry and people wanted to look at those women, so get on board.

The Seattle PostGlobe is an all volunteer, blog-reporting venture made up of many former Seattle Post Intelligencer journalists. The P-I went under a couple of months ago and the PostGlobe is simultaeneously a service to the now one paper Emerald City, a boredom evasion technique, experiment in new-journalism and an acknowledged unsustainable economic model. For all those reasons I love it, support it and endorse it.

I’d tweet its stories more often but the PostGlobe’s URLs are 142 characters long!

Two weeks ago I attended a talk by Van Jones, the founder of the Ella Baker Center. He advocates for social equality and the rights & opportunities of incarcerated youth. Recently, if he didn’t have enough on his plate, he has added saving the environment to his roster of causes. Jones’ energy is contagious and he quickly convinces you that there indeed is “one solution to our two major problems”.

Manufacturing Photovoltaic Cells (Reuters)

Jarnail Basraa lines up solar cells for a solar energy panel at Evergreen Solar's headquarters in Marlborough, Massachusetts. After decades on the fringe, solar power is closing in on America's mainstream as surging fossil fuel prices and mounting concern over climate change spur states, businesses and homeowners into a quickening embrace with alternative energy. (REUTERS)

Hold on! What? Two problems? Aren’t there more problems than that? Yes, and so Jones, like President Elect Obama, argues that all these can be traced back to economics and environment. Furthermore, Jones argues for a single root solution to these two issues that solves the many related problems. Jones envisages a government-supported, corporate-boosted, people-activated Green Economy that shifts investment from “a 20th century pollution-based & consumption-oriented economy” to “a 21st century clean, solution-oriented economy”. The magic being that the jobless urban poor with the worst cases of asthma, cancers and pollutant-based health problems are the ones to take full advantage of this new platform. Jones asks, “Do we really want to further entrench ourselves in “eco-apartheid” in which the affluent retreat to the hills and the remainder suffer the smog?”

Jones admitted he is not the most likely of authors for a book of this type, but following quick inspection, it (and he) makes sense. Jones seeks routes out of poverty for the urban poor and the formerly incarcerated. His native California is more desperate for solutions than most states.

Solar panels soak up some rays near the Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif. Last week, the state unveiled a 1.18 megawatt solar-power plant at the prison that provides enough electricity to power a quarter of the facility's needs. (REUTERS)

Solar panels soak up some rays near the Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Calif. Last week, the state unveiled a 1.18 megawatt solar-power plant at the prison that provides enough electricity to power a quarter of the facility

Jones is thinking big. The creation of jobs, personal prosperity and regional economic growth would need to be unprecedented if it were to mop up the wasted lives and wasted dollars of the California Youth Authority & the CDCR let alone the gross deficit of California’s halting economy (For your interest I read that over 20% of California households owe more on money toward their mortgage than their house is actually worth).

It seemed that I had, accidentally, skirted the same issues Jones works with. How do you give enough previously disenfranchised people enough work and pride to reverse social histories of crime and transgression? If the state intervenes, prematurely or not, where friends and family cannot succeed, it absolutely must begin when the offender is committed to an institution. And yet, as I noted in my previous post only 5,400 inmates are involved in PIA work. (This figure doesn’t factor for the number of inmates in retraining programs, which fluctuates. I’ll get back to you) The fact remains, the CDCR is overcrowded and not investing in rehabilitation adequately. All education and vocational training is fully subscribed.

Ironwood Solar Field

Ironwood Solar Field

The unremarkable photograph (above) of the first CDCR solar field at Ironwood State Prison, which I wrongly attributed to Wasco, and used as for closing cynical footnote about watercolour painting is perhaps worth revisiting.

The fields are in the middle of nowhere, because most newly constructed prisons are in the middle of nowhere. I wonder if there could be a conspiracy of persuasion to bring SunEdison or any of their partners and competitors to these remote locations with an inactive but very willing pool of men, set up factories and operations and train inmates during their sentences?

I would like to ask Van Jones if he considers the current CDCR and/or the developing green economy infrastructure flexible enough to execute a long term retraining programme within California’s prison system. How plausible is it that the new green economy can benefit the imprisoned population of America? I  believe Jones when he says we can reach out to the urban poor and provide training schemes. I believe Jones when he expects government support to launch thousands, even millions, of jobs and through doing so gives rise to a multitude of career paths that emerge, shape and change along with the renewable energy industry.

Ironwood Solar Field (REUTERS)

Ironwood Solar Field (REUTERS)

That said, I am skeptical that this herculean social project could dovetail easily with the federal and state prison systems of America. People are suspicious of corporations involved in state corrections; people may be shocked to inaction when learning of the massive investment and rarified leadership required for a large scale prison works programme; people know that historically the prison is hard to access; people may suspect no return on its tax dollars.

Logistically, anything is possible. But culturally many things are proscribed. The political will to enact a sweeping reform of prison training based upon a new-green-economy-doctrine may wither quickly when confronted with public opinion and economic depression. I fear prisoners will get ignored for another  generation and pushed oncemore to the bottom of the priority list.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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